With the swiftness of a desert sand storm, the data streamed its way from cyberspace onto my hard drive. The demo for Prince of Persia: Warrior Within was within reach. My 12-year-old brother and I enjoyed the earlier iteration, Sands of Time, and we eagerly anticipated this new release. After firing up the game, we found ourselves impressed with the fiery maelstrom of mayhem unfolding on a ship deck, as the dark-edged prince prowled about, punching and dicing pirates at our command.
But the thrilling experience soon walked the plank when we came across the end boss: an absurdly-proportioned woman donning a chain-mail thong bikini, and little else. As heavy rain poured down, no less. Both my brother and I found this ridiculous. It was impossible to take the game seriously; the woman's every movement revealed a risible mockery of the female form and insulted our intelligence. Exit game, uninstall and abandon ship.
This was not, of course, the first time I discovered crude objectification of women in a computer game, but I still found the phenomenon dismaying. Console and PC games have now become an integral part of American culture; they generate billions of dollars in revenue for companies and hundreds of hours of entertainment for youth and adults alike. So with a massive market and the fanciest vertex shaders this side of the Milky Way, how do we still find ourselves mired in the age-old denigration of women that's marred gaming for years?
Clearly, it's high time that male gamers take it upon themselves to examine this question. In so doing we can - albeit only partially and humbly - descry how and why the sphere of PC gaming has alienated women and what can be done to set things right.
Broadly speaking, one of the greatest impulses that drives many of us into PC gaming is a sense of escape, abandoning the problems and pressures of the real world for a headlong flight of fantasy into simulation, roleplaying and science fiction. There are no bullying jocks, intimidating rites or daunting stereotypes to contend with in the imaginative world of gaming - none that we can't make mince meat out of with a mouse click, anyway.
But ironically, the opposite is often true when it comes to the way women are depicted in games. Indeed, all the stereotypes and pressures imposed on women in outside society - slender curves, massive breasts, perfect hips, and submissiveness - have been reinforced and even intensified. As Roger Boal, an avid 31-year-old PC gamer from the arid state of Arizona, says, "Usually female characters are portrayed as primarily sexual objects."
Examples abound - and we clearly notice them. Boal points out that in almost every fantasy game, the better armor class an item has the more skin it exposes on the females. Dave Alvarado, 26, of Texas, concurs, noting that in one of his favorite genres, MMOGs, the game World of Warcraft features "night elves [sic]... whose dance animation is obviously a striptease." And then, as David Hodgson, a 28-year-old gamer from across the pond in the U.K., reminds us, there is the shining example of Tomb Raider, in which "the heroine is a ridiculous portrayal of a woman with enormous, gravity defying breasts."
That women are portrayed in ways that reproduce rather than transcend the pressures they themselves face in real life is not, of course, a conscious conspiracy concocted by male gamers. As Bryan McIntosh, a 21-year-old from Canada who has played on the PC for the past 12 years says, the sexist depiction of women in games is partially "a reflection of what the publisher or (less frequently it seems) developer thinks gamers want." Duncan Kimpton, 26, from the Netherlands, agrees, saying that sexism in games is "more likely an indication of what... producers think will sell."