I used to tell all my friends I was a “honey magnet” in junior high. By doing so, I meant to show them that my ability to seduce women was like a force of nature. I could make this claim based only on my experience of slow dancing with a girl at an afterschool party. I asked her to be my girlfriend the next day and she said, “No.” I was promoting an identity for myself to suggest that I had power over something of which I had, thus far, almost no direct experience. I was afraid my friends would discover my romantic incompetence and paralyzing fear of rejection, so I invented a persona in which all of those fears were ameliorated.
“For many men, masculinity is a hard-won yet precarious and brittle psychological achievement that must be constantly proven and defended,” writes Stephen Ducat in The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity. Ducat, a clinical psychologist and professor of Psychology at the New College of California, believes that “this fantasy of being under constant siege by a multitude of external feminizing forces is really an unconscious defense that is employed to keep out of mind something even more disturbing – an identification with women.”
This phenomenon has found an accommodating home in the culture of videogames where empowerment fantasy is de rigueur. Consider the nominees for the 2009 Game of the Year at Spike’s Video Game Awards: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Left 4 Dead 2, Assassin’s Creed 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and Batman: Arkham Asylum. Each game is combat-oriented, features male protagonists, and presents a world full of aggressive antagonists in which the player must become a savior. To whom are these experiences most likely to appeal?
According to the ESA, 40% of people playing games are women. There are almost twice as many women over the age of eighteen who play games than there are boys under the age of seventeen. And yet only one in every ten game developers is a woman, while the ranks of videogame journalists skew heavily male, as does the audience that reads their work.
“I can tell you a million personal experiences of me covering this industry as a woman where people are just clearly freaked out by the fact that you’re a woman but you’re not a booth babe,” said Heather Chaplin, journalist and co-author of Smart Bomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Video Game Revolution. “All you have to do is go to a games industry event and it’s obvious that there are mostly men in the industry.”
In a paper published in the Psychological Review, a group of UCLA researchers found that the “basic neuroendocrine core of stress responses does not seem to vary substantially between human males and females. Both sexes experience a cascade of hormonal responses to threat.” However, men are much more likely to respond to stress with a “fight-or-flight” tendency while women are prone to “tend-and-befriend” reactions.
In a culture where men predominate and in which violent aggression is considered a necessity for “fun” gameplay, there are a surprising number of instances in popular games where a distinct fear of the feminine is manifested. In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (a game which spelled out the word “SAVIOR” in bright red letters on its back cover), the characters Meryl and Johnny decide to marry without ever having so much as kissed. During the actual ceremony, Johnny hesitates to kiss the woman with the trepidation of a first date.
In Gears of War 2, Dom kills his wife in an alien prison because she would be a burden. One chapter prior to this event, two characters, one of which is the player, are forced to carry a box of explosives in tandem down a hallway, slowing their movement and limiting their aim. Dom’s wife gets a cut scene, but she is given less gameplay impact than a trunk filled with explosives.
More recently, EA released b-roll footage of the Lust level in Dante’s Inferno, featuring a female enemy that has a retractable spike emerge from the vaginal folds of her crotch. A boss later in the stage is a topless giant who shoots a stream of demonic wasps from her nipples. The footage has, as of this writing, not been posted anywhere save a subscription locked video roundtable on IGN.com. Gore and graphic disfigurement are regularly celebrated in videogames, the only unique element of the Dante’s Inferno footage is the close association with female genitals. Why should a tentacle popping out of a woman’s crotch be less acceptable than a tentacle popping out of a man’s neck in Resident Evil 5?
“Our secular culture produces all kinds of fear, including fear of the female anatomy,” Janet Jakobsen, Director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, told me. “If you watch any horror movies, like if you watch the Aliens series, the chances are whatever is horrible has to do with vaginas, pregnancy, childbirth, wet stuff. It’s just all there.”
Freud popularized the theory of the “vagina dentata,” a vagina with teeth that became symbolic of his theory of male castration fear. In The Joy of Sex, Alex Comfort said the vagina “looks like a castrating wound and bleeds regularly, it swallows the penis and regurgitates it limp.” In contrast to the beautifully assonant vaginal imagery of Georgia O’Keeffe or Virginia Woolf, it is always the concept of bloody folds of flesh in videogames that exemplify the worst horrors for the player, from the sexually charged enemies of Silent Hill 2 to the labial portals through which enemies spawn in Dante’s Inferno.
When sex does appear in games, it is almost always connected to phallocentric displays of male prowess. In God of War 2, Kratos beds two women in a show of pure virility. In the sarcastic world of Grand Theft Auto IV, sex is not an act of mutual exchange of affection between two people, it’s a waiting game. Nico takes women on dates, listens to their conceited monologues, and then chooses to “push his luck.” If you’d rather not participate in the formalities of dating, you can skip the bother of connecting with another person and pay a hooker to grind in Nico’s lap. Sex in videogames is either the product of being good, getting lucky, or an exchange of money.
Ducat described the suffering of many of his male patients in terms of a fear of the feminine. “These anxieties have been particularly evident,” he said, “in their denial of dependency needs, their inability to sustain intimate ties with women or other men, their preoccupation with holding positions of dominance and control in relationships, and their various sexual dysfunctions.”
At the 2009 Game Developers Conference, Chaplin delivered a rant about “guy” culture as afraid of intimacy, responsibility, intellectual discovery, and introspection. “It’s not that the medium is in its adolescence, it’s that you’re a bunch of ****ing adolescents,” she said. She was largely criticized for her assertion by many disparate members of the videogame community, from the designer of God of War, David Jaffe, to Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander but consider the VGA’s Game of the Year contenders in light of her observation.
Even the most progressive game of the lot, Uncharted 2, ends with an exchange between Elena and Nathan in which he can’t bring himself to be honest about his feelings. Elena asks Nathan to rank on a scale of one to ten how afraid for her safety he had been. He says four, and then suggests he would rank his fear of clowns at a ten. “Clowns over my death?” Elena asks.
“I hate clowns,” Nathan says.
They are teasing each other. The scene is sweet and funny; both the audience and Elena understand he is lying. But isn’t that Exhibit A in the case for Chaplin’s argument? Why would a man feel vulnerable in the company of someone he truly loves? Isn’t this a variation of that same fear of intimacy Chaplin was talking about? I was charmed by the scene, but only because that playful shyness on the cusp of a huge connection is so familiar. We instinctually resist this idea with argument and bluster because, deep down, there just might be some kernel of truth to it.
“It is not that there’s something pathological about being male,” Ducat said in The Wimp Factor. “Rather, the problem is the psychological cost of developing a male identity in a culture that disparages the feminine and insists that the boundaries between the masculine and the feminine remain unambiguous and impermeable.”
Samhita Mukhopadhyay of the blog Femisiting, spoke out against the misogynistic imbalance in Grand Theft Auto IV based on a now retracted montage posted on IGN showing Nico killing different women after having sex with them. “If you could kill male prostitutes in the game, then it would be different, but you can only kill female prostitutes,” she told me. “It’s clearly a fantasy. This is not the real world, and you have the right to fantasize about what you want to fantasize about. I’m more interested in what informs that fantasy. It’s not coming out of nowhere.”
It’s uncomfortable to think about what births these fantasies of vaginal gore and dominance through aggression. We argue that Chaplin is wrong because not all men are the way she says. Mukhopadhyay is wrong because there is so much more to GTA IV than sex and killing hookers. But making these observations is not an all-or-nothing statement. When we discuss every member of the male or female gender, nothing can be totally true without exception. Likewise, no game can be reduced to a single defining label. But is it possible GTA IV contains misogynistic experiences while still being a sarcastic swipe at populist entertainment? Can it be that male gamers, while not completely defined by vaginophobia or femiphobia, still experience feelings of insecurity around women? Can we talk about those phenomena, both pointing them out and confessing to them, without condemning one another?
We take games too much for granted. It’s just a game, we tell ourselves. It’s just for fun. But there is much more bristling beneath the surface. Videogames are the imperfect reflections of our own imperfect vessels. The more we shy away from their ugly undersides, the more we become trapped in our own dishonest projections. We should never be defined by our most primal instincts, but the games we play offer strong proof that we have yet to surpass them.
I remember the first time I played Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. After the opening cut scene, I stepped into the polygonal metropolis and saw a woman in a bikini across the street. I approached her, as if by instinct, and then proceeded to beat her to death. I was simultaneously delighted and horrified that I could do such a thing in a videogame. Somewhere inside, I felt that old adolescent insecurity stirring inside me, the seed from which my delusional “honey magnet” persona had sprung. “It’s still there,” I thought.
Then I moved on to the real business of killing immigrant gangbangers and stealing their cocaine.
Michael is a freelance writer based in New York. He has written for Nerve, the ABC World News Webcast, the Brooklyn Paper, the New York Daily News, and IGN where he is a regular contributor and author of the Contrarian Corner series. You can follow Michael at his blog www.manoamondo.com.