What is a Galaxy Without Stars?

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.”

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But frankly, this is a moot point. Whether by inertia or by the hand of developers, the sexist and dehumanizing portrayal of women in games is, ultimately, driven by demand. If serious change is going to come about in this area, we are going to need to make it happen, by insisting on games that are thick on substance and thin on sexism. This is particularly true because, as PC gamers, we hold two key advantages: One, we tend to fall into a more mature demographic of gamers that – in theory, anyway – transcends the testosterone-driven daydreams of young teenagers; and two, our platform, with its mouse and keyboard configuration, lends itself to more involving and complex gameplay than consoles do.

The evidence for potential progress and the means to achieve it is there, at least anecdotally. Alvarado gives us an example in the thinking person’s FPS, Half-Life 2, in which Alyx, a woman of smarts, “helps you out of as many bad spots as you help her out of.” Boal cites the under-rated title Beyond Good and Evil, a game graced with not only a powerful dialogue that brought him to tears, but also a “strong-willed female” protagonist to deliver it. An equally intricate game with a powerful female lead was Planescape: Torment, in which the female character possessed “a degree of strength, pride, and dignity uncommon to most other female characters,” says Jason Kalishek, an 18-year-old RPG fan from Wisconsin.

The opportunity to drop puerile sexist imagery and bring women into the fold of PC gaming should not be missed. Contrary to myth, women are not duplicates of Laura Wingfield from The Glass Menagerie who will need Barbie Doll games to woo them to PC gaming. The protagonists highlighted above illustrate that plenty of excitement can be provided by female leads who will, in turn, bring in female gamers – not to speak of richer gameplay options. Additionally, as McIntosh says, most women gamers are “confident enough not to feel threatened” by sexist imagery, merely finding it annoying and disappointing.

Annoying and disappointing, however, are enough to keep women gamers alienated and outside the arena of PC gaming. As we well know, that would be a serious loss for them – but it would also be a serious loss for us. For we can delve into the depths of our fantasies, striding across landscapes in scooter bikes and soaring along lunar eclipses in starships, but what an unnecessarily cold and lonely journey it will be if we continue to ignore the dreams and visions of the women who could be riding alongside us.

To transform the status quo requires us male gamers to reboot and reconsider our collective thinking. Like Windows XP and a creaky DOS program, the lofty goal of a more fulfilling and fruitful gaming experience and the bleak reality of denigration and objectification of half the population are utterly incompatible. The solution is clear: Exit sexism, uninstall – women gamers, welcome aboard.

M. Junaid Alam is a journalism student at Northeastern University, a political commentary writer for the university paper, and a freelance reporter for The Sun Chronicle in North Attleboro, MA.

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