Video games have come a long way since the days of Mario, the jumping pixelated Plumber, on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Over the last thirty years, technological innovation and human ingenuity have taken the medium to new heights—creating uncannily human characters and allowing for groundbreaking storytelling on par with film and television. As with all entertainment mediums, however, the artistic freedom to design as one pleases in his or her game can distort our values and perception of reality. In games, an exaggerated sense of masculinity and femininity is often the result. Video games are an interdisciplinary medium—often combining aspects of physics, sound engineering, game design, animation, and so on—and as such, have so much more to offer their players beyond the carnal appeal of sexuality and masculinity.
Kratos, from God of War
As a game developer, there is one very obvious reason why you would want your protagonist to be very burly or sensual—their enhanced masculinity or femininity help them fit into their role within the game better. Games that feature a protagonist whose job is adventurous or physical in nature, such as Tomb Raider or God of War, make sense to have an outrageously fit character which will be capable of facing the upcoming tasks throughout the game. In these cases, the exaggeration in character design is meant to visually contextualize the plot and give the player a sense of realism in what the character does.
Sorceress, from Dragon's Crown
However, the issue taken by many with this exaggeration is that it can be done to a point of tastelessness and prove highly offensive. Take the game Bayonetta for example. The main character (pictured below), of the same name, is represented as a leggy, tantalizing heroine who contorts herself while shooting enemies. Within the context of the game itself, her appearance is not as much of an offense to feminist-minded video game critics as that of characters like the Sorceress in Dragon’s Crown (pictured above). While some would consider Bayonetta a tad oversexualized, few people would call the Sorceress anything but overblown. Whereas Bayonetta uses her allure as a resource in her journey—effectively grounding her physical appearance within the narrative role she plays—, the overexposure of Sorceress's cleavage and inhuman proportions are easily offensive, unjustified within the narrative, and generally unwarranted.
There is a term to describe unnecessary acts of or displays of sexuality in games and other types of media—fanservice. In the case of video games, fanservice is intentionally designed to reward the player with sexual content—or in a more general sense, any kind of content a fan would want—in exchange for their attention. While it may be debated that fanservice should not exist in any game, some game companies make abundant use of fanservice, even going as far to make it the apex of their product. Take for example Gal Gun: Double Peace (video above). In it, you are tasked with shooting ‘pheromone shots’ at adoring high school girls to keep them at bay. “Petting” and “rubbing” are also purported focal points of the experience in the trailer. While it can be argued that the game is functional and some of its specific characteristics, such as the control of the gun and the sound design, are enjoyable, the game as a whole is muddled by the repetitive task of shooting girls and its attendant revealing of their extremities. I believe this to be over the top and inappropriate, despite the odds that there may have been some satirical or parodic elements to the game which dissuade some from considering this over-exaggeration to be a cause for moral concern.
Bayonetta, from Bayonetta
Defenders of keeping exaggerated archetypes of masculinity and femininity within games—including some developers—will point to sales demographics to validate their creative decisions, stating that the primary audience comprises young males who respond well to these design choices. Unfortunately for them, this does not hold true for today’s gaming landscape. Today, the split between male and female gamers is almost half, and more than two thirds of the American adult population play video games. While the marketing schemes of yesteryear focused on young men, gamers today have grown out of their singular-sex demographic and retained their hobby. While a poor argument to begin with, this championing of the exaggerated protagonist certainly does not hold given how many well-articulated video game players have voiced their frustration with the practice.
Games that sell in today’s marketplace tend to revolve less around sexuality and more on ingenuity and change. There are many different verticals of video game consumers, similar to how there are many people with different tastes in genres when deciding to purchase a movie, and each demographic segment looks for very different things. There will always be an established audience for games like Gal Gun: Double Peace which sell on the basis of the perversion of the female, and occasionally male, body. Fortunately, the sales of games that focus on character building, world-building, and actual gameplay tend to be the underdog success stories of our day. These qualities exhibit the growth of the industry and the tried-and-tested nature of the core elements of fun which have permeated quality games for the past three decades.
Ultimately, sex and ‘macho-ism’ are used to sell in every entertainment medium. I do not necessarily feel that these elements need to be completely removed from games so much as I believe that we would benefit from its curtailment. Our awareness of these trends will shape the marketplace by enabling informed purchases, and may even change the our preferences for the kinds of characters we play and the overall gaming experience as gaming evolves and expands into new, uncharted territory.