Video games don’t need to objectify women to be popular

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SoulCalibur 6 drops on Oct. 19, and I’m unreasonably excited to jump back into my favorite weapons-based fighting game series.

In my anticipation, I found myself watching some of the promotional trailers that show off the varied fighting techniques of the games’ characters. When my girlfriend saw the outfits worn by the female fighters, she echoed the major, glaring problem I’ve always had with the series and with video games in general.

“So, this was designed for horny 13-year-old boys, right?”

It’s impossible to defend against this criticism, considering the blatantly misogynistic character design of the SoulCalibur series – a problem that has only become more pronounced and pornographic with each release.

The male characters are given armor that, while often fantastic or unwieldy-looking, could conceivably provide some protection in combat. The women are given catsuits, dominatrix outfits and sexy Halloween versions of historical warrior costumes to squeeze into.

This has been an accurate criticism of video game character design for decades. Standards may have been different in the past, but today, such sexist depictions made purely for the sake of the male gaze are inexcusable.

It can be mortifying to be an adult gamer these days. I’m embarrassed to show this game to anyone else. I can only enjoy it with the internet weirdos whose faces I’ll be wrecking upon its release. Perhaps worse, I feel partially responsible for promoting the anti-women tropes in video games that refuse to die as long as consumers reward the man-child developers who perpetuate them.

The women of SoulCalibur may be powerful, deadly and fantastically capable combatants, but they’re not allowed to be so without also being unnecessarily sexualized.

There’s always a price for women in video games to pay. If they’re sensibly dressed, they end up an object to be taken back from an enemy; if they’re physically strong, they’re oversexualized; if they’re well-written, it’s often because developers are setting them up as the player ’s sexual conquest.

Compare this to the rebooted Tomb Raider series, which contains possibly the best-written and most realistic set of female protagonists and supporting characters in video game history.

Lara Croft, who began her existence as the awkwardly polygonal sex object who revolutionized the 3D platforming genre, is now emblematic of what developers should be shooting for in their depictions of women – of everyone, really.

There are characters for Croft to save, but they’re not damsels in distress. They’re her well-written friends and colleagues. Their demographics are as diverse as one would realistically expect based on the game’s plot, and they sometimes prove just as capable as Croft in the onslaught of crises their group faces.

In her current form, Croft enjoys a realistically depicted character model whose femininity is apparent, but not objectified or unrealistic. Her clothes are sensible (no chain-mail bikini armor), and her character’s dialogue is intelligent and well-written. Croft could have easily been a male character, with no difference made in the game’s plot or her own capabilities.
Gaming has lost some of its luster as I’ve aged, and the industry’s rampant sexism is only a part of that.

There are the idiotic plots of otherwise revolutionary games like Grand Theft Auto 5, whose developers thought it would be a fun idea to force the player to actively participate in a sickening and unnecessary torture scene.

There’s the reality of a government-industrial pipeline that pumps propagandistic military shooters into the market, glorifying the horrors of war to the army’s target recruitment audience. Along with every decent release, the industry spews out a mountain of garbage.

Video games are art, and I really do still believe that. But often, the art form is a cultural backwater that adds little to society and fosters reactionary outlooks in young people.

Be critical of the media you love. Call out the problematic nature of your favorite games while acknowledging their strengths and successes. And most of all, don’t believe the industry when they tell you that female objectification is necessary for their bottom line.

Too many high-grossing games that treat female characters as actual human beings put that lie to rest.

I’ll still play SoulCalibur 6, but I don’t think I’ll ever feel quite right about it.

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