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Challenge Accepted! Breaking Through Social Norms in Video Games

We love games, and if you’re reading this it’s very likely you have a passion for them
as well. It’s also likely that you have at some point heard, or held your own, criticisms
of them for how they depict stereotypes, genders, and sexuality, among a slew of
other things. From over-sexualized women, to the heteronormative portrayal of
relationships, issues do exist.

Does this mean all games are problems and are incapable of setting good
examples? No, of course it doesn’t.

The notion of video games being a medium of worth has been debated since the
time of their inception. Their faults are often perceived as creating a lot of problems,
but are these faults really the source, or merely symptoms of larger societal issues?
Just as every other medium we consume, they are a product of society and as such
often fall prey to the ideas society instills in their creators, and frankly, all of us.

While societal structures may certainly be present in their design, video games being
an experience built of creativity affords their creators the opportunity to question,
challenge, and at times, outright defy those very structures.

Where do games made simply for enjoyment fall into this topic though? Are games
with grizzled, emotionless, straight male warriors slaying space dolphins while
winning the love of an overly-sexual female dodge ball queen still OK?

Image from GameSushi

They’re entirely OK.

Hell, we’d like to play that game, and we’re not even sure what a dodge ball queen
is. Is she just crazy good at dodge ball, or does she have some kind of wild dodge
ball related super powers? Who knows?

But I digress; games such as this are absolutely OK, because these types of people
do exist. Certainly not to such an extreme as in this example, but there are men in
the world that are tough and there are women that consider themselves very sexual.
And this is OK, the same way it’s OK for any person who doesn’t identify with these
types to exist.

It becomes a problem when these types of people are portrayed as being the
‘normal way’ and the ‘right way’ of acting.

It becomes a problem when these are the only types of people we see.

So how do video games inspire us to move past these very problems? The answer
is easy: Connections.

Actions, ideas, beliefs, can all be born through our connections with others. When an
idea that we may not agree with, or simply have no opinion of, is presented, how
willing we are to listen and understand it is significantly greater when it comes from
someone we feel connected to. This is where games come in.

The beauty of games is their interactivity. Presenting a story is one thing, and
something any medium can do. Molding an interactive world - a universe - that is not
only interesting, but makes the player feel they are inside of it, a necessary piece of
it, is something entirely different. These interactive worlds are filled with characters
and ideas that players can connect with in ways that are rarely seen in traditional

It is not simply a well-constructed world or story that brings about a strong
connection between a player and their character. What’s important is that the
foundation of this connection is built through the player feeling that they have helped
create and influence the story, sharing the experience of doing so with the character.

So where do things start to go wrong?

Well, negative and harmful portrayals of women, sex, and violence, to name a few,
have been prevalent in media as a whole, with games being no exception, as long
as media has existed.

Is solely focusing on the problems of games while ignoring what they’ve done right
the answer, though?

It’s time for us to take notice of and value the games that have risen beyond
stereotypes, giving us meaningful characters worthy of our connection, as examples
that should be set for the industry at large, while learning from them ourselves.

Do these games justify the so many others that have harmfully depicted

No, of course not.

Does that mean we should not recognize and respect them as a source of change of
these very stereotypes?

Again, no.

Possibly the most discussed issue in games, and rightly so, is their portrayal of
women. They are prominently featured as oversexualized, weak, and incompetent
characters, often being depicted as an object for what many consider a mostly male

This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The reality is that the number of female gamers has vastly increased, with women
making up 45% of all gamers in 2013.

We spoke with Jackie Crofts, an indie developer and artist for the comic Nutmeg,
asking the opinion of someone working their way into the industry why these ideas
exist in games.

“A lot of it is about how much money [studios] are going to make… It’s risky.
Traditionally gaming was male dominated and I think it comes from that. There’s
worry that it won’t sell as much. It’s risky to leave the norm,” Croft asserted, “Games
are not just targeted to kids anymore; everyone is playing game for education or fun,
so if we’re gonna grow up playing games, we should play games where there being
a female character is normal, that person is just a person, or different races, it’s just
normal. They’re just people with good background stories.”

Jackie continued on to discuss what she believed could be done to prevent harmful
stereotypes from existing.

“It’s important to talk about it, not be afraid or hostile about it. Having an opinion is
not a bad thing. It should keep being discussed because that’s the only way to get
past it,” Crofts stated.

So what games get it right? What female characters are built of something more
than stereotypes and clichés?

Several titles come to mind. Alien: Isolation was recently released (check out our
review here!), telling the story of Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Sigourney
Weaver’s iconic character in the 1979 film Alien.

In Alien, the director, Ridley Scott, gave us a film dripping more social and gender
commentary than blood, a hard thing to do given its classic gore shower of a dinner
scene. This was done while still managing to scare the living hell out of viewers with
its tense atmosphere, hypnotizing suspense, and humble amount of on-screen time
for the Xenomorph.

Ripley’s character in the movie was no exception to this commentary, being a
resourceful protagonist that was not bound by the limitations some perceive women
to have. In many ways this translates to her daughter’s character in the new game.

“The traits that we see in Amanda are very much the traits you see in her mother in
the original movie. Fans will see those mirrors. I don’t think anyone would be
disappointed in the way we’re portraying Amanda. She’s an emotionally powerful
heroine, but we’re putting her in a situation where she is physically under-powered in
the face of the alien, as is everyone,” said Will Porter, a writer for the game, in an
interview with the LA Times.

Amanda’s character is not forced into the typical perceptions of women that we often
see today, nor does she reach the clichéd point of tomboy tough girl. She simply
represents a person determined to do what she must.

Nope. Definitely nothing bad about to happen here.

Amanda Ripley isn’t the only one either. We see it in The Walking Dead with
Clementine, who, depending on the player’s choices throughout the games may
become an exceptional strong, leader, survivor, and moral character, despite being a
very young girl. The stereotype of young girls being incompetent is refreshingly
absent in Telltale Games’ well-received series.

The ability to choose a female character in Mass Effect, Faith Connors of Mirrors
Edge, Ellie from The Last of Us, and Alyx Vance of Half Life 2, are all examples of a
game developer creating something more than the common portrayal of women.

Stereotypes are not solely the burden of women, however. With the majority of
games featuring male protagonists, they are also consistently represented as being
unreasonably tough, violent, unemotional figures, with misogynistic and prejudiced
values. It is obviously detrimental to view all men in such a way, so what games
escaped this trope?

The Last of Us has done just this and more. The amount of barriers broken by this
game are too many to list here, and its relentlessly gritty portrayal of the human
condition is beautiful with the protagonist Joel taking center stage.

As the player guides Joel, initially a very average, tough male, through the story they
witness his path twist in ways few would expect. His moments of weakness,
something the game doesn’t shy away from showing, are elegantly used in
deconstructing the stereotype of his character.

In these moments, it’s a 14-year-old girl named Ellie that ultimately saves the
typically strong man, in more ways than just physically. Even after being beaten,
exhausted, and brought nearly to the point of death, nothing is nearly as damaging
to Joel as the possibility of losing this girl.

(Warning: Some spoilers for The Last of Us are in the next two paragraphs, including the image)

Through his years of surviving an apocalypse, Joel loses nearly everything he has
held close. From the death of his daughter, to his closest partner Tess; Joel is a man
with nothing. As the end of the world bears down its crushing weight on his
shoulders, humanity’s most significant chance at curing the world-ending plague lies
in the fate of Ellie and his ability to protect. Joel’s connection to Ellie becomes
something powerful throughout their journey, and in many ways grows to resemble
the love he had for his daughter.

The typical tough emotionless man becomes so attached to her that even after
others makes sacrifices, even die, to ensure a cure for the infection is found, it will
mean Ellie’s death, something Joel is unable to accept. With so many games
portraying men as an invincible hero, always there to save the world, TLOU stands
as a shining example that it is not a man’s physical strength that makes him strong,
but the choices he is willing to make, and that even tough guys can be afraid of

‘This everything you were hoping for?’ ‘It's got it ups and downs. You can't

deny the view, though.’ (image from Kotaku.com)

The idea of men not having to be physically strong is also present, albeit more
obviously, in Outlast, which does an excellent job with its atypical representation of a
male character. In an absolutely terrifying experience, players take on the role of
Miles Upshur, a journalist in a horrifying setting filled with danger and aggressive
enemies. Miles is, however, entirely incapable of combat, running and hiding at the
first sign of aggression like any other person of reason. Unable to even fight back
against the nightmarish beings that assault him throughout the game, Miles is
brought to the point of simply running and hiding as soon as an enemy appears.
With so many aggressively action-oriented male characters in games, one that
stands apart from them is refreshing and very relatable for so many of people.

Just as with atypical representations of gender, most games tend to stray away from
depicting any atypical sexual relationship, while some have openly flaunted their use
of non-heteronormative characters. While playing Mass Effect 3 the player has a
wide choice of romantic partners of a variety of genders. In The Last of Us
(Warning: Spoilers for The Last of Us) it is heavily implied that a side character is
homosexual, and in the game’s DLC, Left Behind, the lead protagonist is shown
kissing someone of the same gender. In Gone Home, the main character discovers
her sister is dating another girl and runs away from home to avoid her parents’
criticisms. Same-sex relationships are one of the most controversial topics in today’s
world and one that hits home in Indiana, Byte’s base of operations, having recently
lifted its ban on same-sex marriage.

Image from The Last of Us Wiki

Intolerance and bigotry have shamed so many away from feeling the freedom to
express their sexuality in our world, whereas games can become a place of escape
from these tough realities, while inspiring others to accept themselves and those
around them.

We certainly think games can do this. We love games for the endless amount of
entertainment and fun they bring us, and seeing some step so above and beyond
the issues of stereotypes, social norms, and gender biases, is an amazing thing. An
amazing thing we’ll hopefully see a lot more of.

If you guys can think of other games that tear down social norms and stereotypes
tweet us @BYTEBSU, or let us know how these games have affected you in the
comments below!

Header by: Meghan Duffy and Jake Leonard