Sex, Lies and Video Games

Sexism may be the most challenging threat to gaming industry to date

Amanda Burke/Staff

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Lara Croft wears a gray tank top, khakis and combat boots. She is known for her outrageously generous bust, but since her debut in 1996’s “Tomb Raider,” her proportions have become increasingly more reasonable and her figure more conducive to exploring tombs. She’s also extremely easy to cosplay, so when Meagan Marie hosted a Lara Croft cosplay event, “eight or so” women showed up in costume to participate.

Marie, an avid cosplayer, is the community and communication manager at Crystal Dynamics, which developed this year’s reboot of Tomb Raider. Like many video game industry professionals, she attended the Penny Arcade Expo East in Boston in March, and she held the cosplay event at Crystal Dynamics’ booth there. Eventually, a journalist approached the group and asked to interview the cosplayers.

“Turns out he’d probed what it felt like ‘knowing that none of the men in this room could please them in bed,’” Marie wrote in a blog post. “He proceeded to tell me that ‘I was one of those oversensitive feminists’ and that ‘the girls were dressing sexy, so they were asking for it.’ Yes, he pulled the ‘cosplay is consent’ card.”

It is 2013. It is estimated that nearly half of all gamers are women. Yet, when women attend gaming events, they’re still treated like decorations rather than participants in a culture. Critics of cosplay often claim that the women in question are just dressing up for attention, but the majority of serious cosplayers craft their own costumes and pay close attention to detail in order to replicate a beloved character. They do it because it is empowering and fun, not to get furtive glances from teenage boys at comic book conventions.

Sexism in the gaming industry is nothing new, of course. Video games are frequently criticized for their misogynistic or over-sexualized portrayals of women — the original “Tomb Raider,” with its very polygonal yet busty Lara, is often cited as an example of the “males are the audience” attitude. Games like “Duke Nukem,” “Saints Row” and “Grand Theft Auto” are viewed as far worse offenders in this sense, as most of their female characters are either prostitutes or strippers.

Even though none of these games are maliciously anti-woman, they contribute to a sexist environment. It’s the same environment in which a professional found it appropriate to disrespectfully talk to women about sex. It’s a culture built around a male audience, and that relic of the past makes gaming hostile to many women.

“The treatment and representation of women in gaming has come to a head this past year, and I know some of you are tired of hearing about it — I’m tired of living it,” Marie wrote. “I want to feel safe and valued as a member of this industry, whether I’m conducting an interview, talking to fans on a convention floor or cosplaying. And I have a right to that.”

After the PAX East incident, everyone thought that people would have learned their lesson. Of course, no one did. The Game Developers Conference in San Francisco was held the week after PAX, and although the panels and talks seemed to avoid controversy, the post-conference parties did not.

The International Game Developers Association sponsored a party for GDC attendees and hired scantily-clad dancers as entertainment. After news of the IGDA’s involvement surfaced, two of its members resigned from their posts in protest. YetiZen, which co-sponsored the party, denied that there was any problem with its choice in entertainment.

Mojang, which developed the sandbox game “Minecraft,” also held an event. Although Markus Persson (also known as Notch), the creator of “Minecraft,” has repeatedly denied it on Twitter, women were allegedly paid to socialize with men at the party.

Attendees spoke up in what became an ongoing Twitter discussion between gamers. “I guess I’ll be the one to say it: I was not okay with the gender situation in the VIP area at the Minecraft party,” said Bennett Foddy, who developed the Flash game “QWOP.” UK-based writer David Johnston of Smudged Cat Games eloquently added, “Yeah, I spoke to someone who was ‘paid to party,’ as she put it. Didn’t seem that interested in game dev. Good rack though!”

Over the span of two weeks — during high-profile professional gaming conventions — women in the industry were repeatedly made to feel unwelcome, and many were directly objectified. The events of PAX and GDC were proof that, even in 2013, little progress has been made toward equality for women in a culture that has historically been dominated by men.

“The PAX encounter was a catalyst to a discussion about a bigger issue … This (sexism) is a problem in our industry. This is something that needs to be addressed,” Marie wrote in an update to her original PAX post as GDC was drawing to a close. Marie is a talented cosplayer, and some tried to use that against her when she spoke out about PAX.

This points to an open hostility toward “attractive” women in the gaming community; these women are often seen as “fake” or vying for attention. They’re threatening because they could use their feminine wiles to manipulate male gamers. They’re intruders. At the very least, they’ll be seen as “cute” rather than “serious” or “hardcore.”

The message is clear: If you’re not here to please men, you shouldn’t be here.

Contact Kallie Plagge at [email protected]. Check her out on twitter at @kirbyoshi.