Sexualised characters: holding up a mirror to culture

It’s long been thought that the portrayals of people we see in the media have an impact on how we feel about our own bodies. Stick-thin models in magazines, beautiful actors in the movies and pretty people all over the internet are assumed to have a negative effect – but there has recently been some good news when it comes video games.

According to a study by Stetson University and Fairleigh Dickinson University, games featuring sexualised protagonists may not have as much impact on us as once thought. Female participants were asked to play Tomb Raider Underworld or Tomb Raider (2013) at random before reporting on their self-objectification and body dissatisfaction. The results indicated that the former’s sexualised version of Lara Croft didn’t make players feel body shame – or at least as not as much as other types of objectification (more about that later).

Tomb Raider, Underworld, woman, Lara Croft, ruins

These findings don’t entirely surprise me. Female characters who are inappropriately dressed for the task at hand and whose boobs seem to defy all laws of nature may make me roll my eyes in exasperation. But I don’t feel they cause me to have any internal negative thoughts, because I’m aware they’re fictional: they exist only inside a video game and therefore don’t send a realistic message about women’s bodies. Why should I bother comparing myself?

I wonder if the study’s participants feel the same way and whether the titles chosen had any effect on the results. There are other protagonists who are far more sexualised than Lara and most gamers are aware of her move towards a more realistic design over the years, so we tend to view her earlier days as a relic. In addition, the archaeologist was never simply about her looks; they’re not her only contribution to the Tomb Raider games and she can kick some serious butt, in either tiny shorts or cargo-pants.

Regardless, some will look at the findings and surmise that we no longer need to concern ourselves with sexualised characters because they don’t negatively affect players. Other forms of objectification are more damaging, with the study citing ‘catcalling’ as an example – and again I’m not surprised by this. Feeling objectified as a result of something you’ve seen in the media is a thought you’ve arrived at independently. But catcalling is a real person confirming that notion in real time, and that’s far more hurtful.

It’s not really that simple though, is it? Just because sexy protagonists don’t make us feel bad about ourselves doesn’t mean we should put up with seeing them in all of our games. Not everyone can be blond-haired, tan-skinned, big-boobed and tiny-waisted, and constantly seeing characters who embody that tired representation of beauty quickly gets boring. Games have come a long way in recent years but there’s still plenty of room for further diversity and giving us a whole range of heroes to spend time with.

Tomb Raider, 2013, Lara Croft, woman, bow and arrow, deer

It’s not about censoring, or feminism, or being offended by the sight of bouncing bosoms and pert butt-cheeks. If that’s what you want to see in your video games then knock yourself out – there are more than enough titles out there to interest you. It’s just good to be aware that being surrounded by a culture which constantly perpetuates a certain body-type as being perfect can impact how positively we feel about ourselves, and having access to media that only reflects that culture could reassert those values.

As said by professor of psychology Chris Ferguson in an interview with Kotaku: “Media holds a mirror up to culture. And sometimes we don’t like the mirror. It must be dirty or smudged for it to look this way. But it really is more of a mirror.”

The folly of Kate Walker

At the last London Gaming Market in July, I managed to pick up copies of Syberia and Syberia II for my PlayStation 2. The first game in the series is hailed by many as a classic and Adventure Gamers named it the fifteenth best adventure in 2011.

Personally though, it’s never been a release that has made it onto my favourites list. I first played it back in 2003 on my old console and I’ve repeated it a couple of times since on PC but it’s always struck me as being rather odd. I understand video games are meant to be creative works of fantasy, designed to transport us to all sorts of magical places, but Syberia’s storyline contains several elements that just make me scratch my head in confusion and think ‘Why?’

Not least of all is the title’s protagonist Kate Walker, an American lawyer sent by her firm to the fictional French village of Valadilène to oversee the buy-out of a automaton factory. After finding out that the owner had recently died, she’s advised by the village notary that her brother Hans Voralberg may still be alive and so ensues a journey around a steampunkish version of Europe to track him down. I was reminded of just how much I don’t like this character when I streamed the game last month.

I know there are going to be a few shocked gasps among some of you reading that sentence. After all, Kate Walker (because almost everybody in Syberia calls her by her full name for some strange reason) is a much-loved character who’s often cited as a female protagonist we can be proud of. And while I’ll admit she’s more independent, intelligent and strong than some other leading ladies we’ve had in the past, all I can see when I look at her is someone who’s just not that nice.

She points out that nobody is around to take her bags up to her room upon arrival at her hotel in Valadilène. The manager apologies sincerely and tells her it’s a day of mourning for the whole village due to Anna Volraberg’s funeral, before taking her single case up to the next floor. The baker tells her the same thing when she asks why the bakery is closed. But she then says during a call with her best friend Olivia: ‘These people are just not very hospitable.’ Get over yourself, Kate Walker.

The hotel manager and baker aren’t the only people she’s rude to. When she needs to pick up a boat oar to use as a leaver, she says: ‘Yuuck! That oar is all dirty and wet!’. She then proceeds to let young Momo collect it for her because she doesn’t want to get her hands messy – so much for independence. It’s also worth pointing out here that the way Momo is referred to by other characters is often extremely derogatory, with words such as ‘slow’ and ‘retard’ used which makes for uncomfortable viewing.

The majority of Syberia’s plot covers what happens after Kate Walker boards a clockwork train staffed only by an automaton named Oscar, both made at the Voralberg factory. She has no idea as to its route or destination other than a hunch it might take her to Hans. As if that wasn’t foolhardy enough, she brings no supplies with her (although her case somehow her case miraculously appears in the train’s sleeper compartment later). What kind of woman goes on a long journey without at least taking a phone charger and snacks?

The biggest thing I can’t forgive her is during an event towards the end of the game. Throughout her mission, she receives several calls from her fiancé Dan who comes across as the ‘jealous type’. He’s annoyed she isn’t with him in New York to go a dinner party hosted by an important client and continuously tells her to come home. It becomes obvious to the player over the course of the title that it’s not all innocent between Dan and Olivia, and eventually they both reveal to Kate Walker that something has happened.

On one hand I can respect her for handling the situation with such grace. She doesn’t get angry; she simply realises that perhaps she and her fiancé didn’t love each other as much as they thought, and that her journey throughout Europe has changed who she is. I don’t believe calls with news like that would have been managed with so much dignity in the real world – there definitely would have been at least a small amount of screaming – but props to her for managing to stay so calm.

However, I just can’t agree with her responses to the cheating pair. When Olivia tells her she’s had the hots for Dan for ages and something happened between them when she invited him into her home for a nightcap, she says: “Don’t bust a gut over it.” And to Dan she replies: “Maybe, I’m to blame somewhere in all of this. Maybe I pushed you into Olivia’s arms. I’m well aware this trip has taken me far from New York and far from the Kate you once knew.”

What the hell, Kate Walker? A best friend is meant to be someone who you can trust, yet you simply tell her not to worry about sleeping with your fiancé as if it’s something that can just be easily forgotten. And as for Dan, he should be proud of your achievements and sticking to your mission regardless of the adverse (and ridiculous) conditions you’ve found yourself in – not using them as an excuse to end up in Olivia’s bed because you’re not there to cater to his every whim.

The fact she feels she’s partly to blame for what went on back in New York and that she essentially needs to apologise for growing as a person irritates me. I understand the reasons for infidelity are far more complicated than can be explained during a couple of short phone calls shown in a video game, but this isn’t a side of Kate Walker I wanted to see. Show me someone who’s been hurt by people she cared about and who is vulnerable – but don’t give me a woman who feels she has to say sorry for others’ mistakes.

It’s for the reasons explained within this post that I’ve never made it to Syberia II or Syberia 3, and it may seem strange then that I purchased the second title despite not particularly liking the original. It’s because I finally want to find out whether those plot elements that seem so silly are finally cleared up in a way that makes sense. I guess that also means there’s a chance that the new Kate Walker could end up growing on me if I spend a bit more time with her.

But not if she doesn’t start taking her phone charger and snacks on long train journeys.

Choosing sides: playing characters of the opposite sex

Following Kim’s post on wonderful women in video games, I came to realise that I’m always more likely to choose a female character. I put this down to male leads being more typical and, in my opinion, the boring option when it comes to creating compelling protagonists.

Thinking back to when they announced the box art for BioShock Infinite, there was a backlash about the generic ‘good guy’ cover-art because Elizabeth was the more interesting character. This is a good example of what’s on my mind.

For me it started with Lara Croft in Tomb Raider when I got my PlayStation back in 1997 – and I promise it wasn’t about her pointy physique. Regardless of how good the design of any game is, I struggle to make that attachment between myself and the onscreen protagonist. I always feel like I’m controlling somebody else’s actions and it’s more prevalent when they’re able to speak. I think this is why it’s even more important that they’re interesting, not just in their backstory but also in their motivations and actions.

The closest I’ve probably come to actually feeling like the character I’m playing as was with Gordon Freeman in Half-Life, because that’s exactly how it was crafted to be in the form of a silent hero. The title was groundbreaking at the time of release in 1998 for mixing first-person shooting mechanics with story and game design that made it so immersive. The unspeaking protagonist is quite common today – perhaps because it’s cheaper than employing voice-acting – but back to the subject of women in video games.

There are sometimes clear benefits when it comes to picking the female character. Let’s take the Fallout series as an example. As most enemies here were male, it made sense to pick a protagonist who was a woman due to the Black Widow perk as it gave you a ten-percent damage bonus against the opposite sex. It also provided unique dialogue options outside of combat and you could talk non-player characters into giving up information quicker or helping with alternative ways to complete quests.

More recently in Apex Legends, some female characters had smaller hit-boxes due to their physical character design and this arguably made them more difficult to shoot when they’re not standing still. Not all the small characters were women of course but it does remind me of the same perceived issue with PlanetSide 2. Many players selected to play as a female protagonist as they were visibly leaner in size, with the theory being that they were therefore harder to target.

With the Assassin’s Creed series, we were given us a choice in character during the Odyssey instalment. I felt it would be more interesting to select the female character and see Kassandra after having played as Bayek for so many hours in Origins. Looking back at Syndicate, we were able to freely switch between twins Evie and Jacob with the former having stealth skills and the latter being a hot-headed brawler. This was more of a situational play-style choice, but again I found myself stepping more frequently into the shoes of Evie.

I recently returned to The Elder Scrolls Online after a three-year break from the game and found my main character was a female High Elf named Esamira. I remember making this decision simply to be different. Being a multiplayer title, my protagonist choice led to assumptions by others; many expected me to be a female player. It did make me wonder how many of us stick to selecting characters who are the same sex as ourselves, and what stereotypes we place on those who choose the opposite.

There’s nothing wrong with picking a protagonist who’s completing different from your real self. Choice is important – but is this a conscious decision or something we do automatically? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

What came first: the female gamer or the problem?

Video games do not stop boys making friends – but girls who play struggle to make pals. That’s the headline from an article from a month or so ago. It was based on the results of a Norwegian study published in April 2019, for which 873 youngsters aged six to 12 were assessed to see whether gaming had an effect on their social development.

A quick internet search to find out more revealed a number of lengthy and similarly ‘shocking’ announcements. Here’s just one example taken from the Daily Mail: Boys can play video games for as long as they like without suffering any harm but girls who join in struggle to make friends, study suggests. Most of the headlines making up the results highlighted how young females who participated in gaming found it difficult to socialise and were harmed more than boys by their hobby.

Hands, video game, controller, gamepad

This got me thinking about my own childhood. Did video games have a negative effect on my social development as a kid? It certainly doesn’t feel like it, although it’s possible the haze of 30 years’ worth of nostalgia may have altered my memories somewhat. Was it a case of me seeking out games because I found it challenging to make friendships then? This statement doesn’t feel right either. I played them because I enjoyed seeing their stories come alive, and that’s still a big factor for me today.

I was a quiet kid who didn’t have a huge group of mates when I was young, but I was very close to those I did have. Not much has changed now that I’m an adult: I’m still an introvert and much prefer a smaller social circle made up of ‘my kind of people’. Far from being an obstacle though, video games have given me an avenue to both be creative and meet a whole bunch of awesome bloggers with similar interests. In fact most of my real-life friends are people I’ve met through gaming and blogging over the years.

The headlines revealed by my internet search had piqued my interest though and I wanted to find out more. With a little further digging I unearthed the original source along with an article on the ScienceDaily website, to which the Postdoctoral Fellow who led the study had provided some comments. I was relieved to read it had actually found that ‘playing the games affected youth differently by age and gender, but that generally speaking, gaming was not associated with social development’.

It seems like this is yet another case of video game chicken-and-egg. News outlets want to report that they’re the cause and harmful to young females, because that’s what grabs their readers’ attention. But the research indicates gaming may actually be a symptom, and that ‘girls who play video games may be more isolated socially and have less opportunity to practice social skills with other girls, which may affect their later social competence’. What came first: the video game or the problem?

The worrying thing about the situation here isn’t so much the one-sided reporting and poor choice of headlines – although that’s definitely an ongoing issue – but the impact these have on the walls within our community. We’ve been working so hard on knocking them down and claiming an equal place for women, but salacious articles create an imbalance among gamers because of their sex. It gives confidence to less-accepting members of our group so they feel justified in building those divides back up.

Check out the comments left on that Daily Mail report to see what I mean. Among those calling the study ‘sexist’ and ‘BS’ (presumably added by people who’d read the newspaper’s coverage and not the research), here’s one from somebody called ‘a-male’: “They’re desperate to pour criticism upon anything guys enjoy doing. Some girls seem to enjoy video games, too, but that doesn’t stop the feminists from trying to have video games completely done away with (no, I don’t play them, but I don’t think others should be stopped from playing them if they wish).”

I’m not sure what I dislike the most about it. The implication that video games are for guys and women only seem to enjoy playing them. The incorrect assumption that the research’s conclusion is the recommendation they should be ‘done away with’. The belief that feminists are once again behind it. Or that all of this wisdom comes from someone who admits they don’t game themselves, and are therefore unlikely to understand the benefits and enjoyment that playing can bring.

Whenever an article about a new video game study is published, it’s important to take the time to really understand its results and trace back to the original source if you can. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on a badly-written headline, or make assumptions according to what a slow-news-day is telling us. And when we read BS, it’s up to us as bloggers to use our voices to highlight it and continue the discussion in a thoughtful and constructive way.

Don’t be a chicken – or an egg, for that matter – and keep knocking down those walls.

Later Levels: one big oxymoron

Hands, video game, controller, gamepadIn March, Matt from Normal Happenings tagged Later Levels in one of his Daily Inkling posts. The series provides inspiration for bloggers to use as literary clay for moulding into whatever form they wish. This entry was titled ‘Personal Oxymoron’ and asked: “Based on your personality, what is something you would expect yourself to like, but just can’t seem to get into?”

I can respond to that question succinctly using only three words: Later Levels itself. But the answer is so much more than that and requires a little explanation. In certain respects this blog is a contradiction and therefore perhaps shouldn’t exist – maybe I’m putting the entire universe at risk simply by writing this – but I’m incredibly glad it does and that I’ve found my little space on the internet. What follows are some of the reasons why this site is one big, cuddly oxymoron.

Older females don’t play video games

Rezzed, video games, gaming, expo, Impact Winter, KimAn older female who plays video games? Well I never! I’m one of the more ‘mature’ bloggers on the block (let’s use that term loosely) and on top of that I’m a woman, so there are some out there who’d think I’m far too much of a grown-up to play video games or even be interested in them. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m more likely to pick up a game than any other form of media, and I couldn’t picture myself blogging about any other subject. In fact I don’t ever see myself not playing video games.

Adventure fans love Daedalic titles

It’s pretty obvious from most of the posts I write that I have a huge fondness for the adventure genre; and the titles by Daedalic Entertainment are some of the most loved. So it should therefore follow that I’m a fan of the developer, right? Wrong. I really don’t enjoy Daedalic’s games; I think I’ve only completed three and have abandoned all others halfway through. There’s just something about the characters they choose for their protagonists which doesn’t appeal to me and most end up grinding my gears.

Certain personality types enjoy My Little Pony

Years ago I undertook a blogging project to find out more about the My Little Pony community and publish a series about the people I’d met. I found out that a certain personality type was attracted to the show; and you can guess which type I turned out to be when I took my own Myers-Briggs test. I watched a few of the cartoons for research, to understand why its fans enjoyed it so much, but I just didn’t get it. The project was however an interesting experience and a lot of very kind people gave me an insight into their world.

Bloggers love being social

EGX, video gamesBlogging is a very social activity. To do it well, you need to open yourself up to interaction, meeting new people and instigating discussions with them. The truth its that I suck at all of those things and find it hard to be social: I’m ok in one-one situations but when the group grows to more than five, I have trouble following the conversation and feel anxious about saying the wrong thing. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop blogging however, because it’s the perfect way to push myself outside of my comfort zone.

Positive people promote positivity

Hands, video game, controller, gamepadI’ve always tried to use Later Levels as a platform to promote positivity, be that in ourselves as individuals or in the gaming community as a whole. But March was quite a difficult month and my mental health has taken knock so sometimes I feel the opposite of positive myself. But optimism breeds optimism and you’ve got to keep pushing forward. If you talk about what’s going on in your head with those you trust, and keep telling yourself and others that a brighter day is on its way, then it will arrive very soon.

There we go, five reasons why this blog is an oxymoron. Thank you once again to Matt for his Daily Inkling tag and giving me the opportunity to write this post! Now over you you: what makes you an oxymoron?

Insomnia: male and pale

My first time at the Insomnia Gaming Festival was I61 in August 2017. My stepson had an excellent time as he had the chance to see one of his favourite YouTubers back then, but my other-half and I were left feeling slightly uncomfortable.

The entire hour that DanTDM was on stage was nothing but a merch-fest, with the constant plugs for tickets for his tour, his DVD, his book, his exclusive Insomnia t-shirts and stationery – and just how awesome all this stuff was – becoming draining.

Insomnia63, video games, Fortnite

Ethan wanted to go again because he’d enjoyed himself so much, so it was with some apprehension that we returned for I63 in August 2018. The thing that struck us this time was just how young all the ‘special guests’ were; the meet-and-greet stands we passed seemed to be manned by kids who were barely into their teens and should probably have been sorting out homework ready for a return to school the following month. There was also the fact that if you weren’t interested in playing Fortnite, there wasn’t an awful lot to do.

Despite not liking battle-royale games, not being interested in any of the YouTubers there, and not particularly enjoying the six-hour round-trip to the NEC in Birmingham, it’s highly likely my stepkid would say yes when asked if he wanted to go to the next event in April. But I think we’ll be giving the upcoming I64 a miss after seeing Insomnia’s announcement about their lineup earlier this month, and I’m not sure we’ll be going back for at least a few years.

On 03 February 2019, the following message appeared on the Facebook page: “FINAL YOUTUBER ANNOUNCEMENT! We are thrilled to announce our final YouTuber to appear at Insomnia this April will be DAGames! Are you just as excited as we are to welcome all these amazing YouTubers to the festival?!” In case you haven’t already seen the stars that make up the headline, let’s take a quick look at their stats and see if we can see any similarities.

Name Age Sex Ethnic origin Subscribers
Pyrocynical 21 Male White British 2.9M
Syndicate 24 Male White British 9.9M
NerdOut! Music Unable to confirm Male Unable to confirm 2.3M
Dangthatsalongname 23 Male White British 505K
ImAllexx 20 Male White British 1.2M
James Marriott 21 Male White British 532K
SeaPeeKay 26 Male White British 558K
8-BitGaming 24 and 25 Male White British 1M
DAGames 26 Male White American 1.3M

All men and, for those I could confirm, all in their 20s and almost all white British. So the answer to Insomnia’s question above about whether I’m ‘excited to welcome all these amazing YouTubers to the festival’ is a definite no. Not only do I have no idea who any of these people are except for one (and that’s because he was involved in the CSGO Lotto scandal a couple of years back), there seems to be a distinct lack of stars who aren’t male or pale – and that’s just stale and one big fail.

Right, enough of the bad rhymes and time to wonder if Insomnia has always had such a diversity issue. I can’t say I noticed this at the two events we attended, but we went to I61 solely for DanTDM and didn’t pay attention to any of the stars at I63. I tried to check past years’ lineups for a comparison but couldn’t find a definitive record; however, from the information available online, it does seem as if a lot of the headliners were young white males who had appeared at the event at least once previously.

I know there will be some who read this post and think: “Yeah, but the most popular YouTubers are white men.” Firstly ‘no’, and secondly ‘so?’ Not that I watch any of them myself, but a quick Google search reveals a number of other creators with more followers than some of the stars included in that table above. And even if that wasn’t the case, Insomnia has a huge public presence and voice; it’s the perfect platform for promoting diversity within gaming and offering attendees the chance to see stars from all different backgrounds.

Insomnia, video games, DanTDM

There’ll also be some who read this post and think: “You don’t even go to Insomnia for the headliners so why are you bothering to write this?” I care because I have an 11-year old stepson who’s all about YouTube and has recently started coming to expos with us, as is the case for many other children of a similar age. Taking them to events where they only see young white men up on stage reinforces the incorrect idea that gaming is a male-dominated community and that you have to conform to make it big in the industry.

As mentioned above, we’ve taken the decision to not attend I64 in April and it’s possible we won’t go back for several years. I’ve heard that the event can be fun if you get yourself a BYOC ticket and join in with the LAN party and camping, and it’s something my other-half is keen on doing at some point. However, as you have to be over 16 it’s not possible to bring Ethan right now; and it seems pretty mean to hand him over to one of the grandparents for the weekend while we go and have all the gaming fun without him.

(He probably won’t want to come with us when he reaches age however, because what teenager wants to be seen dead with their parents? But considering the weekend would cost over £400 for the three of us – and that’s without travel or food – that might be a very good thing.)

I’ll leave you now with a quote from the event’s website: “Insomnia Gaming Festival is a diverse and community-led event containing content that is relevant to gamers, millennials and fans of popular culture.” Yeah.