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August 21
2013

Dick-Less: Power vs. Sex Fantasies in Video Games

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kratos_god_of_war
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false_equivalency

No, it’s not the same. I’ll be explaining exactly why in pedantic detail, but let’s start off with that.

In the ever-circuitous debate over sexualized video game characters, or entertainment media in general, a false equivalency is often thrown upon the table as a means of ending the debate. Whenever a complaint is raised about some suggestive character art of female with an ample bosom, sooner or later another person will label a male character with gratuitously exposed musculature as the exact same concern in reverse.

Superficially, the logic holds water. More often than not we see roided up beefcakes wearing just as little – if not less – clothing than their female counterparts. No matter the size of Lara Croft’s polygonal breasts, she has at least two more articles of clothing on than over half the cast of Altered Beast. The amount of proportions skewed in both cases broadcast unattainable ideals of their gender. He-Man is more naked than any Barbie doll, so there totally isn’t an issue here; it’s just game developers playing to the lowest common denominator of sex fantasies on both sides, right?

Simply put: no it is not. That’s not to say women and gay men are not perfectly capable of finding these unrealistic behemoths to be attractive, but that is not the prime (or even secondary) purpose of their having such figures.  Both the dominant, muscle-strewn Warrior and the over-endowed Sorceress play to similar thrills in the mind of the straight male audience before anyone else. To help clarify, let’s take a look at the hyper-masculine video game icon: God of War’s Kratos.

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Kratos is a masculinity golem, a testament to the male figure. The tone and definition of his physique is attainable exclusively by the most genetically blessed gym rats, and only after they have been oiled up and photographed in the perfect lighting. He uses his idealized proportions to overcome the literally deific odds against him and become recognized as the all-powerful god he is. What man doesn’t want to tear down the most powerful beings in existence to then join their ranks? At least some women can find ambition and self-motivation – even at this scale – attractive, certainly? Some likely do, and that’s fine and wonderful. But any sexual attraction to Kratos, and men like him, is at best secondary in the minds of the developers, and at worst completely inconsequential. And here’s why.

This Son of Zeus, Slayer of Gods, and Master of the Brutal Chain Attack has no penis. Guy’s got a crotch, sure. But this God of War possesses no effective, self-evident libido, and I’m not just talking about showing off a bulge here.  Yes, not many characters of either gender have legitimately modeled and textured genitalia under their clothing, but for Kratos, a penis exists more as an idea than a physical object with in-world permanence. While we are privy to the intimately gruesome details of his violent escapade, the topic of sex is dealt with almost bashfully.

Consider the many juvenile “interactive sex scenes” throughout the demi-god’s adventures. One or multiple females beckon a willing Kratos (who always seems to forget that he’s in mourning of the wife he killed) over to a formerly secretive section of a level. The camera pans away gradually, usually to a contextually humorous image like a urinating cherub fountain. The camera then shakes in response to simple button inputs. The camera pan is reversed, showing characters resuming their casual animation cycles and praising Kratos’ abilities while health and experience orbs shower down upon him.

Press Circle to Make Sex...For Reals

Press Circle to Make Sex…For Reals

The scenes themselves have been subject to a lot of deserving parody. Beyond their amusingly short length, there is an active avoidance of not only showing any intimacy, but any sexual mechanics at all. We are directly told, rather than shown, how wonderful Kratos is in bed. Sex is a transaction earned through bloodshed, offered by those rescued/discovered as either a means of self-preservation for fear of your Kratos’ power, or the overwhelming lust they suffer from by being in the player’s meaty presence. In a series renowned for its mechanical polish and rampant machismo, this skittish inclusion of alleged sexual dominance is tonally disproportionate. It feels like the equivalent of a desperate virgin faking a story about a great night, the sexy details of which he fudges for lack of understanding.

And that’s the best Kratos can manage between the sheets. Multiple scenarios throughout the God of War series’ campaigns demand the Son of Zeus make brutal use of nameless NPCs to progress through a level. When approached by a hapless male character near a sacrificial set of spikes, the player cannot progress until the NPC has been used for a blood key. The rare time a female NPC is given purpose within a level, it’s as an optional health fount, and not just the aforementioned women of the juvenile sex stops. An underwater level segment early on in the series features mermaids that bequeath useful oxygen to a submerged Kratos, but only after they are grabbed, kissed, and then broken at the spine. While all NPCs are presented as mere tools, women get additional domination.

All of this is not to condemn the God of War franchise or games in general. They are merely the latest recreations of problematic fantasy tropes that have existed since people took the Greek myths as Faith. Idealized male characters perform great spectacles of physical bravery, and are rewarded with carnal pleasures only briefly touched on before the next setpiece. Sex is a reward that barely affects the empowered male hero in between feats of ego-pleasing action. This is, again, not to say that such tropes cannot arouse feelings in female players. This is saying that the primary goal here is an indulgence of male fantasy, blatant ego-stroking without needing to see a penis in actual action.

And there are many reasons for that. For one, a penis pictured by itself in any medium is often the object of ridicule, or at least distraction. A lot of this is due to the relative rarity of us actually seeing a guy’s junk outside of a porno. Judd Apatow’s biopic parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story features an extreme close up of a random penis to that exact effect. More on film’s hesitant nature with the penis in the future, I promise.

congressman_stubbs_lost_and_the_damned

I have no words…

Said effect was played by Rockstar in their “Lost and the Damned” DLC pack for Grand Theft Auto IV. A cutscene between protagonist Johnny Klebitz and Congressman Thomas Stubbs finds the Representative discussing a bit of business in the nude following a (presumably sexy) massage. His loins are first hinted at with the briefest shot of pubic hair earlier on the scene, and the pre-mission exposition ends with a full frontal glimpse at the middle-aged Congressman’s member. Played for both laughs and shock, the scene works due both to the rarity of us even seeing a penis in a video game and audiences’ general aversion to inactive, lone penises (penii?).

This aversion is played to the nines in a game basking shamelessly in the shadow of God of War’s design: EA’s Dante’s Inferno. The controversial game’s level design speaks to far more sexual tendencies and belief structures than we have time for today, but the crux of it all is the final fight against Lucifer. Because from start to finish, Satan has a three-foot long schlong – complete with jiggle physics – bouncing along with his attack patterns. The physical evidence of an aggressively sexual character’s organ is here hilariously over-exaggerated and utilized as a means to both distract and disgust the presumably male player. The biggest bad guy in Western consciousness is going to kill you with his gigantic penis, circle strafe you bastard!

Now let’s go back to those under-dressed female video game characters. In particular, let’s take a gander at Mai Shiranui. A ninja capable of controlling fire, Mai leads the Women’s Fighting Team in the King of Fighters franchise. She is also, like Kratos, bestowed with an impossible figure, in particular breasts that would require an adamantium spine just to remain upright. Unlike Kratos, said figure has since been made a corporate-wide sex symbol for publisher SNK. Not that being a sex symbol is in and of itself a bad thing. But during the vast majority of time Mai is in the player’s hands, her entire persona, play style and gameplay mechanics are defined almost solely by her breasts, ass and crotch.

The first official art in a standard image search, after dozens of fan art

The first official art in a standard image search, after dozens of fan art

Her fighting idle animation is bent over directly in front of the viewer, pendulous breasts jiggling and bouncing around to an inhuman degree. A significant chunk of her moveset, from jumps to blocks to all forms of attack, have been animated and programmed around showcasing her naughty bits in direct, frontal focus to the player. Kratos may be at a constant flex in his games, but the camera does not ogle the way his biceps bulge with every swing of the Blades of Chaos. And we certainly don’t frame the camera on the radial movements of his crotch.

Mai does have a full backstory, as much character motivation and pathos that a fighting game roster allows, but her purpose for existing in the form and proportions she has is to indulge a sexual tendency in a straight male mind. In every promotional image of her, in every anime she cameos in, she acts as a physical spectacle. While Kratos’ ads may have him surging up towards the viewer, covered in slimy viscera, Mai is bent to inhuman angles in order to best leverage her assets towards the male gaze. The closest comparable male character I’ve encountered is Duke Nukem. The decrepit parody of the 90′s has more of a tangible hard on than the albino beefcake with the interactive orgies.

The true crotch of equality.

The true crotch of equality.

I am not meaning to herein claim that the video game industry’s sole perception of the female gender is sexual. There has been a gradual uptick in positive female role models in video games for years. It wasn’t hard to improve from where we started, and the amount of reasonably portrayed women could stand to be increased many times over, but that’s not the argument here. This is me pointing out the exact mathematics that do not add up in the assumptive fallacy that says He-Man = Barbie. Sexualized characters in games serve a necessary and completely acceptable purpose. But to honestly think that a guy in a video game with a six pack and stubble is designed first and foremost for the sexual gratification of women and gay men – the way a women with cannonball breasts and a porcelain doll waist is for straight men – is to put dicks where there were none before.

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About Gavin Greene

(Writer) GavinGreene.exe was installed in December of 1987, and has been gaming ever since his motor skills have allowed. In addition to making them pretty words here, he operates as Production Coordinator at Phoenix Online Studios, and News Editor at Elder Geek. You can follow his inane babbling over on Twitter (@GameDevGav).

11 Responses

  1. avatar Leopancakes says:

    And yet both forms create unrealistic expectations and psychological issues. Women starve themselves while men pump steroids. Yes, the sexuality is displayed in a different manner. But trying to compare how men and women are portrayed in the media as if they would ever line up perfectly is pointless endeavor. What is relevant is the results. And as more men turn to the same (or comparable) corrosive habits that women continue to engage in, the playing field becomes increasingly equal. Equally bad, that is.

  2. avatar Encephalogistic says:

    I thought the “Shortpacked” comic put this very elegantly:

    http://www.shortpacked.com/comics/2011-12-02-sexy.png

  3. avatar Lucrece says:

    I’m just curious while all form of male sexualization just devolves into bulge and penis, as if there was nothing else appealing about the male body.

    As if there were no ass-men that don’t care much for penis, or guys who like beautiful shoulders and backs, or a nice set of pecs or some meaty legs.

    Male beauty and sexualization is more than just emphasizing his dick.

  4. avatar AaronT says:

    Male characters are designed based on what straight male gamers want to BE. Female characters are designed based on what straight male gamers want to fuck. Of course there are exceptions. I think of Kaidan in ME, who started out with a normal physique and a lot of sensitivity, and was beloved by both gay men and women, while derided by straight male gamers who filled up Bioware forums with how “gay” he was. By ME3, Kaidan has an unrealistic body shape, looking more like a typical action hero clone. Most recently, I was reading reviews of Dragon’s Crown where the reviewer’s criticized that ridiculous boobs on the sorceress, and the comments were an endless parade of straight male gamers saying that it was okay because the male warrior was shirtless with a tiny waist and huge biceps. Right. An Action RPG in an anime style, I’m sure female gamers grabbed it off the shelf when they saw the shirtless cartoon male…

  5. avatar Radiant Sophia says:

    Wow, you completely missed the point.

  6. avatar blackboy says:

    I wish more of these discussions would include bayonetta (and jeanne).

  7. avatar Gavin Greene says:

    I would refute that the amount of steroid abuse among men is anywhere approaching the amount of eating disorders or other self-esteem related issues in women.

    The chief difference between these gender personifications is that one is a man-made celebration of male ideals through characters with great agency, the other is a man-made projection of female ideals through characters defined largely through their (often sexual or domestic) relationships with others.

    I am interested in your conclusion that men are turning to corrosive behavior as opposed to women, who are continuing the practice. Are you theorizing that male self-deprecating behavior as a reaction to media is a more recent phenomenon than the female equivalent?

    • avatar Leopancakes says:

      Men with body images do not just use steroids. Over 20% of gay men struggle with anorexia. 15% with bulimia. A recent study in the UK showed a 27% rise in male eating disorders, as opposed to a 15% rise overall. To make matters worse, men are less likely to seek treatment for eating disorders than women, due to cultural preconceptions. This means that statistics involving men and eating disorders is more dramatically skewed than statistics of women with eating disorders.

      And yes, I would say that as the male body image has changed (dramatically) over the decades in the media, a increase in negative reaction to this unrealistic ideal is a reasonable assumption. We generally blame unrealistic ideals in the media for negative female body image issues. Why would we not see men react in a similar fashion?

      As for the arguable difference in gender personification: Women do not respond to the same type of sexual stimuli that men do. Much of their reaction is context driven. A traditionally unattractive male in a heroic role becomes much more attractive. The man-made celebration of male ideals through characters with great agency in heroic fiction may be a male driven fantasy (and one that I would argue is harmful to men). But it also happens to coincide with female sexual response. Men and women are largely looking for the same thing in their heroes – albeit for different reasons.

      There is a reason the “bad boy” cliche exists. It’s not simply driven by male power fantasy. More the opposite, frankly.

      • avatar Gavin Greene says:

        I’d like to see your source for those figures, seems a bit high. But I most certainly agree that, like many other intimate issues, lack of male reportage (driven, as you say, often by pride or other social stigmas) will skew the numbers.

        My question to you wasn’t whether the image of the ideal male has changed over the decades (it has dramatically, I certainly agree), but that you seemed to indicate that negative male response to it was more a recent occurrence than that of negative female response vice versa. If the idealized male has been a toxic issue for just as long as its female equivalent, why would men be just now reacting poorly to it? Or is this another case of reportage catching up to a lingering social problem?

        It seems we are just going to have to disagree on the chief point of gender personification. While I wholeheartedly agree with you that sexual stimuli is a relative force between the genders, I stand by my original retort to the (what I now realize to be a far too small) He-Man = Barbie thesis.

  8. avatar dallas says:

    Sigh, you know honestly i get really tired of this debate. Are woman objectified in games. DUH! yes! any 14 year old boy could point that out in 50 words or less. the greater point is that games, much like many other things, are products meant to be sold and consumed by a target audience. most games for better or for worse target straight men so yeah so shallow females with big boobs and men that are power fantasy is gonna be the norm. that doesn’t mean that girls don’t do this themselves. look at Ken from the barbie franchise. all joking aside, he is very often shown as at best a prop for barbie to go on dates with or emasculated and a servant to her. (cue the image of the faithful BF holding the bags while the girl goes shopping). But guess what! that’s okay! because this is for GIRLS and marketed as such! its an unrealistic fantasy of credit cards with no limits, boyfriends who are forever faithful and pleasing, and you will never age past 21. (and guess what! feminist have written shit tons about that too)

    movies, books, videogames, tv, a lot of it is FANTASY targeted to user groups. it isn’t made to be all things for all people. just the people it’s targeting.

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