Gaming Gender

Feminism and video games are not two concepts often linked together. However, after reading recently about the shifting representations of Lara Croft and her potential as a ‘feminist icon’ I was inspired to reflect on my own experience as a gamer while growing up.

I was never one for playing hard-hitting action games like Tomb Raider; I was more of a Nintendo – and sometimes Sega – girl myself. My childhood was a fusion of Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, and then as I got older games that demanded more of my time, games that immersed you in their alternative worlds. The ones that spring most vividly to mind are Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon. Finally, a preteen, I dabbled in the exciting Playstation 2 games that my brother owned – Grand Theft Auto and a number of car-racing games which I cannot recall the name of.

It’s an interesting thing, thinking back to all those virtual scenes you encountered in childhood, and trying to recount the representation of gender within them. The really retro games played on brick-like black-and-white Game Boys become submerged by the pastiche of all the newer, technicolour versions, with 3D characters that had realistic clothes, voices, breasts.

Yet when I do think of it, I realise just how gendered my whole video-gaming experience was. Certainly, there was a dearth of what might be (cringingly) called feminist heroines. Even the very early Mario games, which involved navigating a barely perceptible pixel man over a flat world of fatal drops and question-mark boxes, bore out the signs of gender stereotypes within their very narrative. Rescue the princess. I remember the motivation for getting to the next level was the little cut-scene where Princess Daisy (or was it Peach) would proclaim helplessly ‘Oh Mario!’ and transform shockingly into a spider-like creature, hopping away as if cursed to a land to be later rescued. This story is hardly surprising, given the perpetual presence of damsel-in-distress narratives within our culture, and I’ll admit that throwing an Italian plumber rather than handsome prince into the works is a little subversive – but Mario is always a good place to start.

Maybe Sonic is a little more interesting. Although the characters are weird, anthropomorphised talking hedgehogs, echidnas and the like, they still carry conventional gender distinctions. Well first there’s Amy Rose (strangely enough, that was almost my name), the pink-haired hedgehog with the obnoxious girly voice who is desperately in love with Sonic, the hyper-cool protagonist who frequently shirks her advances with an air of embarrassed affront. The game thus dramatises a kind of courtly love, but in parody, with Amy represented as silly, indeed somewhat ridiculous, in her affections for Sonic – who is evidently so totally out of her league. The unequal power balance reinforces ideas about female irrationality, and the deprivation of agency in the face of love. I won’t go too far with this though; after all, I didn’t play all the games, or watch the TV show. Maybe Sega threw a bit of kick-ass feminism into Amy’s character somewhere down the line?

They did have one character, at least in my favourite game, Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, that could give Lara Croft a run for her money. Rouge was a lipsticked bat with knee-length leather boots, a sassy, femme fatale always teasing Knuckles – the dread-locked echidna always punching the air and grunting to show his strength. Although she had her shortcomings, being on the dark-side of the game’s narrative, Rouge was perhaps one of the first feminist video game characters I encountered.

Following my Sonic and Mario phases, there was a period where Harvest Moon took over much of my Friday nights. I loved this game; it had a slightly surreal, old-fashioned atmosphere, with its sweet music and appealing graphics, but reflecting back the gender question is pretty damning. You played a young man who ran a farm, and got to grow your own crops, milk your own cows and keep the village tramp, Murray, out of your food-stash. Moreover, one of the central aims of the game was to choose and court a wife. There were three options, each embodying female stereotypes of a sort. First there is Celia, the warm-hearted farm-girl who can be easily wooed by presenting her with flowers. She is a bit pathetic; she wasn’t even offended when I gave her a bit of ragwort. Then there was Muffy, the blonde barmaid in a red-dress with a ‘fun’ personality. I don’t think I have to elaborate much further there. Lastly, Nami, a kind of New Age type with vivid red hair, who was a bit more interesting – a wandering traveller. The whole ‘wooing’ process, looking back, is a bit farcical – not just quaint but pretty hilarious – but I realise that maybe for the young children to whom this game was designed, playing a game that trains you to court a wife by giving her flowers is probably not the healthiest of socialisation processes. On that note, there was a Harvest Moon game where you got to play a girl, but I couldn’t comment as I have never played it.

A similar style of game to Harvest Moon is Animal Crossing, where you owned a house in a village of charismatic animals. The chief aim of the game was to pay off your mortgage, a fact that you were constantly reminded of by the maddening presence of Tom Nook, the local entrepreneur who you are forever in debt to. Animal Crossing lets you play either a boy or girl protagonist, and I would argue is a little bit more deconstructive in its representation of gender roles. At least, it gives you a lot more power over your character. Gender is less prominent – although the villagers occasionally make stereotypical comments, Tom Nook is patronising to your character whether you are a boy or a girl and the hair salon allows you to experiment with an array of bizarre hairstyles which undercut traditional gendered appearances. Playing Animal Crossing allows you to feel in control, to experiment. You can even design your own t-shirts, and decorate your home with a myriad of furniture (at a cost). No, I think this game would be better read from a Marxist perspective (Tom Nook as evil petit-bourgeois tyrant).

This leads me finally on to the more obviously problematic gender representations in games like Grand Theft Auto and all the racing titles. Women are stereotypical, red-dressed, often voiceless prostitutes (indeed, ‘picking up’ is often part of the storyline), or else draped over flash cars, offered as rewards for race-winning but never racing themselves. Indeed, I’m sure there was one game where the amount of money you had from winning races determined the kind of ‘girlfriend’ you could have. Persistently, women are absent from the action except as hyper-sexualised commodities. 

What seems consistent in the very different games that I played throughout my childhood is both their underrepresentation of women and their portrayal of women as objects. In Mario, the princess is the goal object, spurring the player onto the next level. In Harvest Moon, women are presented merely as potential brides, whose courting is in itself a ‘level’ to be achieved. In the more violent (and should I say 18+) games, women are basically sexual commodities to be bought and abandoned at the player’s will. In Sonic, female characters have more autonomy, but still fall back into stereotypical roles: helpless, childish lover-girl and femme fatale. Perhaps only Animal Crossing offered a bit of transgression of rigid gender binaries, with its largely asexual characters and emphasis on player choice in terms of outfits and style.

My readings, I’ll admit, are of course narrow, and perhaps all of the games have now not only changed with the times (it’s been a good few years since I’ve picked up a game console) but even the ones I played may have had exceptions to the gendered rule. The point of this article is to flag up the more obvious problems video-games present for feminism, in reproducing highly-conventional stereotypes in their representation of female characters. Achieving gender equality is difficult when children and adults are like are literally immersed in virtual realities where characterisations mirror all too vividly the limited representations of gender that have for decades pervaded society. Art and life are always going to bounce off one another, and this is why, reflecting back now with the maturity of a critical mind, I am able to realise the stereotypes I was exposed to – stereotypes which back then probably seemed normal and natural. I am sure there are numerous games which dissolve stereotypes in their representation of gender, and maybe Lara Croft could be a postmodern feminist icon. I won’t know until I play.

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Why Don’t We Just Cull Humans?

DSC_2614Why Don’t We Just Cull Humans?

Picture the wild deer: all elegant neck, soft fur, tawny eyes staring back at you like butter wouldn’t melt. The stag too: a rare glimpse of those striking antlers flashing through forest leaves or the wire mesh of a fence, gazing gallantly over the hillside – a little like a proud lord, a patriarch admiring his land. There is something quite British about the graceful deer; something evocative of country outings, of heritage and sprawling estates, of heads rather unceremoniously stuck on pub walls.

Today, there are more deer in the UK than in any time since the last Ice Age[1]. It seems poetry is the wrong way to go about this; deer have become a real issue.

On the radio this morning I heard reports proclaiming new figures representing an excess in numbers of British deer. Deer, it is argued, in their proliferation, are posing a serious threat to British biodiversity. The overspill of deer will lead to more traffic accidents, more damage to crops and a drain on natural resources. With estimates of the current deer population positing 1.5 million, new research has suggested it will be necessary to kill off 50% to 60% of the animals to fully address the problem[2].

The above arguments may seem persuasive reasons for tackling ‘The Deer Problem’, but I would like to step back and question these fundamental justifications given for widespread slaughtering. I want to question the idea that the – let’s face it, unintentional – disruption of food-chains by deer warrants their culling.

My objection to culling derives not from an inherent concern with the ethics of killing animals – the morality of the practice of culling is another difficult issue – but from the premises given to defend culling by appeals to the negative consequences of an excessive deer population.

The problem I have with culling can be understood by considering a convincing argument offered by Australian philosopher and rights activist Peter Singer. Singer declares, somewhat radically, that ‘all animals are equal’[3]. Yet this statement is not as controversial as it appears. By ‘equal’, he means not that we should treat all animals the same – Singer is not justifying giving rabbits the right to vote or freedom of speech to chickens – but that we should give equal interest to all creatures, regardless of species. Singer points out that any claim asserting the superiority of human beings over other animals is arbitrary, speciesist.

Speciesist? Why?

Consider the reason we typically give for justifying the accordance of moral supremacy to humans:

1) Humans are rational creatures, or at least significantly more rational than other animals, and this makes our lives intrinsically more valuable.

Singer’s problem with this is that not all humans are rational. What about a child with Downs Syndrome, or a person in a coma? What makes them more superior to say a highly-intelligent primate if they lack rationality? Consequently, Singer states, any attempt to argue for human rights over animals is going to run into the problem of speciesism, since there can be no universal claim for the rationality of all humans. Speciesism is just like racism or sexism, in that it appeals to untenable claims about the essentially superior ‘nature’ of a particular race or sex which gloss over the reality that not every person within a race, sex or species shares these characteristics. If the sexist argues that men should be paid more because all men are more intelligent than women, his argument is rendered invalid by the stark fact that this is a sweeping, fallacious generalisation. Likewise, the speciesist cannot justify exploiting animals for human need by claiming humans are intrinsically superior because all humans are more rational than animals.

Therefore, for example, an argument justifying animal vivisection to support the more-valuable lives of humans (by exploring cures for cancer) will have to concede that this argument also, logically, licenses vivisection on non-rational humans. And I think most people would agree this seems a little distasteful.

Singer’s argument is compelling: the only relevant consideration that unites all humans, then, is sentience – the experience of pain and pleasure. An experience inherent to the lives of most animals and all humans.

Back to deer then.

The justification for culls is primarily their threat to the food-chain: too many deer means too much consumption of natural resources, too much disruption to the natural environment which other animals are dependent on. Deer, munching and treading and stomping all over our country’s flora and fauna, are threatening other wildlife. All very well.

But what about us? Aren’t we a threat to wildlife? What about our fossil fuel omissions, waste disposal, annihilation of forestry for paper, our excessive industry, infrastructure? Our pollution of lakes and rivers? Surely all this amounts to much more destruction than an overabundance of deer trampling on the landscape and eating too many acorns?

Well, it may be argued that we are humans; we are entitled to do these things because they fuel our rational progress towards more enriching lives. What gives us the right to think the world is ours to destroy, but not that of the deer? I would argue that our threat to the food-chain is significantly greater than that of our deer population, and yet I hear of no ecological experts advocating human culling.

Let’s be clear: I am not advocating human culling. But think about it: are we morally justified in killing deer because too many of them destroy the environment, when we wouldn’t do the same to humans, whose excessive population is also consuming too much of Mother Nature’s milk, and tainting it with acid rain in the process? If there is no relevant moral distinction between humans and animals, I find arguments which devalue animal life in favour of maintaining human interest deeply problematic. And after all, this isn’t just about preserving nature for nature’s sake, this is about preserving nature for people – for farmers, ramblers and future generations.

I acknowledge that there may be other reasons why culling might be justified – I am no environmental expert. Reducing deer numbers may work in the favour of their species, as too many deer means many will starve due to lack of resources. It is obvious how this can be turned around to humans: again, most people would object to human-culling because there isn’t enough bread to go round. Therefore, if there is no plausible moral distinction between humans and animals, then culling is difficult to morally justify, even if it produces certain good consequences.

It’s a thorny issue, and one that people often don’t consider; culling doesn’t seem to raise the same controversy as animal testing, hunting or meat-eating, because it is seen as a largely benevolent, if a little unpleasant, way of improving conditions for people and wildlife. I believe, however, that we should be concerned – at the very least, philosophically – with the flawed argument that lies at the heart of culling practices.