Notes from PAX Panels: Gender in Video Games

I didn’t write anything down on “You Game Like a Girl: Tales of Trolls & White Knights” because I was too busy raising my hand or shouting my assent with the panelists when they asked things like “Do you go to conventions wearing nerdy t-shirts or cosplay to get the attention of men?”


The number of men in the audience was reassuring. One doesn’t often see male feminists, unfortunately, but a great many of them attended this panel rather than doing any of the other things they could’ve been doing during the time slot. It’s a start.

The ladies brought up that many female characters in games are the damsel in distress archetype or a reskinned attempt at hiding that the character is still a damsel in distress. Peach is an obvious example; who could possibly try to escape a dungeon wearing a dress that poofy?

They made sure to express that sexy outfits are not the problem, but that they are the only option available for women. Women have the right to be sexy, just as anybody does, but they should also have the right to cover themselves up if they want to, or to wear armor that is actually practical.

Picture by EleyonArt on DeviantArt.Com

The argument often made about sexual objectification in games is that men are also objectified because the male characters are as buff, bulky, and unrealistically athletically built as the female characters are busty, wasp-waisted, and unrealistically sexy. Yet this too plays into male fantasy and the male gaze, because the buff male characters do NOT portray what women want in men, they portray what MEN want in men – that is, they exemplify the male power fantasy; to be a man is to be strong, efficacious, and powerful, etc. The female portrayal is that of the female sexual fantasy, where the women are prizes, treasures, objectives, the kiss at the end as the reward, “save world, get girl,” etc. The woman is a sexual object and she ALSO plays into the power fantasy by making the man feel more powerful, both by winning her, and by comparison to her relative inefficacy.

But it’s not just the virtual ladies that get the short end of the stick; the intense sexism in the realm of gaming extends to and oppresses real women every day. The panel’s headline is “For every voice raised in favor of critically addressing the climate for women in gaming, a dozen more cry out in defensive, silencing backlash.” Anybody looking for proof that sexism is still strong in our supposedly forward-thinking American society need only look to that. The comments Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian drew on the Kickstarter for her series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games, were bad enough before the series even came out. People felt the need to blog about her apparent “hypocrisy” in disabling the comments on the series, claiming that she is discouraging actual dialogue about the content, even though they themselves acknowledge that many, even most of the comments, would not be contributing to a constructive dialogue but would contain curse-laden insults, rape threats, and even threats to beat or kill Anita, simply because she dares to bring up the issue of how women are treated in a field of media.

The advent of the “idiot nerd girl” meme brought a lot of attention to the idea on social media sites, and was followed up with a push-and-pull between those who loved and those who rejected the concept. Albinwonderland of tumblr created a video about the topic, found here.

Fortunately, backlash to “idiot nerd girl” exists in countermeme form

Cosplayers especially, but even girls who attend conventions wearing a simple Batman t-shirt and jeans, tend to be accused by men of merely dressing up or wearing nerdy paraphernalia to impress or attract men. “Women who are 4’s go to conventions because there, they’ll be a 9!” Of course this is nonsense; a woman dresses as she does because it makes *her* feel good and *she* thinks it’s awesome, not because she, as she rubs her hands together menacingly, is scheming about all the unwitting men she’ll somehow draw into her sexy web with the Spiderman logo on her panties, because seducing men is clearly the only goal she has in life. Comic, gaming, and anime conventions often become boys’ clubs where women are either ogled or treated as though they do not belong.

A book could be written on the issue. These are just my notes and thoughts from a single talk at a single convention.

There’s no simple solution to this. Women like myself are breaking into the gaming industry and may, over time, be able to have some kind of influence, but games have catered almost exclusively to men and teenage boys, appealing to their egos and their desires, for most of their existence. Games “for girls” are generally virtual pet games, Barbie dress-up, and Cooking Mama, even today; they are being bought by mothers for their little girls and continuing to reinforce harmful stereotypes. Video games have yet to be known for social commentary or deep meaning, but that is because they are still evolving as a medium and are fighting to be taken seriously. Perhaps when they are, they too can be used as tools to challenge the more backwards parts of our society, and can be part of the cultural movement towards equality between the genders.

(I can only hope.)



  1. I love this, but I also hate it. 100% valid points but you let your bias take too much control of you. I was with your post until you wrote how ‘oppressed’ women are. Instead of leading this into a great argument based on both genders and how these things go down, you generalized males and teenage boys. I thought men weren’t supposed to generalize women? Girl gamers are nothing new and girls have been in the gaming industry far longer than you seem to think. Do you care to provide your source for statistics? I’d love to see where you’re getting all of this information from.

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