Long read on male power fantasies, so refill your mug before you begin. Also, as I introduce this new category, you may be interested to know why.
Good questions were raised in the past few weeks during a discussion on sexualization in video games. One of the strong points to come out of all the debate on sexualization is why there isn’t enough open examination and critique of male power themes in video games and why all the focus seems to be on women. Since this is something I do have experience with, I figured I’d share it and start some discussion.
First, some caveats.
The purpose of this article is *not* to show how males are exploited or are victims of something. While we may, in some sense, be victims in some cases it is to be understood that the intent within game imagery is often to reward males, not penalize them. This article is to examine some of our portrayals in video games: as hero figures, symbols of strength, icons of power, and generally diverse human beings who wield fate. It is to start a discussion about the great diversity of male imagery video games gives us and to examine the context for these developments. I choose to address the power themes in this particular article, since I don’t have any illusions about covering everything myself. With the discussion on the table, my hope is other bloggers will also take some time to examine different angles of this issue. It’s clear many of you are thinking about it, but we spend so much time on talking about women and not enough about what’s wrong with male imagery. Maybe a guy should start it.
I want to question the role these images play in feeding a culture of male privilege. Therefore, I’m operating from the standpoint that such things exist and are well established in American culture.
A Look in Plain Sight
So then …what do guys in our games currently look like? The truth is, there’s no monolithic male character in games, unlike women. Males pretty much run the whole gamut of personality in games (except perhaps the other-than-heterosexual, other-than-white end of the gamut) and even manage to have diverse styles and looks. They all seem to value the same thing, despite the exceptions: Power.
A brief look at the above gallery leaves a few clear impressions. First, there’s different types of characters that can be categorized even further into archetypes: soldiers, mercenaries, and traditional heroes. Each character has their weapon of choice in hand with matching attitudes. They’re clothed appropriately for the task and in many cases the clothing itself helps define the character. Bulletproof vests, spare grenades hanging from a pocket, rucksacks on the back, camo streaks, bands wrapped around the head to keep the sweat from pouring down into the eyes …being a hero is hard work. Most of the characters displayed above are also somewhat dirty, with rugged features, bulging biceps all, and broad powerful pecs.
These are capable men. These are men we can all look at and say “he can handle anything”. Their looks are designed to imbue the player with confidence that they have what it takes to get through whatever the game throws at them. As a man, I don’t identify with their specific persona, but I definitely identify with what’s asked of them. It’s a sense all males in our society are familiar with; the need to give an outward image of strength, and suppress all other feelings. I know it best from that so-called awkward stage between boy and man, when relatives enforced what I *should* be like by telling me how a man is *supposed* to act. Really, all of us have had this experience in some way or another. It’s why we know what it means when some one says “be a man”.
Aesthetically, what’s attractive about the men in the images is their confidence and power. Their posture and physique speak to this. We all want to be strong people with confidence that commands respect, so these are important values in creating the art ..and clearly more important for male portrayals than female. The looks on these characters are about inspiring players through these kinds of values. Snake isn’t *just* a commando, he’s a well respected warrior who can infiltrate anything and succeed in every way. His posture exudes competence. Simon isn’t just a vampire slayer, but a brave soul for even going toward Dracula’s castle! What’s more is he goes in solely with a whip against demons, devils, and all manner of unliving foul creatures. His pose exudes bravery. They both do it for mankind, heroes to the last. Many, though not all, of these guys have back stories that inspire their character and give it human dimensions.
It’s all about strength, every image. And that strength represents power. These game images tell players that, if you’re just strong enough, you can change the outcome of anything, mow down any army single-handedly, even if that army is already dead. These images speak to capability, not fashion, looks, or sex. It’s all about who these characters are …about who *you* are. Your place as a man is to dominate situations. If you don’t, you’re not just a loser, but possibly not a man at all. Remember those words “be a man”. What do they mean? These images are attempting to define that for us. Just as it was done for us between the leap from boy to man in our own lives by mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, and friends.
One could even say that the male imagery sexualizes power. Masculinity is power, and power is attractive. The women in these games want these guys because they’re strong, powerful figures. The sexual aspects are subtle, but present. The images aren’t sexualized. The characters are just sexy. It’s a good balance, a balance that maintains the humanity of the character.
Even the male imagery with seeming variety of character embody the same power values. Consider the Joker, Batman’s enemy. He’s a somewhat complex character with a decent amount of nuance (and a lot of plain crazy) to make him engaging and even likeable, yet his motives remain the acquisition of power, control, domination. This is no different than Batman: he’s a rich vigilante with the financial capacity to make his own laws. He’s out to rid the streets of crime, something that speaks to his nobility, and he’s above the law. He is the law. That’s power and the other characters in his story respect it. Even the police, who potentially should be arresting him. His authority is never challenged and he is held up as an embodiment of masculinity. He owns the streets and the nightsky. The message is clear: a strong man is the ideal man. A strong man is without bounds and his strength lies in his ability to dominate others. Even the good.
And what about Kratos from God of War? His entire story, boldly, is built on his quest for power. Here, godhood is the ultimate expression of masculinity. A man who is, literally, a descendant of the gods with the power to take even them to their end. Over the course of the series, Kratos is a destroyer and in the end of the series his character is offered as a sympathetic figure. A fragile man reaching for godhood, a rejected god reaching for manhood. Yet he spends all of the first game destroying gods for personal satisfaction. He murders his wife and child in his blind lust for power and suddenly, a man who’s spent his entire career destroying others is presented as deserving our compassion. Note that he had the power to murder them, as they are assumed as living under his stewardship, their existence resting on his benevolence. This isn’t different at all (minus the murder) from the way families in our own society are structured. Us men are expected to provide and protect within our homes and even expected to make all the important decisions. Kratos was such a man, wielding the fate of his family in his hands. The symbolism that connects man with paternalism with control is ultimately revealed when his humanity is manifested through his godhood, through his power; he’s revealed as the ultimate human being, a real man. Gods have power over everything and nothing exists except at their pleasure. This is Kratos and Kratos is a man.
These new, divine dimensions of character make him more worthy of redemption than before; men must be redeemable, a very common notion in our culture. He’s come to see the blood on his hands as a curse …and he yet continues to bludgeon every god until the world is destroyed and nothing is left. Not different at all from what many of us realize in our own lives, that we are not what we want to be, but what we’re expected to be. It hurts us. By the end of the series, Kratos is transformed from destroyer to redeemer, though. He’s even a better man. He’s ultimately the god who became a man. Where have we heard this before? Maybe we, as males, don’t like this imagery but we have personal experience with how and why these themes prevail. It’s what’s expected of us, it’s what we’re taught it means to be masculine and to be otherwise is to be emasculated. If we don’t dominate, we’re made to feel shamed, weak, and not a man at all.
In the end, we know Kratos’s whole story. He’s not just an abstract figure players don’t care about and he’s not just some power-hungry warrior with a great body. He’s complex. We know his personal struggles and what drives him. We know why he always wears a scowl and why he fights. It’s a struggle against himself. Every image of him exudes raw power. Even the sexy silhouettes of his figure are outlines of his strength. He lays Aphrodite, tames the goddess in her own sanctuary. The god-man Kratos. Was it his body she was attracted to as is the case with men and female imagery? No. In the end, Aphrodite is written up as a nymphomaniac, his superb physique insignificant for arousal; it’s the power he radiates that she lusts after, what makes him a real man. Literally, she offers Kratos information to progress, but only after begging him to stay for sex. She’s been waiting for a real man, she tells him, for so long …
Kratos is a real man.
Game designers believe that us males really identify with this sort of thing. They count on it. Kratos isn’t the only character to be built on power themes. The target audience is males and the expectation is that males like this, identify with it, want to be these characters; insensitive, a brute, domineering, someone who deserves that respect above all other creatures because we are the supreme creature and everything else trembles in our wake.
It’s important to not just examine the character, but their context. Male characters dominate their context, every door is made for them to enter, every other character is their foil. Take the games where the protagonist is presented as an Everyman. On first glance, he’s unimpressive. His biceps don’t bulge and his pecs don’t wink at you. He doesn’t possess bionic powers, mutant powers, super powers, or any powers. This guy barely knows how to do his laundry or make a sandwich. He is you. The average guy. We might ask who he’s designed to appeal to. Literally everyone. He’s expected to be a highly relatable character for guys, but also possess qualities that women (supposedly) also enjoy. I think this is possibly one of the most successful and better characters.
The important thing about the Everyman is that they’re defined by being merely a man. Merely. They’re just like you, with dreams and aspirations, and like you they think the situations they find themselves in are a little ridiculous. They’re simply human, head to toe, t-shirt to jeans. And white. And straight. At base, men are expected to be able to scale mountains while aiming a gun, save women from bad situations, and take down all that is evil. At base, this is what is expected of the Everyman. Guys wish we were this capable, but we’re not. It’s part of why this character fantasy is enjoyable. The question is: Why do we enjoy fantasies of being over-capable at things we’ve never even seen? Would an Everyman who enjoyed lipstick, pink pants, and who shrieked …but could still do all these amazing things, be something we admired? We all know the answer to that. These images of the Everyman aren’t as innocent as they seem, since they make huge assumptions about what a man should be like. While this is one of my favorite character types, it’s also probably just as problematic as Kratos.
Then there’s the cool dudes. These guys are cool, competent, and definitely designed to have a certain sex appeal. They actually represent a fair balance between sexy without crossing into sexualization …except perhaps the pirate above. That guy still puzzles me, but I think I’ve figured out why he’s so difficult to analyze.
The pirate’s sexuality is tightly intertwined with power themes, never superseding that theme. His costume says conquest; sword, pirate hat, and open coat revealing a sexy mid section provoke feelings of danger, pleasure, and promise. He’s sexy, but not sexualized. He doesn’t exist as an image of pure pleasure. His posture is the same as all the other males before him. All that’s changed is his attitude and attire. I believe the artist also wanted to appeal to a wider audience than straight white males.
Nathan Drake’s equivalent is Lara Croft. Their portrayals in art are quite different. There’s a culturally informed reason for that. What do you think that is?
I find that the most popular male imagery in video games are based on power themes. They aren’t posing, posturing, or acting with intent to seduce the audience with sex as is the case for the majority of females in art. They’re seducing the audience with their personalities and awing them with their power. The images almost never cross into the realm of sexualization. Characters who are male manage to be sexy while still maintaining their power and independence. Masculinity, in turn, is defined as being all-powerful and domineering and desirable, which in turn helps define the characteristics of images of others, most notably that which we see of women: weak, vulnerable, existing to please and wow by means of sexual promise. That’s the contrast, the visualization of masculinity and femininity.
Note that all the male imagery in this post are of straight white males, as well. They’re indisputably the most popular character in video games, so variety in male character development has clearly traced the boundary neatly around those criteria. This despite everyday evidence in our real lives that there are more kinds of people out there who play these games. A conscious decision. Artists and designers prefer this and that’s partly because they believe their audiences do as well. It’s culturally informed. It goes back to that expectation of what it means to “be a man” and to also to be “normal”.
This imagery helps reinforce whatever cultural stereotypes and values we’ve grown to know in our society. For women, this has meant sexualized images because the feminine is portrayed as weakness, good for seduction, titillation, and male excitement; the art is made for the male gaze and I know what that is because I been guilty of it (the fixation on tits and ass). Held against the male portrayals of power and competence, it should be at least a little easier to see the difference between sexualization and sexy (again, revisit the gallery above and compare to this).
It gets complicated after that. The images reinforce and we subconsciously come to perceive anyone who doesn’t possess these qualities as insignificant, even less human. Females are naturally not preferable to males; just look at the abundance of games where there’s not even a female in them and the abundance in which there’s only a couple. That doesn’t reflect reality, but it does reflect our cultural values. Men must dominate every context. Power themes are impossible to avoid in current video game imagery. Portrayals of anything other than white or straight is also disappointingly scarce as positive imagery.
The values our games extoll exist within a cultural context that reinforces positions of privilege for some and positions of inferiority for others. That’s the privilege for us guys, white guys, straight guys. Every character is made for us, every image made to appeal to us, and we get a lot of variety. We don’t have to want it or ask for it; what matters is that it is designed because these companies believe it’s what we want. Sure, it could be argued that because of these boundaries around character variety, it harms us too. But it’s not like people of color have many heroes in our video games (when they’re not made into every negative stereotype) and not like women who, much of the time, can *only* pick a male avatar, or like homosexuals are represented at all. This stuff is made for us. If we don’t like it, we need to scream a little louder to these companies that we want better than this, more than this.
And then I ask you: what would you request of these companies? What kinds of male characters would you ask for? Female? Other?
And that …is what we have to examine. That’s what’s on the table here, the new definition of maleness and femaleness. I think it’s just a matter of reproductive parts and not much else. Sure, biological make-up due to those parts gives us all unique qualities of personality, but it doesn’t define who’s best at making sandwiches, flying through the nightsky, or dethroning Zeus in video games. So why do we carry this stuff into our games? If we really don’t want this stuff, where’s the outcry?
If females are largely sexualized in games, then males are largely held up as the very definition of human. White, straight, and powerful.
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