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Gaming and the portrayal of desire

May 28, 2010

I finished Assassin’s Creed back in April and I’m now about halfway through AC2, and hot damn. It’s a mystery how Desmond turned out so average-looking when he’s apparently descended from a long line of lithe, tanned, smouldering beauties.* In fact, I think this is a point that requires illustration. (Spoiler-free; I put the jump rather early because otherwise the formatting will screw up, I know it, and it took me ages to get right in the first place.)

Image and character (c) Ubisoft.

Altaïr stands side-on to camera, facing left. He wears a hooded white robe, partly armoured over the top, with thick leather bracers on his arms. A blade protrudes over the back of his left hand. The part of his face visible under the hood is dark-skinned and sharp-featured.

These pictures indicate a key point about the portrayals of both Altaïr and Ezio: you can’t actually see very much of them. The layers of robes and armour conceal everything but the most general idea of body shape (quite tall, broad shoulders, athletic build, in both cases) and the hoods conceal their faces. In-game, you see Ezio without a hood only very occasionally, and Altaïr never.

This is plot-reasonable, of course – they’re both professional killers, and being physically recognisable is not exactly a good idea in that line of work. But I think in this case that’s a plot-relevant reason that happens to fall in line with the general inclinations of the game, which is that male characters’ looks simply aren’t that important.

The easiest way to appreciate the gendered element in all this is to look at its opposite. Well, let’s. Rubi from WET is also a professional assassin on a mission to get revenge on the people who murdered her loved ones; in essentials, it’s a pretty similar character build to Ezio.

Image and character (c) Ubisoft.

Ezio is an athletic young man in a hooded, knee-length white tunic, over which he wears armoured shoulder- and chest-pieces, and a wide red belt with a metal clasp. A red cape is over his left shoulder, and he has retractable blades displayed in both hands. His face under the hood is tanned and serious.

Now the world of Wet is absolutely crawling with people who want Rubi dead, and yet she doesn’t cover her face. Nor does she cover her midriff. I guess there’s less chance of someone recognizing that, but all flippancy aside, the difference between the dress of the male and female assassins here is too great to be explained away by historical concerns. (There’s also the not insignificant point that Rubi’s costume makes no goddamn sense. Last time I checked, a tank top, leather jacket and skinny jeans were not the best options for surviving a hail of machine-gun fire.)

In fact the only female protagonist I can think of who’s covered up to a degree comparable with either Ezio or Altaïr (and I’m fully aware that my reference pool isn’t too great here; would welcome other suggestions) is Samus Aran of Metroid, and in that case the whole point is to set up the eventual revelation that Samus Is A Girl. The TVTropes page for SIAG outlines what usually happens when a female character in a book, or game, or TV show (etc.) is introduced in this fashion:

Oftentimes, Alice will only wear the form-concealing outfit during her introduction. Afterwards, it may end up getting lost or destroyed, and thereafter she wears something a little less ambiguous. Sometimes, she just stops on her own.

It’s pretty much default that once a female character is adequately established as female, out goes the armour or the robes or whatever. Guys? Not so much. In fact, barely at all. I’m less interested here in what this says about cultural perceptions of female value than in what it says about the value of men.

It’s a reasonably common catchphrase in the feminist blogosphere that TPHMT, The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too, because really, that sort of constricting and oppressive structure fucks up everybody it touches. The flipside of women being assumed incapable of rational thought is men being assumed incapable of any emotions other than anger and triumph; the flipside of women being assumed incapable of wanting sex rather than romance is men being assumed incapable of wanting romance rather than sex. And so on.

The particular application of this point here is this: the traditional setup for talking about sexual attraction here is man = desiring, woman = desired. I dare say there are segments of the gamer community who would be deeply discomfited by the knowledge that there are female** gamers out there who would totally go for a roll in the magical damage-reducing hay with their awesome! manly! heroes! but whatever. Because, you know, women have sexualities and sexual desires too. (In other news, Queen Anne is dead.)

Shitty as it is for women’s desires to be shamed or erased, it is also shitty for men to be told that they are inherently undesirable merely by virtue of their sex. Because while sexual attention from every random creep who feels like it is approximately seven million kinds of bad, affirmations of desire from someone you want to be desired by are fucking wonderful. (The difference is permission and consent, boys.) That’s what the popular narrative denies the men in this situation: the idea that yes, their sexual partners might actually want and desire them, rather than just their stuff.

The two facets of this idea – that women must by their nature be desirable, and men by their nature cannot be – inform the contrasting depictions in games as well as in other media. Female characters’ looks are emphasised and/or exaggerated to the point of utter ridiculousness, while male characters’ looks are sidelined on the assumption that nobody is looking at them.

Now as it happens, both Altaïr and Ezio do come off as rather physically attractive. It’s all in the way they move. (You’ve got to wonder what a guy that athletic would be like in, um, other situations.) But their athleticism is game-necessary, what with Assassin’s Creed being built around agility and speed rather than brute force, and I’d bet that in this, as in the costume department, attractiveness is only a side-effect of plot considerations.

Quite apart from the physical side of things, though, they’re both good men. That’s a huge part of it. Being smart, being articulate, being competent, being respectful, being awesome? Sexy as hell. Yahtzee varies in how much he seems to Get It any particular week (Sims 3 review: probably-break-up-induced misogynist rubbish; WET/Bayonetta reviews: pretty perceptive) but his recent comments about male protagonists are absolutely spot-on. He divides male game leads into the ‘macho’ and the ‘manly’, and characterises them as follows:

There’s a significant difference between being manly, an awesome masculine badass who we can respect and admire; and being macho, a muscular, insecure tosspot with no social skills. This is a distinction that more games need to realize.

And goes on to list various ways in which you can tell them apart: practicality of equipment, emotional range, etc. The bit that particularly intrigued me, however, was the part about how games with manly/macho protagonists deal with their characters’ interactions with other characters.

The manly man respects his fellow human beings. While physically capable, the manly man understands that one’s worth can’t be measured in combat skill alone. He has the greatest respect for scholars and technical experts who have mastered necessary skills that he himself lacks. He is patient with children, and respectful of the opposite sex. […]

The macho man feels that anyone who can’t knife-fight their way out of a giant kraken’s embrace probably deserves to die, and when technical skills are required, will put the nearest appropriate boffin in an armlock like an overgrown school bully and force him or her to do the work. The macho character thinks girls are icky and avoids them where possible out of fear of cooties, or out of fear that her grotesque Emmeline Pankhursts will somehow suck in and consume his masculinity.

(I’m not entirely sure what he’s using ‘Emmeline Pankhursts’ as a euphemism for here, but eh, the general meaning is clear.)

Having observed this distinction, Yahtzee doesn’t take it any further. But it makes an excellent place from which to construct my next point: the position that he takes, identifying the ‘awesome masculine badass we can respect and admire’ as a better thing to be, is a feminist position, even if neither Yahtzee himself nor the games companies he’s talking about specifically envisioned it as such.

A commenter at Pandagon (#119) summed it up pretty well:

[Feminists] think that men can be competent parents, have self-control over their emotions, have meaningful relationships with both men and women, respect women as humans, look sexually attractive, provide sexual pleasure to partners, and even perform domestic chores adequately.

Therefore, apparently, we hate men. But anyway.

That, far more than the physical, is why it’s not too difficult for me to be attracted to male protagonists in all media – ironically, because few of their creators are trying to make them attractive, but they are trying to make an audience ‘respect and admire’ them. And surprise, surprise, respect and admiration tip over into desire rather easily if the object of your respect and admiration is of a sex to which you are attracted. In fact, I’d say that mutual respect and admiration are pretty much the foundations for a successful relationship.

I won’t lie; I wouldn’t mind seeing more male protagonists with their shirts off. But I don’t want equality just to take the form of shallow, crappy objectification for all sexes; it’d be a much better step if game writers all writers more people clocked that so, so much of attractiveness is founded in being admirable and respect-able, whether that attraction lasts one night or thirty years.


* Points to Ubisoft, though, for making a character descended from Syrians and Italians actually have black hair, dark eyes and brown(ish) skin. Maybe I’m a cynic, but it’s too easy to envision a games company going “Well yeah, our hero has to be descended from brown people because plot, but he’s still white.”

** And male, undoubtedly – hell, other male characters seem distinctly appreciative of Ezio’s assets in AC2, let alone the players – but gay guys’ ability to have sexual desires is at least understood, because they’re men.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2010 3:43 pm

    Very interesting post – will have to reread it when I get home, since I’ll want to do it full justice.

    Slightly tangential, but still related (I think): I watched one of the Animatrix shorts yesterday – The Final Flight of the Osiris – and while it doesn’t work well as anything other than a technical showpiece, it’s interesting how the beginning, a virtual sparring fight/flirt/foreplay between a black man and Asian woman is very much done as an equal-opportunities oglefest. Both characters are depicted in various states of undress and are clearly intended to be eye candy. Both are sexualised and sexualise one another, in a way that I find is pretty unusual and interesting, at least in mainstream entertainment. (I guess that gender in The Matrix might be pretty interesting anyway. Shame that the movies get so aggressively dull…)

    Anyway, the animated short can be watched here:

    P.S.: Of course the woman in Final Flight still is the only one who gets a gratuitous bum shot…

  2. wickedday permalink
    May 31, 2010 8:44 pm

    Interesting comparison. I agree that the sexualisation seems to be going both ways – both of them sneak a look at different points – but as you say, only the woman gets shots that linger on her body, and once the dude loses his trousers the camera only shows him from the waist down until that one long shot at the end; nothing like the attention being paid to the woman’s legs, for instance.

    I think it’s also tricky to take race out of the equation when considering that video. For me, one of the better things about the world of The Matrix was that the inhabitants of Zion were multicoloured, as you might expect from a small, randomly chosen population who have presumably been happily miscegenating for several generations.

    I imagine that the choice of a black man and Asian woman as characters for this short came off the back of that (laudable) drive for diversity. But it really doesn’t help that for this highly-sexualised effort they happened to pick two classes of people – black men and Asian women – about whom specifically sexual stereotypes already exist, and are widespread.

    Would it have been better with, say, an Asian man and a Black woman? No idea. Perhaps not. But I think there’s a fair few unfortunate implications hanging around as is.

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