Lara Croft and Gaming: Feminism in a Hyper-Masculine Industry

 

Lara Croft and Gaming: Feminism in a Hyper-Masculine Industry

Lydia McInnes
Published by the PIT Journal: 

Abstract: 

Gaming’s bravest (and bustiest) archaeologist crashed back onto the scene in 2013 after nearly five years since her last video game appearance. Ever since the beginning of her crypt-hunting career, tomb raider Lara Croft has been both a figure of female empowerment and an objectified sex symbol meant entirely for the male gaze. However problematic she may be, Lara is also an example of ideal female representation and how future gamers, designers, and programmers can start to change the traditionally male-dominated industry.

Article: 

Gaming’s bravest (and bustiest) archaeologist crashed back onto the scene in 2013 after nearly five years since her last video game appearance. Ever since the beginning of her crypt-hunting career, tomb raider Lara Croft has been both a figure of female empowerment and an objectified sex symbol meant entirely for the male gaze. However problematic she may be, Lara is also an example of ideal female representation and how future gamers, designers, and programmers can start to change the traditionally male-dominated industry.

A lot of problematic aspects of videogame culture can and should be addressed in order to facilitate female growth and empowerment. While many feminist scholars and academics believe the stereotypes and language surrounding today’s games are the most pressing issue facing female gamers and designers today, I will argue that it is actually the content of the games themselves that must be addressed first. Using Lara Croft as both a case study and an example in favor of changing gaming content before all else, I will prove that, despite the difficulties facing female gamers, designers, and programmers in today’s industry, change is possible. Not only is it possible, but it is necessary: to improve the reputation of industry giants whose games have disparaged women for years, to show the growing female demographic that their insight is appreciated and their influence is welcome, and to show industry leaders and traditional player demographics that video games don’t need to be misogynistic to be successful in the industry.

In order to discuss why the content of video games should be the first problematic aspect of the gaming industry to be changed – and how Lara Croft can be a herald for the impending revolution – we must first discuss what other scholars believe needs to change. On one hand, Tracey Lien of the news blog Polygon suggests stylized marketing practices used to sell videogames to young boys are the first aspect that should be addressed as they often harness damaging stereotypes and perpetuate an advertising culture that does not consider female participation in the industry. On the other hand, Edge Hill University Psychology professors Linda Kaye and Charlotte Pennington believe addressing the gender stereotypes inherent in the player populations should be the first priority of feminists. Others, like Anastasia Salter and Bridgett Blodgett of the University of Baltimore, maintain that it is not the stereotypes but the language of gaming conversations that most urgently deserves attention, as this hyper-masculine rhetoric used by traditional male gamers fosters sexism in the industry and creates some of the harmful stereotypes mentioned by Kaye and Pennington in their study and Lien in hers.

In her article “No Girls Allowed,” Tracey Lien of Vox Media’s news blog Polygon argues that in conducting surveys of early player demographics, marketers created a “chicken and egg” scenario in which advertisers catered towards the large male player demographic, reducing the number of female players, perpetuating the industry stereotype, and allowing for increasingly skewed survey results (Lien par. 67). Lien also points out that, “although girls have always played video games . . . they were never in the majority,” and so marketers ignored them in their quest to find a “safe and reliable” market (67). Although Lien does not say so directly, one can assume from her description of the advertising market that the same practices that created gendered stereotypes can also potentially be used to reverse them. In fact, this process is already underway with the release of Lara’s 2013 reboot, something I will go into further detail later in this paper.

Focusing on digital gaming stereotypes rather than marketing tactics, Linda Kaye and Charlotte Pennington of the Department of Psychology at Edge Hill University in the UK conducted a study to determine if mentioning potentially harmful social stereotypes about a person’s social identity played a role in affecting female gamers’ performance and their attitudes toward their own gamer identities. They found that, when presented with the negative stereotype that female gamers are naturally less competent players than males, females often perform worse than their male counterparts. Kaye and Pennington believe that reforms should address these stereotypes first because of their harmful effects on the confidence and social identity of a female player, and because they allow male players to further perpetuate additional stereotypes regarding women in the gaming industry. Although they admit that ingrained cultural attitudes are not easily changed, they advocate exploration of “strategies to reduce the potentially harmful effects of such stigmatization” (Kaye and Pennington 206) in order to facilitate female confidence and demographic growth.

Rather than focusing on different stereotypes and their harmful effects on females in the gaming industry, Anastasia Salter and Bridget Blodgett argue that the general narrative of video game discussions – a narrative used in conversations about video games and in the overall story framing used to discuss controversial issues like sexism in gaming – is the most pressing issue for feminists in the industry. In a study of the “Dickwolves” case presented by online gaming comic and blog commentary Penny Arcade, Salter and Blodgett, authors of “Hypermasculinity and Dickwolves: The Contentious Role of Women in the New Gaming Public,” suggest that the language of the gaming rhetoric and the overall framing of the ensuing discussion and controversy are the two aspects of gaming that deserve urgent consideration when discussing issues that must be changed in gaming’s misogynistic culture.

Critiquing a 2010 controversy about a gaming blog, Penny Arcade, and a controversial comic released by the Penny Arcade website, Salter and Blodgett assess the creators’ language and deplore their use of the word “rape” in the online comic. Because of the nature of the comic’s content and the creators’ unapologetic and even mocking reaction to feminist outcry, Salter and Blodgett argue that the language of gaming culture is enabling such disgusting hyper-masculine content and stereotypes (401). This rhetoric incorporates sexual assault and misogynistic violence into the vocabulary with careless disregard for potential audiences, including those disturbed by the casual use of graphic language and sexual assault survivors. By ignoring trigger warnings intended to alert readers in the event of sexual content, and even making fun of them, the creators and perpetrators of gaming’s hyper masculine language are invalidating the people who speak out against their crude commentary. However, it can be argued that in the same way early marketing surveys created the chicken and egg scenario from Lien’s article, the language and hyper-masculine content of video games further perpetuated their use in gaming culture.

Although all three studies make excellent points about the inherent misogyny of mainstream game culture and the industry itself, the problems they describe are all based upon one thing: the content of the games. Without content, there can be no advertising, no derisive stereotypes between male and female players, and no harmful rhetoric. Although the cause and philosophical root of misogynistic game content is still up for debate, the fact of the matter is that it is present and pervasive in today’s gaming culture and without it, the argument that video games are a “boy thing” does not have much of a leg to stand on.

Shifting away from the arguments of these scholars and into a deeper realm of debate, I will prove that game content is the key to changing the gaming industry and facilitating the growth and inclusion of a new female demographic. Through Lara Croft, as featured in her 2013 reboot by game developer Crystal Dynamics (a division of the Japanese company Square Enix), I will argue that it is the content of video games that must be changed before other problematic aspects of gaming culture can be addressed. My own viewpoint is not so much an opposition to the scholarly sources I have described above; rather, it is a conglomeration of all three views. The difference is that I am arguing that changing the content of videogames can potentially address all the problems these scholars identify, including the advertising tactics, the presence of stereotype threat, and the use of misogynistic language and rhetoric. I also believe that these aspects have already been addressed in part by Lara Croft and her new game, and that recognition of the game and its efforts are part of facilitating change in the industry. Although none of my scholars mention game content as a potential avenue for change in the industry, I am not alone in recognizing the potential game content, specifically that of Lara Croft, has in changing the industry.

Writing on the emergence of Croft’s new character in the 2013 reboot Todd Martens of the Los Angeles Times’ pop culture blog Hero Complex, compares her new character and new writer to the likes of The Hunger Games’ Katniss and Brave’s Merida (Martens, par. 4). In discussing her overall fiscal and cultural success, Martens argues that Croft’s success is a pleasant outlier, but one that, despite the incredible fan devotion and new lease on life the Crystal Dynamics reboot has given her, has not yet revolutionized the gaming world, as it continues to be dominated by “military men (Call of Duty: Black Ops II), sci-fi men (Halo 4), [and] stealthy historical men (Assassins Creed III)” (Martens, 4). However, Martens recognizes the game’s capacity. He describes the reboot and its new writer, Rhianna Pratchett, as “unintentionally subversive” with the game having the possibility to become a “genre-defining” blockbuster (Martens, 4 and 24). But that’s not all it can be.

Lara Croft has the potential to be everything the game industry should be. In fighting against an island full of scruffy, creepy white males in the 2013 reboot, Lara Croft has redefined what it means to be a girl in the gaming industry, not just for players and gamers, but for potential designers and programmers as well. The revolutionary content of her game can also serve as an example for future games with the inclusion of content that redefines the way women are portrayed in the industry.

In designing Lara without the large chest and tight shorts that made her famous in the ‘90s, Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics designers separated their new character from the sexual depictions (and unsavory connotations) of the original. Of course, this separation is not nearly as finite, as it is hard to separate any old character from existing connotations, perceptions, and definitions. In the case of Lara Croft, it is hard for designers to separate their new character from the sensual pistol-wielding sex symbol she was in the early ‘90s; however, the new Lara Croft is less busty, less provocative, and inherently less sexy than before, eliminating the possibility of using half the advertising stereotypes and practices that would have been used to sell the game less than a decade before (demeaning tactics such as enlarged cleavage, visual player gratification, and sexual innuendos through character representation). From Lien’s “chicken and egg” description of advertising markets, we can assume that marketing advertisements and campaigns of the new Lara Croft game can potentially have the same impact on the gaming industry as they did for boys in the early 1990s (Lien par 67). Girls who watch the trailer for the Lara Croft games will want to play her and want to be her in the same way that boys often want to be their male protagonists, such as Master Chief in the Halo game series and Ezio Auditore from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Furthermore, without the stereotypical marketing tactics used to sell Lara in previous iterations of her game, advertisers are forced to turn to other avenues of advertising, including ones that celebrate Lara’s tough femininity without demeaning her kick-butt character. By harnessing targeted tactics and other marketing strategies used by early advertisers as described by Lien, the marketing team behind Lara Croft’s 2013 reboot set an example for future advertisers and game creators to follow in order to shift their marketing focus away from a male demographic toward a broader, more equalized advertising audience while potentially having the same effect on player populations.

Lara Croft’s designers also reduced the potential for stereotype manipulation among players, as defined in Kaye and Pennington’s study. In games with a male protagonist (i.e. most games available on the market today), there is an inherent disconnect between a female gamer and the male character she controls. By providing a female character for women to identify with and control, Square Enix designers are connecting the female player to the controllable character while providing a positive social identity that negates any potential negative effects that negative female stereotypes may have on the player’s ability.

Lastly, the problematic rhetoric used in discussions of videogames, as identified by Salter and Blodgett, is also addressed through the content of the Lara Croft game. When the controllable character is female, misogynistic language becomes harder to incorporate in discussions of videogames because it is the female character completing the actions, risking life and limb for impossible odds, and firing hundreds of rounds per minute at her enemies. In performing the same actions as her male counterparts in Assassin’s Creed III and Halo 4, Lara Croft is creating a mirror on which anything men may say is reflected onto their own male characters. For example, if an argument is made against the likelihood of Lara completing a death-defying jump with a pistol, a bow and arrow, and a machine gun strapped to her back, that same argument can be made against a male character completing the same action. This mirror effect reduces sexist language that furthers gendered stereotypes and may make misogynists think twice before attacking the content, plausibility, and/or storyline of the 2013 reboot.

Women have as much right to play and design video games as boys do. The fact that boys have been the main demographic targeted by game marketers and designers since the ‘90s is not something that can be changed after the fact, but it is something women can stand up against and act upon right now.  Lien, Kaye and Pennington, and Salter and Blodgett have all identified problematic aspects of gaming culture in their studies, however, my own belief is that it is the content of the games themselves that must change in order to facilitate female growth and empowerment in the industry. Lara Croft, archaeological tomb-raider and (formerly) busty beauty, is a prime example of how game content can be changed in order to address problematic aspects of the industry and of a strategy by which future female gamers, designers, and programmers can create game content to stand up to misogyny.

 

Works Cited

Frevele, Jamie. “New Round of Gaming Statistics: Gaming Audience Getting Older, Slightly More Female.” The Mary Sue. Dan Abrams, 8 June 2011. n. pag. Web. 01 Apr. 2016.

Kaye, Linda K., and Charlotte R. Pennington. ““Girls Can’t Play: The Effects Of Stereotype Threat On Females’ Gaming Performance.” Computers in Human Behavior 59. (2016): 202-209. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

Lien, Tracey. “No Girls Allowed: Unraveling the Story Behind the Stereotype of Video Games Being For boys” Polygon (2013): n. pag. Web. 20 January 2016.

Martens, Todd. “‘Tomb Raider’: Lara Croft Now Battling Video Game Stereotypes.” Hero Complex. Los Angeles Times, 28 Feb. 2013. n. pag. Web. 5 Apr. 2016.


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