Post-GDC 2014 Week: Post-mortem for “Fewer Tifas, or More Sephiroths? Male Sexualization in Games”

To wrap up my week of info and background on my talk on male sexualization in video games,  I thought I’d give my thoughts on the talk and topic; why I did it, what went well, what didn’t work, and what the next steps might be. Then I swear, I’ll shut up about it… at least, until it goes live on the Vault, or until I think of something I forgot to say, or… okay, maybe I won’t shut up about it, but I will at least try to restrain myself!

What inspired the talk?

“Comedy” answers: my libido, my Sephiroth obsession, and my urge to see how many hot men I can cram into a slideshow while still making it thought-provoking.

“Actual” answer: Attractive men in games have been a personal and “professional” interest of mine ever since I was a teenager. Of course, I’d been gaming long before that, and I’d been interested in a Certain Kind of Man ever since I saw David Bowie in Labyrinth, but it wasn’t really until I played Final Fantasy VII that I saw the two combined in any meaningful way. The results… well, go see the talk or the slides, but I discuss at some length both how, ah, impressive you-know-who was, and also how it helped combat the pervading cultural message that “women don’t game.” After all, if that were true, why all the angsty backstory and bondage leather? It sure seemed like someone out there figured there may be a few starry-eyed young women playing… may as well be one of them!

I’d argue there was a short “golden period” of hot male characters during the PSX and PS2 era… at least, if you liked bishonen and Squaresoft-style JRPGs! As a large section of the market was then dominated by Japanese-developed games, it makes sense that their aesthetic would be well represented at that time. But as Western-developed games got more and more popular, the pool of explicitly attractive men got… less and less. Like, WAY less. And yes, stubble and muscles can certainly be sexy, but that wasn’t what was going on at all; none of it was presented with the idea of attracting desire. With the shining exception of BioWare, very few companies seemed to give a damn about how their straight female fanbase (or gay male, bisexual, etc) might respond to the male characters they were creating. And while I certainly didn’t NEED attractive guys in my games… I noticed the lack. And I was Not Pleased. If nothing else, it felt like we’d lost ground, like we’d forgotten that there were straight women and gay men etc playing and that THEY had desires too. More frustrating still was the evidence that other forms of geeky media were FINALLY getting it – my reaction to Thor was about on par with my reaction to Sephiroth, down to the sense of inclusion – and we were still lagging behind.

Fastforward to last year, at GDC 2013, where I was at the Local Edition bar discussing the topic of female sexualization and objectification with Tom Abernathy, member of the Game Narrative Summit board and all around amazing individual. In hindsight, I may have been drunk, despite not drinking anything stronger than a Shirley Temple.

ME: “You know, female objectification and sexualization is a really important topic, and it needs to be discussed, but why is it no one ever talks about attractive men in games? I WANT to see more attractive, sexualized men in games… I have desires too, you know!” (*strong, defiant thump of table*)

TOM: “Yeah, people don’t really talk about it much.”

ME: “If someone did a GDC talk on that, I’d totally go to it.”

TOM: “…YOU should do it.”

ME: “Ha ha ha… no way.”

TOM: “I’m serious. It’s a fresh perspective.”

I still thought he was having me on, but the idea germinated, and when application time came around and Tom was still encouraging, I thought, why not? I’ll probably be rejected, but at least I can say I tried.

Then I got accepted. Cue shrieking panic, research on gaze theory and Asian culture, googling images of hot men in games, lots of amazing help and reassurance from Tom… and one 25 minute presentation on sexualizing male characters in video games.

What worked?

According to most people I talked to, almost everything!

I need to thank the audience as a whole for being so wonderfully engaged with my talk and, well, for laughing so much! I expected a few snickers or polite applause at various points, but once the atomic ovaries appeared, I had to stop to let the hysterics die down.  If nothing else, I’m thankful to everyone for making me feel like less of an idiot while I was up there.

I was amazed and humbled by just how positive the response was from the whole spectrum of the game dev community. While the talk was mostly attended by writers and narrative designers, I lost track of how many artists, programmers, and audio engineers who came up to me afterwards. I had straight women, gay men, and people of various genders and sexualities thanking me for acknowledging their tastes and desires (varied though they be!) and calling for more satisfaction of those desires. I was also happy to see so many straight male developers express excitement and interest in the subject, saying that it was something they hadn’t thought about before but wanted to incorporate now, to challenge themselves to move beyond male gaze.  I can’t wait to see what comes out of it all.

What really surprised me was how much attention I seem to have garnered from Japanese developers and media. One of the first articles about the talk was from a Japanese website. I was at the IGDA Japan party and bumped into several people who said, “Oh, wait, YOU’RE the one who gave that talk? Everyone in Japan is tweeting about it! Even fujoshi are talking about you!” Does this mean I now get to say, “I’m kinda big in Japan?”

One thing I was super pleased to note was that the point I made about differentiating sexualization and objectification seemed to hit home. That was one of my biggest fears of this talk, that it would sound like I was dismissing real concerns about female objectification while simultaneously demanding GIVE ME HOT MANFLESH FOR MY CONSUMPTION! (or, conversely, “You can’t have your boobs and bikinis, they’re BAD! Now give me lots of shirtless men!”) Objectification IS a problem and needs to be addressed, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a discussion about sex-positive sexualization, particularly for audiences not currently being served by the dominant model. The reason I held up BioWare and Square Enix in such high esteem is because they’re really good blueprints on HOW to do that. They both present people who have compelling personalities, backstories, and goals… and also happen to be incredibly hot (and indeed, their personhood adds to the hotness). Untangling the knots of sexiness, sexualization, and objectification in our industry is going to be tough and there’s no one right answer, but I think the distinction I noted is going to be a really handy one to keep in mind going forward. In other words, it’s okay to appeal to players’ sexual desires through idealization and sexiness… just make sure a) there’s more to the characters than that, b) not EVERY character is a fantasy ideal, and c) remember that desire is diverse and awesome and that there’s more than just boobs and butts to consider.

What didn’t work?

You mean besides the localized time distortion that made a 25 minute talk suddenly take ten minutes longer?

Yes, I fell prey to the dreaded timer and was unable to finish the end of my talk properly. This was incredibly frustrating as the very end of the talk had what was intended to be the most “useful” aspect: an itemized list of “how” to write hot men, such as character traits and scenarios. Tom Abernathy and I had both agreed that that needed to be the meat of the talk and tried to speed up the earlier sections to compensate… but all that apparently went flying out the window when I was up there, and I ended up talking a bit too much about male gaze and bishonen and not enough about what to actually DO with all this newfound knowledge. If you were frustrated by the sudden rapid slideshow at the end rushing through stuff like beauty, confidence, etc, please check out my notes and early drafts to see what I was originally trying to get at.

I also wish I could have expanded a little bit more on the topic of bishonen and male presentation in East Asian games. Firstly, I’d have loved to share more of the history and background, but maybe that’s for another talk! Secondly, and more importantly, I would have clarified that though I adore bishonen and JRPGs and the anime aesthetic and would love to see more of them, that doesn’t mean that they are the OMG IDEAL PERFECT GOAL; they definitely have their flaws like anything else. For one, there’s still LOTS of female objectification going on, and for another, sometimes bishonen characters can be formulaic and stale as well, just like any other common character type. The point was not, “Japan/Korea/China does this perfectly, just do what they do.” Rather, it’s, “Look at how differently they do it, for better or worse; what can we learn from this? What can we use to reach out to these audiences like they do, and how do we do it well or better?”

Lastly, while I was really happy with how much laughter the presentation got, I do worry that it may have come over that I thought male attractiveness or desire for men was somehow silly or worthy of ridicule and joking. It’s not! It is a genuinely important and serious topic. I’m just an inherently silly person who likes to make jokes in general, but I didn’t think about how that may reflect on the subject. To be honest, I don’t think I would necessarily remove the humor – it’s me being myself, and part of a successful talk is owning that – but if I could do it again, I might have had a more serious “real talk” conclusion where I dropped the jokes and spoke honestly about how important it is to some people.

What’s next?

This is a topic near and dear to my heart, so I’m not exactly planning to drop the whole thing now I’ve gotten up on stage for 25 minutes… though to be fair, I may be taking a break for a while to answer all these emails! In terms of the talk itself, I’m going to see what I can do about making the video available for free at the GDC Vault. Failing that, I’ll likely do a YouTube slide show or something to share on my website so non-subscribers can see it (and attendees can see the original, non-rushed version).

I’d love to do the speech (or variations) on it at venues other than GDC, both for game developers and for the gaming community as a whole. I had a few nibbles from other conferences, and I may end up submitting to some West coast cons like GeekGirlCon or PAX Prime, but nothing definite yet. I’d also love to do follow-up talks for GDC 2015, and that’s something YOU can help me with; is there anything about the topic you’d like to hear more on, or possibly some related topics? At the moment I’m dithering between a closer examination of bishonen and other Japanese character archetypes and a more holistic examination of sexualization and sex-positivity… but if I can come up with more excuses to gush about hot men in games, I’ll take that too!

Speaking of which, I’m hoping to talk more at length and detail about male sexualization in games and geek culture, looking at individual examples, scenes, larger cultural trends, and so on. To that end, sometime within the next month, I will be launching a new blog on the topic called 8-Bit Beefcake. It’ll be one part critical analysis and one part fangirlish squee, accompanied by a Tumblr that skews more towards the squee (e.g. sharing fanart of male video game characters). I’ve got lots of topics to discuss, so I’m looking forward to it. Everything is under construction at the moment, but I’ll be sure to announce it on Twitter and on this site when it’s ready to go.

But what about the larger question of where we go next… as in, now we “know” that all these people like attractive men and respond well to it, what do we do with it? I think that’s something that we’ll all have to figure out for ourselves, but my hope is that the people who enjoyed my talk will pause and think a little bit harder the next time they’re coming up with a male character. That’s not to say I want every single male character in the universe to be a pretty bishonen – heck, I don’t even want every single male character to be attractive! – but even if a few devs just stop and say, “Hey, could we make this guy, you know… appealing?” we might be able to move towards a more diverse, sex-positive environment, one where we all have something that moves us sexually and/or emotionally and we don’t have to feel ashamed or excluded.

So yeah, if you’re a game developer, take that half-a-second to stop and think about this. It’s a very small thing… and yet, it really, really isn’t.


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