Saturday, November 30, 2013

Male Objectification

It's difficult to talk about the objectification of men in media, especially in gaming. This is not because of denial of its existence by presumed feminazis. Rather, it is because of the overeagerness of certain groups in attempting to suggest that all instances of attractive men are objectification - an argument clearly intended to suggest that the objectification of women is not itself a problem. The goal of such groups is to reinforce the status quo, rather than to actually challenge the way men and women are presented in media. This presents a dilemma for anyone who intends to talk about the actual nature of objectified men, as the spark of discussion becomes the roaring flame of "men are the real victims", overshadowing any attempts at real analysis.
what will make my cause seem legitimate, i know, slurs used against homosexual men
Firstly, though, we need to understand what the concept of objectification actually entails. Objectification is an authorial process that presents a character as essentially lacking any agency or believability, usually for the sake of personal or audience gratification. Zooming out, a character's physique and personality can be entirely tailored such that it comes off as wholesale personal gratification on the author's part. It is not traits or features that are objectifying, but rather the reasons for their selection or inclusion. A character being large-breasted is not objectifying; a character being reduced to "large breasts" as their primary character trait is. A woman being attractive is not objectifying; a refusal to include or depict non-attractive woman is. It is entirely about the relationship between the author and the character.

Since many authors, especially in the world of game development, are straight and male, it's obvious that most instances of objectification are done by male designers with female characters. With that said, it's not impossible for men to be objectified - it's just done far more rarely. People who don't quite understand what objectification means tend to look at attractive men in games and go "yes, that's what objectification is". People compare Conan the Barbarian with Red Sonja - after all, they're both scantily clad. But of course the difference comes down to context and intent, not just "what they're wearing", which makes it a partially subjective and therefore strenuous issue.

But what about the men, though? Surely in all of gaming it's impossible to think that there are no examples of men being victimized, dehumanized, or sexualized. This is true. Male objectification does exist. But it's a little more complicated than certain groups would like it to be. So let's get started.

Men Dying En Masse, Screaming And Gurgling, With Blood Issuing From Their Mouths;
or, Who Will Weep For The Veterans Of Simulated Wars

Games love murder. Damn, do they love murder. Murder is fuckin' fun as shit. Games love fucking killing the shit out of human beings. God damn. And who gets murdered? Most of the time, it's men. Oh, sure, sometimes it's women, but women generally get murdered "specifically" - that is, as characters with actual backstories, for specific reasons. Men get murdered en masse. Men get shot and stabbed and pureed and sliced and diced and burned and frozen without so much as a whiff of regret or a last dying quote. We accept this because, shit, we have to kill somebody, might as well kill the sex we think is capable of fighting back.

And that's it. That's the reason. From a gender standpoint, men are strong aggressors, women are weak and incapable. The same logic that prevents many gamers from accepting female protagonists in action games also affects their view of men in a negative way. The expectation that men are stronger and less emotional is great - that is, if you're coming from a culture that values stoic strength. On the other hand, if you have moral qualms with the expectation that men need to bleed and die for their country, that a real man needs to be a killer, that death is the business of men and they have no right to complain about it...well, it gets fucked, doesn't it?

Masculinity hurts men. More than anything women will ever do, masculinity is what hurts men. Masculinity creates damaging stereotypes and enforces harmful expectations of what men should do. Men can't cry. Men can't run. Cowardice is wrong. Weakness is wrong. Men fight. Fighting is cool. Killing is cool. Killing men is cool, because the men you beat are either weak or cowards, and those things are wrong. Don't be a pussy. Don't be a faggot. Get strong. Get powerful. Kill or be killed; if you're killed, you're wrong. Be the best. Every moment you're not the best, you're losing. EVERY MOMENT. BE THE BEST.

We love killing in games, don't we. We love winning. We love the thrill of superiority, and thanks to protagonist-centric action games, we don't really have to worry much about the agony of losing. We don't have male characters worrying about being brutally killed or torn apart. We have stoic badasses - even survival horror gets characters like Leon Kennedy and Isaac Clarke, not poor whimpering manbabies who would basically deserve to horribly die, am I right? Yeah. Fuckin' badass. Oorah.

Three things fix this. First, we accept women in action roles, both as protagonists and antagonists. Allowing women to join men on the front lines of video game murder eases the burden of war-murder by making it so that the horrendous acts of death are not limited to the male sphere. Second, we accept men in non-action roles; games can be about all sorts of things, not just things where aggressive and assertive characters need to be the protagonists. Third, we stop accepting games where we casually kill people by the truckload. I mean, if you care about not objectifying people, it's pretty obvious that "turning people into gratification-corpses" is one of the most severe types of objectification there is. So let's stop doing that, right? It's fucking creepy.

The Automaton Cannot Love You Back, No Matter What It Is Programmed To Say;
or, Press X To Elicit The Feels

This is going to be a short section because I don't think the concepts are particularly advanced. Dating sims are traditionally designed for both men and women - for every Tokimeki Memorial there is an Angelique Trois, for every Ashley there is a Kaidan, for every Morrigan an Alistair. Dating sims are bad at depicting relationships, and it's for relatively simple reasons: they don't exactly go out of their way to try to depict realistic human behavior or simulate any sort of agency. In games like Mass Effect you can basically say whatever you want to a person and still end up sleeping with them, because otherwise the game's not fun. Both sexes in dating sims end up as automatons, existing solely to dispense sex once enough coins are put into the machine. They're shallow representations of humanity given only enough character to provide emotional gratification when fake-sex is achieved.

Of course, a notable contextual aspect is that men and women are treated differently with regards to promiscuity. A man casually picking up a woman for sex is accepted, whereas the inverse is less so. A man is expected to take the lead in a relationship, while a woman is expected to be the lesser part of the relationship. Terms like "who wears the pants", which are still used in the Year of our Lord 2013, suggest that the gender concepts of superiority/inferiority still hold traction. Male characters are not shamed for having sex, while female characters implicitly - if not overtly - are. While the situation is "equal", that doesn't magically make the results equal.

The solution to this is to stop having dating sims or romantic relationships shoved into games that don't do them well. Stop including characters like Alyx Vance, who fall in love with mute murder-machines. Stop including simplistic dialogue trees that serve to offer no real choice or options of failure. We make characters emulations of human beings to elicit emotional reaction, but part of that has to include the illusion of agency or else you might as well just be having sex with robots.

The Beautiful Boys, Whose Tunnels Are Already Opened;
or, Would You Trust The Greeks To Make Your Games

I'm going to start this section off with a short bit from Grimoire Nier, a guide released alongside the "dual game" Nier. In one version of the game, the titular character was a gruff adult; in the other, the titular character was an effeminate, beautiful teenager. The relationship with the character Yonah is changed; old Nier is her father, young Nier is her brother. Despite these being the only changes, some radically different moments of characterization ensued; things that affected Dad Nier weakly affected Brother Nier far more strongly. They also had different pasts. Dad Nier did jobs around town to make ends meet, since he was a competent adult. Brother Nier, on the other hand, was forced to resort to prostitution to pay the bills; only later, when he was more capable, was he able to take the Dad Nier role of odd jobs and hunting.

I said that extremely casually, but I want you all to understand it clearly. Brother Nier, the effeminate bishonen, was forced into prostitution (with both men and women) as a young teenager. This is a heavy plot point, and it adds an extremely sinister undercurrent to the way he's treated in the game and as a result of his design. Specifically, it affects a line that comes from this interview.

-Which scene does (Novelist Jun) Eishima like?

(Director) Yokoo: Eishima is definitely satisfied with just watching young Nier’s back while he roams the fields, since it’s zettai ryouiki and whatnot.

Eishima: I did get satisfaction from making him run like crazy.(laughs) But you see…when I get really happy watching that, my high school son would just pass by and say “But, haven’t this kid’s tunnels been opened up already?”, popping my bubble.

This is objectification of a male character in a video game. The novelist Eishima knows about and acknowledges the traumatic past of Brother Nier; in fact, she was partially responsible for writing it, although the idea wasn't hers. She even expressed some disgust at it and the tonal dissonance of a "shonen adventure" that also features such dark material. And yet she sees Nier as a piece of meat, a beautiful young man to view sexually, and her reverie is only interrupted by her son - HER SON, mind you - reminding her of his "lost purity". This is it. This is the equivalent to Quiet from MGS5 or the B&Bs from MGS4. This is male objectification. This is a man becoming meat, his agency and feelings and experiences thrown aside for the sake of empty, uncaring lust.

In my last article I talked a bit about the nature of cultural standards - how we expect murder to be treated as a normal part of a story rather than a serious event in the same way that Romans and Greeks would casually depict rape and pedophilia. If our video games were written by the Ancient Greeks, things like this would be incredibly common. Look up Ganymede, whose visage - often engaged as a bottom in acts of homosexual intercourse - is plastered across many a Grecian vase or urn. The idea of not depicting sex acts involving young, beautiful boys would strike the Greeks as being as prudish and "out of it"; not dissimilar from the way many gamers view complaints about sexualized female characters.

Objectification is not found in objective design concepts. It is not found in "bared skin" or "weakness". It is found in design reason and justification. It is found in purpose and intent. When you played Zelda ALTTP, did you notice Link's bare thighs and short tunic? Did it worry you, to think that the designers might be appealing to a pedophilic sort of crowd? What if the designer was a gay man or a straight woman? What if the designers admitted that they designed the character to appeal to gay men and straight women, as Kojima did for Quiet?* What if the author was revealed to have a Vore fetish - would you think differently of scenes where Link is swallowed whole by monsters? The important factor here is vulnerability. An attractive character is one thing, an attractive character designed to be viewed as a "victim" for purposes of sexual appeal is another. This is why Nathan Drake and Marcus Fenix are not "objectified" - because society doesn't view strong men like them in the same way that it views attractive, feminine women. It's not about beauty; it's about the implications, and how those implications affect how people are treated. A character that exists to be emotionally mistreated and belittled for the gratification of the player is objectified; a character who is "good looking" is not.

*I acknowledge that Kojima also designed Raiden to appeal to women, but this decision was far less explicitly about "sex appeal" and additionally less related to sexual vulnerability. If it was, then there would be reason to have concern over Raiden's nude torture scene in MGS2 - but as it is, it came off as a goofy joke, where Raiden is reasonably competent and in-charge even as he's forced to cover his genitalia with his hands. It's reminiscent of the way that, even as a child, Nathan Drake is still a hyper-competent individual at no risk of dying; even at his most vulnerable, Raiden is still a badass ninja who can cartwheel the fuck out of armor-suited guys.

One last note about Quiet: I've noticed people saying that it's ridiculous to complain about Quiet in MGS5 when the game contains child soldiers and torture, both of which should provoke more outrage than "a girl is sexy". Let me teach you something about Tone, readers. Tone is what gives Hideo Kojima the credibility necessary to say that he's going to make a serious game about child soldiers and not be laughed out of the industry. Tone is what suggests that a game presented in a serious and realistic way should be able to handle child soldiers as a reasonable topic of discussion, in a way that will enlighten and inform players. Tone is trust. Quiet being a sexy, unrealistic sniper for the explicit purpose of appealing to the teenage male crowd breaks tone. It means that the game now exists to be fun and enjoyable and lighthearted. Don't worry about the details - this is a goofy game with sexy babes! Everyone knows MGS games are goofy and fun. Now kill those child soldiers we talked about. Kill them. Put a gun in their mouth and blow their fucking brains out. Fucking murder them. This is a serious game. This is a real game. This is art. Okay, now back to the titty babe. You can blow her brains out too if you want. It's all in good fun.


  1. game publishers should imitate something worthwhile from Hollywood for a change, and release semi-indie games with modest budgets targeted at gamers who want more serious games, rather than focusing only on setting up mega-franchises and spending millions on each release. Maybe that way game devs can stop watering down their games to appeal to everyone.

  2. Hi J,

    Didn't read your fart of a post as usual, but I wanted to note that it is somewhat vindicating to see that you have been exposed as a transphobic, sexist creep. I have suspected for a while that your apparent concern for issues of social justice was merely posturing, affected in service of your plainly desperate need to feel superior. I'm not glad, as such, that you are such a dick, but it's good to know I was right.

    What's really unfortunate here is that, as is occasionally apparent between the lines of your self-aggrandizing bluster, you do possess a measure of critical ability that could conceivably be put to good use if you would just get over yourself.

    So my advice to you is, step away from the keyboard for a while. Learn to be okay with yourself without external validation, lose the insatiable thirst for a sense of self importance. More people will listen to you (which is the objective, right, if you're serious about changing things?)

    Love and kisses

    1. all exists in the service of believability; i never claimed to be an ally. these things just fall under the umbrella of protecting realism

      also, i did try a "sweeter approach" for a while. didn't really work. bile sells.


    2. If what you say is true, I can only speculate as to what kind of cloistered existence you must lead in order to have concluded that realism in video games is more important than treating people properly.

      To your credit, I don't think that it really is true. Your vociferousness in making moral judgements beyond what might be characterised as "protecting realism" is readily apparent to anyone who cares to scroll down your twitter timeline for a few minutes.

      Unfortunately, all of your high-minded discernment of the moral valence of various cultural artefacts is quite worthless if you don't treat people properly yourself (i.e. by, among other things, not making unprovoked, abusive comments to survivors of abuse as you did the other day).

      In fact, acting in such a way as you did is, in a way, fatal to your entire schtick. If the ostensibly principled J Shea still acts like an ignorant dick despite his eminent perspicaciousness with respect to matters of popular culture, what reason is there to believe that his insights can contribute to anyone's edification?

      I regret the triumphalistic tone of my previous comment -- I shouldn't be pleased that you caused people to become upset the other day. However I can't help but be a little relieved to have it confirmed that your sanctimony really is sanctimony and not something else. It means I no longer feel the need to spend any time deciding whether certain of your ravings are worth heeding or not.

      Finally, I must note a failure of comprehension on your part. I did not criticise you for not being "sweeter," I criticised you for using an ostensible concern for social justice and the moral implications of entertainment media as a crutch to feel superior. It now seems clear to me that you care less about such issues than you do about having a high horse atop which you feel you can assure yourself and others of your greatness. There are numerous game critics of standing, like for example Anna Anthropy or Leigh Alexander, who have great facility with invective and apply it admirably to attacking the status quo. The difference is that they are focused on bringing down the object of criticism rather than on impressing a sense of their own superiority. If your "bile sells" so well, one has to wonder why you are in the unusual predicament of having fewer than 300 twitter followers despite having had your blog linked on a major website.

      Au revoir,

    3. You know, I debated replying to this for a while, but eventually I figured I could use it as an instructional message for future generations. I can see how you stumble with big words in your posts, as much as you try to pretend their use is natural for you, so I'll try and use small ones.

      Bile sells to two kinds of people. The first is people who legitimately have hatred in their hearts, and who want to see something change. The second is people who want to feel superior to people who are, in short, the same as them. Now I know you think that second one describes me more than anyone else, but in truth it's the people who follow me - at least, a lot of them. People who want to hear someone be mad about video games, mad about gamers, mad about the culture. What they don't want is for someone to be mad at them. It's not just me, of course - those kinds of people go to Retsupurae or whatever, anywhere where a person gets mad at another person and they can draw value from it.

      Bile sells. Thorough bile sells to the right people. You ask why I have fewer than 300 twitter followers - a short laugh at the idea of using twitter followers as a measure of success follows - and the answer is that if I wanted a lot of followers who only vaguely cared about what I had to say, I'd update my articles and never say anything on Twitter. But I don't. The people who follow me after everything else are the people who actually hate video games. The people who stopped following me are the people who just wanted to feel better than other gamers.

      See, if I wanted to be popular, that's easy. You tell people what they want to hear. Maybe you make a video about how it's wrong to judge all gamers, so that the substantial gamer population can watch it and cheer along with you about how gamers are an oppressed minority. It's easy to be popular, but unless you're going into something that involves money or democracy, that kind of popularity is useless. And I don't plan on making a job out of this; watering down the message would be against the entire point.

      I leave you with an anecdote. A person followed me and RTed a post about how we need to get rid of everyone in the gaming industry to rid it of all its old influences. A person who followed HIM responded to me saying that they took exception to it & had friends in the "old guard". I said, bluntly, no exceptions. The first person (the person is David Gallant) took exception. Why, then, did he retweet an absolutist, inflammatory post if he was going to disagree with it as soon as it offended anyone? The answer is because when he read "everyone in the gaming industry" he interpreted it as "everyone [I don't like] in the gaming industry". How many others did the same? Countless. People who were happy about me tearing nerds down who became angry and confused when "nerds" started to include them. Now many of them are gone. The silver is a little bit purer for it.


    4. You're an interesting man, and having read over your motivations, I'd like to extend an invitation to you. Would you like to Skype with me and/or some others sometime? You wouldn't have to speak to me, and I'm completely fine with a text-only communication. I don't really expect you to respond, but if you do, the offer is always open.

      Skype: theallosaurusrex

    5. "There are numerous game critics of standing, like for example Anna Anthropy or Leigh Alexander, who have great facility with invective and apply it admirably to attacking the status quo."

      This is the most ridiculous lie I've heard all year, and I even browse Free Republic. Could you social justice morons leave the adults so they can talk about real things?

    6. You could possibly say something a litte more substantive, there, rather than just asserting that something is false and following through with an empty pejorative. How could it be a lie when it's an expression of a subjective judgement? Anyway, see any of Leigh's stuff about GTA V or Anna's review of Indie Game: The Movie. Are you seriously saying that they aren't heavily critical of the mores of 'gamer culture'?

      I'm not sure you'll see this, friend ExpBelieve likes to selectively remove my posts.

  3. I was going to send this to you through Twitter, but I'm blocked and don't want to make a sock-puppet account. Anyway, I made something for you, it's a song, which is music, which is art:

    1. once / there was this guy who / got so mad at gamer-hate that he recorded music / and when / he finally came to / he / found / that he still lacked validation

      it probably would've helped if / there'd been a little sub-stance

      mmm mmm mmm mmm
      mmm mmm mmm mmm

    2. For what it's worth, I'm more proud of this one than the last. If you keep providing the lyrics, I can keep on providing the tunes. We could make some great lo-fi acoustic tunes together, friend:

  4. Funny you mention visual novels and the problems that plague them, but are there any good visual novels that follow your standards or advice? What about Katawa Shoujo? Although in fairness I think it only works because its barely a game at all.

    Anyway really good article, keep it coming

  5. This is a really good article..!!

    Generally, even without research, in casual discussions, it's usually very clear on how female characters are objectified in video games, but it gets mixed up when people try to argue about objectification of male characters-- which you've proven quite clear and well, DOES exist, but not in the way that many people think.

    And I really have to add, the tone of this article is wonderful. It's so well balanced, acknowledging the issues for both women and men. It feels patient-- which is an extremely admirable skill, especially when involving topics like this. Though, I'm not saying that emotionally charged articles should be ignored or treated less important if it does have valid, logical points, and if the writer has researched the topic.

    This is a really good read, thanks so much for sharing!! I think this'll help a lot of people understand objectification of genders better.


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