Soapbox: Ignoring The Objectification Of Women In Games Won't Make the Problem Go Away
Posted by Damien McFerran
Should we boycott Senran Kagura Burst's balloon-breasted characters?
Long-time readers of Nintendo Life will be aware that we've given a fair amount of coverage to Senran Kagura Burst, a 3DS fighting game which recently launched in Europe amid a campaign which focused almost entirely on the title's bevy of busty female combatants. To be honest, I personally found the advertising amusing — especially the UK YouTube spots which likened the title to the kind of dirty magazines teenage boys would secrete under their beds in fear of their mothers finding them (before the internet came along, anyway) — but a recent conversation in the Nintendo Life office forced me to sharply rethink my previously ambivalent stance.
The whole exchange was triggered by the fact that we'd re-tweeted an image via the Nintendo Life twitter account which came directly from PQube (the company handling the distribution of the game in Europe) showing a plastic figurine of one of the characters from the game with a 3DS game cartridge wedged between her impossibly large (and mostly exposed) breasts. At the time it was absent-mindedly re-tweeted, it seemed like harmless fun that was largely in keeping with our coverage of the game up to that point, but the person I was speaking to — a woman, for what it's worth — strongly believed that when viewed out of context (as much on Twitter is), it came across as crass and sexist. I should probably also point out that the woman in question isn't an outsider who views gaming with bemused disgust — she's a seasoned player herself.
Thanks to Staz for sharing this over Facebook. Surely, there's no better place to store your Senran Kagura card! pic.twitter.com/Otr4FcRtsW— PQube (@PQubeGames) March 7, 2014
I countered by pointing out that we'd already covered the game several times and always taken a tongue-in-cheek approach, poking fun at the over-the-top sexualization of the characters, and also mentioned that a campaign against the game had already been instigated by Official Nintendo Magazine — which attracted a large degree of criticism from its readers [Editor's note: ONM has since been in contact to point out that this was actually a blog post, and doesn't necessarily reflect the opinions of the publication as a whole]. This didn't pacify the affronted person, who pointed out that as a father and husband myself, I should feel just as uncomfortable as she did with this kind of subject matter, and that Nintendo Life should be making a stand against this kind of thing.
The conversation ended as abruptly as it began, but it got me thinking — should we really promote and encourage this kind of content in our games? And should sites like Nintendo Life be speaking out against it?
Gaming has grown up a lot in the past few years, and we're now tackling some pretty mature topics in the titles that we play. However, it's impossible to escape the fact that a large number of players are young men, and these boiling infernos of testosterone are highly susceptible to focused marketing which involves nubile, scantily-clad girls — those of you living in the UK who have entered a newsagents or supermarket in the past few years will be well aware of this fact, as "lad's mags" such as Zoo and Nuts — both of which showcase barely-dressed ladies on their front covers — are sometimes sold next to mainstream magazines such as The Radio Times and Official Nintendo Magazine; some major brands, not all, are imposing rules that mature front covers are partially covered or placed on top shelves. Should this be happening? Probably not. Can it be stopped? One would hope so, but there's a fairly large sector of the population which insists that stopping people from getting hold of what they want is a bad idea, not a good one.
Whenever anyone mentions censorship in regards to gaming, the pitchforks and flaming torches are never far behind; as is the case with so many facets of modern media, people seem very reluctant to agree with the notion that they should be told what they can and can't watch, listen to or play. I'm certainly not in favour of widespread censorship, but as a parent I can see why certain games fall into questionable territory, and it could be said that our industry needs to censor itself to a certain extent. It speaks volumes that Nintendo doesn't even show Senran Kagura Burst's box art on its official site, which would suggest that the company is aware the game isn't really suitable for its target audience. That then begs another question — why has Nintendo allowed this title to be published in the first place, and why is it available on the 3DS eShop? Parental controls are all very well, but many younger gamers could potentially be in a position to purchase and download the game without having to alert their parents to the fact.
To cloud the issue further, Senran Kagura Burst is actually quite a good game, with chaotic action, a long storyline, great music and some excellent visuals. It certainly seems to have found an audience on the 3DS — the Japanese version sold well enough to merit a sequel, and it made it into the UK top 40 sales chart — no mean feat for such a niche release in a region so traditionally hostile of such overtly-Japanese games. How much of this was down to the questionable subject matter and racy promotional videos is up for debate, but it's fair to say that the game's focus on large-chested females won't have done its commercial chances any harm. Does that mean it's fine to make excuses for the game's often ludicrous portrayal of women? While the games industry has come a long way since the male-dominated days of the '80s and '90s, it's still easy to forget that there are a lot of female gamers out there who could — and indeed will — be offended by such imagery, especially on a console which is supposed to be family-friendly, like the 3DS.
Another thing to consider is that this is a Japanese game, and attitudes to such imagery in that particular country are very, very different to elsewhere in the world. Anime shows and movies — as well as manga comic books — are packed with over-sexualized female characters, so you could argue that there cultural considerations to take into account — simply put, Senran Kagura Burst is unlikely to have caused the same furore in its native Japan as it has elsewhere. But has the overtly smutty marketing by PQube for the European launch made things worse?
There will be those who argue that male characters are equally exaggerated in modern games; most FPS shooters boast chisel-jawed space marines with muscles the size of a small European country, but the difference there is that these characters are arguably not intended for the sexual gratification of female players — they are there to make male players feel strong and powerful by association. While many male players have voiced concern with the predictable way in which men are portrayed in games, I don't personally recall ever feeling intimidated or offended by the rippling muscles of my on-screen avatar — something which I suspect can't be said of female gamers playing a title like Senran Kagura Burst, which shows its lead characters shedding their clothing and pushing their ample assets into the player's face. The objective here is titillation, which makes it relatively easy to see why female players — just like the one who confronted me in the Nintendo Life office — are so uneasy with this situation.
In an industry that is dominated by the tastes and demands of a young and male audience, it's always going to be difficult to fight against such objectification — just ask the author of the aforementioned Official Nintendo Magazine piece — but that doesn't mean it shouldn't happen. As I said, we've have actually come a long way in the past few decades — Lara Croft's transformation from big-breasted Barbie Doll to battle-hardened, troubled woman in the recent Tomb Raider reboot being a fine example of just how far. The industry is maturing as the average age of gamers rises, but that doesn't mean that developers and publishers won't still be tempted to exploit the raging hormones of younger males. Whether or not we — or companies like Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony — should allow them to is another matter.
What's your stance on this topic? Should games like Senran Kagura Burst be celebrated for bringing diversity to the industry, or are they little more than smut for gamers? Vote in the poll below and be sure to leave a comment.
Do you find titles like Senran Kagura Burst offensive? (532 votes)
Yes, the game's portrayal of women is purely for the gratification of male gamers
No, I find the images in the game to be appealing but they're not sexist
I'm not entirely sure either way
Please login to vote in this poll.