Women in Video Games: Earlier Correspondence

There’s a good deal of talk these days about how video games depict women, from the latest Game Developers Conference scandal to that Feminist Frequency series that’s enraging idiots all over the place. The subject’s gotten more and more attention over the past few years, and I really think it’s long overdue. In decades past, the game industry’s misogynistic attitudes were periodically brought up, hemmed over, and then either neglected or dismissed with specious mockery.

The game magazines of the 1990s rarely challenged the issue of video-game sexism on their own, instead allowing the occasional letter from a reader to explore the matter. One such letter ran in the October 1995 issue of Nintendo Power.


As I mentioned in The X Button this month, I'm struck by how the letter's complaints still resonate today. Now, the “favorites” listed aren’t exactly bastions of sexual equality; Earthworm Jim features a largely helpless princess, and Killer Instinct’s lone woman is…well, B. Orchid. Yet LaBrie’s letter raised an important question, and it drew a few responses in the February 1996 Nintendo Power.

 


Two of the letters agree with the general sentiment, while the third makes much of Final Fantasy IV and VI (or II and III, but we all know that now) and its relatively self-sufficient heroines. Of course, it avoids mention of Final Fantasy IV's Rosa and how little she does beyond getting rescued several times. It’s all a case of an exception proving a rule, and the male chauvinism so prominent in the era’s video games wasn’t effaced by Celes casting Ultima. Not even when she had that double-turn Gem Box relic.

Nintendo Power was a relatively clean-cut magazine when it came to underdressed video-game women, but Electronic Gaming Monthly seldom shied away from covering hot game babes. One reader vented about this in the April 1995 issue of EGM2.


The EGM editors are apologetic and invite more women to write in, though I can’t confirm if that ever happened. There’s also something amusingly naïve (or perhaps sarcastic) in the letter’s claim that a few hunky shots of Samurai Shodown's Galford would at last make things even. It’s much like the “what about the MEN?” counterarguments that arise today and ignore the history of institutionalized sexist imagery and the nature of male power-fantasy figures.
Few magazines of this era addressed sexism outside of the letters page. Nintendo Power was far too gentle to tackle any real problems in the game industry, and Electronic Gaming Monthly couldn’t be bothered when Quarantine and Double Dragon V: The Shadow Falls were bleating for coverage. In fact, I don’t remember a North American magazine running articles on video-game sexism until Next Generation put one together in 1997 (sadly, I no longer have the issue). Not that I was the sort of reader who wanted such things back then. I thought nothing of the way fighting games garbed women in next to nothing or the fact that RPGs made them healers and victims most of the time. This was also the period in which I liked BloodStorm without irony.
You’ll see much more coverage of video-game sexism today, when just about every major website questions the industry's hyper-masculine standards in one way or another. Some claim this is all trend-hopping, that everyone’s scrambling to confront the issue just so they can look noble. Even if that’s true, I find it an improvement on the past. At least they’re not just printing a few letters, handing out a few free controllers, and considering the problem forever resolved.

2 comments:

  1. I definitely remember those letters and reacting to them with indifference or mild annoyance. I was also around 13 years old. I do remember EGM being pretty bad about the HOT GAME BABES stuff. In the interest of uhm, equality they printed some pretty bad fan art of Cloud in his underwear. EGM didn't get better as time went on either. I quit subscribing to EGM around 2004 when it read like an issue of Maxim with embarrassing articles like an interview with the "hottest gamer girl" and "how to get your girlfriend to play video games!"

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  2. Anonymous10:16 AM

    Thing is, back then, the great majority of the audience was male. So, why were people so surprised?

    Cosmopolitan magazine prints articles all the time emphasizing how hot certain men are, with many lower-brow magazines showing topless hunks all the time, despite knowing that a rather high percentage of some of these magazines are actually men. Do you see men writing in to complain about the sexualisation of men in magazines?

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