I feel like I should start this post by warning you that there’s a good chance you might be offended by it. In fact, I sort of hope that you are. It’s possible you will simply be offended by the content of the artwork, and you’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but it’s my hope that rather you’ll get a little chuckle out of it, but be offended by the current state of video games that the art speaks to.
The role of women in video games, both as players and as characters in the games themselves, is one of the most contentious issues in gaming at the moment. While much has been written about the subject, a good place to start is Anita Sarkeesian’s video series Tropes vs Women. You can watch the first video here:
The basic gist of Sarkeesian’s video is that women in games are most frequently portrayed as a “damsel in distress”, a situation which robs them of any power or free will, depending instead on a male character to save her from danger. In many games, the female character, for example Princess Peach in the Super Mario Brothers games, is quite literally objectified, becoming an object of possession (much like a ball in a game of sport) that the villain steals and the hero must retrieve.
And if you’re first reaction is “Well yeah games used to be sexist like that but there’s a lot more strong female lead characters now” then you should probably go ahead and watch the second video:
In her second video she discusses how the “damsel in distress” trope is not only alive and well, but in an effort to outperform one another, game publishers have been ratcheting up the violence against these female characters in increasingly disturbing ways that, she argues, contribute to the attitudes in our culture that normalize domestic violence.
Every year or two, iam8bit hosts their flagship art exhibition, and I’ve been honored to participate in all but one of them. The show is visited by thousands of people, many of them gamers and people in the gaming industry, so I always try and create art that speaks to that crowd specifically. So, for the 2013 show, I decided to focus on the commodification of women in video games.
I began thinking about those damsel in distress scenarios and how, as a child, they were one of my earliest fantasies involving the opposite sex. At six years old, the prospect of rescuing a pretty girl from a giant monkey was very empowering, and I can’t help but wonder how that virtual scenario, played out in game after game, affected the way millions of young boys like myself grew up to view women in the real world. When a generation of boys, raised on the fantasy of rescuing helpless princess after princess, comes face to face with the most independent and empowered generation of women in the history of the human race, is it any wonder the sexes seem at such odds within the relatively young medium known as the video game?
I recalled my first trip to Las Vegas, and the “escort” cards they hand out on the strip. If you’re not familiar with what I’m referring to, there are these very shady looking individuals on the main strip who hand out business card-sized flyers with naked women on them (their nipples and other parts covered by little starbursts) and phone numbers you can call to have them come to your room. It was then that I had the idea to create “escort” cards for well-known video game icons; it was the perfect way to “commodify” them the way the industry does.
Please click below to view each piece, but be warned they contain nudity.
I even went so far as to print a fake escort service t-shirt and hand out fake “escort” cards at the opening. The reactions ranged from loudly amused to horribly offended. One guy actually thought I was a real pimp.
I realize it’s not a perfect metaphor; even within the feminist movement there are opposing views on whether sex workers are being exploited or empowered, but you can’t argue that the Vegas style cards are crass and exploitive, much like the “damsel in distress” motif in most games, both vintage and modern. Furthermore, the escort’s job is to satisfy the male ego, to fulfill fantasy. By contrasting those early childhood fantasies with the much darker ones that men have once they have reached sexual maturity (to use the term loosely), I hope to start a conversation about how the portrayal of women in video games affects all of us, inside and outside the game.
iam8bit entertainment system
June 7–30, 2013
2147 W. Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA