By Geoffrey Bunting
The gaming landscape has been, for the longest time, dominated by both male players and male protagonists. For decades there were no mechanisms with which to choose a character’s gender. Instead, the vast majority of gaming protagonists were male. This overwhelming bias is so far reaching and so cancerous that even when this mould was broken, and female protagonists became more prevalent, they were constantly undermined by the male-driven thinking and marketing that persists until this day.
In the late 80s, in a landscape of typical damsel in distress driven games, the revelation that Samus Aran, playable character of the Metroid series, was a woman was a ground-breaking development. It was a move that should have cemented the place of the female protagonist in gaming from then on and opened the door to female gamers to enter the market in a big way. However, it was completely undermined by the rewards for especially skilled players aimed at the straight male gamers that were perceived to be the market at the time. While finishing the game in less than five hours had Samus removing her helmet to reveal her gender, finishing in less than three gave the player an image of her in a leotard swimsuit. Finishing the game even faster, in one hour, netted the player the same screen but with Samus in a bikini.
Conversely, Resident Evil is one of those rare series that have included female playable characters from the start. More than this, each of these characters is a capable and important member of their respective teams, easily on par with the male colleagues. It is a real fillip for such a long series that, even in its early days, it included this kind of representation. And yet even Resident Evil isn’t immune to the concept of rewarding male players with women. Through unlockable costumes, this ostensible representation is once again undermined by putting these characters in revealing outfits, completely at odds with their usually suitable attire; costumes designed only to titillate the male gamer.
Distinct from the damsel in distress trope, which sees women cast in the role of helpless MacGuffins to be rescued by the hero, of so many early games, these are examples of the women as reward trope – a term coined and covered by Feminist Frequency in their excellent YouTube video – in which women are viewed as objects and attainments rather than fully fledged characters of their own. It could be as simple as a kiss as reward from the damsel in distress, or as troubling as exploits with which to see female characters undressed. Whatever the actual reward, it reinforces the misogynist idea that women are just prizes or objects, at the mercy of male desires. Yes, these characters may play an important part in their games, but fundamentally they are designed to give the presumed straight male gamer an extra level of excitement as they play. In the process, these developers take interesting and capable characters and completely undermine them through the over-sexualisation of the female body.
It is an unfortunately common aspect of male-developed media, the inclusion of female characters which threaten to appear ground-breaking, only to be undermined by sexualisation. Pokemon provides an excellent example. Since Pokemon Crystal, players could choose between a male and female protagonist. It didn’t affect gameplay, but it gave female players the slightest shred of representation. The anime, by comparison, is rife with female characters – with a girl accompanying Ash in each series. Yet, the reasoning behind this and behind the high turnaround of these characters – according to showrunner Masamitsu Hidaka – is that “it gives the boys some new eye-candy every once in a while… girls are more customisable and you can change their outfits, like when they are in bathing suits”. This, in itself, is problematic enough. Yet, when you consider that these female characters range between ten and thirteen, it becomes downright creepy.
The truth is more women are playing games than ever before. With a growing female audience, surely it is – and always has been – a responsibility of games to try and breach the wall of male entitlement that surrounds gaming, rather than reinforce it? By showing women as little more than prizes for players to attain, or as objects to be leered over as they make their way through their respective games wearing next to nothing, it is perpetuating the prevalent belief among men that they somehow have a right to women’s time and body. Events like gamergate, which saw female developers as well as Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian receiving rape and death threats over their support of better representation in gaming, demonstrate just how dangerous and terrifying this male entitlement can be.
No series that I have encountered leans so heavily on the over-sexualisation of women, or the women as reward trope, than Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid. It is a series so endemic with objectified women that it is now expected that any female character, regardless of age or part, included in the series will be sexualised in an overt and disconcerting way.
In the series’ original release, Metal Gear Solid (and its remake Twin Snakes), we see Snake crawling through vents and looking down on Meryl Silverberg, dressed in a tank top and underwear, in the middle of exercising. Much like the female characters of Resident Evil, Meryl is characterised as independent and capable of taking care of herself. Yet one of our first interactions with her is as a sparsely dressed prisoner.
Hours later, Snake is this time looking for Meryl, though this time she’s in disguise as one of the faceless guards littering the game. The clues one has to look for to work out which one is Meryl is that she walks around shaking her hips like she’s in a music video.
Once Meryl sees you scoping her out, she’ll run to a bathroom. If you manage to get there within fifteen seconds without being seen, you’re presented with Meryl in her underwear once again. Lesser players who take their time carefully manoeuvring around enemies were greeted with a sensible pair of trousers; only the most elite creepers can make it into the ladies’ room before Meryl puts her trousers on.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a product of the times (Metal Gear Solid was released in 1998) but to do so would be irresponsible. Especially as this failure to lay accountability where it belongs has empowered developers to make the same heinous mistakes over and over. In Kojima’s case especially, even this flimsy excuse wouldn’t be viable. Like many series with their roots in the nineties, Metal Gear Solid has continued this worrying trend of over-sexualisation right up to the present day.
In 2015’s Metal Gear Solid V we are introduced to one of the most problematic female characters in gaming: The Quiet. There’s no nudity as reward here, it’s all there waiting for you. It is the culmination of a steadily intensifying level of ridiculous sexualisation in the series that started at the beginning and has not been absent in a single instalment.
Quiet is a supernatural sniper and one of the most valuable “buddies” available to the player – with her ability to subdue entire outposts in a few minutes. She does not speak and yet is still able to develop a convincing and, at times, engaging relationship with player. And she wears a bikini. The justification for this decision is that she breathes through her skin – through a “kind of photosynthesis” – and would suffocate should she wear any more. This concept isn’t really explained in-game, and this is mostly because it is just an excuse and not a fleshed-out (excuse the pun) plot device. In previous games, male characters have had similar issues – The End in particular also breathed through photosynthesis – and yet have not needed to be undressed to survive, regardless of what might be happening in their lungs.
If anything, this rather pointed yet lacking explanation of Quiet’s being undressed is an acknowledgement of just how problematic her presentation is. The writing of the MGS series is, at best, ham-fisted. It is ridiculous, over the top, and often just plain bad. This has allowed Kojima to employ outrageous science and supernatural forces to explain away his characters’ abilities, and yet with Quiet; with their most flagrant flaunting of a female character, the explanation is not only unacceptable, it is clumsy. It smacks of having designed a character that is bound to cause consternation, and rushing to try and justify it.
Fans of Kojima and MGS are quick to jump to the game’s defence – albeit unconvincingly – excusing this use of female characters as a trope of the genre; okay because these characters are “badasses”, and acceptable because they are “sexy”. During research for this piece I found it difficult to find pieces condemning this trend in Kojima’s games, as they were completely overshadowed by men instead condemning those articles, who cannot believe the outrage over Quiet’s “uniform”, and cannot believe their entitlement is being challenged. One in particular branded the accusation that Kojima is sexist and a misogynist as “libel” and “a load of shit”, suggesting that anyone who has levelled such accusations should be “ashamed of themselves”. The problem with this stance is that no one taking an objective view of this can really suggest that The Quiet’s portrayal is anything but overtly sexist. And those who claim that anyone saying so is being outrageous are missing the point: it’s not about whether a character looks good or is tough, it’s about equal representation and not using women – regardless of their character, should they be lucky enough to have one – as objects.
After all, we all breathe through our skin in some regard, and yet the male characters of Metal Gear Solid V aren’t dressed in their underwear. And, if, as she seems to be, Quiet is an intelligent woman who just happens to be stuck with this unfortunate affliction, why is she mostly seen outside of missions bending over in front of you, doing pelvic exercises, and showing even more cleavage at every possible moment? The answer is simple, it’s because she’s there to be objectified, not developed or viewed as a character independent of the male protagonist.
Kojima is hailed as one of the greatest game makers in history, and responsible for popularising the stealth genre. Yet to me his legacy has always been one of unchecked – and often celebrated – misogyny. In Metal Gear Solid 3, Eva, another capable and engaging character, inexplicably has her coat unzipped to her waist through the whole game. If you make it through her escort mission without her taking damage, however, you’re rewarded with yet another gaming underwear scene. In Metal Gear Solid 4, by tactically zooming during a cut scene at the right time one can get a peek up Naomi’s skirt while picking up a cigarette – a cigarette Snake definitely dropped on purpose. In Peace Walker, more strategic zooming means a look at Paz’s underwear, she also has the only fully realised cut scene in a game full of comic strip interludes, in which she operates a metal gear in her underwear. She may be lying about her age, but that Paz is introduced as a sixteen year old makes this case in particular deeply troubling.
The trouble is, even Kojima feels it is excused. Following the initial outrage at Quiet’s character model, he stated that hearing the reasoning behind Quiet’s near-nudity would make us “ashamed of our words and deeds”. Yet nothing about his clumsy justification has done that. Rather it makes me feel ashamed of him and his continuing misogyny.
The real shame about The Quiet is that, in the sprawling marathon that is Metal Gear Solid V, she is by far the most interesting character. The narrative behind her silence is interesting and, though it’s a little ham-fisted, one can somewhat believe the love-story that encircles her. The same cannot be said for previous MGS iterations, and that is to be applauded. The reason her character is so engaging is probably down to the fact that, as she cannot speak, she does not have to be brought down by the over-the-top and often ludicrous scripts that have become a staple of this series. And yet this is all undermined, like Samus and so many women before her, by the need to deck Quiet out in so little.
Like all the other characters in the game, Quiet has alternate costumes that can be unlocked. For your dog and horse you can unlock tactical gear, in line with their roles in the game. For your mechanic walker you can change the colour schemes. Your options with Quiet are to paint her different colours, just like the machine. Her new costume is still a bikini and fishnets, but you can see her in shades of red, silver, and gold. Through a pretty convoluted process it is possible to unlock Sniper Wolf’s costume from the original Metal Gear Solid. It’s a thick winter coat and trousers. This may be an Easter egg, but surely if the developers really bought in to their own reasoning for attire this wouldn’t be an option? To be honest, though Quiet was my favourite companion in my play through, I really didn’t feel comfortable with her until unlocking some actual clothes for her.
So when its fans ask “How on earth is MGS not a beacon of feminism?” it is no difficult task to demonstrate a ton of examples on how it is the exact opposite, but one need look no further than its most recent iteration to see just how bad things still are. The worst thing about the case of The Quiet, is that a genuinely interesting character has been marred completely by flagrant sexism: by the idea that a woman should be quiet and the object of desire rather than an independent personality of their own.
The issues that result from the pervasive male entitlement of our society are obvious for anyone who is willing to see. It is the driving force behind the epidemic of sexual assaults the world over, and how these crimes often go completely unpunished. But this entitlement is a learned behaviour, ingrained into men from an early age by those who have come before whose entitlement has not been challenged. As such, media – be it games, films, books, etc. – has a responsibility to challenge these ideals, yet, as is the case with Metal Gear Solid, so often it helps in the construction and perpetuation of this mentality.
It is this entitlement that we see in those attempting to defend the decision over Quiet’s clothing. The presentation of the character has quite rightly earned a backlash, which has in turn challenged the entitlement these male gamers feel when it comes to being able to see video game women as attainments and possessions; there just to be gawked at. When this entitlement is challenged, it is all too easy for these men to feel justified in attacking views at opposition of their own.
So what can be done? Simply: education. It is up to those developing games to kill the tropes that are stopping the progression of gaming and alienating and endangering its female audience. It is up to games to follow the example of games like The Last of Us, which features female characters almost completely independent of their male counterparts, and to go even further. It is their responsibility to educate themselves so that they may start educating others, for, like any other learned behaviour, entitlement can be unlearned.
Kojima and Konami – although they have parted ways – could do well to look at examples like that of Bioware. When faced with questions on its decision to include romantic options in Mass Effect and Dragon Age for women and the option for homosexual relationships by a particularly irate gamer (much like those jumping to Kojima’s defence), they unequivocally told him to “get over it”. They took the correct, and sadly rare, stance that relationships are for everyone, and rather than be bullied by certain members of their fan base, stood by that stance.
The simple truth is, whether certain male quarters are ready to admit it or not, is that it is time for the game industry to grow up. It is easy to mock what we don’t understand, especially when brought up to hold certain values, but it is infinitely more gratifying to allow one’s self to learn and this take strides towards personal betterment. And if those “straight male gamers” out there have a problem with this idea; if they threaten to boycott studios providing real equality, inclusivity, and equity, then perhaps the gaming landscape is better off without them.