[Editorial] Dudes with Beards: Portrayal of Masculinity in Videogames

January 22nd, 2011 Dan Hemsath

What is a man?

Aside from a “miserable, little pile of secrets” (c’mon, tell me you didn’t chime in there). It’s a legitimate question, even if it does come from a vampire waxing philosophical. Certainly, there are a gamut of answers for this, but I’m going to limit it to the arena of videogames, and how portrayals of men in our favorite hobby contributes to – or is derived from – the zeitgeist, and how this has changed, even over the last few years, from bald space marines to dudes with beards.

So, why is it that when you put in whatever FPS/action game/etc. in your gaming console (or PC), you can expect a majority of the time to find that your “character” is – frequently by default – a male, aged 18-35? The short answer: money. Gaming is, at least these days, a financially fueled entertainment medium, with little room for slack. Publishers spend millions on finding out who’s playing what they’re selling – and, hey, why not cater toward the audience by making that ability to identify with the main character all that easier?

But we all know that’s not universally true. After all, many games have broken the mold, or at least made a decent effort to do so. While the Prince of Persia games feature a male protagonist (kind of goes with the whole “prince” thing), Beyond Good & Evil proved Jade could make it in a man’s world. Nathan Drake of Uncharted fame owes much to the nature of his game to Lara Croft of Tomb Raider — so much so that Uncharted was sometimes referred to as “Man Raider” before it broke onto the gaming scene to critical acclaim of its own merit. Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age have had tremendous success splitting the difference, allowing for players to choose and customize their genders as they wish.

And yet, who is featured most prominently on the Mass Effect covers? Hint: it’s not “Femshep.” The reality of it is that demographics, market research, and all that other horrible corporate buzz talk we hate when we talk about our favorite games still lurks under the surface of it all, subtly influencing our purchases with depictions of – you guessed it – our projections of ourselves, or at least some facet therein.

Unlike movies, videogames depend on us actively controlling a character in order to proceed. Like Pavlov’s dogs, our achievements and progress in the game are rewarded with more entertainment. How, then, can developers make that connection stronger, yielding – even at the subconscious level – increased entertainment value? Make that character, that situation or scenario, one we can project ourselves into. Virtual reality is an easier pill to swallow when we still have free will. “Everything begins with choice.” (Thanks to Morpheus of The Matrix for the maxim.) Even if that choice is an illusion, it’s frightfully convincing.

So why does the default Commander Shepard of Mass Effect look the way he does? His cover image certainly does fit the bill of the quintessential “bald space marine,” albeit with a slight resemblance to Matthew Fox (from the early episodes of Lost), plus power armor. And why has that archetype become as ubiquitous as to be imitated in numerous other games? I think of Fracture first, with its hilariously named protagonist, Jet Brody (contrary to his name, there are no extreme snowboarding levels in the game). If you squint – and know nothing about games – it would be forgivable to mistake one game’s hero for the other.

Call of Duty occupies a unique place in this dynamic, primarily because starting with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the figure on the cover is more-or-less an obscured silhouette, with the action in the background. Humorously, this “cover philosophy” would go on to “respawn” not only in each consecutive iteration of Activision’s flagship title, but in its competition, such as Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and, to some extent, Medal of Honor.

Medal of Honor has the additional distinction of being one of many recent additions to the portrayal of masculinity in videogaming: that of a game featuring “dudes with beards.” (So much so, that it is a bonus for leveling up in the game.) Between Dragon Age 2’s default protagonist “Hawke,” and the early screenshots of Dominic Santiago in Gears of War 3, our heroes in 2011 may be more hirsute than before. (Guess they didn’t get that Schick Quattro for Christmas.) Even John Marston sports some healthy trail stubble.

In the end, bald or bearded – or both, if Max Payne 3 is any indication – publishers count on their core audience wanting to play the games they make. If they have to model their “cover boys” after the grooming habits of their focus groups, so be it; it puts food on their tables and lets them keep making games. And it may be cynical to say so, but people are naturally inclined to judge a book by its cover. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but a first impression shouldn’t be the last one.

Mass Effect, for one, was first recommended to me by a young lady who didn’t express any sense of alienation by its portrayal of an 18-35-year-old bald space marine on the cover. Rather, she encouraged me to try the game because of what exciting choices awaited within the game itself. We discussed other games that we enjoyed, such as Assassin’s Creed and Splinter Cell, both series prominently featuring different portrayals of masculinity on the surface, but rich with rewarding gameplay and thrilling stories bursting from within. Our mutual enthusiasm was that of the content of these games, rather than the image the publishers evoked to hedge their bets in favor of an easy sell.

So as time goes on, how will the covers of our videogames look? Will they be more reminiscent of a GQ magazine, with direct call-outs to its target audience? Or will publishers push the other way, maybe with something impossible to identify with, like abstract Color Field painting – a blue line intersecting a red block for Call of Duty 26? Maybe all of the covers will digitally capture the facial features of whoever is holding the game and render it into the image on the case. (Okay, that would be cool, if a bit creepy.) The future has always been difficult to predict, and as the videogame industry emerges from its “awkward teens,” how it chooses to portray its audience will define how it is perceived at large.

But enough talk – have at you!

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