Gaming and Misogyny and 14 Year Old Boys
September 9, 2014 4:58 PM   Subscribe

My 14 year old son and I have been talking a lot this past week about the Anita Sarkeesian videos (we watched a few together) and have been having some really great discussions. We've always talked about what games he can or cannot buy and the reasons for it. I'm really more concerned with the misogyny than the violence, although the violence doesn't thrill me. Now however, my son is concerned that I won't let him buy *any* games anymore because the misogyny is so pervasive. Is he right?

I have two questions:

1. My son likes the open world games. The bigger the better. Are there any PS3 or PS4 games that aren't really horrible in their depiction and treatment of women?

2. Are there any game reviewer sites that talk specifically about the treatment of women? I've been going to sites that have categories for profanity and violence and sexual content for example, but I can see now that a lot can be missed if these categories are addressed separately.

posted by ThatCanadianGirl to Computers & Internet (41 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
One big motive for feminist deconstruction of misogynistic tropes is that the act of deconstruction takes away a lot of the tropes' power.

One way to recognize your son's very mature realization is to give him more soverignty in choosing the media that he consumes. If you want to be really sneaky, do it under the condition that you two continue to talk about what is good and bad in those media.

The day is going to come soon where he is making all of these decisions as an adult. It sounds like you've set him on a good course for making those decisions.
posted by Skwirl at 5:13 PM on September 9, 2014 [46 favorites]

Pretty much all the lady gamers I know are comfortable playing and recommending Dragon Age and Mass Effect, and I've never seen them talked about in the sense that they are somehow "girly" games, so presumably there is goodness in both series.

I personally am tragically obsessed with Assassin's Creed and while there are good female characters (altho not leads, except for one, who is problematic in her own ways) there are also some fairly sexist implications with a lot of the NPCs that you may or may not be comfortable with.

I think it's also valuable to have a conversation with him about how it can be okay to like problematic things as long as you are aware of the (often many) ways that thing is problematic from various standpoints. It will also help him to recognize bad stuff about other things that are pervasive but normalized in everyday life, like advertising and dumb jokes on tv shows and whatnot.
posted by poffin boffin at 5:14 PM on September 9, 2014 [9 favorites]

I love the Dragon Age games. Skyrim is another RPG that is mostly about wandering around a (HUGE) world doing things and those things are not oppressing women.

I also agree with the folks above that the main thing is to keep talking about them. If he wants to play Assassin's Creed or Red Dead Redemption or even Grand Theft Auto, they are great, fun, open world games with some really problematic stuff in them that would be great for y'all to talk about together.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:18 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh yeah, the thing that finally sold me on Skyrim was when someone told me that they had a werewolf husband who stayed home to watch the kids while they went out to punch dragons to death.
posted by poffin boffin at 5:21 PM on September 9, 2014 [25 favorites]

Seconding the Mass Effect games - most of the more enlightened male gamers that I know played as the female version of Shepard, as Jennifer Hale's voice acting is brilliant. As a lady gamer, it felt massively empowering to save the galaxy and be a total badass, plus the games are built around moral choices and tough decisions, so could be a good choice if that's the kind of thing you want your son to think more about.

I'm not a parent and have no idea of the "suitability" of the series for younger people in terms of violence, etc., but I'd definitely look into the series.

In general, exposing your son to games where you can and/or default play as a woman might be another interesting topic for the two of you to talk about, especially in terms of "how did this game portray the experience of navigating its world in a female body as opppsed to how that game portrayed the same experience, and how did that make you (as a young man) feel?" That might also be an interesting way to look at games that are less obviously empowering in their portrayal of women (e.g. the most recent Tomb Raider game, which I haven't played but have read some of the criticism of) - my gut feel is that playing all kinds of games with different attitudes towards women and explicitly making that part of a conversation between the two of you about what they're getting right and what they're getting wrong is likely to allay some of your son's fears that all games might be too misogynistic for you to want him to play, plus those are probably going to be some conversations that stick with him for a long time and nudge him further towards open-mindedness and good ways of reading the world in future.
posted by terretu at 5:30 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yeah. Feminist girl here who grew up playing GTA. The talking about it is so much more important that censoring it. It sounds like you're a great parent.
posted by amaire at 5:31 PM on September 9, 2014 [19 favorites]

I know that I love it because I'm in the demographic, but The Sims?

I'm kind of on the side of as long as you know the difference between gaming and real life you may as well play Grand Theft Auto. I understand that many women gamers really enjoy it, even if it is just horrible to women.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:40 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the answers so far! Very helpful. Just you know, he has Skyrim (loved it), Mass Effect and two Assassins Creeds.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 5:42 PM on September 9, 2014

One thing I'd like to understand is if you've expressly prohibited any game containing a shred of misogyny, perhaps on the basis of not supporting a studio that uses it.

I ask because it first reads as though many of the games in Sarkeesian's videos are on a prohibited list, and that you are looking instead for any open-world games that TvW wouldn't have a problem with. That's very noble of you, but it will also severely limit the number of available games.

Sarkeesian mentions is that it is perfectly okay to enjoy media while still recognizing the troublesome aspects inherent within. One takeaway from that is it's fine to play a game like Halo or Red Dead Redemption; just have an understanding that there are certain tropes in some games that negatively portray women, or contribute to a culture that sees women as lesser beings or as (sex) objects.
posted by CancerMan at 5:52 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

In addition to those already mentioned, Dragon's Dogma is pretty decent - you will almost certainly end up with a mix of men and women in your adventuring party at various times, and can pursue a variety of love interests of whatever gender you desire. There is one brief plot element that involves you witnessing domestic violence and deciding whether to intervene.

Kingdoms of Amalur is also not bad - there are some scantily clad elf maidens running around, but gender relations don't really come into the story (or depiction of the world) in a disturbing way. You can play as a man or woman. I enjoyed being a Vikingesque lady smashing monsters with an enormous war hammer.

I agree that helping your son become conscious of and think about how games are portraying women and gender relations is more important than protecting him from bad examples, though of course there are also good conversations to be had about when you don't want to support something by buying it because it's so offensive. Seeing examples of the problem is part of learning to understand the problem.
posted by unsub at 5:52 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think it's also valuable to have a conversation with him about how it can be okay to like problematic things as long as you are aware of the (often many) ways that thing is problematic from various standpoints.

I agree with this so much -- I think it's really important in terms of helping him develop critical thinking skills for engaging with popular culture, acknowledging that sometimes things can be in a gray zone (rather than starkly black or white), etc.
posted by scody at 6:01 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

CancerMan, I'd love suggestions for open world games that TvW wouldn't have a problem with - if they exist! I know that some of his games have some misogyny in them (more than I realized until I saw Tropes v Women) so I'm also looking for suggestions for games that have less rather than more. He's pushing for Grand Theft Auto and I just don't know.... I've heard such awful things about it.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:03 PM on September 9, 2014

He's loving all your answers by the way! :-)
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:10 PM on September 9, 2014

I feel like it might be an interesting thing if he got a GTA game but had to show you how to play it; getting him to have to rationalize/explain the value of various in-game behaviors to someone else, esp. his own mom, might make the appeal of such things fade a little.

(I have to admit this was something my own mom tried with me wrt gangsta rap in the 90s and it had the hilarious effect of her being a middleaged white jewish lady who knew all the words to straight outta compton, and did not make me change my listening habits in any way)
posted by poffin boffin at 6:12 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm a feminist and the only video game I've ever enjoyed was Grand Theft Auto. Because it's total chaos and I enjoy that. Some things about that game:
1. Everyone in it is awful. There are no positive characters.
2. It's total nerd fantasy. Like if you asked me who wrote it, I'd have guessed a bunch of guys in pocket protectors in a basement somewhere. It's laughably cliche and uncool in so many ways. It's the After School Special of games imho.
3. A teenager might not get that. I don't know if its a young teenagers game. Older kids, well they're probably playing it at friends anyway. At least you talked to him about the issues but I'd mention again that it's a fantasy cooked up by a bunch of programmers in the UK, not reality.
posted by fshgrl at 6:18 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have found that polygon does a reasonably good job of mentioning sexism in games.

Borderlands 2 has issues, but it also has some good stuff about weight, aphasia, homosexuality and geek culture, particularly in the DLC. I would give the violence a medium.
posted by poe at 6:32 PM on September 9, 2014

Broken Age!!! Anything Double Fine but especially Broken Age.
posted by Pardon Our Dust at 7:00 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Saints Row games are not really what I'd call concerned with good taste, but might be a possibility. They're probably not less violent than the GTA games, but they're much less serious. They're similarly open-world, but unlike GTA, they let you customize your character and play as male or female. The humor is raunchy and exactly what I'd have found hilarious as a 14-year-old girl. (Streaking mini-game!) The last few are available for PS3/4, and while they're not without their problems (called out in Sarkeesian's videos, even) the developers' response to being criticized was pretty decent. Personally, I like having the ridiculous ultraviolence presented in a comic way rather than it being a derail from the Very Serious (and yeah, usually tediously misogynistic) Story in the GTA games. Everything's better when you get to drive a clown car with a cannon on top.

And, OK, so the Uncharted games aren't open-world, but if you want great PS3 exclusives, try those. It's basically like Indiana Jones movies in game form, except with better characters (especially the female characters.) So much fun. You are missing out if you have Sony consoles and are not playing those.

And nthing the suggestion that awareness and talking about the problems we see in games and other media is really the best thing. I mean, when I was 14 my primary option for raunchy game humor was the Leisure Suit Larry series. Which I played the hell out of, but would probably not have discussed with my parents. Ever. And I really didn't even know where to start talking about my thoughts about those (and other games) with my game-playing peers at the time. It'd probably have been good for all of us, and I'm glad we can have those conversations more easily now.
posted by asperity at 7:12 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

My old housemate set up a GTA character (Franklin) for my then six year old son by completing certain missions.

The two of us would laugh our heads off watching Boy jump out of a plane with a backpack instead of a parachute, mistaking a shark for a dolphin, running from mountain lions, trying to teach his dog to fetch balls out of the pool- the game is a sandbox and you don't have to be a jerk in it.

I think Boy learned to drive from this game because when he was 7, and in a situation with my mom that absolutely required him to drive her to someplace with a cellphone signal, he did just fine. He's learned so much from this game. And he thinks Trevor is disgusting.

I'd definitely watch him play. YMMV, your son has hit puberty and mine has not.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 7:30 PM on September 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

I forgot to mention the Yoga mission in GTA. That was hysterical to watch.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 7:37 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

The new Tomb Raider is pretty good. I didn't originally buy it because I had gotten sick of the previous games. I liked the game play but the sex-pot character became pretty 'meh' in my books.

I ended up with a free copy of the latest one and it honestly floored me. They toned down the character model (boobs) and provided other less skimpy outfits to chose from The story is great with lots of real character development. The game play is super fun and the environment beautiful.
posted by Jalliah at 7:38 PM on September 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't censor games purely for their content from a 14 year old unless he was extremely immature.

This is a point I think most of the folks in the gaming community who are against misogyny would agree with, you can still play and enjoy games while being critical of them. GTA 5 (recommended above) is a great game despite the terrible torture scene in it. Saints Row 3 is super fun despite the dildo-bat. You could even play the open-world Lego Marvel Super Heroes game together and have some fun.
posted by TimeDoctor at 7:58 PM on September 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Has he played Bully? The protagonist can still do crappy things to female classmates (who tend to be awful), but all of the classmates are pretty awful (it's a boarding school), and he can makeout with other boys (which is 20% of what my friend and I did, when we played it).
posted by unknowncommand at 8:11 PM on September 9, 2014

Crap, I forgot Bully was pre-PS3.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:26 PM on September 9, 2014

Inasmuch as gaming misogyny is brain poison for 14 year olds (a position with which reasonable people can disagree, mind you) I'd think being aware of it is pretty much a perfect antidote. So go crazy.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:37 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

If he isn't opposed to playing non-modern games, Knights of the Old Republic I & II are my top suggestions. Besides being of a relatively high standard (in my opinion, unmatched) as far as storytelling and dialogue go for video games, they include little to no content that I would consider misogynistic and feature multiple strong female characters. The character Kreia is a particularly good example of this tendency.
posted by halp at 10:13 PM on September 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

posted by KogeLiz at 10:16 PM on September 9, 2014

Remember Me and Mirror's Edge both feature strong female protagonists.

From another perspective, I think the "twist" ending of the amazing game Braid turns gender roles in videogames on their ear.
posted by jbickers at 5:47 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have a gamer son (now 23) who is very left wing, and articulate when we talk about mysogyny (or other issues). I support amaire's POV here, the discussion is far more important than the censorship, and with censorship you reduce the opportunities for critical analysis of the media, analysis you have inspired through Sarkeesian's work. (We had many discussions, both within context of games/gaming and external to that.)

Trust your son. Trust his ability to be ethical when you're not there to guide him - what better way to develop those ethics muscles, and of course, a sense of self, and a knowledge of his parent's belief in his ability to make right choices, right decisions and behave ethically when there is no-one watching?
posted by b33j at 5:57 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I second Dragon's Dogma, basically just because it's a really good game and more people should play it. The plot is pretty minimal and odd and I doubt it would have much of an impact on anyone. And you can make male and female characters with a wide variety of body types instead of barbie and ken, which is really nice.

Slightly off topic but the PS3 version of the original Dragon Age is a TERRIBLE port, so I would avoid that

I really wish I could recommend Red Dead Redemption, but it has both some of the very best and very worst female characterizations. That said your son sounds discerning so I'd think he would be OK.
posted by selfnoise at 6:53 AM on September 10, 2014

Thanks everyone so much for your thoughtful answers. I guess we both win here because my son will get his GTA and I will be assured that he also has a number of suggestions for "less horrible" games.

His position going into this discussion was exactly that of all of you: "Let me play and we'll continue to have these discussions because that's what we do anyway." He's a bright, articulate, thoughtful kid so I guess we're at that next stage now. Parenting is so interesting.

Thank you all so much. As I said the other day in MetaTalk "God, I love this place."
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:09 AM on September 10, 2014

Oh and if he doesn't already have it, he should get Burnout Paradise, an open world racing game where you can wreak enormous destruction. It is incredibly fun and the world has only cars, no drivers (of any gender).
posted by unsub at 8:25 AM on September 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh yes, do keep the suggestions coming, please and thanks!
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:26 AM on September 10, 2014

My boyfriend, who is an avid gamer and fan of Anita's videos (he's watched them all, whereas I couldn't get through all of them), is really into Diablo 3 right now, which I haven't seen mentioned yet. It's not too bad -- you can play either gender for each class, and it's a bleak fantasy game, but lots of customization, which is appealing.
posted by PearlRose at 9:20 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I game on the computer, so some of these may not be as good for PS3 but nthing Mass Effect, Dragon Age Origins (play it on the computer if it's a terrible port, but I say that only because it's my *Favorite Game Ever* as a female gamer who's been playing since 1990, but I may be slightly biased since, did I mention, it's my *Favorite Game Ever*), Knights of the Old Republic. So basically: Bioware is pretty good about creating complex character and complex situations. Also--check out some Indy game developers. Gone Home is a fantastic example of how Indies can break down what a game is and isn't meant to be.
posted by Calicatt at 9:24 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

GTA is a complicated game to consider, ethically, I think. At it's core, its a game where you get fast cars and guns and can do whatever you want, which is largely going to be violent, but it's driven by a narrative, and so has to make the character somehow sympathetic. At the same time, they're trying to communicate a cogent satirical critique of society. It sometimes works, it's sometimes jarring, sometimes crass, sometimes brilliant, but it's rarely less than interesting. It also happens to be a technological and artistic tour de force, just in terms of presentation, even leaving aside all the troublesome semantic content.

I think asking someone to not play the game is asking them not to participate in pop-culture, and that's a really hard call to make.
posted by empath at 9:28 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I grew up playing games that included the GTA series, and I've seen all of Anita's Tropes videos. I think I can defend GTA as a game, which may ease your worry.

The universe in Grand Theft Auto 4 & 5 are satirically critical of just about every aspect of reality. Yes, women are generally portrayed as being shallow in some regard, but so are the men, in their own ways. The games are also critical of government agencies, technological businesses, consumer culture, viral interests-of-the-week, and pretty much everything else about America. I don't think the designer's intent was ever to take any of these things as positive portrayals.

Additionally, I'd argue that the central women of GTAV, one of the main character's wife and daughter, are viewed as stereotypical in-game because that main character personally views them as one-dimensional people, so we are limited to seeing them as to how he sees them. His son gets a similarly shallow treatment.

Anyways, the main point is that while the main characters are generally horrible people, they are also complex people, and occasionally have worthwhile insights on how they view the world, or their personal ethics, things like that. I'd say the main question the game approaches is, "Can a person truly change their own nature?". But I'll be clear, the game has severely harsh language of all sorts, a few specific scenes of especially intense and difficult violence, and a portion of the story has unavoidable nudity (toplessness), as part of it takes place in a strip club. I personally believe that there are 14-year-olds out there that can handle this, but that's ultimately up to you.

That said, I'd also second Rock Star's Red Dead Redemption, possibly the best game they've made. If I recall correctly, the most misogynistic aspects are optional, and the story is fantastic, if one can appreciate the themes of a good Western. It touches upon similar themes.

Unfortunately, most open world games aren't particularly female-positive (yet!). I don't think you'll find anything perfect.

Oh, and I'd heavily suggest The Last of Us as a possible game to play. It's not open world, as it's a linear action/horror game, but it does travel through a lot of various environments. Additionally, the main characters, Ellie and Joel, are interesting, complicated people that make a lot of difficult decisions. This was easily my (and many other's) favorite game of last year, and if he can get into the gameplay, I think he'd really enjoy it.
posted by Skephicles at 11:27 AM on September 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm a woman and consider myself to be a feminist.

I recommend the Saint's Row series. They are universally crude and sexist, but you can also play as a woman and it's so over the top that it's hilarious. I feel like it's so over the top that it just mocks everything and sometimes making fun of stuff, makes it easier to deal with. I think it's similar with GTA - they are actually mocking sexist people instead of actually being sexist. At least that's my take on it.

I've also played the following games that had strong female characters:

-Last of Us - the protagonist is about your son's age
-The Walking Dead (Take Two Interactive, no the FPS) - The main character is a little younger than your son, but she's a fantastic character.
-The newest Tomb Raider
-Beyond Two Souls
posted by parakeetdog at 12:31 PM on September 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm surprised nobody has suggested Minecraft yet. That's about as open a world as it gets, and there isn't exactly a lot of human interaction to be concerned with either (unless you hop onto a public server, at least).
posted by chaosys at 2:47 PM on September 10, 2014

I absolutely love Mass Effect but there is a lot of problematic stuff in it (women as props, costumes that make absolutely no fucking sense for their characters but are there because boobs); it's definitely a game you've gotta be able to engage critically with. Dragon Age has a lot of eye-rolling parts, but is generally better. Neither is really "open world", really, though Dragon Age 3 seems like it might be more so.

I've spent a lot of time playing Elder Scrolls games and they're pretty decent, I think. If he's open to playing on a PC or an old console, Morrowind is a classic of the genre and it really has a LOT of depth in its open world, though the characters are sort of lacking. But it's what I think of as The Open World Game; if he's into fantasy at all he'll probably find the worldbuilding interesting too.

It's not technically out yet, but Sunless Sea (also PC, sorry) is by Failbetter Games and they're great about this kind of thing. It's a sort of survival/horror type with a decent amount of exploration.

Does he only play console games, or does he play PC stuff at all? Does he play it in the same room as you? What are his other favorite games? I have a hard time pointing toward many specific indies, because there are SO MANY of them, but if he has any particular games (or things in games or characters or mechanics or whatever else) that he likes, we might be able to point him towards less well known stuff that he'd like that meets your criteria.

Oh, and if Portal is the kind of thing he'd like, that's pretty good.

Also, just so you know, a lot of the game ratings skew really conservative and kind of awful in it; sometimes there's relatively healthy sexual situations that up the rating and I'm pretty sure that there are a lot of issues with assigning higher ratings for anything with LGBT characters, so I'm glad you're looking at nuanced reviews of stuff, because there are a lot of weaknesses in how the ESRB does their ratings.
posted by NoraReed at 2:52 PM on September 10, 2014

State of Decay.
posted by PMdixon at 2:18 PM on September 11, 2014

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