Sexist images, homophobic language – or are they?

by on April 24, 2012

There’s an interesting trend going on in the blogosphere today, as several well-known bloggers take an unusual stance on apparently sexist and homophobic depictions in MMORPGs. Tobold and Zubon are almost point-counterpoint in their two posts about sexist imagery in gaming, whilst Stubborn has a nuanced look at the use of the word “gay” in conversation.

First up, Tobold is taking a look at the sexualised fantasy art of games like TERA, linking them to the art of Boris Vallejo, and arguing that fantasy images are part and parcel of a fantasy environment -

“Of course hunting demons in stiletto heels isn’t realistic, and a chainmal bikini has obvious flaws as a piece of armor. But while I am hurling fireballs at a dragon, should I really be worried about how realistic anything in these games is? The notion that something shown in a virtual world in any way is a representation of the real world is a dangerous one. You end up with people complaining about the “occult” elements of these games depicting devils and demons. Or the endless discussion on whether or not a game which depicts some form of romance should allow that to happen between members of the same sex.

Fact is that there is no reproduction in virtual worlds. Avatars never have sex, and female avatars never get pregnant and have babies. As it says somewhere on the label, the whole virtual world is a fantasy. People usually enter these virtual worlds because they want a temporary break from their real-world issues. Projecting those real-world issues onto the virtual world isn’t exactly helpful there. It ends up criticizing people for the fantasies they have, and that is an extreme form of attempted mind control. You can’t punish people for their dreams and fantasies not being politically correct.”

Whilst Zubon skewers part of Tobold’s argument below, he has some interesting points. Fantasies are by their very nature unrealistic, and many people would argue that sexualisation is far from the most disturbing fantasy aspect of games.

Meanwhile, over at Kill Ten Rats, Zubon is discussing exactly the same subject – sexualised figures in MMOs – but looking at whether the male and female fantasy figures in these games really are equivalent -

“There is a false equivalence in the unrealistic depictions of men and women in gaming. Men designed by men for men will tend to look a bit different from men designed by women for women, and “men designed by men for women” is not the same thing. (It is amazing how many boys call something “gay” when it is perfectly heteronormative but for the other half of the population. The notion that sexualized depictions of men are “gay” is a barometer of how male-centric one’s perspective is.)

You have a vicious circle if you are reducing your female audience through marginalizing depictions and then using that skewed audience to justify the depictions.”

One interesting side point that comes out of this discussion is how bad men are at designing male characters for other men. True, I may well feel uncomfortable playing a yaoi-styled pretty boy, but I don’t exactly get a great sense of connection playing a neckless wonder a la Gears Of War, either.

Meanwhile, to round off discussions of uncomfortable subjects, Stubborn at Sheep The Diamond has been considering the use of the term “gay” in conversation to mean something bad. Whilst many of us would argue that’s just straight out homophobic, Stubborn makes an intelligent, considered case that actually, it’s more complicated than that -

Jerk, for example, initially referred to small towns, where trains had to fill up on “jerk water,” or water from a trough, because there was no water tower. The people in such small towns eventually became known as “jerks,” but it simply meant “small town people who don’t know better,” like we might call “rubes” nowadays. Over years, the “small town” part vanished and we had “people who don’t know better,” which eventually drifted to “badly behaving people.”

Pimp is another word that’s drifted through hyperbole quite a bit. In the past, calling someone a pimp would warrant a fight, but it eventually became commonplace word that people used to describe themselves much in the way “a lady’s man” would have been used in the past.

Then, of course, is the infamous “N” word. Countless attempts by older generations of African Americans were made to inform younger generations of the strong and offensive meaning of that word, but none of them actually stopped the younger generation from causing semantic drift to reclaim the word for themselves, giving them power over it.”

“Gay” has been a problematic word for a while now, and ironically one where it’s quite possible to genuinely offend someone by misunderstanding their usage as homophobic. It’s interesting to see discussion starting on what the best route to take when talking about it is.

From a writer’s point, it’s also fascinating to see linguistic change actively in effect on such an emotive topic!

Let us know what you think of these posts – but please be polite, and discuss the argument, not the speaker!

If you enjoyed this article, check out our other posts from these categories: General MMO Interest

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Apple Cider April 24, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Unfortunately, on the “gay” tip – we haven’t reached a place where gay is magically drifted away from being a slur since people still use it as a slur. Even if you don’t mean something is homosexual, you are still equating a term that is very regularly used as ALSO a term for homosexuals to mean “bad.” It is a linguistic shortcut, even if you don’t “mean” that it is homosexual directly. Intent to not be homophobic does not remove the fact that you are coming across homophobic. Why do we have to defend the use of “gay” as “bad” when it very obviously hurts people?

Why can’t we just use all the other wonderful words in our English language?


Stubborn April 24, 2012 at 8:31 pm

I don’t think I did a good job until I just replied to a comment from Kurn answering the very question you ask, AC, so let me address it a little bit here. I’m coming from a particular viewpoint, so I’ll state that first, and if you disagree, then please understand that from my point of view, I’m trying to find a middle ground. I truly believe that linguistic drift is an unconscious force of nature, and I don’t think that – in English at any rate – any concerted effort to stop drift can actually stop it. So I’m operating under the principle that in a decade or two, “gay” will no longer have ties to meaning “homosexual” any stronger than its current historical ties to meaning “happy.” It’s entirely possible that you believe differently, and if you do, then I fully understand your displeasure at the rest of my argument.

From there, assuming we can’t stop the drift, I think my argument was simply to stop trying to halt the drift so it can progress at a pace to more quickly break the link between “bad” and “homosexual.” I feel like the longer we fight it, the longer that tie will exist. I’m not particularly defending the use of it, either; I’m suggesting we change our approach in how we respond when people use it from a more angry, punitive approach to a more understanding, educational approach. It may be that you and I already approach dealing with people who use “gay” to mean “bad” in the same way, in fact, since I’ve read how intelligently and carefully you’ve dealt with people asking about feminism. I suspect, in fact, that I’m just verbalizing the change in a way that you already operated for a while.

To be frank, though, I don’t think the linguistic shortcut you describe is has as powerful an effect as you claim; you don’t consider “cool” things cold nor a “pimped out” car to actually have something to do with prostitution. Linguistic compartmentalization is a very powerful effect; consider how quickly you can switch language modalities between work and your friends. It’s as fast a flipping a switch, and for many young people, the word’s negative connotation has nothing to do with homosexuality, and they are genuinely baffled as to why people would be upset by it. That’s where the “historical” (by their definition) education comes in, so that they learn how it could hurt people, because many of them genuinely don’t get it. Teaching them that language modality both protects people’s feelings but also acknowledges the change in meaning, allowing the change to finish.

Anyway, if you’d like to discuss this further, and I was very uncomfortable about how to approach the issue so any feedback would be welcome, please hop over to my blog and send me a comment or an email.


Peregrina April 24, 2012 at 8:39 pm

So, per request, I will comment politely. But I’ll not be addressing the first or last linked posts, because neither of them are novel or nuanced. This is really basic, common stuff that’s been addressed over and over again. And while this is a fun opportunity for “polite discussion” about “hot topics” for some, for others this is our lives. With sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and other crimes and non-criminal offenses as common as they are, it’s really not fun for women to constantly address really (really) terrible, tired, and tiresome arguments about how objectification is A-OK because magic. In a world where I can’t feel free to so much as brush against my boyfriend in a grocery store, where we couldn’t take a week’s vacation in Chicago without being harassed on the train, where the state I live in will soon have a referendum to put an anti-gay marriage amendment in the state constitution, where a person behind me loudly declared “well that was gay!!” walking out of Cabin in the Woods – in that world I really do not have the wherewithal to politely argue with someone who thinks calling stuff gay is totally awesome.


Xsinthis April 25, 2012 at 4:26 am

Okay I’m gonna tackle the first topic discussed here…

Honestly I feel uncomfortable playing these characters who are just wearing metal bikinis. I don’t know any people that will buy a game just because they can play a character with unpractical bust size that’s nearly falling out. Frankly if one of my friends can look at one of these characters and remark that her lingerie covers more, these characters are seriously under dressed.

And yes, it isn’t practical, what’s the point of wearing armour if more body is exposed than covered? I don’t care we’re hurtling fireballs and fighting dragons, even in most of these games universes these don’t make sense. One could argue that armour protection is magical in this game, but then why do we have differences between Plate, Mail, Leather and Cloth? Even games where women are fully covered the “boob plate” is ridiculous, not only does plate armour not work this way, it’s detrimental. There is a very good article here about boob plate that I suggest reading:

I fit perfectly into this supposed demographic which game developers are trying to market to with this sexist armour, and honestly it doesn’t do a thing for me, and like I said I don’t know anyone who plays games for the digital boobs.


quori April 25, 2012 at 3:36 pm

America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free”.

Its from the film The American President and it is perfectly true and accurate. Is this intent to support or advocate “hate speech” no, absolutely not. It is in essence a statement on understanding what personal freedom and liberty in regards to speech is truly about…acceptance and tolerance.

It is easy for us to ban, condemn, or in some form or fashion restrict words or language that have singular context in our language (many curse words are examples of this). But words like “gay” which have a known root source and a good one at that (happy)…are far more the sticky-wicket to which the above alludes.

My wife and I have been glared at, scoffed at, and had negative words thrown in our direction both under-breath and out loud in perfect earshot. We have NEVER let it deter us nor bother us. Maya Angelou said it perfectly, “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” Again, perfectly stated to these situations. Is it hard, yes. Is it painful, yes. Does it sometimes become so overwhelming as to seemingly tear you apart inside, YES. But when you allow yourself to be reduced by someone’s actions or words, well that’s what you can control. This does not give them a free pass. It does not absolve them of blame, responsibility, or culpability. But it does define where you do have power.

Discussion should always be polite and civil. As soon as it leaves those behind it devolves to argument, at which point everyone has already lost. Stubborn, I ultimately like your post. You expressly state your case and perspective well. I also agree with what I think your end point is, in that – educating young people is the foundation.

In the end I have frequently clashed with folks on this subject matter not based on difference of opinion on what is bad or wrong (bad words are bad, hurting someone is wrong, regardless of intent – on this we agree)….but instead on how to solve the problem. Screaming at the person responsible will NOT change them. You will not affect change in someone in this manner, in fact quite the opposite…you will most likely further entrench them into their stance that it is funny or right and perhaps even push them further down the path you do not want them traveling. You have to look to the foundation of why they are doing it. In adults it is normally a lifetime of learned behavior, and in most cases good luck ever changing them at that point. In teens/young adults, it is normally about attention. They want the laugh or revulsion from you. They crave and seek that attention. In children its mimicking. One kid said it or did it, so they copy. That especially can be can educate them rather easily. Of course the medium and connection with the person has a huge part to play…trying to affect some 19 yr old through WoW or some other game over chat, vent, mumble is most likely not going to work. Teaching kids or young adults you interact with daily through social interactions and programs works best (become a volunteer coach for local youth sports or through the YMCA for example).

I could go on, but honestly the solution to social issues like this are in eduction, exposure, and most importantly time. It takes generations for change to take hold. Slavery was abolished in 1865. The military wasn’t desegregated until 1948. The Civil Rights Act was not signed until 1964 enforcing full desegregation. 2008 this country elects the first African-American president. That took well over a century…and many would say things are still not equal. Education, Exposure, TIME.


flosch April 25, 2012 at 10:09 pm

Quori, for that post, you are my hero of the week.


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