In 1985, the video game industry was revived with a love story. Super Mario Bros. was a game about Mario, a man who jumped over bottomless pits and deadly enemies to save the love of his life, Princess Peach, from the clutches of a her kidnapper. The game has become the icon of an industry that has gone from the ruins of bankruptcy to one that rivals Hollywood in profits and audience. Though gameplay mechanics and visuals continue to evolve, mainstream gender portrayals haven’t strayed far from the blueprints set by Super Mario Bros, which is evident with video game covers. It would take hundreds of hours to play through a variety of games to do an in depth analysis of the portrayal of genders, so video game covers are the next best way because they are the first thing that people notice when browsing through the video game section of a store and normally printed videogame advertisements are just blown up versions of the cover art. While video game fans will know that video game covers aren’t truly representative of the actual game content, video games are now a part of mainstream culture that everyone at least has knowledge of them, usually through advertisements or covers they see in stores. Unfortunately, video game covers systematically represents and reinforces stereotypical male and female gender roles, from the aggressive, imposing male hero to the vulnerable, sometimes powerful but still objectified heroine. With all the growing that the video game industry has gone through in forty years, advertising for them hasn’t grown up.
There was controversy over the cover art of the upcoming game Bioshock Infinite. Instead of having a cover that represented the game’s contents and themes, like the first Bioshock had, it followed the mainstream male cover art trend. It shows a rugged looking white male walking imposingly toward the camera. He’s a larger than life figure holding a shotgun firmly in his right hand, ignoring that fact that the hand is badly wounded. The smug look on his face suggests that he is pleased with the destruction going on around him. Perhaps he was the cause of it. Covers like these reinforce hypermasculine traits in males, perhaps more so than other mediums because instead of watching an actor on screen play a character, the player is the character performing the actions (Dill 861). They are frequently involved in violent scenes such as battlefields, fire and glass flying all around them, or even the end of the world. As it is a battle ground, they carry weapons, usually large firearms like assault rifles or shotguns. They don’t look like they are disgusted by what is going on around them; they seem as if they’re looking forward to it with their aggressive stances and faces, ready to take on whatever comes their way.
These characters become aggressive role models for men, showing them that a man has to act tough, to solve all solutions through violence and force, and to see violence as something exciting and empowering. These sorts of role models do not empower men because the “more aggressive a male is, the poorer his intellectual functioning” is and has “lower social and intellectual functioning that hinders advancement in the workplace and case strain” (Dill 861). Not only does it negatively harm a man’s image of himself but it demonstrates to women that they should look up to these kinds of men who are regarded as heroes in a world that is lacking heroines to look up to for role models.
While females are still outnumbered by males as protagonists, the major heroines in the medium are well known. No other female represents the evolving trend of women in games than Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series. When she appeared on the scene back in 1996, she was one of the first females in games to be portrayed as an action hero in a medium inundated with male heroes. Despite this advancement Lara Croft was still treated as a sexual object. She was raiding caverns and tombs in booty shorts and tight fitting outfits that showed a lot of skin and left little to the imagination. Despite having what many would consider to be a liberating role for a woman, Lara was “a butt-kicking, buxom video game star who was at once agent and object” (Mikula 2003). Heroines that are “also objectified, sexualized and trivialized…are not true figures of liberation” (Huntemann 2000). Video game covers represent both sides of her public appearance. They covers show Lara wielding weapons, looking confidently into the camera, her chin down and eyes up to show aggression. Her power is juxtaposed with barely enough clothes on to go for a hike in the woods. Even in newer installments the box art still objectifies Lara to satisfy the male gaze and attract young male customers.
The new creative team behind the upcoming reboot of the game must have realized this paradox when designing the upcoming reboot of the franchise and it clearly shows on the box art. The buxom babe has been replaced with an average looking girl who looks like she could be anyone’s younger sister instead of a movie star. She has several weapons at her disposal and is standing just a few feet away from a storm; it’s an active scene that a male hero would be more likely to be found in. Lara has a determined look on her face to show her aggressive side, but most interestingly she is clutching at an open wound, the only one that doesn’t seem to be bandaged. The scene, her equipment and her face show that she a capable woman, but the sense of mortality depicted by the open wound, something that is rare on video game covers, humanizes Lara.
Bioshock Infinite’s stereotypical cover didn’t convey anything about what the game was about like Tomb Raider’s does. The backlash against the bland cover, indistinguishable from other mainstream titles, forced Bioshock Infinite’s Creative Director Kevin Levine to issue an explanation for the cover:
“I understand that some of the fans are disappointed. We expected it. I know that may be hard to hear, but let me explain the thinking…We went and did a tour…around to a bunch of, like, frathouses and places like that. People who were gamers. Not people who read IGN . And [we] said, so, have you guys heard of Bioshock? Not a single one of them had heard of it…I looked at the cover art for Bioshock 1, which I was heavily involved with and love, and adored. And I tried to step back and say, if I’m just some guy, some frat guy, I love games but don’t pay attention to them…if I saw the cover of that box, what would I think? And I would think, this is a game about a robot and a little girl. That’s what I would think. I was trying to be honest with myself. Trust me, I was heavily involved with the creation of those characters and I love them…I wanted the uninformed, the person who doesn’t read IGN… to pick up the box and say, okay, this looks kind of cool, let me turn it over. Oh, a flying city. Look at this girl, Elizabeth on the back. Look at that creature. And start to read about it, start to think about it… I think the cover is a small price for the hardcore gamer to pay.” (Kohler)
Most people are attracted and instantly make a connection to what is familiar which is why most cover art doesn’t stray far from set of tried and true trends. Even in television advertisements for the first Bioshock, they weren’t conveying to people that the game was a critique on Ayn Rand’s philosophy; they were showing off the gun fights and super powers you could use against enemies.
Kevin Levine is right in saying that gamers will buy a good game despite the stereotypical cover art, but he is wrong in insinuating that it shouldn’t matter. Researchers Dill and Thill conducted a study where they asked 49 college freshmen, aware of games but who didn’t regularly play them, the demographic that Kevin Levine is trying to rope in with Bioshock Infinite’s cover, and asked them to “describe what the typical male/female…character looks like and acts like” (859). The participants associated males to “power, aggression, and a cocky attitude” and females were related to “sexual and attractiveness-oriented, and aggression” (860). Gamers know most games are deeper than that, but it’s no wonder the video game industry is having such a hard time demonstrating to people that it has grown into a powerful artistic medium because the average person only sees gender stereotypes depicted in advertising that are aimed at attracting young males despite women making up 48% of people who play videogames (ESA). It’s a sign that the industry hasn’t evolved past this mindset that young males are their best customers when the reality is that everyone today is playing games.
If the industry wants to be taken seriously as an art form, it can’t just tout the fact that videogames are now featured in the Smithsonian Museum, it needs to act like the mature medium it has become. It needs to stray away from the outdated notion that young teenage males are their best customers when the gender demographic is just about split down the middle and gamers, who once were young teenagers long ago, are growing older. The average gamer now is now 30 years old (Cavalli). This means that cover art needs to become representative of its game and not just a phish for what they think will be more attractive to an outdated demographic that is nearly gone and equally represent the females in games to appeal to everyone. Kevin Levine must have thought about this after the backlash to Infinite’s cover, so he held a contest to vote on a new cover art. What garnered 38 percent of the vote couldn’t have been any more different from the original. And that’s a good thing because it breaks all conventional trends and shows just what mainstream video game covers could convey instead of what they do now.
~Arnulfo “Arnie” Hermes
What do you think about video game covers? In what ways do you think they could improve?Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation!