© Copyright 2017 Kristian Saflor, Ryerson University
The role of video games tends to be overlooked as merely games for the sake of satisfaction and playtime. However, as video games become popularized in media, the role of video games have begun to change in terms of social and personal influence. With introduction to new video games touching upon more psychological and sociological themes, examination and analyses on these games should be considered. Representation is an important factor that actively, and at times passively, influences the player in terms of normalcy and identity expectations. In regards to video games as a medium, the notion of representation is worth examining to uncover hidden and overlooked messages video games convey. Video games’ representation of characters presents the role the player is expected to play throughout the game and speaks to players on various psychological and social aspects.
This exhibit seeks to identify the role of video games’ representation of its male characters using Grand Theft Auto V, or GTA V as it is usually stylized, and other video games and explore the different ways these games influence players. The research provided will explore the relationship between video game representation and player’s initial response and influence as a result. The essential goal of the exhibit will ultimately confirm video games as a medium more than just ‘playtime’ and ‘escapism’, but rather as a medium containing hidden sociological messages that ought to be deciphered.
Terminology – Masculinity in Video Games
GTA V was released in 2013 and the game’s central characters are that of three male characters. There’s Michael, a retired criminal in the midst of a midlife-crisis, Trevor, who is often portrayed as being emotionally explosive and possibly psychotic, and Franklin, a young black teen determined to be a big-shot criminal. The game, as it always has been, is stylized as showing off the central and supporting characters holding guns, riding stylish vehicles, or implying acts of crime and violence. What does it imply to the player and general audience? One can look at the characters’ visual design and see nothing particularly meaningful within the art style and implications. For the most part, the character visuals look promising to the game’s story arc and gameplay mechanics, which is what video games should be able to demonstrate to its players. One can even claim that the art style is portrayed how it is as a marketing strategy to entice gamers to buy the game. However, looking at it in a different, more sociological perspective, the character arts imply something much more than just gameplay mechanics and story arc, it implicates male dominance and masculinity.
The term masculinity applies on many levels in gaming. Masculinity can be simply defined as a construct organized within social relations (Kivel and Johnson 110) and this construct seeks to overvalue male power and patriarchy. One can examine character designs and draw upon the way male video game characters are portrayed i.e. physical appearance and behavior, or one can look at how male players express themselves in a video game. There are many factors that relate to masculinity in videos games, however, the importance of physical appearance is crucial for determining the basic concept of masculinity applied in video games. An important factor to be aware of is the history of GTA and its depiction of gender roles. GTA epitomized gender stereotypes in that the main male characters are always portrayed as hyper-masculine, dominant, and aggressive (Gabbiadini et al. 2). Looking at Figure 1, the physical representation of one of the male characters – Franklin – clearly supports the notion of hyper-masculinity, dominance, and aggression. The position of Franklin evokes a killer instinct, looking at his face, his eyes are focussed and his intention to pull the trigger of the sniper rifle is real. The look of the sniper rifle, the detail of the size links to hyper-masculinity in that his sniper rifle is no ordinary sniper, but one that is heavy-duty; highly and unnecessarily advanced. The act itself portrayed in the picture speaks to that of masculine ideologies and expectations, the inclusion of guns is an enabler for hegemonic masculinity.
Hegemonic masculinity is a term that is brilliantly described in an article titled “Hiding in Plain Sight: Reproducing Masculine Culture at a Video Game Studio” by Robin Johnson as he quotes Douglas Kellner’s definition as, ‘‘associated with military heroism, corporate power, sports achievement, action-adventure movie stars, and being tough, aggressive, and macho’’ (580). Looking at Figure 1 once again, the picture suggests masculine notions regarding the game itself. Although the picture does effectively provide hints to the player as to how the game’s story and gameplay will play out, it also suggests that players must follow this notion of hegemonic masculinity to actually play the game. There are no alternate routes for progression in GTA V, which is why most quests, or ‘missions’, or ‘heists’, require gunplay and violence.
With this in mind, the portrayal of masculinity influences the player to think a certain way whilst playing the game. It enforces players to have a masculine mindset in order to play the game in its intended design. However, making assumptions based on a picture is not enough plausible evidence, further exploration to decipher if GTA V does indeed encourage masculine behaviours requires one to play the game.
The Video Game and the Player:
One of the many appeals to video games is the simple aspect of players’ connection with the world, story and characters a video game provides. The magic of video games is the notion of escapism and surrealism, the fictional aspect of video games signifies both feelings of longing and connection by the perspective of the player. Racing games tends to appeal to players with an interest in cars, fantasy games tends to appeal to players with an interest in the supernatural and sports games tends to appeal to players with an interest in sports. To put it simply, players establish a connection between themselves and the characters they see or play as in a video game (Gabbiadini et al. 2).
In regards to GTA V, players are constantly exposed to male characters who are “aggressive, dominant, competitive, strong, powerful, and independent” (Gabbiadini 3), thus, players may feel a connection between these characters. It is important to also explore the gameplay and the player’s choices of interaction as gameplay is far more rich in evoking meaning to the player as opposed to a simple picture. Drawing on GTA V’s gameplay, the game’s primary missions requires the player to act and play out heists, street races, dangerous expeditions, and gunfights. One thing that needs to be acknowledged is the simple fact that the majority of GTA V’s content is extremely pro-masculine. The game emphasizes guns, sleek cars, sex, money, and violence in a much larger degree than anything else presented within the game. The importance of this is that the game does not offer anything else to feel connected to through the player’s perspective except elements of masculinity. GTA V as a game encapsulates masculinity, and the game overvalues it in that the characters you play as are stereotypically masculine. As a result of GTA V being created as an inherent masculine game, the game “ceases to exist” (Jansz 221) when players do not meet the required expectations. What does this mean?
A video game is programmed for the player to interact with it in order to ultimately progress and complete the game; “a video game requires a constant exchange of messages between the game and its player” (Jansz 221). GTA V offers very little content in terms of breaking away from masculinity. Leisure activities are limited to sports such as tennis, and the notion of feminism is almost nonexistent due to the lack of playable female characters. The supporting, female characters offer very little in terms of gameplay elements.
In regards to the player, the connection made between the player and the game is one that is rooted by masculinity. With GTA V being so vast in gameplay and world-building, players must commit time and energy to bring about the unfolding of the game (Jansz 221), and thus, with time and energy being spent, a connection is made. Only the connection made between the player and the game is one that is rooted and built upon masculinity, as the game offers nothing more.
It has been discussed throughout the exhibit that GTA V contains masculine themes and contents and that it offers nothing for players who do not appeal to masculinity. This indicates that not only is GTA V’s content happens to be masculine, but that the game itself is intended for males to play. As previously stated, GTA V offers almost no other content that isn’t rooted by masculinity. It is essential to point out that video games assumes the default player as male (Gabbiadini 3) as it signifies the ultimate exclusion of players who do not conform to such masculine elements in video games. Looking at GTA V in a female player’s perspective, the game offers very little for women. The fact that all the playable characters in the game are male may strike female players as discouraging and even sexist. Even the game’s official cover art illuminates masculine themes and implications. Figure 2 is the game’s cover art, the panels depicts vague gameplay elements and plot events, yet it also presents clear notions of masculinity in that the male characters are holding guns, riding high-end vehicles etc. The panel with the female is suggestive of sexual themes in that the girl in the panel has a seductive look and is animated as a beautiful looking woman.
It is important to mention that this is the only panel portraying a female, and it portrays her as being a sex symbol. This may prove problematic to some players due to the fact that no female characters are included in high-octane violence and vehicle expeditions. For females to play the game, they have to witness stereotypes of gender roles in that the interactions with females in GTA V consists of creeping them out, using them for sex i.e. prostitutes, beating or killing them, and visiting strip clubs. This in turn signifies the notion of naturalization of masculinity, as masculinity hides in plain site (Johnson 581) within GTA V. The Grand Theft Auto series has always had the same formula; male protagonists, guns, violence, and gender stereotypes and it is because of this formula that the series continues to enforce masculinity in their games. The inclusion of violence, guns, and male protagonists discourages players who are uninterested, or despise masculinity, from even playing the game. In terms of marketing, the game released posters that of male characters and the use of weapons and vehicles seen in these posters further emphasizes the notion of masculinity.
Video Games – A Social Influence:
GTA V as a video game offers content appealing to that of males, as it encourages masculinity in order to progress and complete the game. Looking at GTA V in a sociological standpoint, the game elicits a certain way of expressing its identity in the gaming community and thus, enables sociological examination. With the game revolving around masculinity and masculine behaviours, it elicits a platform for players’ discovery, or exercise in player identity. The significance of GTA V and its inclusion of masculine themes is that it highlights a social concept. GTA V as a game enforcing the notion of masculinity seeks to give video games recognition as a medium for sociological discussion and debate. Ultimately, with games like GTA V where it evokes important sociological topics, video games are more critically analyzed instead of being viewed as as just games.
Gabbiadini, Alessandro, et al. “Acting Like a Tough Guy: Violent-Sexist Video Games, Identification with Game Characters, Masculine Beliefs, & Empathy for Female Violence Victims.” PLoS One, Apr. 2016. ProQuest, search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1780806293?pq-origsite=summon
Grand Theft Auto V. Rockstar Games. 2013. Video Game.
Johnson, Robin. “Hiding in Plain Sight: Reproducing Masculine Culture at a Video Game Studio.” Communication, Culture & Critique, vol. 7, no. 4, December 2014, pp. 578-94. Scholars Portal Journals, journals2.scholarsportal.info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/pdf/17539129/v07i0004/578_hipsrmcaavgs.xml
Jansz, Jeroen. “The Emotional Appeal of Violent Video Games for Adolescent Males.” Communication Theory, vol. 15, no. 3, August 2005, pp. 219-41. Scholars Portal Journals, journals2.scholarsportal.info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/pdf/10503293/v15i0003/219_teaovvgfam.xml
Kivel, B. Dana, and Johnson, W. Corey. “Consuming Media, Making Men: Using Collective Memory Work to Understand Leisure and the Construction of Masculinity.” Journal of Leisure Research, 2009, pp. 109-33. ProQuest, search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/201199297?pq-origsite=summon
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.