Games

In Early GameFAQs, the Subtext Was Often Sexism

The marketing of the 80s and 90s built the idea of games as a space "for the boys", and a number of game guides show the message was received.
October 14, 2020, 1:00pm
A group of monks copy out pages in a medieval scriptorium.
An illustration of a medieval scriptorium / Wikipedia

I've been playing a lot of old games during this pandemic -- digging into my libraries of PS2, GameCube, and Dreamcast games that I just can't seem to make myself get rid of. To say that my once-perfect recall of all their intricacies, secrets, techniques, and puzzles is now considerably less so is the understatement of the decade. Never get older, kids. This is what happens.

Thankfully, GameFAQs—probably the premiere repository for text-based FAQs going back to what arguably counts as "antiquity" in gaming culture—is still around. Many games still get submissions, though perhaps not as many as they once did, and new FAQs are often built in hyperlink-capable HTML, a marked navigation improvement over FAQ writers needing to pepper their 80-character-width raw text guide with searchable text tags for your browser's "Find" function.

This means I've been digging through GameFAQs more often than usual, since "guides for games that are 10+ years old" is one of its strengths. In some ways, this has been a fun nostalgia trip for me. I can hearken back to days of playing games until sun-up in college, glued to a FAQ a billion lines long telling me how to unlock the secret boss of a JRPG or find the hidden super-powerful item in an action game. I got to experience the joy of Chris "Kao Megura" MacDonald's exhaustive and detailed fighting game FAQs again, their meticulous exactitude a monument to his dedication to, and love of, the medium. His FAQ and movelist for the Dreamcast port of Marvel vs. Capcom 2 was incredible, given the sheer scope of playable characters in that game.

A frame from 'The Wizard' showing a helpful Nintendo Power Line employee hours into offering tips and tricks for every game.

A frame from 'The Wizard' showing a helpful Nintendo Power Line employee hours into offering tips and tricks for every game.

Sadly, nostalgia often proves to be the gilded coat of paint that conceals less pleasant truths underneath. Time and time again, as I looked at character guides for RPGs or fighting game FAQs and movelists, I found a recurring motif: people being really weird about women characters in these old guides.

It's little things, really. Comments about their appearance—or more commonly their sexual attractiveness—that aren't there for male characters. Notes that women characters often made it into a guide author's party because they're hot rather than because they were actually useful from a gameplay perspective. Individually, they may seem minor, but they stack up over time, and once you see one and are really aware of it, you will start to notice them everywhere.

I think one of my favorites was one FAQ writer describing a woman character as being "beautiful and strong and she hasn't been given huge bosoms or anything to make her more appealing to shallow people," a statement so heavy with irony that I don't even know where to begin to discuss it.

Seiken Densetsu 3.PNG

But even only considering games I've recently played (and thus read FAQs for), there's definitely other examples. A guide writer for Seiken Densetsu 3 — i.e. the original form of the recently-released Trials of Mana — peppers a guide for one of the playable characters with comments about how hot the character Angela's special moves, and even her mother, are, each one ending with a frankly creepy "heeheehee…". In truth, multiple FAQs for this game zero in specifically on Angela in a similar way. A build guide for Unlimited SaGa implies, for lack of better phrasing, the author receiving an imaginary face slap every time they comment on the weight or age of playable women. There's a "Female-only challenge" guide for the GBA Fire Emblem that the male characters make the game too easy: "Don't use them, and you'll have yourself a REAL challenge!"

None of these examples are exactly four-alarm fires; they're microaggressions, as many things of this type usually are. It's not that any one example is usually anything more than off-putting, but seeing them happen repeatedly really starts to grate, at best, and at worst has the potential to be strongly upsetting.

A foundational Marxist theorist, Louis Althusser, describes a process called interpellation, where the structures in our culture "hail" us to identify ourselves relative to them. This is a simplification of a larger and more complex idea, obviously, but in many ways that's what this onslaught of microaggressive or objectifying comments and statements is doing. Surrounded by messaging that connects "women are sexy objects" with "we're talking to you, Gamers™" means players are being told "Hey -- understand yourself as a gamer in relation to this framing." It doesn't necessarily presuppose that the person being hailed will agree, but it does mean that the boundaries of the discussion have been set before that person even gets a proverbial word in.

A promotional shot from Ready Player One depicting the hero in his VR helmet.

A promotional still from 'Ready Player One'

FAQs like those found at GameFAQs are fan creations: made by players, for other players. It would be really easy to blame these weird, objectifying comments and asides on individuals or small groups, i.e. "well, these players are just being weird" or "what can you expect from video game culture?"

The question we need to ask ourselves, though, is: what's building that culture in the first place? It's not like the idea "women are objects to be possessed/are there for your gratification" came from outer space on a meteor like a sci-fi virus. The answer is that a specific type of masculine identity has been sold to players (male or not) for decades; it's built into the marketing of games and the construction of an ideal consumer by the industry itself.

The culture of gaming in the US has its roots in everything from STEM-adjacent research and computer science, to competitive sports, to actual game development itself, all areas that Illinois Institute of Technology professor Carly Kocurek says "are dominated by men, and I use the word dominated pretty deliberately." The inevitable result is that the problems masculinity brings to those fields then find themselves reproduced in gaming.

"Early video game uprights [arcade cabinets] were sold like boats and cars, with women in lingerie casually showcasing them," Kocurek says of events like the Consumer Electronics Show. Rather than being positioned as potential players or buyers, women were basically "props to help make the goods more appealing to an audience of straight men."

"So, you see this at many levels -- how games are made, how they're sold, who's imagined to play them. In so many ways, women aren't treated as people."

Even in the earliest days of arcade games and home consoles like the Atari 2600, the industry atmosphere had a very strong "just dudes being dudes" vibe to it (consider the infamous story of Nolan Bushnell wearing a shirt saying "I love to fuck" to meet a new company exec at Atari). The console industry crash in the 1980s, however, was a major catalyst for gaming—something that was, at the time, not overly gendered as an activity—swerving strongly toward this "video games are for dudes" mindset. As Prof. Kocurek notes in her book, an industry rebounding off imploding sales needed a "safe and reliable market," which they found in young men.

Flash forward to the early 2000s, when video games are moving into online-capable home consoles and networked play as the norm. Jess Morrisette points to the very same phenomenon happening as the industry attempted to promote online play. The same objectifying, hyper-masc, trash-talking behavior that was part of the "games are for boys" marketing in the early 90s whipped right back around to rear its head again ten years later. As Morrisette says, closing out his piece, "We may think of toxicity as a bug in 2020, but two decades ago, game companies were selling it as a feature."

The takeaway here is clear: none of the weird sexualizing comments I saw in these old FAQs was somehow new or novel behavior, but rather just another form of a cultural shift that had been over a decade in the making at that point and which is continuing on in new and different forms and angles today.

This is why the urge to say "well, this is all in the past" does serious potential harm: it lets us pretend that people nowadays are fine, it was just the old ways and/or the old people that were bad. What's the difference between a FAQ writer running down how hot the only playable woman in a fighting game cast is and a gacha game player's use of the cringe-inducing "waifu"?

My intention here isn't to beat you about the head and shoulders with the "gamer men are evil!" stick. I do think, however, that it's important we confront these troublesome bits of our history rather than pretend they didn't happen. I think it says something that thinking back on my college days in the 90s, I legitimately do not remember noticing or even thinking about the sorts of things I found in FAQs coming back to them in 2020. It's not that they weren't there, but that at the time I likely didn't have the awareness or the skills to notice them and see them for what they were.

All of this definitely makes me wonder, though: if you're in your late teens or early 20s now, what are you going to see coming back to look at this content 20-30 years from now? What will you notice then that you maybe aren't seeing now, just like what happened to me with these FAQs? Will we have learned from this recurring cycle of mistakes and problems?

Hopefully, we will have… but the next time you're watching a video you found after googling the answer to an in-game puzzle or boss strat, maybe keep your senses open for the quiet stuff that—as this trip down memory lane, complete with sudden detour, showed me—is often hiding just beneath our notice.