English Major Wants to Change the Game

English Major Wants to Change the Game

Growing up, she didn’t really play a lot of video games. Shannon Haas would occasionally log time with the odd Nintendo game here and there on the Game Cube, but that was about it.

Although she had always wanted to play video games, a childhood focused on academics and extracurricular activities left little time for what Haas considered a frivolous pursuit. It wasn’t until she started college that she found herself with the flexibility to finally explore the world of gaming.

“I didn’t really play video games or interact with video games at all during middle school and most of high school, which is rare for someone who would refer to themselves as a gamer,” she says, noting that these days she does in fact consider herself a gamer.

As she’s delved into the immersive world of avatars, fantastical graphics and outrageous plots, Haas has been struck by the hypersexualized portrayal of female characters, particularly in some of the industry’s most popular franchises. (Ever heard of Grand Theft Auto?)

After airing her frustrations in an English paper last spring, Haas decided to delve deeper into the issue at the urging of her professor, Tim Carens, who was intrigued by the subject. This summer the pair received grant funding through the College’s Summer Undergraduate Research with Faculty program to study the content of video games within the context of scholarly feminist and media studies. Haas plans to use her research as the basis for her bachelor’s essay.

“I think just the perspective of being a young woman and now a young adult, I think that really granted me some perspective to look at gaming from an outsider’s point of view,” she says. “Everything seemed more poignant. Every instance of misogyny or sexism seemed to stand out and slap me in the face.”

Since coming to the College, Haas, a junior majoring in English, has sampled just about every type of video game on the market, ranging from first-person shooters, RPGs (role-playing games), action/adventure, hack n’ slash and horror/survival.

“You name it, I’ve at least tried it,” she says with a laugh.

Photos by Kip Bulwinkle '04

Photos by Kip Bulwinkle ’04

For Haas, whose intelligence beams out of a funky, slightly punkish façade punctuated with pale pink hair, the depiction of women in many of these games has been disappointing, to say the least. In a world where women are increasingly on an even footing with men, she thought the same would be true within the digital landscape. But the ever-present buxom women roving around games with tiny waists and large chests donning short skirts and low-cut tops seem to indicate that isn’t the case.

However, the purpose of the project isn’t to attack games where these types of characters are found. Haas just wants to encourage dialogue with the hopes of driving change toward the inclusion of more diverse female characters.

“You can point out areas that need improvement and areas of representation that need to be revamped and progressed without totally condemning the material and saying, ‘Oh, this is a terrible game,’” she says.

And how does one analyze video games? By playing them, of course. Haas put hit series such as Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption and Bayonetta at the top of her list.

A long day of research meant playing through the games, and logging various character portrayals and dialogue. In June, Haas spent nearly an entire day in the gritty world of Grand Theft Auto V, focusing her attention on how the
game’s prostitutes were programmed to interact with the male protagonist (controlled by Haas). She also noted
how the game’s non-player male characters were programmed to interact with the prostitutes.

After each interaction, Haas would log a sampling of some of their most outrageous phrases. In one instance,
the first thing Haas heard a nonplayer male character say to a prostitute roaming around a virtual strip club
was, “Hey, honey, why don’t you make me a sandwich.”

“I thought it was really telling because, not only is it unoriginal, but it’s so stereotypical of what a lot of people
think that women like me and gender activists in general are advocating against,” she says.

Her primary focus has been the examination of what Haas calls “troublesome content” that dehumanizes women and the female form. Without a strong narrative validating such content, Haas questions the value of including these depictions of women at all.

Even more of a head-scratcher is that the gaming industry continues to offer up these scantily clad female characters despite the fact that women make up anywhere from 40 percent to 50 percent of video game consumers annually. Haas’ take is that women gamers don’t necessarily like the persistent onslaught of tawdry avatars, but they don’t want to draw attention to the issue for fear of backlash from other members of the gaming community.

“I think a lot of women are unsettled by it, but don’t know how to talk about it,” Haas says.

If her story unfolds the way she wants, Haas hopes to help usher in a new breed of video game heroine who offers up more than just a pretty face. No doubt she’ll beat that quest in no time.