Saturday, 1 August 2009

Women, men, games, cleavage

Beyond my friends' journals, the two kinds of blogs I mostly read are ones about programming and ones about politics. Typically, their content does not overlap, but the other day there was a rare exception: Both Coding Horror and Sociological Images pointed out the hilarious-yet-depressing evolution of the ads for a browser-based game called "Evony".

Starting out with a fairly generic man-in-armor-with-sword, the ad switched to showing a series of women with increasingly more cleavage - until the final ad, which is literally just cleavage. Any mention of what kind of game this is supposed to advertise has long fallen by the wayside. If I had to take a guess from the way the ad looks, I would go for strip poker, not a "Civilization"-esque empire building game.

The makers of the ads probably noticed a correlation between the amount of cleavage and the proportion of viewers who clicked on the ad - but in the process, they have outed themselves as troglodytes.

(In case you would like to see confirmation that these ads are indeed out on the web, as of the time of this writing, going to is likely to do the trick.)

Sadly, they are hardly alone. Large chunks of the video game industry understand themselves as a hetero-men-only club. The line between game mags and lad mags is frequently quite blurred, for example at, who have a "Babe of the day" section. Then there are the ubiquitous "Booth Babes" found at trade shows, a tradition of scantily clad women to be ogled by the (assumedly) all-male crowds. The few games which actually feature female main characters often treat them as mostly eye candy. And on the rare occasions where this isn't the case, certain people complain and wield photoshop.

Still, there are games developers out there who remember that women are people, not eye candy. Spiderweb Games is pretty good on that score. And then there's PopCap Games' Plants vs Zombies, who decided to have their own special take on the Evony ads:

  • Vote with your wallet. Don't play or buy games with sexist content or advertising - or at least consider the alternatives. There are plenty of online empire-building games that don't feel the need to insult their potential customers with the assumption they'll be swayed by boobies. If you like building things, you might also like FreeCiv - and you can typically buy a copy of Sim City 2000 or Alpha Centauri for a pittance.

  • Write Angry Letters: To game mags that think casual sexism is OK, to game developers who think the same, and to websites who allow said ads to be run.

For example, I sent the following letter to LiveJournal:

Dear LiveJournal team,

I have noticed that you are showing ads for the web-based game "Evony" on your site. From their cleavage-centric appearance one would guess that they advertise porn, or perhaps strip poker, though apparently they advertise a strategy game.

Certainly, the ad's creators feel the need to insult their potential customers by assuming that the sight of breasts will make us play their game. Given that (according to your stats) some 55.3% of your readership is female, and given that the majority of your male readership (myself included) probably doesn't want to be subjected to these ads either, do you really think it's appropriate to run them?

As you may be aware, there has been quite a backlash against these ads in a number of online communities, and your display of them does taint you by association. Livejournal hosts a large number of different communities, many of whom will feel less than welcome as long as you are showing these ads.

I certainly don't feel welcome.

I look forward to hearing from you on this important matter.

I encourage you to send a similar letter, perhaps based on this one - but be sure to make it different enough so that it doesn't look to them as if someone just pasted the same thing a dozen times using different names.

Equally, I encourage you to send a letter to Evony. Now, given that they are still running these ads, it's likely that they are rubbing their little hands with glee at all the publicity the Internet outrage has produced. Try to make it clear to them that insulting their potential customers isn't going to work in the long run.

But if you only send one letter, go for the LJ one, or a letter to another site that's showing the ads. I think we have more of a chance shaming them into not showing the ads than Evony, who have already outed themselves as slimebags.


  1. can't see the ad on livejournal, maybe it's because I'm not a member though, but probably a good thing as it would make me feel angry as well. I hate advertising! Good post, thanks for posting it.

  2. Is the depiction of breasts in an advertising campaign really more of a concern than the depiction of killing in a computer game...?

  3. I think they're of about equal concern.

    The depiction of killing in computer games furthers a culture where violence is an acceptable way to solve problems, and war is considered respectable instead of deplorable.

    Equally, the depiction of women as prizes or commodities to be attained, as passive sex objects rather than active agents, furthers a culture where women exist for men's pleasure, and not as human beings in their own right.

    I want to write a post about violence in video games as well. It's a very interesting topic, and one dominated by extremes in opinion. According to one side, even the most graphically brutal games are without consequence. According to the other, such games positively brainwash the player into a shooting spree.

    Finally, I have to point out that this blog makes no attempt to create a definitive or ranked catalogue of problems. War, famine, disease, crime, the environment - the most important issues are the ones that are the hardest to research and to write about, due to the abundance of opinions and agendas present.

    But don't underestimate the harm done by the casual, nasty degradation of a living, breathing person into a pair of tits.

  4. "The depiction of killing in computer games furthers a culture where violence is an acceptable way to solve problems, and war is considered respectable instead of deplorable."

    A somewhat stronger response than I had expected from the author of a computer game with a 'combat mode'!

    Returning to the advertisement...

    Do you not worry about the consequences of attempting to bring about the removal of an (apparently perfectly legal) advertisement simply because it might be found distasteful? How does this sit with views you might hold on freedom of speech / expression and censorship?

  5. Of course the advertisement is perfectly legal, and should be. That doesn't mean putting it up is moral, though. And in this world, the power to decide what enters peoples' visual fields is given to those who have money to spend on advertising.

    What we see in our everyday lives affects our thoughts and opinions - and we generally think that everyone has a right to their own opinions. But advertising distorts this: the people with money get to define what our world looks like, what kind of text and subtext it contains.

    I support freedom of expression. An ordinary person's mode of freedom of expression is a chat, a letter, a blog post. Perhaps a flyer or a poster in their window or on their wall. A company, or a wealthy person, can plaster their expression all over our lives by means of advertising, polluting our daily experience with their ideas and prejudices.

    I do not support misogyny being forced down our visual cortexes by the means of advertising. And all I advocate is that you and I use our own freedom of expression to say: "Enough. Take your outdated ideas about women and go away, you sad sack." Because if no one protests, they will become bolder, and things will get worse.