Masculinity, Women, and Sports Games: Why Representation Matters

We didn’t do any coverage on the Steubenville rape case because truth be told, I felt that capable writers, bloggers, and twitterers covered the hell out of the sad bullshit throughout that case, namely the accusatory nature of “she was drunk, so of course she deserved it” logic and how fucking dumb it is. Through it, there was some fiery discussion on institutionalized rape and rape culture. So naturally, I’m going to very loosely tie it in with what I’ve thought about a lot. The connection isn’t completely loose: a lot of the criticism on how CNN covers Steubenville is in the American idolatry of athletics and ultimately the masculine athlete. This idolatry is buoyed by the popularity of sports games.

Still, I’m going to delve more brightly on a top that I feel a little more qualified to discuss in sports video games. I may have mentioned on either this blog or the blogs I’ve posted on noted wonderful site WellThatsCool.com that last year, I attempted a book on the Madden NFL franchise, the leading franchise in sports video gaming. This project, through my own laziness, has basically went on the backburner for now, but the game franchise obviously has not. In Madden’s success, the EA Sports division of mega company Electronic Arts has generated many of the examples we will talk about.

This is once again where we note the unfortunate attitudes about women in sports before we even remotely discuss women in video games. Despite the phenomenal work of talents like Baylor basketball star Brittany Griner, the US women’s national soccer team, et al, there is no representative from these sectors represented in the very sports games I love. I state this to not immediately blame game companies, but lament these sort of circumstances. Griner is not out of college yet, and EA no longer even puts out basketball games related to college basketball, ending the last franchise to do so in NCAA Basketball in 2009. As far as I’m aware, there have not been video games about women’s softball or women’s gymnastics (bar a token playable sequence in one of the many Olympics games).

And unfortunately, that is more of a sigh about commodities than about the cultural implications. If college basketball video games, a simulation of one of the biggest tournaments in North American sports, are not financially feasible for a major company, then women’s softball isn’t exactly going to be a big seller. Yet there is one thing that throws me off on the subject. EA themselves have been very selective in what sports will portray women. In FIFA, a sport represented by two US women’s World Cup teams, there have been zero female representations. All this despite the abilities and tactics that are closer to the men’s game than one would think. (I think a Bill Simmons podcast from the era of the 2011 Women’s World Cup gives surprising credence to this last point as well. And yes, Bill fucking Simmons proves a point about female athletes. I’m shocked, too.)

EA has put women in two of their major sports titles as athletes, the NHL series and the Tiger Woods series, both in only the past two years. And again, it is funny as hell that some of the most progressive portrayals of female athletes come from the Tiger Woods games. Yet one of these makes sense. The Tiger Woods games have a responsibility to properly simulate a world where Michelle Wie has a very real possibility to reach to men’s ranks of the PGA tour. And before I researched this, I assumed there had never been a woman that participated in an NHL game. I was wrong, however, as Canadian women’s national hockey team goalie Manon Rhéaume did play in preseason NHL games in the 1990s. However, there are zero active women in the rosters of NHL teams. Yet the recent NHL games allow a player to create women, reportedly in response to a young girl’s letter to EA asking for women to be put into the game.

This is where representation becomes important. It seems very small to have women as playable characters in sports where the top leagues hold zero women athletes, but this is also very complex. Women do compete in admittedly segregated forms of sport from the WNBA to the (now closed) Women’s Professional Soccer league and, yes, the Lingerie Football League. Though the last one is a cheesecake take on real sports, it is not out of the realm of possibility to have women in professional leagues. It is as a friend of mine would put it in that this is a very small thing, but small things actually hold important beacons on representation. It is still scary to me that sports culture is viewed as a masculine affair. More men compete in this, but women participating in sports known for male competition have a higher lens of examination.

But more accurately, if these simulations are slight blends of reality and fantasy, why not represent everyone? Why can’t someone make an athlete built like She-Hulk that destroys the NBA game by game? Why not have a tough running back who is also able to tell her story through sports games’ increasing “reality in fiction” social media modes? Hell, who says a person can’t just make a great bit player because that’s something they always wanted to do? This isn’t very hard. The technology is there. Put women in sports games, 2K and EA.

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