Analyzing ‘Toxic Masculinity’ in games
By Adam Tatelman, Arts Editor
In video games media, moralizing busybodies like Jonathan McIntosh have said that video games promote “toxic masculinity.” To the uninitiated, this might seem like a nebulous buzzword with no clear definition. In this case, the uninitiated would be correct; “messages in media and society that teach men to be violent, unemotional, and chauvinistic” does seem a bit vague. Do such messages exist? Probably. But the idea that they are the default for an entire medium should be scrutinized, lest people mistake this gross overgeneralization for fact.
Consider Joel Miller, protagonist of The Last of Us. In the opening scene of the game, his daughter is killed in a shooting, right before his eyes. The animation and the voice talent behind the scene have been widely praised for capturing the drama of the moment—that of a father in tears, cradling the child he couldn’t save. Joel is the typical grizzly white male character seen in many action games, but he is allowed to react with sorrow, not with the immediate anger or violence that is sometimes assumed of the genre.
A single example neither establishes nor bucks a trend. Fortunately, Joel is not alone. It is not hard to find games featuring men whose positive masculine traits are central to their characters and the stories they inhabit. Lee Everett becomes a surrogate father to the orphaned Clementine in The Walking Dead. Booker DeWitt does the same for Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite. Even Master Chief, Halo’s faceless, stoic protagonist, struggles to deal with the loss of his lifelong friend Cortana in the fourth game’s aftermath.
These games are merely a few examples of many. Indeed, they are only the most popular. Considering the aforementioned games’ widespread success, well-rounded characters clearly sell better than ubermasculine caricatures. Let’s not forget that most modern video games give players the freedom to choose how their character behaves, rather than locking them into a stereotypical man-box.
Are there examples of toxic masculinity in gaming? Yes—but many are in jest. Using characters like Duke Nukem and the Doom Marine as examples of toxic masculinity isn’t helpful because these characters were only ever meant to be parodies of one-note action heroes. That Duke is presented as an ideal is a joke in itself precisely because he is someone nobody should emulate. The humour in that should be obvious.
In the early 2000s, anti-games activist Jack Thompson used Fox News as his personal soapbox to claim that video games cause real-world violent acts. In fact, U.S. federal crime statistics show that violent crime has decreased as video games have become more popular. Although the two trends are quite likely not related, this still clearly debunks Thompson’s argument, so why do we reconsider it now that it’s been redressed as a gender issue? Even if games were teeming with bad male role models—and clearly the best-selling modern games aren’t—people can still distinguish between fantasy and reality, and so have the choice to imitate bad behaviors or not.
I suggest the term “toxic masculinity” be put up for review. Nothing good can come from pathologizing violence as an innately male trait. Such generalities are just as nonsensical as saying that greed is a Jewish trait, or that fanaticism is an Arabian trait. If critics can’t take an honest view of the characters they criticize, then they have no leg to stand on as critics, so don’t let them paint a benign form of entertainment as something it’s not.