Sexualised men in video games have always been a rarity. An exotic treat every once in a while which you chalked up to a systems error or a rendering malfunction. There were certainly exceptions and there were certainly many instances of attractive male characters, but they were almost always framed through the creative lense of a primarily straight, primarily male development team.
As such, male character designs were not developed with the intention to titillate the player but rather act as a masculine vessel for them. Certainly many of them displayed sexually appealing qualities, but these qualities were intended to appeal to the users personal conception of the perfect male hero rather than the perfect male specimen. While Kratos from God of War or Nathan Drake from The Uncharted Series both display these qualities, nothing about them is intended to invoke sexual excitement in the player.
Many argue that male video game characters cannot be sexualised because the game’s design is so aggressively heteronormative that even if a male character is read as sexualised by the player it most certainly wasn’t designed with that in mind. This is also why women are so often hyper-sexualised in video games. As games are developed in an environment where appeal to the straight, male gaze is prioritised, female characters tend to become sexualised and objectified. In 2018, the International Games Development Association found that 74% of workers in the games industry were cis males and an even greater 81% were heterosexual. It’s no surprise then that video games, like many industries, produce content intended to appeal to heterosexual men.
While this is all broadly true, there are some examples of hyper-sexualised female characters done well. An oft cited example is that of Bayonetta. Many have argued that Bayonetta uses her overt sexuality and femininity as a weapon, as she quite literally uses her body to battle enemies. This argument is fraught with problems. Is Bayonetta empowered through her own purposeful sexualisation or are her choices simply a design decision made by a predominately straight male development team? Where do the choices of a fictional character begin and those of the designers end?
Can an industry which is so often focused on delivering an experience appealing to the straight male fantasy actually offer a female character meaningful sexual empowerment? Probably not. But things are certainly changing. While the figures cited earlier are grim, they’re an improvement on years before. And while AAA games and mainstream game development studios have failed to deliver in these areas, indie development is filling a lot of gaps.
To see your own sexual and romantic desires reflected in a video game is an empowering feeling. Because the world of a video game reflects the mind of the protagonist, if a world is exclusively populated by hyper-sexualised female characters and the game’s protagonist is a male, the sexuality of that world can feel claustrophobic. This is the case with many games and this frequently creates a dissonance. For games that offer player choice, RPG elements, and romance, to then offer the player a purely heterosexual selection dispels any illusion of user interaction.
What this really comes down to is the fact that I want to see more sexy men in video games. This is evident in my play through of Spiderman PS4. To unlock the aptly titled “Undies” suit you have to essentially 100% the base game. This was my motivator, my driving force, my light at the end of the tunnel. While I loved the game itself, I kept having to reassure myself with the knowledge that soon I would have my hands on semi-naked Peter Parker. Was this a noble goal? Certainly not. I’m not proud of it in any way and I wished I slogged through the endless city activities and side missions for a less crass reason. But this goes to show the power of male sexualisation. The industry must and is in the process of coming to grips with the diversity of its player base. Video games are not male media, nor are they straight media. They are media enjoyed by millions of people every year from every conceivable background. And many of those people are heavily invested in naked Spiderman.