Sex and Gaming in China: Is it Time for Gamers to Grow Up?

C. Custer
1:00 pm on Feb 12, 2013

Warning: This story contains images that may not be safe for your workplace!

Last week, I wrote up a story about a World of Warcraft player who caused a bit of a ruckus online after sleeping with some female guild members “for the alliance.” As I wrote at the time, the news instigated a bit of a discussion about female gamers on Chinese news sites, and many of the comments that arose were pretty disgusting and objectifying. One gamer, for example, said that it was OK to treat females in games as though they were prostitutes.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t particularly surprised to see that. I see comments like it fairly often when this topic comes up. Moreover, it’s no surprise that some Chinese gamers have a tendency to objectify women when Chinese gaming news sites are often quasi-pornographic. Take, for example, the photo spread below, which is on the front page of Netease Games, one of China’s biggest gaming portals. None of these images are actually pornographic, but a few are so close that I’ve pixellated them a bit for the sake of our readers who may be at work:

A typical photo spread on Netease Games.

Now, some of these girls are ostensibly somewhat connected to gaming in that they’re wearing the costumes of popular game characters, but let’s be honest — that’s a pretty thin excuse for plastering pin-up babes across your front page every day. And while the Western gaming community has plenty of issues when it comes to sexism, it doesn’t seem to be necessary to sell gaming news this way in the West. The front pages of sites like Kotaku and Joystiq are not consistently plastered with half-naked babes.

But as a relative outsider, I wondered if I was missing something, so I put the question to a couple of insiders in China’s game industry. To ensure their candor, I have promised not to reveal their names or the companies they work for, but both of them are high-level folks who have been in the industry for a long time and who work for Chinese gaming companies you’ve definitely heard of before. For now, let’s just call them “Mal” and “Zoe.”

When I asked about the images of women that are plastered all over gaming sites, Mal told me:

In the Chinese game market, most of the gamers are male users, therefore beautiful girls are always one of the most efficient ways to promote the game as a model of a poster or in some promotional activities. We have some statistics that show that the online ads with girls will attract more clicks from the gamers compared with other content, in general circumstances. Under the consideration of effectiveness on advertising, most games like to use girls in ad campaigns, even not all but for some of them.

However I believe the execution will be a key to determine whether this kind of “creativity” is “crossing the line” or not. For example, some games would use more proper ways to “package” girls in the marketing activities such as beauty contest, girl guilds, beautiful girl gamers, etc. instead of being very direct to the “sexism”. I guess the game companies need to have this “line” within their own marketing activities so that ensure the campaign won’t be going to the negative area.

Zoe told me practically the exact same thing:

Because most gamers are guys, using pretty girls to sell things has always been popular, because they attract eyeballs. This is also popular in other industries, like cars and electronics. But especially with browser games, users can click an ad and log in or even be making a payment instantly, so pretty girls in ads are extremely effective. There’s also too little oversight in the area of browser games so some usage of pretty girls is quite shameless and vulgar.

When I was setting up the marketing system at [major gaming company redacted], we limited how girls could be used in marketing so that it never came to anything too scandalous or pornographic. But you can’t ignore what the users want either, as long as it’s appropriate.

That sex sells is certainly not new, but to be frank I’m not sure I completely buy this argument. After all, Chinese tech news sites like the ones we read every day also have a very male-dominated readership (and probably a lot of overlap with the gaming sites’ readership), but sites like TechWeb and Sina Tech aren’t plastered with pinups.

“Zoe” explained it to me like this:

I think gamers and marketing firms aren’t intentionally being sexist towards women, but they also haven’t thought [seriously] about respecting women either.

That strikes me as pretty accurate. In the threads about that World of Warcraft gamer, for example, many of the sexist comments I noticed came from gamers who felt they were defending the girls but were actually perpetuating the all-too-common double standard that says it’s OK for men to sleep around but women are either chaste or whores.

As I said, this isn’t really a China-specific problem, although China’s gaming sites are much more pornographic than any of the Western gaming sistes I frequent. But as casual gaming catches on in China and more and more girls get into gaming, could the problem more or less solve itself as male Chinese gamers realize that females who play games are just regular women and not weird or abnormal in some way? Possibly, said Mal, but don’t count on it:

I would say if there are more and more games developed for girl/female users launched in China (such as casual games), that might be changed as the game companies needs to think more about the female users. However since [most] existing games are more male-oriented, and the statistics show that the male users are still the major revenue contributors for online games, I am afraid this kind of situation will continue for a while.

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

  • Bean

    Charlie, good follow up after the WoW sex article. interesting topic. but don’t u think the girls also need to reflect on themselves? if girls are willing to let other people take pictures like what we saw it the article screenshot so don’t blame guys for taking it man. takes two hands to clap leh.

  • C. Custer

    @ Bean: That’s a good point, but to be fair I don’t think many of those girls are actually gamers or part of the gaming community. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking sexy pictures in the proper context, I just don’t think that it sends the right message on a games site.

  • Monica Tan

    My feeling is that if China actually had a legal and viable porn industry soft core wouldn’t need to seep into the car and gaming industry quite as much as it does. Until that happens, maybe we can have more soft core images of men up on gaming sites to even things up and make the girls feel a bit more welcome. I hear “boy love” is very popular in china with the ladies! :)

  • ArtIsPolitics

    I find the tone of this article a bit moralizing, if well intentioned (but the moralizers are always well intentioned, preaching to us about this and that, changing their minds every fifty years or so). I don’t think you are doing many favors for women by complaining of their use in advertising or other media, which, after all accounts for an absurdly huge proportion of web traffic.

    Would you have the same reaction if, say, the Chinese gaming industry presented men in the same way pictured in the article? In case you didn’t know, there is a certain segment of the population that would like to see men in exactly that way. So is your outrage about the portrayal of women or sex? Think carefully.

    In short, your sense of chivalry is misplaced.

  • C. Custer

    @ArtIsPolitics: It has nothing to do with chivalry, my issue is that this has nothing to do with gaming. Men in similar states of undress would have provoked the same response from me because THAT DOESN’T BELONG ON A GAMING SITE. Girls in ADS is one thing, but why is there softcore porn in an “editorial” photo spread on “gaming news” sites?

    It’s about more than just the images anyway, though; see the parts of the article about gamers’ comments, or just browse some gaming forums yourself for relevant threads if you can read Chinese.

  • jshaw

    don’t 60% of Chinese online portals…both Gamer sites and general sites use these same kind of images to attract clicks? Is this not the generally accepted driver of most traffic on Chinese websites?

  • C. Custer

    @ jshaw: Obviously to some extent it’s used everywhere. But in my experience it’s much more common in gaming portals. If you look at China’s tech portals, for example (which I do every day for obvious reasons) you really don’t see those kinds of images much. Sometimes in ads, but almost never as editorial content that was posted by the site. The readership of a tech site is probably just as or possibly even more male-dominated than gaming sites, so given that you don’t see this sort of thing on tech sites, I do think it’s a gaming-specific issue.

  • James




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