Being Batman: Gender and Performance in the Arkham Video Games

Curator's Note

What does it mean to “be the Batman”? Game players can’t truly abandon their own identities—the act of pressing controller buttons doesn’t eclipse a player’s own body (with its attendant gender, sex, race, sexuality, age, or physical ability) or experience. Still, video games have a distinctly immersive quality; ongoing player interaction is required, and the relationship between player and avatar is close [1]. So when Rocksteady invites its players to “be” Batman, it’s worth asking: how? What kind of performance is this?

The Arkham series Batman is a gritty, hypermasculine vigilante who punches his way through the bad men of Gotham, rescuing damsels and delivering swift physical justice. He is a grim, emotionless figure who exists in a world of primarily masculine power struggles.

The player may also, on occasion, play as other avatars—for example, may shift genders and “be” Catwoman. The Catwoman avatar slinks around Arkham City in a half-zipped, cleavage-baring costume. She strangles villains with her thighs or snaps at them with a dominatrix whip, all while enduring a barrage of sexist slurs and sexualized threats from her male opponents.

Between Batman and Catwoman, the player thus experiences (gets to “be”) two types of protagonist: a hyper-violent man or a hyper-sexualized woman. These exaggerated gender binaries are only further enforced by the games’ other characters.

Of course, a single game series, no matter how popular, has limited impact—and sexist imagery surrounds us in many other forms. However, repeated exposure to such strict in-game stereotypes may influence player attitudes about broader cultural issues like gender roles and sexual harassment [2].

Superhero video games have typically replicated a restrictive set of gender behaviours, as both mainstream comics and games have historically been created by and for straight white boys or men—indeed, this Arkham Knight trailer openly assumes the player is male. While mainstream and indie producers in both industries have taken small steps toward increasing diversity, progress is slow. The Batman: Arkham series only reinforces the continuing need to critically engage each permutation of these media.

1. Bob Rehak, “Playing at Being,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003), 103-127.

2. Karen E. Dill, Brian P. Benson, and Michael A. Collins, “Effects of Exposure to Sex-Stereotyped Video Game Characters on Tolerance of Sexual Harassment,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44 (2008): 1402-1408.

 

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