- “I’m Batman” (and You Can Be Too):Gender and Constrictive Play in the Arkham Game Series
The overlap between superheroes and games is not new. Superhero comics and films have provided frequent source material for video games over the past thirty years, resulting in a long list of cross-media titles such as Spider-Man (Parker Bros., 1982), Captain America and the Avengers (Data East, 1991), and Lego Batman (Feral Interactive, 2008). But the transformative potentials of both mainstream comics and video games have historically been limited, as they have been targeted primarily and even exclusively toward straight, white, male audiences.1 Mainstream superhero texts have generally [End Page 133] conformed to strict gender stereotypes, presenting men as hypermasculine authority figures (“strong, powerful, aggressive and usually anti-social”) and women as cleavage-baring sex objects “generally located in patriarchal sites of power struggles and violence.”2 Mainstream video games have been no more progressive; they are primarily created by men for men, their violence-prone action heroes and half-clothed damsels in distress still reflecting “offline gender inequalities.”3 In comics, we have recently seen criticism of Starfire’s emotionless sexual promiscuity, Catwoman’s objectification, and Spider-Woman’s anatomically improbable posterior.4 In games, we have everything from hypersexualized female characters in World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004–) or Lollipop Chainsaw (Kadokawa Shoten, 2012) to the 2014 Gamergate controversy, which saw several female developers and media critics driven from their homes by rape and death threats.5 Both industries have a masculine focus that has been exemplified by repetitively misogynist texts.
Despite the majority of previous media products from mainstream companies like Marvel or DC, though, a comic-book superhero is limited only by imagination and ink; it could be a culturally subversive figure with multiple limbs, any body type, any skin color, any ability—it could be any gender or sex. Recent mass-market forays into inclusivity have included a female Captain Marvel and a female Thor; likewise, independent comics like the Batgirl-inspired My So-Called Secret Identity have worked to break down gender stereotypes.6 And there is significant overlap between the potentially gender-flexible characters in our comics and the potentially perspective-challenging interactivity of our gaming media. Gaming begins with a similar potential for infinitely varied worlds and avatars, then adds an element of engagement that makes superhero characters “inhabitable” by the player.7 Game elements such as avatar personalization, character interaction, and combat sequences generally require player participation in order to proceed; this give-and-take opens a range of identity play. A video game’s ability to let players “experience” different genders, races, sexualities, ages, or body types, even within strict technological constraints, may potentially lead [End Page 134] to greater understandings among individuals occupying different social spaces.8 Portal 2 (Valve, 2011) is one example of a mainstream game with a nonsexualized female lead, and Bioware has been notable for allowing player flexibility in terms of the gender, race, and sexuality of avatars in Dragon Age (2009, 2011, 2014) and Mass Effect (2007, 2010, 2012); other stereotypes about sexuality and gender are challenged in independent works like Gone Home (Fullbright Company, 2013) and A Closed World (Singapore–MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, 2011).
Of course, games may also actively reinforce preconceptions about gender, sexuality, race, or class by restricting user choices, distorting user experiences, and “perpetuat[ing] the most uniform and unsubtle sex role stereotypes”—and the combination of superheroes and video games has so far proven predominantly conservative.9 One recent commercially successful superhero game franchise has been the Batman: Arkham series (Rocksteady, 2009, 2011, 2013).10 Its second installment, Arkham City (2011), suggests the possibility of subversive gender play by allowing the player to alternate between the onscreen avatars of Batman and Catwoman; however, the game fails to challenge existing binaries. This essay is intended primarily as a case study: a close reading of Arkham City demonstrates how a superhero game may resist its own archetype-bending potential by allowing only restrictive, heteronormative gender performances. While superhero comics and video games may be independently making small motions toward gender inclusiveness, their combination may also squander the radical...