The Gendered Battlefield: An analysis of masculine expression and racial representation in a Battlefield 1 ad

Chris Salvemini
7 min readApr 1, 2018

The video game industry is renowned as a faux-consumerist battlefield where hyper-masculine shooters vying for commercial superiority dominate smaller-scale games that usually seek to challenge traditional gender roles and dominant ideologies. Most shooters tend to overcome any market challenge from the combined forces of extensive marketing strategies that no independent company could ever hope to financially match, and a community-base that defends the status quo through intimidation and overwhelming online attacks against people and companies.

The Battlefield series is one of many shooters maintaining the industry status quo through extravagant advertisement campaigns. The latest installment of the series, Battlefield 1, caused some controversy upon release from the gaming community due to a lack of black characters despite African Americans having had a significant presence in World War 1, when the game is set. Muslim characters were also whitewashed; during the ad a masculine-appearing woman is riding a horse in the Arabian Peninsula covered in traditional war paint, and she is blatantly white.

Yet, lost during the controversy were the significant undertones emphasizing violent spectacles of masculinity intertwined with a reverence of military might that borders on fetishism. One of the first trailers released for the game includes all these issues and serves to downplay the atrocity of war by only providing brief glimpses of it, never its aftermath. The game also exclusively casts and markets to white men, exploiting masculinity’s strong association with violence to sell copies.

While African Americans are stripped of their own history and Muslims are disallowed figures in media they will always be regarded as second class in American society, and the Battlefield advertisement does just that. It acts as a contemporary mode of validating masculine identity through virtual imitations of violence and upholds racial hierarchies through blatant whitewashing and racial erasure, culminating in the trivialization of one of the largest wars ever waged.

Gender identity is a social technology for describing natural bodies, and like all technology it evolves the more it is used. Masculine identity is traditionally intertwined with notions of nationalism, violence, independence, mastery, fraternity, competition, daringness and aggression (Sims, 849). These values placed on biologically male children and adults in society encourage aggression, especially when used as the central focus in media such as in the Battlefield 1 advertisement.

These values also establish a gender hierarchy in which masculinity is valued above femininity. Due to aggressive values associated with masculinity, violence is the primary expression of masculinity. At the same time, violence is derided in contemporary American culture. Implicitly, this derision shames masculine identities, which encourages violence as a method of validation.

Sports, and its contemporary equivalent video games, thus “represent an enclave for the legitimate expression of masculine aggression” (Dunning, 229). There are parallels between the two media, such as both media being dominated by men; 59 percent of gamers are men, while 66 percent of sports fans are men (ESA, 3 & Gallup). The representations result in a hegemonic masculinity as media provides content emboldening traditional masculine identities while public institutions such as schools, as Sims analyzes, erodes it.

The process eventually leads to a “crisis” in masculine identities, influenced by class-based shame, as they try to find an appropriate place in society (Garlick, 170–171). This crisis is most often characterized in media through an emphasis on violent characters, rather than the more competitive or ambitious characters featured in sports or older media forms.

The subtle change in masculinity is also racialized; while more expensive media such as video games are widely available to more privileged communities, poorer communities which are majorly African American or Hispanic are left to more traditional media and more traditional expressions of masculinity, and generally do not create a “gamer identity” (Sims, 853). While video games provide an intense expression of masculinity and independence from authority through war and violence that traditional institutions find distasteful, poorer communities are left with traditional challenges to authority that can be regarded as dangerous and is daring, as seen in Sims research in a New York school (Sims, 854).

These factors culminate in a gender ideology that intensifies violent masculine identities while also dividing “types” of masculinity along racial lines through economic and social pressures. As long as masculinity can be expressed through aggression, society remains patriarchal, and men are expected to be the primary breadwinners in an increasingly unequal economy, masculinity will seek validation in violence.

The Battlefield 1 ad also features white men with western accents waging war in a variety of places and in different war machines. Battleships fire into clouds of circling planes, tanks roll over trenches spitting dirt into the camera, and men charge into battle. The very first scene in the advertisement is a masked man bludgeoning another man as blood spills onto the camera, all set to Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes, which features the lyrics, “a seven-nation army couldn’t hold me back.”

It glorifies war by minimizing the impact of losing it. Rather than focus on the victors of battle, the advertisement focuses mostly on the destruction and violence during it which should in theory challenge traditional masculinity by exposing the reality of warfare. But it fails to overcome the inherent limits of video games and other media in making an experience lifelike.

Since the viewer is in no actual danger, the entire ad is more like a roller coaster full of thrilling, not frightening, images of violence. Violence is both glorified and trivialized. The song behind the video even claims faux-immortality and linked with the video, it only encourages more violence as a means of asserting oneself.

The advertisement also lacks any reason for all the fighting. While war is typically waged with a cause, the people in the advertisement fly no flags, suggesting that the violence is waged for its own sake. There are no clear winners or losers, and the absence of clear victory removes it as a motivation for the violence.

Without a legitimate reason, the only explanation for the violence are the underlying forces encouraging it as a form of expression, and since all the fighting characters are men, it can be said that the war’s violence is a means of expressing masculinity.

Men are expected to go to war, because they are supposedly masculine. The war is waged in forests, deserts, in the sea and even in towns — there are hardly any consistent elements between scenes except for all the characters being men.

A woman is seen once during the advertisement, but she is alone in a desert. She never appears to engage in any act of violence, and is the only one to appear to have a national affiliation through the war-paint on her face. These distinctions seem to make her more of a token character rather than serve a purpose like the men, since femininity is associated with passivity.

The markings on her face, her headgear and the desert around her also imply an affiliation with Muslim nations, which were significant during the war, yet she is blatantly white. This racial erasure, coupled with the exclusively British and American accents, suggest a dominant western presence during a war that involved the entire world.

Black people also lack a significant presence in the video, despite having a presence in the American army, most famously as the Harlem Hellfighters. Their absence is indicative of racial issues in larger gaming communities — since it is such an expensive media and minorities are typically poorer, they have less representation in them.

In these ways, the war has been reimagined to be more of a game rather than one of the most brutal fights ever, for the for the generally young, white males who would be interested in it.

War never changes, but its representation does. In this instance, World War 1 has changed to place emphasis on the western nations fighting. White characters dominate the screen, despite the war involving the entire world. The brutal images, while showing the true brutality of war, removes the viewer from any position of real danger and trivializes violence as a means of expressing traditional masculinity during a time when it is hard to express it through any other means.

The advertisement does do other things well, such as avoiding blatant American exceptionalism. Emphasis is placed on the entire west instead. It also places a technological emphasis on war, featuring the war machines of the time which shocked soldiers and brought the world into the modern era. The advertisement even ends with a soldier looking in awe at an incoming zeppelin. The historical facts the advertisement does not omit are accurate and well explained.

Despite the suggestions from the Battlefield 1 advertisement that expressing and thus validating masculinity through violence is fun and necessary, wargames are anything but and battlefields are not playgrounds.

Garlick, Steve. The Nature of Masculinity. UBCPress, 2016. 163–195

Battlefield. “Battlefield 1 Official Reveal Trailer.” Online Video Clip. YouTube. Youtube, 6 May 2016. Web. 10 April 2017.

Sims, Christo. “Video Game Culture, Contentious Masculinities, and Reproducing Racialized Social Class Divisions in Middle School.” Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 39, no. 4, 2014, pp. 848–857.

Brooks, Dwight and Lisa Hébert. “Gender, Race, and Media Representation.” The SAGE Handbook of Gender and Communication. Bonnie J. Dow and Julia T. Wood. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2006. 297–318. SAGE Knowledge. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.

Dunning, Eric. Sport Matters: Sociological Studies of Sport, Violence, and Civilization. New York: Routledge. 1999. 226–229

2016 Sales, Demographic, and Usage Data: Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 2016. Web.

This is was written for a class and has been slightly edited. It’s easy to fall down a rabbit hole reading some of these media theories, the bibliography is a good place to start. I especially recommend the Sims article.