Tag Archives: sexism

Bullets & Corsets: A Gamer’s Perspective on Women in Gaming (Part 2)

Two weeks ago I did the first part of this topic on my opinion on the state of female characters in the gaming world.  To recap, while there have been some awesomely designed female characters, developers often slip up in the portrayal aspect, cheapening their creations by essentially marketing them as nothing more than eye candy.  Today, I wanted to finish the topic by focusing on solutions.  Because I’m not the sort of person who likes pointing out problems without also thinking of solutions, I want to write about some of the ways I think developers can further improve their portrayal of women in games.

The first solution should be fairly obvious: have more variety.  Seriously, why aren’t there more different types of female characters, at least as far as design is concerned?  Male characters have far more freedom in the way they’re designed.  Let’s compare some of the more successful or well-known characters:

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So for the guys we’ve got an overweight, probably middle-aged plumber; a skinny geek; an uber-Space Marine who could probably crush your head like a walnut; a thief with one eye; a grizzled spy; & a ruthless vampire lord.  But what about the women?  True, all of the examples I listed are good characters, with their own unique positions in their games.  But think about their designs.  They’re all younger, & conventionally attractive.  This is what I mean by lack of variety.  There’s nothing wrong with making attractive characters, but when that seems to be the only choice it feels a bit… insincere?  It’s like a woman can’t be kick-ass & kinda plain to look at.  Male characters aren’t constrained by this.  Ponder this: how old is Max Payne in Max Payne 3 & would you ever see a female character deliberately created is a similar manner?  Why is it that Lara & Samus never seem to get older in their games?

You may argue that it’s because most game designers are male, but that’s only part of the reason.  I think it’s mostly to do with the aim of the character.  All videogames exist to fulfill some sort of fantasy, whether it’s to be a treasure hunter, a restaurant manager or even God.  Therefore, all videogame characters exist to fulfill some fantasy.  And since most games are designed by men for men, it stands to reason that it would be male fantasies that are getting fulfilled.  In one of her videos, Lindsay Ellis (AKA the Nostalgia Chick) talks about how in cartoons & movies, when media is intended to appeal to girls it will have female main characters while when it’s intended for boys or to appeal to both genders the main characters are male, with the occasional female side character.  I’m sure you can think of several current & older cartoons that follow this principle.  With games, I think the same way of thinking follows, with one exception.  A female character can appeal to guys as well as girls if she’s hot.

Of course there are some female characters that don’t fit this mold.  Both The Boss from Metal Gear Sold 3: Snake Eater & Tess from The Last of Us come to mind, both of which are prominent female characters who aren’t in their 20’s.  But I’d like to see developers explore more female types.  I’d like to see games that acknowledge the fact that their leads are women in more than just a physical sense.  A lot of people will tell you that with the really good characters gender doesn’t matter.  And it’s true, a lot of the attributes you’d want in a character aren’t based on gender (bravery, independence, honor, etc.).  But why not use some aspect of femininity in the game.  And I don’t mean you’re stereotypical Damsel in Distress nonsense, either.  I’m talking about having a game like The Last of Us but with a female lead.  Why not a zombie apocalypse game where a woman has to protect her children?  Plenty of games have us protecting people, especially children, but it’s always a guy.  The Walking Dead, I Am Alive… The only one I can think of that has a female lead is Amy, & from what I’ve heard that wasn’t very good.  Sure, guys might not be able to completely relate to being a mother, but the desire to protect a child is an understandable motivation.

I’m glad recent games have let players customize their characters, & I hope we see more of this trend.  That’s why I tend to play RPGs more than any other genre.  Of course, I realize this isn’t doable for most games, especially if they have a very specific story they want to tell.  But even in these customizable games, you’ll notice that the male is always the default.  And I don’t just mean in the character creation menu.  They try to be androgynous, but still end up making the character act like a guy.  The only real difference is the voice.  I know these games give you the freedom to respond & shape your character as you see fit, but there are still some inconsistencies.  I’ve complained about my female gangster in Saints Row ogling female strippers, but there have also been issues is Mass Effect.  If you play as Femshep in Mass Effect 2 & have Kasumi’s DLC, you can unlock a formal dress for Shepard to wear around the ship.  But… uh… let’s just say BioWare’s QA should’ve noticed the problem in using the same animations for both genders.

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Another step is to understand the difference between “sexy” & “sexualization.”  This is another fine line area.  Sexy is to make something appealing or exciting.  What’s sexy varies from person to person, & can include more than just physical aspects.  People can find traits or attributes sexy, like power or brooding.  It doesn’t even really have to be designed as such.  Although I can say with 100% confidence that Marcus Fenix wasn’t designed to be sexy, some people probably find him as such.  Sexy’s fine.  I mean, I don’t want all of my character to be sexy, but there’s nothing wrong with it.

Sexualization, on the other hand, is when you single out a person as being nothing more the sexual.  They cease being a person & become a thing.  A commodity.  Something to be used.  Sexualization is when you design an advert showing your character half nude when it has nothing to do with the game they’re in.  It’s when you focus on their breasts, or butt or any other single body part.  This is the problem in gaming.  It’s not about making characters sexy, it’s about reducing them to the level of a digital blow-up doll.  And it happens all the time, even to female characters that aren’t meant to be sexy.  Let’s compare box art:

Official_cover_art_for_Bioshock_Infinite   Remember_Me_(Capcom_game_-_cover_art)

If box art tells you about the game, what are these telling us?  Booker is a man of action.  He likes to shoot things & set things on fire.  He doesn’t care about authority.  Nilin… has a nice butt.

Facewall

Stop doing this.  I don’t care what your focus group marketing testing says.  It could only be more degrading if the boxart was a selfie taken in a bathroom with a duckface.

Just… give some actual thought to your designs in general & ask if they make sense.  You can make a sexy character if your design makes sense.  If your character is a woman who’s a spy & uses her… assets to her advantage, then a sexy dress makes sense.  I could even understand it if they got in a fire fight in said dress because, ya’ know, stuff happens.  But if you’re making a soldier who carries around a chaingun, then the dress probably won’t work.  The best line I ever heard summing this concept up was from a podcast where a female game designer said, “When you can’t wear f-ing sensible shoes in a warzone!”

As a final suggestion geared more towards the developers themselves, I want to say this: Stop talking.  You’re just making it sound worse.  If you’re going to make an unreasonably sexy character, just admit you just liked the design.  Sure, some people will be mad, but at least I can respect you for being honest & not treating me like an idiot.  If you need some examples of things not to say, check out these articles:

Warface Producer Defends Female Designs as “Cultural Relativism”

Hideo Kojima’s Making MGS5 Characters More “Erotic” For Cosplay

In closing, I want to point to some female characters that I think are well designed or portrayed that don’t usually come up in discussions.  Not everyone may agree with me, & they’re not without faults, but I still like them anyway.

  • Hilde from Soul Calibur.  Gaming needs more redheads, & I love the way that her (full) armor set is designed.  I recall reading that they deliberately designed Hilde to be a sexy woman in full armor, which is pretty cool.
  • Bayonetta from Bayonetta.  Yeah, the game has too many T&A shots & really plays up the whole dominatrix angle, but I really liked Bayonetta’s personality.  She’s fun & flirty, but over the course of the game shows she’s more than just a pretty face.
  • Mileena from Mortal Kombat.  Sure, she fights in a string bikini, but I love when she rips her mask off to show her ravenous fangs.  I imagine she’s what most men think of women: we lure them in with sweet promises & then tear them to pieces.

– GamerDame

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Bullets & Corsets: A Gamer’s Perspective on Women in Gaming (Part 1)

I’ve avoided writing a post on my thoughts on the portrayal of women in video games for a number of reasons.  For one, I think it should be rather obvious; in general, it sucks.  Improving, but still sucks.  I also think most of what I could say has already been said.  And finally, I don’t particularly feel like dealing with stupid, sexist comments because I had the audacity to threaten the gaming industry’s Boys Club mentality.  But with all the attention this topic has been getting lately, I figured it was about time I weighed in on the matter.

First, let’s set some ground rules!

No leaving stupid, pointless comments.  What qualifies as a pointless comment?  Here are some examples:

  • “Well the majority of gamers are male so…”  Actually the divide is pretty even.
  • “But most female gamers only play casual games…”  Dismissing the casual market is a huge mistake.  I’m sure Popcap has made millions.  And what’s not to say someone who starts playing casual games won’t transition into other genres?  Most gamers from my generation started on the Atari, & those were essentially casual games.  I also know just as many guys as girls who play Facebook games.
  • “Stop trying to ruin our fun!”  I’m sorry that my desire to not be viewed as a walking pair of breasts is cutting in on your fun time.  But let’s face facts, if the only enjoyment you were getting out of a game was watching a pair of breasts bounce across the screen, then you’re probably playing it for the wrong reasons.
  • “Feminazi!”  Yes, I will force you to treat me as a human being & not an object for your gratification.  But I can’t get anyone on board with my plan to keep all the men in the world locked in cages until we need them for manual labor or reproduction.
  • “The developers are just mirroring society…”  True, but just because society can be sexist doesn’t mean you have to include it in your game.
  • “Male characters can have the same problems…”  True, most game characters are based on archetypes (the brooding loner, the noble hero), but male characters aren’t typically presented in a way meant solely to titillate.
  • “I hope you get (insert random act of violence)!”  I’m too old to be afraid of some random jerk barking threats at me across cyberspace.

Please check your comment before sending it & if it resembles one of these, please refrain from sending it.  If I still get comments like these I’ll just write them off as being tools, trolls or idiots.

Alright then.  Now that that’s clear, let’s get to the discussion proper.

I want to start by saying that I think it’s a good thing these issues keep getting discussed.  It shows that video games are growing as a medium.  Things that were taken for granted are now being called into question.  I think if we continue to discuss how people are portrayed in games (not just women but men, minorities, homosexuals, etc.) it will only improve gaming as a whole if we can learn from it.

That being said, I don’t see every image of a female game character who shows some skin, is unnaturally buxom, or acts in a sexual manner as being sexist.  As I mentioned in my post on Tomb Raider, to say that a woman can’t be attractive, well-endowed & capable is a sexist comment in itself.  Also, I don’t think most developers intentionally set out to make sexist characters.  I understand that when you’re designing a character you’re going to make something you like.  And for most male developers designing female characters, that’ll probably mean being young & attractive.  If I were a designer making a male character, I’d probably make something that I like.

I think at this point it’s important to distinguish between “design” & “portrayal.”  Design is about the character’s appearance.  Portrayal is the way a character is presented.  It encompasses the character’s personality, their role in the game & how the character is advertised or presented to the market.  It seems to me that where most people get in trouble is with the portrayal aspect, particularly when it comes to advertising.  Going back to Lara Croft, despite being both designed & presented in the game as this sort of kick ass, independent heroine, her advertisements all focused on her breasts, making lame comments about “big guns” & whatnot that even as a child I understood.  Check out this lovely magazine cover:

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To quote Ben Croshaw, talk about sidestepping a pothole only to fall off a bridge.

But there are other missteps in portrayal.  A big one is when the woman has no personality & seems to exist solely to be ogled at — either by the player or characters in the game.  This includes when the woman is just a prize or end goal for the hero.  The classic Damsel in Distress who has no purpose other than as motivation for the hero’s journey & probably only appears in the game in the beginning long enough to be kidnapped (or killed in some cases) & at the end for a happy reunion.  If the developers are feeling generous, you may hear her cries for help at various times in the game.  Or they could make a mistake in the opposite direction & make the woman all about sex.  This can be just as bad.  A character that flirts & teases but has no substance gets old quickly.  As a general rule, if you’d like the pick up the character for a one-night stand but wouldn’t consider something more serious with her, she’s probably falls into this category.  A character can be sexy & even sexual, but there needs to be a bit more to them.

There’s no easy way to decide if a character is “sexist” or designed purely to pander to the male gaze, but I have two criteria that I find useful to use.  The first is “is there variety in the designs?”.  The second is “does the design choice make sense?”.

If a game has multiple female characters, or the developers have made several games with prominent female characters, & there is variety to the design, then I mark a No is the sexist column.  What I mean by this is do the women have unique designs.  Are there some obscenely shapely but others who are more subdued?  Do some dress like dominatrix but other are fully covered?  When the answer is yes, then I can at least assume not all of the characters were someone’s wet dream.  A game that fails this test would be the Dead or Alive series, where the women go from being large put possibly natural to breasts so large they could be flotation devices.  Aside from some superficial differences like hair, they all look the same.  But two games that I think demonstrate this are Skullgirls & Dragon Crown.  Now I know this may sound odd if you know a bit about these games.  Both have women in impractical clothing, & you’ve probably read posts decrying them as sexist.  But take a look at their rosters as a whole.

first_8_skullgirls_by_snowwolfzz-d4uaynwDragonsCrownHeroines

Skullgirls has several attractive women with large chests & wearing impractically short skirts, but you’ve also got a little girl, a twelve-year-old who looks more like a monster than a girl, & a catgirl who is surprisingly realistically-proportioned.  Dragon Crown’s Sorceress got a lot of attention, but you’ve also got a fully clothed Elf & the Amazon, who despite being half-dressed looks more like a bodybuilder (& scares me, to tell the truth).  When I see variety like this, I think that the developers actually took the time to craft each character individually.

The second criteria is a little harder to pass, because in reality sexy clothing is only good for being sexy.  It’s not practical.  So instead I look at things from a perspective of whether it makes sense for the character.  Going back to Dragon Crown, despite the Sorceress’ outfit being completely ridiculous (seriously, with that flimsy support the woman’s breasts would be down to her knees) I can sort of see the point.  A magic caster isn’t going to be jumping around kicking stuff, so you could get away with wearing dresses & whatnot.  Likewise, I would expect someone like the Amazon, who swings a giant axe around, to be really buff.  Some of the Skullgirl girls don’t fare so well, as fighting in a skirt isn’t practical.  But I guess it does allow for greater range of motion, & if you’re fighting other women you might not be that concerned about them seeing your underwear.

I want to pull in another game to look at how a game set in the “real world” fares.  Warface is an online shooter that is actually what inspired me to write this post.  If you haven’t heard of it, it’s an online, military shooter developed by Crytek that has servers in several different countries.  Recently Crytek released skins for female soldiers in Russia, & they’ve received some flack about it.

soldiers-warface

Personally, I kind of like the skins I’ve seen.  They make each class look unique.  But there are two problems.  The first is that more attention has been given to making the skins attractive when you compare then to the male skins, which only have a few differences between the classes.  The second problem is that no soldier, even in a PMC, would let themselves be that exposed.  I’m pretty sure female soldiers wear the same uniform & armor as the male soldiers.  The sniper in particular irks me because it looks like she forgot to zip up her uniform, conveniently leaving her heart exposed.  It’s also impractical because, if she’s laying down in a prone position to line up her sights, she’d literally be falling out of her uniform.  On a personal note, I wouldn’t like the thought that some dude was ogling my chest for a few minutes before he decided to shoot me.  So while being cool designs, they don’t make sense.

I think that covers the basics of my own view of the portrayal of women in games.  In a few days I’ll post my thoughts on how developers can improve further.  Because I don’t like feeling embarrassed about playing a genuinely good game just because all the women in it look like they came from a strip club, & I hope you guys don’t like having to hide games from your girlfriend/mom/grandma.

– GamerDame

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