Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Female characters in video games: Depiction of women

Seeing how it's still March, and thus Women's History Month, I have an excuse for a feminist post (why I should feel like I need an excuse is another issue...). I don't do this very often, but occasionally I get inspired. I did write one post on leading ladies in computer animated films by DreamWorks and Pixar; this may sound oddly specific, but I justified my selection. Realizing I wrote that post in March 2009 makes my blog feel old. Anyway, having read some interesting pieces on female characters in video games in the recent past, the topic has been on my mind. In this series of posts, I will share my thoughts on various issues of female characters in video games, as well as articles that helped provoke these thoughts.

Post #1: (below)
Post #2: Good female characters in video games
Post #3: Female protagonists in video games

Depiction of women in video games

Let's start with the basics. Laying aside the roles, goals, personalities, and any substance of the female characters in video games, what do they look like? You probably know where I'm going with this. Thanks to the perceived video game target audience of teenage boys and men who still think they're teenage boys, women in video games are generally scantily clad with improbable curves. This is a well-worn issue, with its arguments and counter-arguments, but it is still relevant. The following is my opinion on the matter, mostly a rehash of a comment I left on a post on the subject by Kara of Crayons and Cylons.

I've seen the argument before: "Women are over-sexualized and physically idealized in games," followed by someone replying "Well, it's just as bad for men, look at those unrealistic bulging muscles!" But it's not the same. Sure, the video game heroes of both genders are usually idealized, perfectly fit, strong, never flabby. If the women of games were slim yet solid, fit, amply supported and covered, with well-toned arms and legs, that would be fine. But that's not how it is. All too frequently, female characters in video games have over-sized boobs and skimpy clothing.

Unrealistic muscles are not as bad as unrealistic breasts. Having bigger muscles may actually be something legitimate to aspire to. I don't mean that all guys should have big muscles (many body types are perfectly fine), but it's not unrealistic for guys to work out and get bigger muscles. It may not be possible or healthy to get muscles as huge as the crazy ones in certain games, but at least some growth is possible. Big breasts, on the other hand, can only be attained through an unhealthy operation that is frowned upon in most circles. Furthermore, big muscles in men are a sign of strength, which one might expect one's character to have if he is a great warrior. Big boobs are just of sexual value--and if they're too unruly they could actually hinder an action hero.

How about the skimpy clothing? There are many examples in games where the same set of armor looks like actual armor when put on a male toon, and a glorified bikini when put on a female toon (e.g. WoW, Guild Wars, even Dragon Age: Origins). Even armor that offers full coverage of skin may have a spandex-like material in some choice spot when put on a female character (e.g. Hellgate: London). Game designers don't seem to realize that women, too, could get stabbed in the stomach, or thigh, or upper chest. Some guys might like the sexy outfits, but when they're so unrealistic in this way, I find it messes with the immersion of the game.

So while both men and women may be idealized in games, the female characters are far more sexualized. Why? Not only do more guys play those games (though studies suggest the gender skewing isn't as great as is often imagined), I think they may be fussier. Sexy female in revealing outfit: men are happy, women put up with it. Sexy male in revealing outfit: women may be pleased, but many men will be put off by it. I'm used to seeing women in bikinis, but I know a lot of guys who hate seeing guys in Speedos. Well, that's my theory, at least.

This problem has been complained about enough that I think there are some changes happening in the gaming industry, but it's a difficult habit to break. Characters' appearances are a small factor in the quality of a game, so I don't know if I'd ever refuse to buy a game because a female character in it was too sexualized (a game that has the poor taste to go that far over the top likely has other quality issues, anyway). And having a sexy woman on the cover probably helps sell some games. As long as this economic motivation exists, there's no real reason to change... other than common decency.


cassey said...

I pretty much agree with what you've said here, epsecially about the armour. The problem, as I see it, is that this isn't just in games it happens in bokos, graphic novels, comics and tv as well.

Eleni said...

You're right. It's bad enough having film and TV actresses with bodies that would be unhealthy for most (in some cases: all) women to attain, but whenever animation is concerned, depictions can not only be improbable but also impossible. In all media, objectifying women to pander to men can be damaging to society.

Samantha said...

I was actually really impressed with how Dragon Age: Origins handled the female characters. I played a female dwarf warrior, and she looked like a real person with reasonable armor. The other characters were actually very feminist in their dialogue. Overall, a huge thumbs up!

In contrast, another game I really loved was Persona 3, but the one part I disliked was the aspect of the main character's attempts at dating. I didn't like the way the girls were portrayed in that sense. Otherwise, I didn't mind playing the main character, a boy, and it generally didn't seem to matter about gender.

My feeling is that the more girls who game, and who get involved in the gaming industry, the better things are going to get.

However, it's hard to get the point across. I have a friend who works at a company that produces games, and from very early on it was easier to divide characters and clothing for characters by simple gender lines.

The girl clothing was all horribly slutty, and I said so. I said it was a major turnoff for me as a potential player.

I was also disgusted that there was no way to swap the clothing sets (why can't my girl wear pants??!) or create transgendered characters (why can't my boy wear a skirt if he wants to?).

They said it was just simpler from a programming standpoint, but I'd like to hear fewer lame excuses and see more progress in this area. Right now it's not a priority, since as you said, they don't think it affects their profits enough to be bothered fixing it.

Greg Christopher said...


I wrote a tabletop RPG book about a year ago called Synapse. I specifically chose female friendly art. But after releasing it as a public beta, I intentionally went off and did other projects to clear my mind. Now I am coming back to do another round of editing and it is really striking to me how much of a difference the art made.

The book presents a steady stream of reasonably dressed, yet still strong and feminine characters, and it is really a sharp contrast from what passes for the normal male-dominated market perspective.

Yet, whenever I bring up feminist topics on my blog, I get complaints from my male readers about why should they care about this issue.

I feel like there is no other way to be, as a father of a three year old girl. I want to show her positive role models in fantasy art that are not just eye-candy.

Quite a bizzare state of affairs. Oh well.

Eleni said...

Overall, Dragon Age: Origins was good in its depictions of women. I thought the leather armor was strangely low-cut on women, but the Dalish Elf leather armor was a hilarious bikini style. That was my main issue with it.

When I was in the beta for Champions Online, I reported as a graphics bug that a few of the female shirt options were particularly poor quality. It wasn't just that it was revealing (fine, I get it, that's what some people want), but that you just can't get a shirt to sit that way on the side of your boobs without, well, super powers (that could be a selectable power: Impossible Clothing). Maybe you need a female programmer to recognize that fact. I'm sure they ignored my complaint, but at least I tried, which felt good.

Eleni said...

Oops, that last reply was for Samantha.

Greg - Thanks for trying! I don't know a good way to convince reluctant men to care about feminist topics. Women deserve to enjoy games as much as men do, so any form of discrimination against them, whether in the depiction of women or the reception of female gamers in online communities, is unfair and wrong. I believe that healthy views of both genders is good for society. Gaming culture would be enriched and advanced by being more inclusive and fair towards women.

Hezabelle said...

I was playing Dragon Age yesterday and came up against the Lady of the Forest.. like the female demon the tower, she was wearing nothing but strategically placed hair. Morrigan, until you give her some real clothes, basically wears a scarf that happens to cover her nipples.

I would like to see a male character with a strategically placed fig leaf or something. Even Zevran, the most sexualized male character so far, is still wearing full clothes.

I don't really have a problem with the sexualized or unrealistic nature of the characters, but only if it goes for both genders.

Samantha said...

Re: how Morrigan's boobs stay covered, It's called double-stick tape. Not my choice for fighting gear, but it works.

I sometimes think being scared of the female form is a very American form of Puritanism (or is it a Puritan form of Americanism?). I didn't mind her outfit because not everything that is revealing is automatically sexual, at least not to me. Nakedness is not the same as sexy. At least everyone's body shapes were fairly realistic.

@Greg, I know exactly what you're talking about. My friends in the programming community have gotten into huge arguments about this.

It's very interesting because to me, the simplest argument is to just say, what if the chromosomes sorted the other way, and you were born a girl. How would you feel. What would your life be like. Suppose everything else about you is the same: what interests you, what you enjoy, what your goals are in life. Except now you're a girl. You look like a girl, and the world treats you like a girl. And to challenge them to try to imagine how they would feel.

And the answer is: they would probably feel the same about most things. But they wouldn't want to be treated the way our society treats women.

For some guys, that's all it takes. They think about it, and then they get it.

For those guys who are biochemically incapable of empathy, you've got your work cut out for you. Sometimes simply being practical works, for example re: these are our potential customers and colleagues, let's not offend them.

Eleni said...

Hez - Good points. I was thinking recently about how all the desire demons are female. Where are the barely clothed male desire demons? At least we get a little bit of leg with Zevran, right?

Samantha - I don't think it's so much being afraid of the female form as being bothered by 1) an exaggeration of it which may be detrimental to girls, since they can't achieve the idealized look (DAO is probably OK in this regard) and/or 2) the inequality in the sexualization of the female body compared to the male body. That last part goes with what Hez said about not being bothered by the sexualized characters as long as it goes for both genders. DAO wasn't as bad as some games in this, but there were inequalities (like only female desire demons, or the Dalish armor that inexplicably looks like a bikini on women).

Anonymous said...

Came across your blog when doing some google searches for "woman depiction video games". This was prompted by my casual observation of the game Dead Island. I read through your initial post entitled Female Characters in Video Games: Depiction of Women (March 29, 2011) and the responses. I have been discussing this topic with my boyfriend, who is currently playing D.I., for many months. The female protagonists in this game are scantily clad and wearing high heels to run, jump, and generally kick zombie-butt. I love that a selection of women as main characters exists in gaming and media but its laughable what we see on screen. When gaming if I can question whether my character will be able to perform athletic actions in her clothing its because I am putting myself in her heels...and most of time its inconceivable. I would never run flights of stairs in heels, nor would I would walk my dog in much less than a t-shirt and shorts. How could I imagine carrying out fantastical tasks in imaginary lands in a few square inches of clothing. I want armour; full head to toe body wear that'll offer maximum protection. I want game designers to give female character's gear a sense of realism and a body structure to match. Designers, think about your audience today - women are closing the gap on game play statistics. Make a change!

Eleni said...

About the footwear issue: I've never been able to walk in stilettos, so I'm always impressed when actresses in TV shows and movies have to chase down bad guys wearing heels. But it's not very realistic--if your life was really on the line, you had to bring down the bad guy or he might kill you, you'd wear more sensible footwear.

Anyway, the female game audience is increasing in spite of some unfavorable depictions. If they change their ways, maybe they'd be able to get even more women to play and expand their audience. It makes sense to me :)