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.