Yes, this is a shameless attempt to catch your attention! Did it work?
[Spoiler warning for the entire Mass Effect and Dragon Age series]
[Trigger warning for mentions of rape and mutilation.]
Recently, I’ve seen more and more people discuss oversexualization of female characters in games in articles, on Twitter, and real life. And it’s not just us girl gamers who are annoyed, but also the guys who are tired of being treated like teenage boys. And, as Brenna Hillier (whose Twitter is @draqul and you should insta-follow her) put it so nicely in an article on vg24/7:
“The industry’s reliance on over-sexualised, impossible female design is somewhat insulting to those who’ve grown past the point of getting erections from passing bra stores.”
I also remember that the Liara collectible for ME3 was subjected to breast size reduction surgery before going into production. Unfortunately for Liara, this means that she won’t ever become a leader of Asari society (regardless of any ME3-related galactic travel problems), because Asari leaders are recognizeable by their enormous melon-sized breasts (says deviantartist Epantiras in her funny-as-hell parody cartoon “Mess Perfect”).
In general, this discussion is a step in the right direction, I hope it will gain momentum and find its way into the brains of the game developers! [Yes I'm an optimist. I couldn't bear blogging about gender & games if I weren't.] I could go on about this and try to retrieve all the other links on character designs, armors and whatnot. (There are AWESOME blogs about this springing up like mushrooms after the rain.) But right now, I have something more insidious and immensely literal in mind: Big, bad, boobs.
[Spoiler Alert for Mass Effect 2; only hinting at spoilers for Tomb Raider]
Is it too late to chime in on the “Tomb Raider rape controversy”? I’ll readily admit that I haven’t played a single minute of any game in the series, but as a feminist gamer interested in gender roles, of course I’ve followed Lara’s story from a distance. I’ve watched a good amount of gameplay videos of the reboot (until the cremation of ********, not to spoil anything vital) and read a fair share of articles and blog posts and interviews and whatnot about it. But anyway … it is never too late to talk about rape and rape culture. I agree with many commenters that the “suggested rape attempt scene” has been a publicity stunt. I think that, apart from that scene, Lara has to endure pain and violent acts that IMO are over the top. Also: The constant moaning and groaning, COME ON! You’d NEVER subject a male character to all this! As explained by the game’s executive producer Ron Rosenberg, this all happens for a very specific reason:
“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.’”
(That would also never happen to a male character.) I also agree with Mary Hamilton in her Guardian article that
the use of rape “is a lazy shorthand that allows a writer to paint a bad guy as particularly bad, and a woman as particularly vulnerable (the genders are rarely reversed), without dealing with the consequences or meaning of such an act for any of the parties involved.”
There are just so many aspects of this affair that make me so angry I don’t even care whether it’s actually a good game. Let’s assume games are an art form and we want to discuss all sorts of topics from our daily lives in this medium. So let’s face it: rape, sexual assault and molestation are part of the daily lives of countless women and girls on this planet. And I do think that we have got to try to deal with this topic in video games. If it’s supposed to be a mature medium for grown-ups, we gotta figure out how.
I was interviewed (in German!) about women in games by Robert Glashüttner, digital lifestyle editor for Austrian alternative radio station fm4. It was awesome to be back at a radio station – I was an intern at one in 2005!
I’m at home, baby!
Here’s a screenshot of the preview of the interview on the fm4 website:
As always, I’m looking forward to your input or feedback. Is there a special female character you’d like me to discuss in my next blog post? Also, what is your favorite female character in games and why?
Over a year ago, I finally finished Risen and started writing this blog post. Soooo much has happened since then, and I’ve neglected this blog. But hey, I’m back.
While the game has a lot of rare strong suits, like the continuous, interactive world with beautiful day & night cycles and some clever level design choices, it also has a few annoying aspects. I won’t go into details about most of them; let me just say that the quest log was particularly frustrating because I picked up the game again after several months and the log didn’t help at all. But overall, I liked the game a lot. Risen stands in the tradition of the German cult RPG series Gothic and was developed by the same studio, Piranha Bytes, after the rights to the series were temporarily unavailable due to legal problems with the publisher JoWood. It is very similar to the Gothic games, but not frustrating as hell.
The people on the island of Faranga have daily routines and roam their camps and go to the tavern, go to sleep and back to their workplaces in the morning. That part was quite well done – but, it was also very revealing of the society depicted in the game. I am often confronted with the argument of “historical realism” when discussing gender issues in games but I won’t accept that for a fantasy setting. If you make up undead creatures, magic spells and whatnot, there is no claiming realism to justify why women aren’t treated or represented equally in a game. ( The “representation” vs. “treatment” is an important point, because I wouldn’t mind if the treatment of women in the game served the plot and could be protested against or changed, but it usually can’t be.) There are lots of unnamed NPCs in Risen, bearing markers like “Townswoman” or “Farmer”, etc. There seem to be roughly equal numbers of men and women, but none of the women work in the fields, smithies or in any other craft. Neither are there female guards, warriors, mages or bandits. The women also never go to the tavern. Ever. C’mon!?
Of course, there’s a brothel in the island’s only town. (My fingers are itching to write a whole post about courtesans/prostitutes in games.) The brothel is the only place outside their house in which women actually do work; and I really dislike the message that sends. The more important NPCs, like merchants and quest givers, all have names. That’s why it sticks out that there are very few female ones, and their portrayals are rife with clichés. A few examples:
Rachel – the wife of the bandits’ leader, Don Esteban. You will mostly see her work in her fancy open-air kitchen in the bandit camp. She does play a role in your getting to speak to the Don, but overall, she’s the camp’s cook, and that’s that.
Kayleigh – a rather annoying woman who wants a pearl necklace in exchange for a stolen ring that you need to bring back to his owner.
Sonya, Olga, Lilly, Gwen, Anika – prostitutes, some of which you can actually have sex with. You can save Gwen from physical abuse by a guy called Erikson. You can distract a guard called Marek by paying for Anika’s services.
Jasmin – a hunter and merchant, lives in a remote cottage, protected by a tame wolf and her partner Hendrik
Tilda – a mother of three sons who is worried about them and sends you on a quest to see if they are okay
Patty – the only female skill trainer in the entire game. Guess for what skills? Acrobatics, a largely useless skill that you can also get temporarily by wearing a ring. And lockpicking, okay, that’s useful.
But there’s more to Patty. She is the only woman in the entire game that has more than a negligible role. Patty is the daughter of a famous pirate, and owns the tavern in Harbor City. You will be sent on a quest to retrieve some documents for her then enable her to leave the town through the secret tunnel. In a later chapter you will help her find her father’s treasure and spring her from the cell where the infamous Pirate Romanov locks her up. Here’s what she looks like – yes, it’s your typical cropped, cleavage-exposing nothing with hot pants and overknees. SIgh.
For the longest time, the quests involving her didn’t portray her as a woman who could hold her own in a fight, but at least she had a background and some really good lines. Here’s a short video captured from the later part of the game, where you rescue her and she then helps you, until after the final bossfight.
Patty is an interesting character because for quite some time, I had no idea that she would turn out to be a companion rather than eye candy; and strong woman who was cheeky and flirtatious without appearing easy or needy of the hero.
Since I started writing this post, Risen 2 was published, but I haven’t yet played it. So I might soon continue telling Patty’s story from my feminist gamer’s perspective. As of now, I am quite hopeful – but it wouldn’t be the first time that a strong female character was twisted into a mere shadow of her former self in a sequel. Yes, I’m looking at you Isabela.
The following ad for “Last Chaos” popped up from some game site. Now, I do not know anything about the game (and don’t care much, either), but the images caught my eye, after reading various posts about the depiction of male and female characters in games recently.
The Titan character is one of the few examples of male characters without full plate armor, the rogue (Schurkin) one of the few of females with full (leather in this case) armor. [Note: The image is photoshopped to see both characters without the icy layer, which disappears on mouse-over.] Yes, the second one, the Knight, as well as the third, the Mage and the last, the Healer characters are pretty stereotypical again, but it was enough to screencap it and post it now.
"You can do it, oh no you can't." (Devs create characters with sensible armor.)
However, seeing that this world seems to be covered in ice and the heading reads “Survive the icy times”, I don’t see much of a chance of survival for any of them if they don’t have a warm coat and thick fur boots ready somewhere.
I fondly remember Robinson’s Requiem and The Dark Eye/Realms of Arkania, where your characters would die quickly without the proper equipment. Mind you, I wasn’t so fond of this when they died the first time.
So, as I said elsewhere recently, I either want all characters to wear silly armor that exposes their vital organs while emphasizing their assets, or the laws of physics (however exotic they may be in fantasy/sci-fi worlds) to apply to all sexes equally – and that means they should cover up for protection from the weather as well as their enemies’ steel.
Another note: Proud to announce that this post was featured on The Border House! If you want to see the comments that were posted over there, follow this link!
I was very excited when The Witcher 2 was released earlier this year, but I quickly got annoyed with a few things (controls, balance) so I took a break from the game soon afterwards, somewhere in the middle of chapter 2. Then, I’ve spent a lot of time playing a lot of Assassin’s Creed for my thesis. When that was done, I put 153 hours into Skyrim and now I’m back to The Witcher 2.
These three games combined would make for an amazing experience: I love the openness and the beautiful world of Skyrim, but the characters are generic and flat. I love the way Assassin’s Creed makes the virtual world physically plausible and movement realistic even though your avatar is pulling the wildest stunts. I love the “adult” setting of The Witcher, it is dirty, gritty and damn funny.
Posts about the other two will follow, but this one will be about Andrzej Sapkowski’s (I spelled that correctly right away, wow!) creation in general, and specifically regarding the representation of women in the game and in its promotion. I am a huge Witcher fangirl, in spite of many things that initially annoyed me about the franchise – I went into detail on this in this post and explained what changed my mind here. I am currently reading one of the books, partly to see whether these problems are built into the franchise by its creator or if it’s the gaming industry’s doing.
If you made out the latter as the culprit, well done, but it wasn’t too hard, eh? Get this bit from the Witcher Wiki about one slight but revealing *giggle* difference between the novels and games:
After her fall at Sodden Hill and her consequent resuscitation, Triss mentions that she “will never again be able to wear a dress with a low neckline”, suggesting that some skin disfigurment still remains on her chest. In the game however, she displays a generous amount of cleavage without any traces of damage whatsoever.
While Triss’ normal attire in The Witcher 2 is almost chaste, you have ample of time to… uhm, inspect her skin for possible scarring in her nude scenes. Here is, though, her outfit, which I adore:
Triss in The Witcher 2... when not naked ;-)
A general statement before you get me wrong: I do not criticize nudity (in games) per se, I just don’t want it to be an end in itself, and one thing that annoys me in particular is the double standards many guys have, i.e. female characters are expected to wear plate bikinis in combat and nothing at all in romance/sex cutscenes, while male characters wear reasonable armor in combat and keep their pants on at all times. It doesn’t make sense from an in-game perspective and it’s immature if you can’t look at a naked person of the same sex, especially if it’s just pixels.
In a scene in which Triss and Geralt take a bath in some ruins, Triss immediately removes her clothes with a spell and jumps in the water. Geralt begins undressing, but when he reaches his pants in the process, Triss grabs his arm and pulls him into the pool – pixel penis exposure averted!
However, The Witcher 2 does a good job on some counts. While the very explicit sex scenes – which must make BioWare with its “mature RPG” Dragon Age blush – caused “complaints” on forums from guys who didn’t know how to complete the game with just one hand, Triss and Ves are both reasonably dressed when out of bed. And the romancey dialogs are quite well done.
Ves is a kickass soldier, who exemplifies the “beauty vs. talent” dilemma, because she does get picked for special assignments that make use of her pretty face.
Her journal entry in the game reads:
The fair-haired Ves stood apart from the rest of Vernon Roche’s unit, and not only in that she was the only woman in an elite formation of hardened cutthroats and swashbucklers. Her girlish face and shapely body would stand out even if a uniform did emphasize them. For there is something in soldier women that attract a man’s gaze, and Ves was no exception. The reader should not, however, be mislead by this description – one does not earn a Blue Stripes membership with good looks, but with skill, determination and, at times, ruthlessness. Anyone disregarding Ves would pay dearly for misjudging this young woman.Because of her gender, Ves would sometimes receive assignments where her beauty was more important than her combat abilities and efficiency. Roche had used Ves as his trump card more than once.
Here’s a screenshot of Ves – I love her outfit, stance, hairdo, everything!
Ves, as she should be
Of course, we can’t have reasonably dressed female characters, so we have to create a mod that changes this outfit to the default whore apparel… I do suppose people who prefer this one have no imagination whatsoever. Their loss, right? (btw, when I last looked, the mod had only 400-something unqiue downloads.)
The extremely essential "Ves Whorification Mod"
Incidentially, a bug in The Witcher 2 made it possible for Geralt to undress without exposing *any* kind of skin…
They DID say he can't keep his pants on...
Seriously though, unlike the first game, there is much less blatant sexism in the second one. The awkward pin-up cards were dropped, to name one example. Similar to the two main relationships in The Witcher 1 with either Shani or Triss, you can choose whether Geralt remains faithful to Triss or not. In general, I find Geralt to be very respectful towards women, taking into account his general disrespect towards authority, religion or mages.
Yes, The Witcher 2 is a very adult game (both regarding the general setting and sexuality), but it is much more than that. It has a beautiful world, interesting quests, intriguing and nuanced characters, original details like the bestiary that is refreshingly different from other RPGs and much more to please a fan of the genre, whether male or female. It certainly diserves the Mature rating for the nudity alone, but apart from that, there’s cursing, blood, torture, incest, drug abuse… and the aforementioned dirt and grit that makes it “adult” in the other meaning of the term. It’s not a fluffy fairy tale, it’s a story filled with pain, death, injustice, prejudice, loss in a harsh setting.
What has been used to promote the game, however, boils down to naked skin in its truest sense. For example, Triss was on the Playboy cover in Poland and in Russia, a nude calendar was produced, here’s a video from the shooting, showing a completely naked Triss and a fully dressed Geralt:
[Side note: Perhaps she dropped the Triss outfit because it didn't look as awesome as in the game?]
I really don’t care about the calendar or the video per se. What I do care about is that this is the part of the campaign that sticks, and gives a skewed image of the game. It does not do the game justice at all. I am not sure if I would have given it a second look if confronted with the marketing campaign. This is hardly how you promote a game to female gamers (who, if I am any indication, might come to love this game almost as much as the guys), or to male gamers who expect more from a game than pixel porn and are against sexism in or outside of games. Most feedback I get here on my blog is from guys, not girls, so I know they exist.
Now for a little experiment: Imagine an Oscar-winning Hollywood film with a great plot, characters and special effects that features some explicit sex scenes was marketed primarily with explicit material. I am finding this incredibly hard, to be honest. It is economically stupid to give your product an image that does not correspond with its actual content, but will most likely alienate parts of your audience while not gaining considerable new target audiences. This is of course guesswork, but I don’t think that many RPG-hating shooter fans (sorry for the stereotype, but I’m trying to make a point *cough*) would think “Hey, I hate RPGs, but this one has sex scenes, so I’m going to buy it” especially in times where you can watch screencaptures of everything on YouTube two days after the game’s launch.
After noticing similar differences between the content and campaign for Dragon Age 2, I get the impression that while many developers are (trying to be) more inclusive of the interests of female gamers (and the wonderful group of male gamers that support gender equality), the publishers go behind their backs and leave out these aspects and emphasize the “made for the male gaze” parts instead. So I can’t help but wonder: Why is the game marketing obviously more sexist than the game development? Are they too dense to realize that pleasing a decreasing percentage of gamers while alienating an increasing one is plainly irrational?
Feminist geek rage time! I read (of all things!) an article on mobile games introducing more and more women into gaming on an Austrian website today and first was thrilled to spot an ad for Dragon Age 2 in it. It didn’t take me long to realize that the enthusiasm was misplaced. All this ad does is show stills of Isabela with those lines: “Wanna meet this woman?” – “Wanna get close to her?” – “Play the demo; she is waiting for you“.
See here (in German):
To me, it seems that whoever produced this text has formerly made a living in the porn/sex hotline business… There is NOTHING about the game in this ad, all it does is appeal to male fantasies. I can hear many of you saying “But she’s still dressed” or “I’ve seen more sexist ads for games”. Believe me, I am aware of that. But this is Dragon Age we’re talking about. Dragon Age: Origins was an RPG that appealed to many female players. It’s very inclusive – we’ve seen homo- and bisexual characters and romance options, we’ve seen topics of gender identity (Shale’s history) and of racial discrimination (elves, mages) and many other social issues. BioWare itself has a history of being the good guys, in my book especially regarding gender issues. It is known for high standards in dialogs and plot, not cheap thrills.
Of course, Origins had its saucy moments – but they were witty and cleverly written in comparison to this stupid ad – I really, really enjoyed them. One example is to follow shortly.
But first, a little bit on Isabela’s history and character. When the Warden meets her in Origins, she is in The Pearl, a brothel. But don’t jump to conclusions: she’s not employed there, she’s a customer. She’s a self-sufficient and quite quarrelsome pirate captain, capable of handling three (IIRC) men in a swordfight. She unlocks the Duelist specialization for your party. Depending on your gender (and maybe other factors, I haven’t tried it) you can have sex or even a three- or foursome with her.
If that’s not enough, here’s another example of dialog that shows how it’d be her to make Alistair or the Warden a pinup, not be turned into one herself:
Isabela: “My dear, you wouldn’t consider…leaving Alistair with me, would you? Perhaps let me borrow him for a week every summer? I’m sure we could work out a deal.”
Warden: “Would you lend me your ship?”
Isabela: “Of course not! You would misuse the ship– Which, I suppose, is exactly what I would do with Alistair, though I suspect he would enjoy it while the ship wouldn’t.”
Alistair: “Not that the idea of being borrowed isn’t terribly fascinating, but let’s not forget the darkspawn. There may not be a week every summer, or any summer.”
Isabela: “Darkspawn! Is this the only thing men think about these days? What about the good old obsessions? Breasts, firm buttocks, wet frocks?”
Alistair: “Hmm… wet frocks…”
As you can see, she not a prude, she’s a proud, witty, (sexually and otherwise) self-determined woman. She could really be a feminist role model in this fantasy setting. Instead they made her a fantasy model in a sexist setting. From being an active protagonist that holds great meaning for the game’s story, the ad turns her into a passive sex object. I hope that this gets corrected in the game itself… and until I can check that, I’m trying to convince myself that this ad was done by evil EA marketers, not BioWare.
[Edit] Thanks to @aeazel on Twitter, I have just read The Games We Play: The Whitewashing of Video Games on Bitch Magazine. It made me realize that, while Isabela is supposed to be a woman of color, she is pearly white in the above ad and other promotional material. The only thing I find funny about that is that you meet her in “The Pearl” – other than that all I have is disbelief and growing anger. BioWare, please cast Crushing Prison on your marketing people.
I’ve recently stumbled upon an interesting feature on Game Career Guide. Time for Change is about what would happen if you swapped the gender of game heroes and heroines, and how that would affect them (and the game we’d get to play if they were for real).
“The aim of the project was to examine how female characters are created for games, what purpose they serve, and how they could be designed to stay true to the spirit of an exisiting character while offering a new experience that might appeal to a broader audience, and making sense in a real-world context.”
Not all of them are really appealing to me, but the idea made me think. I usually play games in which I can pick the gender of my avatar and that are dialog-heavy, already giving lots of options of behavior and thus a feel of being able to customize your avatar’s personality. Some of these options are more traditionally male, others are traditionally female. I might go one way in my first playthrough as female, and an entirely different one in a consecutive playthrough as male. But that’s my interpretation of the game, not an intentional “feminine path” that is offered to me. It is, as I have explained before in this post, that the “masculine path” is the norm of what we get to play, and often enough, all that get’s changed is the body of the avatar and the address of Sir to Ma’am.
[Side Note: Check out this list of action heroes on Wikipedia. See how Commander Shepard from Mass Effect is listed as male, but not female? MaleShep is considered the "iconic Shepard". FemShep, in spite of being loved by many fans for her great personality (thanks to the fab voice acting by Jennifer Hale) is not mentioned.]
One of the gender-swapped concepts in Time for Change is Princess of Persia, who relies on subtlety and (even more) agility than the Prince. Another is Leisure Suit Larissa, whom you have to help finding a mate suitable for a lifelong relationship – ok, maybe not that exciting a game for me and many of you – that’s not the point right now, though. A third is playing Zelda instead of Link in Ocarina of Time, paying attention to the physical differences between men and women – i.e., Zelda has no heavy shield, but casts a magical barrier for protection, and so on.
I clicked more links, hoping for more such great ideas… and I promptly found a more ambiguous one showing sketches of a few gender-swapped action heroes and heroines. I like the ideas of the artworks, but as one of the comments suggests – there HAS to be more to heroines than big boobs and small pieces of fabric. [Mind you I like mini skirts myself, but I wouldn't want to be defined by that choice.] I wish I could draw some sketches myself – instead I have found another great image of how different male body types can be within one and the same game, Team Fortress 2 in this case. (Although I must point out that TF2 doesn’t feature any women, so that’s not a perfect performance in my book, either.) These are all different classes from Medic to Heavy Gun Specialist, Spy, etc.:
Body types in Team Fortress 2
An artist took these as basis for designs for females… designs with which I’m in love! ;-) Note that these were, at least two of them, implemented in the game, so the basic models had to remain the same for the animations to work. That’s why these ladies have unchanging, and slightly off proportions within their class, but nonetheless, they are awesome! I had to laugh because the left gal in the 2nd row has visibly unshaved legs, and her creator wrote the note “stubble legs” next to it. I suppose survival should beat beauty on the battlefield. ^_^
Concepts for female classes in Team Fortress 2 by Shaylyn Hamm
Of course, these are just female faces and bodies again – not a “feminine path” to play. But as I’ve talked about interpreting meaning into the choices we do have – I think I can more easily interpret game heroines like these as realistic women with character than “tits and ass in a steel bikini”[quote from the producer of Mirror's Edge about a fan-made adaptation of its main character; also to be found in Shaylyn's article at Game Career Guide, see link below].