Isabela’s Fate – from Pirate to Pinup

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.

Larry Croft and Gordana Freeman

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].

Big recommendation: The whole article from which the two images were taken: The Aesthetics of Unique Video Game Characters by Shaylyn Hamm. The article features a link to her whole thesis about this topic. Great job!

What are your ideas for gender-swaps in games? What could work, what couldn’t at all?

Jeanne d’Arc, one of the guys

Very short post here, as I noticed something “funny” in Civ5 recently.

The female leaders (as the male ones) are designed with great care and love for details. They are definitely fewer in numbers, but then, it’s supposed to be a realistic historic setting. That’s ok with me – I have learned a great deal history (AND English) beginning with the first Civ game.

As an example for the female leaders, here’s Catherine of Russia. I picked her for my first play – I find Russia intriguing, and of course I always play ladies first. 😉

Catherine, a great woman of history

What’s not so ok with me, is a theoretically VERY VERY VERY small detail in the game. It’s like the devs thought they could get away with it, nobody would notice, it’s not a big deal, blah blah blah. I noticed, and do care. Look at that:

Enchanté, Jean...

Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to see Jeanne D’Arc included in a game once again (Did anyone play the RPG Lionheart? She KICKED ASS as NPC!), and I’m thrilled that she is “one of the guys” regarding her abilities, but… was the beard really necessary? Taking into account that we’re talking major developer and publisher on a big budget… how much would it have cost you to make this 2D image of Jeanne look like a girl? Let me know, and I’ll gladly send you a check before you publish Civ6…

Les femmes firefly

Yes, it’s not a game I’m talking about! And yes, the title is a play on femme fatale! And as a last introductory note, I have watched the show only once (but not the last time!) and apologize if I can’t remember exact details. [Spoiler Warning – Firefly plot arcs mentioned]

N7_Commander, who writes Mass Effect slash fiction on Twitter, told me she would be interested in my thoughts about Firefly. So, as the short-lived series has ample interesting angles on gender portrayals, I thought she had a point, and here goes…

First point of note is that Firefly’s main characters make up a decent RPG party (maybe all at the same time would be a little too much):

Mal: Warrior/Thief dual class
Zoe: Paladin or Warrior
Jayne: Barbarian 🙂
Kaylee: Rogue – the repairing/lockpicking, not the throat-cutting type! 🙂
Inara: Seductress/Spy
Shepherd: Priest
Simon: Healer
River: Berzerk  😉
Wash: I’m not sure of the official translation, but in The Dark Eye RPG ‘verse – and in my opinion – he’d be a gleeman (Gaukler) who takes the edge off tense moments and displays pragmatism as well as humor in various situations. He shies away from conflict, unless his friends are in danger. Maybe a Bard would also come close… hmm.

These are (with Wash being an annoying exception, lol) all pretty clear classes for the RPG enthusiast. What’s interesting, is that the females were harder to put a tag onto, than the male characters. I had a vague feeling about this while watching the show, and while writing this, seeing it black on white, it’s even more true. All of the Firefly women would work great as main characters in games. [Note: I’m neither saying the men wouldn’t or that they are bland characters – but it’s much less unusual to have interesting male characters than the other way round.] They are all more than meets the eye, and quite multi-dimensional in character. I hope that this achievement of TV series will soon spill into the gaming world.

Zoe is a kick-ass warrior woman who is deeply loyal to her former superior Mal. It seems nothing can stop her once she’s made up her mind. She has a strong will and commands respect. It is primarily her relationship with Wash that shows us her soft spots and feminine side. That Zoe and Mal are very close without having had a romantic past is still a rare occurrence in stories like Firefly’s – I liked that, nice change (Mal & Inara’s sexual tension thing was entertaining but definitely “nothing new or unexpected”). Oh, and by the way, Zoe was my personal favorite in the show.

Kaylee is a gifted mechanic and a sweet, happy girl. We’ve seen gifted female starship engineers before – but try to picture B’Elanna Torres of Voyager in the pink ruffled dress Kaylee wears for a ball!!! o_O While we see Kaylee being insecure around Simon, she got her job being MUCH less insecure with the previous mechanic in (I think it was) the engine room. Although Kaylee is sometimes way too girly for my personal taste, I do appreciate her as a fellow girly geek.

River is (at least until the series progresses) the token female mystery character (Shepherd being the male mystery character). A disturbed, traumatized killing machine. After being the subject of various experiments, she is saved by her brother Simon. For the most part of the short series, we see her suffering from her memories. She creeps out most members of Serenity’s crew. When I started watching the show, I thought I had her figured out – I thought she had been changed into a psi-killer. Stereotype dictates that women are psi/mental/magic, not melee berzerks. The girl had me fooled. To even out that brutal side, River is a very talented and graceful dancer.

Inara, the beautiful and educated companion with all her refined behavior, who turns the head of just about any man, actually has a thing for the somewhat crude Mal. In spite of her looks, she isn’t portrayed as a shallow prettyface, but a thoughtful, caring person who has high moral standards albeit her profession may stereotypically imply otherwise. In the movie Serenity, we see she is quite capable with weapons. Not much was revealed on her motivation to be aboard Serenity, and various hints indicate she was dying of a terminal illness, so she could have become the show’s later mystery woman. In any case, it was refreshing to see her resolve to leave and be independent, cutting short Mal’s resolve to confess his love for her. Again, I was expecting a cheesy happy ending thing – and was surprised. (But who knows what would have happened later…)

To wrap this up – I would have loved to learn more about the characters of Firefly, especially about the ladies, who are great examples of non-stereotypical gender portrayals. I can only repeat that I would love to PLAY such interesting, multi-faceted heroines in RPG games. That’d be awesomesauce.

Three Times a Lady

This post will present some of my favorite/funniest/most memorable moments in Fallout: New Vegas thus far, which I’ve finished once. As you’ve probably come to expect from me by now, it will focus on the depiction of women in the game. Comments welcome, as usual. [Note: Minor spoilers (companions, locations and similar) ahead. The title pays tribute to F:NV, as the quests bear names from popular songs, some of which you can even listen to on your Pip-Boy’s radio.]

I had agreed with some other female game bloggers (blogging game girls/gaming bloggirls…. whatever) that Fallout 3 never made you feel like you were (playing) a woman. Apart from a few instances, this has been improved in New Vegas… not in a tickled-pink, sugar-coated way. The Wasteland is a rough place… why should it be any better for a girl? The secret to success lies in whether I – with my foul mouth and gun in hand 😉 – can REACT to the bad treatment…

Jinx, my avatar, right out of the intro sequence...

After playing Mass Effect and Dragon Age, I really miss their elaborate face generators. Not really satisfied with this one, especially the shades of a moustache and sideburns that wouldn’t go away. Oh well, I’ll find a helmet soon!

Ooooo, the way he looks at her. Sweet.

The sought-after helmet turned out to be a cool beret with benefits, from my first companion. Boone totally reminds me of Carth Onasi from Knights of the Old Republic, as he’s bitter about having lost his wife and seeks revenge. (If you tell him to “keep the distance” in the tactics wheel, he will say “That’s what I do best” – it’s hilarious!) He flirts less than Carth, though. When I took the above screenshot, I just did it to show them off wearing their berets… 😉 but now I imagine there was something going on between them, even if the developer Obisidian won’t allow it.

Nope, Boone, it's not what you think!

I don’t know why Boone doesn’t react to me running around half-naked without a comment. In fact, YOU DIMWIT, this is a rigged collar that will explode if I take one wrong step! Truly, the fact that your companions don’t react to this turn of events was a total dialog-breaker for me.


At least Boone knows I’m female, unlike Manny here… but then, that next guy takes the “acknowledgment” a step too far – and YIPPIE, the game gives me the chance to tell him off:

Flattering, but, get lost!

There’s a fair share of tough cookies wandering the Mojave Wasteland too: Soldiers, doctors, business women, bandits. Some seem to like to be the only tough cookie around:

Actually, yes!

Then of course there are drunks, gamblers, hookers… while it may be an improvement in game world credibility that there are female drunks/gamblers/bums, I’m missing the men-whores…  😉  There are a couple of female pimps, for example this one here, who has a strict no-sampling policy:

I didn't really want to, thanks...

The only thing I just had to sample was Fisto, the sex robot. I later even found one single male prostitute – but he was members-only. I still wonder if that was meant literally….

Uhm… what was I saying…. ahh yes, the women in the game! [Edit after playing through: There ARE men-whores! Epic win for ingame equality! 😉 ]

...she says after accusing me of wanting to compete in her business...

Now, after all these live guys’n’gals…  this bandit chick had no luck at all. She tried to kill me, and then she fell dead like this:

What a STUPID, un-ladylike way to die!

Now some of my random, less “gender-issuey” favorites:

I loved that dialog!!!
A rollercoaster!!! *squee* Unfortunately I died on the way down...
Attention, Apple fanbois and -gyrls!
A learned man...
Cheers, then!
A Moose - not an Elk!

That’s it for now – if you have played F:NV, what were your funniest/etc. moments? And of course, I’m interested in your perception of the gender portrayals in the game – as always!