Big, Bad… Boobs!

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.

Continue reading Big, Bad… Boobs!

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.

…that all game characters are created equal…

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all game characters are created equal, that they are endowed by their developer with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Hmm, self-evident. Really?

I was thrilled and amused when the thought ocurred to me that the US Declaration of Independence would be such fruitful material to further my ponderings on equality in games. 😉 Apart from the equality debate itself, the three aforementioned rights are essential to games as well: You (usually) can’t continue if your character dies, you have to have a certain degree of liberty in your game decisions (games that fail in this aspect are often mocked as “interactive screensaver”), and must be able to persue happiness, i.e., enjoy the game. I paused my first playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins for a week because a certain end-game choice made me very unhappy. That was so….. unconstitutional!

But let’s return to equality. As has been discussed before in Call me Lady Gama, I feel at ease with the “girl gamer” label, and I think my playing style is feminine. (What I wanted to add to my last entry was that, as a non-girly example, I don’t mind blood’n’gore in a game, and have always enjoyed things like Fallout’s Bloody Mess Trait/Perk. It’s a caricature, taken to such extremes that it couldn’t ever appall me. So it’s not all black and white, y’know?) I love being able to play a female character, and I want her to “act it”, in an equal, emancipated and confident way (as I try to be, myself). And I do want her to be sexy, just in a more realistic and credible way than what I usually get treated to.

As Jenn Frank pointed out in When “You” is a girl on the great site Infinite Lives, games are usually developed from a male point of view, and then, the option to play as a female is grafted onto it. You can basically put boobs and make-up on your hero and voilà, that’s your heroine! (I only recently read that Dragon Age 2 will introduce a female skeleton version for all characters! About time, fellas!) Nothing in the plot, dialogs or quests changes, apart from the flirts and romances (apart, again, from the homosexual ones, which often have an “explanatory opener”, but then proceed like the heterosexual ones). There are still few “female-avatar-only” PC games (Venetica or the Lara Croft series instantly come to mind), compared to “male-avatar-only” or “you-can-choose-but-not-quite” (see the link below on the difference between “sex” and “gender”).

I don’t generally dislike games that have only one option for the avatar’s gender – but I want it to be meaningful. In other words, it should make sense that this plot, dialog etc. can only happen to a woman or man. Ideally though, I get to pick my avatar and the game reflects that choice in distinct reactions, just like many games do depending on your karma/class/origin/faction. (Think about it again, as I just did for a while: Usually, when a game distinguishes between male and female avatars, we’re talking romance. Not main quest and plot line!) Settings like in Dragon Age or Fallout would give plenty of opportunity for that – but especially Fallout gives you 100% the same game, whether you play a guy or gal. As Jenn Frank put it in aforementioned blog post: “You may choose the sex of your avatar, certainly, but you do not choose your gender, which itself is essentially written into the game dialogue and scenarios.” In Dragon Age’s defense, I just read the post “Gaming as a Woman and Dragon Age Origins” by “Petite Chablis” that the Origin stories differ from male to female – I have tried each Origin and a little ways into the main plot as male or female, but no Origin as both; need to check that out! (My first choice is usually a female elf mage, if applicable. On later playthroughs, I often play as male to check for new twists and turns – more than often enough, all I get to see is a difference in necklines of my equipped armor suit.)

Many male players pick the female avatar for their first playthrough – and many of them agree that it simply means they can watch a pretty rear for dozens of hours 😉 – and it doesn’t really matter gameplay-wise anyway. Makes me wonder about two things – does over-the-shoulder perspective, or would a more “gendered” gameplay influence the percentage of guys playing as gals?

Or more generally speaking: Is it possible to create a game that really and truly treats us as “different but equal”?

A Little Byte of Romance

In the last few months, I played through Dragon Age: Origins and its expansion Awakening and Mass Effect (all BioWare’s works) and started playing The Witcher, which was developed by Polish CDProjekt. Currently I’m following up with Mass Effect 2. All good games, no doubt there. But I’m not going to discuss the games’ quality per se… if you allow the pun, it will rather be "per sex". Be warned though, some character development spoilers will follow, but no major plot spoilers.

DA:O and the Witcher are considered "adult", while ME has a rating of 12, and ME2 of 15. The reasons for these ratings are the typical cursing (aka "strong language" haha), violence, blood and of course… naked skin!!! Very scary, if you’re American! ^_^

DA:O and both Mass Effect games allow you to pick your avatar’s gender, and be straight or gay. Need I even repeat that The Witcher was developed in Poland, while BioWare is Canadian? Hm. Figures. 😉 Granted, I play for the plot and gameplay etc., but I am a fan of well-written game romance, because it adds character depth.

The eponymous, and male by default, Witcher Geralt sometimes can decide between a traditional roleyplaying reward such as cash, or a night with the damsel in distress he just rescued. The resulting cutscenes are, well, foggy… and you collect a pin-up card to remind you of your conquests (some of that artwork is rather gross in my humble opinion – and no, I wouldn’t judge bloodied and disfigured male pin-ups differently). His dialogue choices on the way there are mostly either "not interested" or sexist, which led to me playing a rather ascetic Witcher. (I’m not far into the plot, so this is only a tentative opinion, no final judgement. It seems there is a more long-term love interest in store for Geralt, so I’ll see how "he will act".)

In DA:O, your avatar can pursue romances with certain party members, though you have to play much nicer to get anywhere. When you succeed, you are treated to totally non-foggy cutscenes with both of you wearing the infamous, but obviously popular with game devs, "grandma undies". (I think that wonderful quote is from Bethesda’s Morrowind forum back in the day, but I am uncertain. In any case, there was a Morrowind nudity mod mode [sic!] called "pubescent boy mode", which showed women naked and men in their underwear… which I found hilarious, but I digress). Similar to DA:O, you have to be nice to your romantic interest in ME, yet still can tease them, which led to a few superb dialogs. (If you want an example and don’t mind spoilers, look up "Alistair’s rose" in youtube; I haven’t yet tried to find some of ME’s wittiest Shepard – Kaidan dialogs but I bet they’re up there to). Another good example for game romances to mention would be, again of BioWare’s doing, Knights of the Old Republic (I played only Part 1, since 2 doesn’t run on my computer for some #@$&%! reason).

Unlike past times, when even BioWare treated us girlgamers to the ever boring paladin-type lovers (Anomen in BG2, Casavir in NWN2) and nobody would give us a male Viconia (a bitchy dark elf in BG2, who you eventually could convince to become good – if you were male and romanced her, that is) it seems we’re starting to be of concern to developers (not Polish ones, sadly – a female Witcher could make for a kickass heroine).

But I really wonder if there is a even just one woman writing romance dialogs for them!? I am betting money on a storybook male nerd making guesses about what GIRLS want, while forgetting that it’s mostly NERD GIRLS who will play their games. I’m exaggerating? Perhaps… prove me wrong next time, all you devs out there!  😉

As always, looking forward to comments from you! Also, did I miss any major RPG that has romances?