Sunday, January 15, 2012

Structurally unsound: video game women

I had a post started about a month ago about women in video games, but never finished so I'm going to revamp it now. I've been a gamer practically since birth, starting with a family-owned Atari 2600 (favorite game: Adventure) and continuing to present day (PC and Xbox). As with comic books, table-top games, and science fiction and fantasy in general (AKA geek culture), the video game genre has been largely produced by and for heterosexual men since...well, forever. There have always been some women involved on both ends and that number is ever-increasing, however. This means that the questions of how women should create games, how they should be presented in them, and how female gamers should be perceived and treated is being debated more and more. As are, in turn, the same questions about queer players of all kinds.

Straight male privilege in video games takes many forms. If you play a specific humanoid character, it will usually be a male and rippling with muscles. If you play a female, she will usually be curvaceous (sometimes impossibly so-- we'll get to that in a minute) and wearing revealing, impractical clothes. Any females depicted, for that matter, will most likely fit that standard. If the game offers opportunities to form relationships with NPCs (non-player characters), they will generally be heterosexual. If the game is online and offers the opportunity for players to chat, the chat will contain sexist innuendo, people calling each other "fag," describing beating an opponent particularly badly as "raping" them, and either fawning over or harassing players discovered to be female. I am not saying these things are ubiquitous-- I'm saying they are general trends that female players must tolerate if they want to play. They can complain, but they will meet resistance from the majority every time. That doesn't mean complaining is futile, just that effecting any change means having to wade through a lot of bullshit along the way. Privilege is, after all, unacknowledged by its nature. The advice blog Dr. Nerdlove observes
Y’see, one of the issues of male privilege as it applies to fandom is the instinctive defensive reaction to any criticism that maybe, just maybe, shit’s a little fucked up, yo.  Nobody wants to acknowledge that a one-sided (and one-dimensional) portrayal of women is the dominant paradigm in gaming; the vast majority of female characters are sexual objects. If a girl wants to see herself represented in video games, she better get used to the idea of being the prize at the bottom of the cereal box. If she wants to see herself as a main character, then it’s time to get ready for a parade of candyfloss costumes where nipple slips are only prevented by violating the laws of physics. The number of games with competent female protagonists who wear more than the Victoria’s Secret Angels are few and far between. 
The idea that perhaps the way women are portrayed in fandom is a leetle sexist is regularly met with denials, justifications and outright dismissal of the issue. So regularly, in fact, that there’s a Bingo card covering the most common responses. Part of the notion of male privilege in fandom is that nothing is wrong with fandom and that suggestions that it might benefit from some diversity  is treated as a threat.
In that post, Dr. Nerdlove goes on to analyze some of the characters in Batman: Arkham City. Here are some other places to see analysis of female characters in video games and video game art:

Escher Girls -- Addresses physically impossible body types and poses depicted
Boobs Don't Work That Way -- Self-explanatory
Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor -- Show examples of female characters in attire that makes sense

Ryan at Mad Art Lab was inspired by the latter blog to make his own post with suggestions about how to dress female fighter characters called Fantasy Armor and Lady Bits, and then another post which was what actually stimulated me to revive and continue this one: Rubber Spines and Bent Space. In it he delves into a possible biological reason why people find images of humans with impossible proportions and posed in impossible (or very unlikely) positions not only comprehensible but attractive. The most important part of the explanation to me is this, which I'll quote at length because frankly he nails it:
2: Supernormal Stimulus
Why is it that artists are consistently and purposefully going to extra effort to put biologically unlikely characters in physically improbable positions? Well, because it’s effective.
I have heard rather a lot of women and a few men say with conviction that these images are not attractive. I will hereby declare that they are incorrect, at least partly. They are wrong, because they are attractive to me. They are attractive to all of the young men that I know who have purchased / sought out these images simply for their titillating qualities. I will concede, though, that them being attractive doesn’t make good rational sense. That is because they’re not appealing to a rational sense.
The poses and figures of women in things like this: 
Soulfire, Volume 2, Aspen MLT Inc.
are deliberately attempting to exaggerate the sexual characteristics of the character to elicit a reaction beyond what should be possible with a real human. This effect is called supornormal stimulus. In short, it plays on what we find attractive and then extrapolates beyond what is physically possible. Apparently, you can get geese really excited about volleyballs painted like their eggs because that must be the biggest, healthiest egg that was ever laid. The same thing works for sexual characteristics. We like large perky breasts, so make them defy gravity. We like large eyes, make them too big to fit inside a skull. A narrow waist and round hips are appealing, so remove some of that lower intestine and kidneys and shave off some of that pelvic bone. An arched back is a signal of sexual readiness, so a very arched back must indicate an unprecedented level of randiness. Moreover, given the fact that we will fixate on certain details and happily ignore gaps, they can show all of these features at the same time. If you twist a body in such a way as to show off the eyes, legs, waist, hips, breasts, shoulders and butt, you can get hit all of the arousal points simultaneously. 
A human being can’t accomplish these things, of course. Physics and biology put some limits on these attributes so that they never get beyond a certain point. Partly because of that, we’re not trained to easily recognize when they’ve gone beyond the “healthy, youthful” look into the “structurally unsound” area. However, artists are not bound by the constraints of reality and can therefore abuse them for market appeal. 
He goes on to describe what he sees as the ramifications:
3: Unforeseen Consequences 
What’s the harm in producing these images? The artists are producing something that people are buying. It excites the audience and everyone knows that it’s not real. So is there a problem? I argue that there are a couple of problems. 
3.1 Desensitization
As with any stimulus, too much of it and you will numb to the effect somewhat. It’s like walking by a Cinnabon: If you only do it on occasion, the smell is intoxicating. If you do it regularly, you find it satisfying. If you work there, you barely notice it. So too with imagery. The first time you see something erotic, it makes your brain leak out your ears. In order to keep that level of arousal up, the stimulus needs to vary or increase. Anything less will seem bland in comparisson.
So an occasional glimpse at this sort of thing wouldn’t be bad. It would be like an occasional guilty pleasure, like a fine wine or chocolate. But if you’re surrounded by it, then it becomes routine. The supernormal stimulus can become the baseline. 
3.2 Personal Image
Humans can’t be comic book characters. However, those characters are presented as an ideal. They’re more human than human, better in every way. However, unlike a well-toned athlete or the hottest kid in school, they’re an impossible goal. Some people will strive to look like those cartoons and that isn’t healthy. 
3.3 The Feedback Loop
We are attracted to what we’re used to seeing. We generally like partners who are similar to what we were raised with. Media reacts to that demand and provides it in an exaggerated state to get us interested. When we begin to expect the exaggeration, they have to push beyond that to keep our attention.  This push-pull effect can drag the expected, default image of women in impossible directions over time. Troublesome, no?
Video games which allow you to customize your character, usually RPGs (role-playing games) often don't even make it possible to play a female character with a realistic body. And if they do, they also provide options which are so off the charts in terms of supernormal stimulus that they make the more realistic options appear chunky and ugly by comparison. It has been my experience that female gamers typically want to play a character which is attractive. But what happens when they are presented with options including character that are impossibly attractive? They want to play those as well, both because we are of course also susceptible to supernormal stimulus, and because choosing a more realistic option can actually earn negative attention.

Character options for RPGs typically include the chance to choose your class (the kind of powers your character will have) and your race. The former will most likely determine how you dress (melee fighters need armor, of course, whereas magic-wielders can get away with wearing fabrics only and will likely be restricted to such) but the latter will determine your appearance, including body type. In some cases it is literally impossible to make your female character fat and/or small-breasted, not that most people would choose to play such an option. What's interesting though is if you get as close enough to that as possible, achieving a body that would be at least average in real life, females of the race you're playing will be called ugly. If the body of the race you've chosen is muscular rather than slight, females of the race you're playing will be called ugly. Never mind how bizarre would be for someone with a body like Gisele Bundchen (5'11", 125 lbs) to swing an axe with enough force to decapitate a minotaur.
Gamer evaluation: "Nice for a barbarian, I suppose,
but can you make her breasts bigger?"
This creates an interesting quandary for game designers. Male gamers want to be able to play characters who are big and strong. A slight build is acceptable for a mage, but if you're going to play a fighter than piling on the muscles to the point of absurdity is just fine. But for every race, there have to be both male and female counterparts, so there has to be a female option for every barbarian/orc/troll/demon/brute-type creature. Even if no one's going to play her, because nobody wants play a woman who looks large, lumbering and muscle-bound compared to the more dainty-but-physically-impossible options. "Nobody" is of course an exaggeration-- there are some people who are quite happy to do so. They're a distinct minority, and require a thick skin to deal with the ribbing they'll get from other players both in-game and in conversation about the game elsewhere.

My suggestion would be, then, to avoid the supernormal stimulus. Of course if you're going to have distinct races in a game they should differ physically, but please don't give us an option to play Barbie-like characters who literally could not function if they manifested in real life, because that means we're less likely to be penalized for not choosing to play them.  That doesn't mean characters can't be sexy-- the real world, after all, is full of people with real-life sexy bodies. Maybe Gisele couldn't battle a yeti, but I bet Gabrielle Reece or Venus Williams could do some damage. Beautiful women who are not, to use Ryan's awesome term, structurally unsound. 

Another issue is attire-- please don't dress my badass hunter who needs to scramble through dungeon tunnels, leap over barricades, engage in melee combat, and sneak down hallways in a bustier, thigh-highs, and five inch heels. She doesn't need these things in order to be attractive, and putting them on her anyway makes her ridiculous. Plenty of games either force your character to start out in his/her underwear before acquiring armor or at least make it possible to strip down to that state, but the underwear doesn't need to be Victoria's Secret. It doesn't need to take the form of garments that have the primary purpose of being impractical. Yes, a video game is a fictional world, and a fictional world of supermodels fighting evil would be pretty amusing. Just, you know, call it that. Let us acknowledge that that's what it is, and laugh, and not pretend it's anything else. 

I referred to actual behavior between players in-game toward the beginning, but discussion of that will have to wait for other posts. Women in video games is an enormous topic, so this one will have To Be Continued.


  1. Have you seen author Jim C. Hines' "Striking A Pose?" (

    You may want to move your beverage away from the keyboard. It's at once hilarious, sad, and very awesome. Click on the next entry link to see his follow up post, plus some other links.

  2. I followed that link from Mad Art Lab, and laughed and laughed. Will definitely explore his blog more.