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Female protagonists in video games as eye candy and as role models

Via reader Aliasalpha, Kotaku Australia has a piece up about a Street Fighter panel at NYU’s Game Centre where Capcom staffer Seth Killian (a.k.a s-kill) was asked, point blank, “why so sexist?” He said he was going to “take it on the chin”, but proceded to blame cultural differences between Japanese and Western cultures, playing his answers for laughs from the crowd.

If you’ve never seen Street Fighter, it’s one of the best and easily the most popular tournament fighter game series in existence. Its characters are also heavily objectified, both males and females, but the women are especially sexualized via various costume choices and camera angles that make them look more like strip club workers than World Warriors. Now, these cartoony and hypersexualized people-caricatures are not nearly so bad as the offerings in, say, Soul Calibur with its impossible outfits, or Dead or Alive with its infamous “boob physics engine” which treats a lady’s orbs as separate entities that lag slightly behind the character’s movements to produce some absurd shaking and jiggling effects. However, Capcom’s offerings are hardly free of ridiculous levels of sexualization.

A video of Seth Killian demonstrating Cammy’s moves:

Note that Cammy is one of the rare fighting game characters with a relatively small chest. And by relatively small, I mean she’s only a C-cup. Her character design is, as you can tell by the intro, all about her ass.

I fully understand that Japan is a different culture, one which objectifies women rather heavily as a matter of course (link NSFW, apparently a screencap from a Japanese porn movie presented as a serious venture on a website on April Fool’s Day). I’m a bit annoyed by the way Killian “took it on the chin”, because the question “why so sexist” deserves a real and cross-cultural answer, one that speaks to where we’d like to see our respective cultures go, not where those cultures are now. Nicole Leffel explains:

If you’ve never experienced what it’s like to be on butt end of systemized objectification and exclusion, the reason can be very hard to understand.

A culture of misogyny doesn’t strike once, but twice. The first blow is the act: hypersexualized female characters, or some guys snickering about what they’d “like to do” to a woman playing on a stream at a tournament.

The second blow is dismissal. It’s foisting the entire problem off on silly old Japan. It’s the jokes made, and laughed at, to ease the tension in the room. Most guys, especially creative professionals, in no way want to be associated with misogyny. It’s less scary to blame a distant society and showboat for laughs than to seriously address what is (or is not) being done to fix an upsetting problem in the industry.

Leffel also relates an incident that had happened about a month prior where some mandudes turned a meeting space for aspiring game developers into a toxic environment for women with chants of “no flat girls” and anecdotes about game design professors telling students to increase their female protagonists’ rack sizes.

Of all the girls in video games, I think the hottest used to be Samus. I say “used to be”, because prior to Smash Brothers and Other M, the Metroid series generally didn’t show much of her outside her ass-kicking powered battle armor. Samus is, and plays like, a tank — a fiercely intelligent tank who also happens to be a good enough strategist to know that the more armor you wear, the less damage you take. Even in the original Metroid, where her gender was a complete surprise to players who managed to finish it in under two hours, you got to see her jump out of her armor and you could see her in a swimsuit in glorious 8-bit graphics. Each boob must have been three pixels wide! Wowzers!

Playing the Metroid Prime games, where you were in first-person mode looking through her visor and if you had enough ambient light, you could see the reflection of her face in your viewscreen. She felt more like a human being in those cases. And in those excellent games, where you were directing her actions as a fearless and ass-kicking female, you weren’t doing it for the T&A. Even if you strove for the “perfect ending” where you got to see her take her helmet off, she was a fully realized person.

A major problem I’ve seen with video games is that female protagonists are few and far between. You have Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, who not only kicks all sorts of ass but isn’t really sexualized; you have Faith from Mirror’s Edge who was so undersexualized that fanboys decided to redesign her so she was “less ugly”; you have April Ryan from the Longest Journey adventure games, who’s still depicted in her underwear when you first meet her; you have Lara Croft, whose polygons have gotten significantly less sharp and more bouncy over the years; and you have Samus. And that’s about it. You basically only get to play a kickass girl who isn’t just there for looks if you play an RPG that lets you build female characters, and not all of them do that. Those that do, only let you build a character that looks like a plausible human being if the game comes with body modifiers so you can alter the default female model from tall, lithe porn stars with breast implants.

Of course, good luck finding games that let you make chests SMALLER. And when you do find one that lets you do that, find one that doesn’t call the slider “sex appeal”.

(As a bonus bit of destructive memetics, Saint’s Row calls the male character’s package size “sex appeal” too. Because that’s just what guys need to hear — that sexiness is predicated on your junk size, just like how girls’ sexiness is predicated on their boob size. Way to completely fuck up everyone’s self esteem, people. This blade is double-edged.)

For some reason, women in fighting games — hell, in most fantasy fiction, from movies to games to books — have a dynamic going on where the amount of armor they wear is inversely proportional to their actual defensive capabilities. See a woman in a bikini? Start running. She’s going to be nearly impossible to kill.

In the rare event that you have a girl with armor, like Hilde in Soul Calibur, you can just bet some jerkoff is going to complain. Even though Hilde’s built such that she could probably never jump around in the full plate armor she sports, because she has to have an hourglass figure and thin lithe arms. Why is this? Because, remember, there are “no flat chicks” in video games, and especially no women capable of actually wearing plate mail — even those who do just that.

Now, I like boobs as much as the next guy. Maybe more than the next guy. However, I am actively repulsed by fake boobs, especially those kinds of fake boobs that game designers put on their characters that would probably give these characters crippling back problems. The blatant sexism in video games makes my heart sink, especially where this sexism is generally played to make other guys’ boners rise.

We need more characters like Faith and Jade. We need to undo the ramped-up sexualization of Lara Croft and Samus, if that’s even possible now. We need to expand our repertoire of good, ass-kicking, non-sexualized women in video games. Blaming Japanese culture for Capcom’s increased focus on these oversexualized depictions of women isn’t helping our cause.

Comments

  1. says

    I did always prefer Ms. Pac-Man over Pac-Man. Princess Peach just felt like cheating, though, in SMB2. And don’t forget all the role-playing fantasy games that had and have strong and often not hyper-objectified-for-the-str8-and-bi-men female lead characters.

  2. tarian says

    Ug, yes. I’m a gamer. I’ve been a gamer since *cough* adventure on a HP mainframe. I have fond memories of the Ultima games, among others, because they… tried? Yay for trying! boo for really not getting it. E.g.: Ultima 7, wherein you can play either a male or female protagonist, neither of which are overtly sexualized. Yay! There is a brothel in-game, with both male and female staff, equally happy to serve. Um. yay? Alas, your avatar choices are still limited to Blond Aryan Male and Blond Aryan Female (highly disappointing, since earlier games in the series did not have this inexplicable constraint). Oooer. Peoples, I have many friends who are artists. They would really like work. Can we set up, like, a donation bucket for in-game art so that there’s a little more variation in human experience represented? Kthx.

  3. says

    Yes, I am remiss in omitting Chell.

    However, Chell in Portal 1 is great. Chell in Portal 2 got a sexualization makeover in the promo art and her character model (though you rarely see it). Her jumpsuit from the first game is unzipped to the waist and the arms tied together, so you can see her Aperture Science tank top. Her face was remade to be “pretty” too.

  4. says

    The female characters in Dark Ages of Camelot were relatively sane and realistic. I never felt like my character was unreasonably undressed in her armor or in any way sexualized. In fact, my female Kobald was pretty awesome, now that I think about it.

  5. says

    It’s very very hard to produce a female protagonist without going down the “Sexy Lady” route. However there are “good female characters” in games. Bear in mind the majority of artists are men and are often inspired by comic books (A similar world of misogyny where no woman is anything but supermodelesque).

    I would like to add Madison Paige (Heavy Rain) who I didn’t feel fit into the hypersexualised category. As well as Heather Mason from Silent Hill 3.

    The problem being that scantily, clad, female characters do sell to a major demography of videogame buyers. AKA teenage boys. However it does alienate female buyers of the game and does portray videogaming as childish and immature (the people who tend to play a lot of videogames don’t help either. Ask anyone who plays online about the abuse sustained by any player let alone women).

    There has been a massive issue in a lot of game sites about women gamers suddenly standing up and pointing out how utterly sexist videogaming is not just from the standpoint of production but from the mentality of the people who play the game. To a lot of gamers the response has been positive but there is a significant population who have come out with some frankly sexist nonsense.

    I am blessed/cursed with a girlie name. (The shortened form of my real name is Amy, and my name originates from a sanskrit background) The amount of abuse I used to get when I played was astronomical. Everything from “show me your tits” to “fucking bitch/whore/slut/cunt” and the various offers to “suck dick”.

    The industry as a whole needs to progress beyond catering to this demography of misogynistic douchebags and start catering to both genders if it is going to be taken seriously as an art form. We simply cannot keep producing the gaming equivalent of Dude Where’s My Car and be taken as a serious medium. The brilliant games such as Silent Hill, Heavy Rain, Half Life and the countless others that exist get drowned under a horrid torrent of vapid clones and boob physics leaving most non gamers to think we have no taste or have the mental capacity of blancmange.

  6. Lotharloo says

    …but the women are especially sexualized via various costume choices and camera angles that make them look more like strip club workers than World Warriors.

    Unfortunately, that describes the majority of video games. In fact, it’s pretty rare to find a game that doesn’t do that or that actually contains interesting female characters.

    I rarely play games and luckily when I look at my favorite games, (Deus Ex, planescape: torment, Dragon Age, etc.) they don’t do that kind of shit.

  7. Aliasalpha says

    I would like to add Madison Paige (Heavy Rain) who I didn’t feel fit into the hypersexualised category

    Ooh yes and the one instance of her being in a situation where she was using her sexuality as a tool was one of the creepiest moments I’ve had in a game.

  8. julian says

    Someone refresh my poor memory

    Reading about the redesigns for female characters in games to make them look sexier I’m reminded of the redesigns for Infamous that eventually got canned in favor of something truer to the original character.

    I’m trying to remember if it was because they made him to much a pretty boy and the fans preferred the grittier version.

    Re Character Creation

    No one laugh but the games I’ve played with the most realistic men and women possible in character creation were the SmackDown Vs Raw wrestling games for the PS2. Despite how incredibly sexist the games and the WWE is, character creation had no mention of sex appeal in relation to boob size and let you go where ever you wanted as far as body composition and size.

    Back in SmackDown! 5, I created a beefed out 6’3 blond body female builder with an almost nonexistent chest. In SmackDown vs Raw 200 (something…) I created a pockmarked 5’8 chubby guy with a massive gut and even bigger arms. (That belly though ran into all sorts of clipping issues though.)

  9. leftwingfox says

    Some great work on this is done by the crew at Extra Credits, who deal a lot with the state of the game industry and serve as a sort of an inspirational and educational class for game developers and fans to try and come to grips with Games as art. They’ve done a few episodes dealing with the treatment of women in gaming, sex in games, true women characters, sexual diversity, and a severe takedown to Call of Juarez for their disgraceful misrepresentation of sex trafficking in regards to the mexican drug war.

    http://penny-arcade.com/patv/show/extra-credits

  10. says

    Not to mention Call of Juarez – Racism Boogaloo which has you get an award for the whole sale slaughter of a gang who are all rather black. Like “Hey! Let’s reward people who stand there gunning down black people”.

    It was just a lousy game that completely fluffed the origin and concepts created by the first (relatively open maps, different play styles and an emphasis on being freaking cowboys!) and replaced it with sexism, racism and drugs.

    It has no redeeming features whatsoever, I would suggest using the disk in a tron fight.

  11. daenyx says

    Bioware’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age were the first video games I’ve played where I felt like the game was designed for me, as well as for heterosexual dudes (and not just as an afterthought).

    I have a screenshot from Dragon Age 2 that I will probably treasure forever – my character, and my entire party are fully-clad (well, except for the pirate, who is mostly-clad) women of buttkicking. And they are talking to one of the most shiver-inducingly awesome quest NPCs I’ve ever met in any game, who is also a woman.

    But yeah, most of the industry is just disgusting.

  12. says

    BioWare won a lot of cred with me when they did this to a gamer complaining on the forums that by including options to be flirted with by same-sex NPCs, they were neglecting their “core audience” — straight male gamers. Because inclusion of non-privileged positions is always an attack on the people of privilege, amirite?

    So yeah, BioWare is good. Really good.

  13. julian says

    So yeah, BioWare is good. Really good.

    Now if only their level design didn’t suck…

    Ah well, memorable characters make up for it.

  14. says

    Oh, BioWare is good but they don’t get a free pass. The two Dragon Age games had female NPCs who wore very revealing clothes, and in DA2 you couldn’t give them something more protective. Mass Effect 2 had the same issue with this, made all that much more grating considering how many of the female NPCs wore skin-tight or very revealing clothes (no matter the environment).
    Other things that disturb me in Mass Effect – a species that is entirely female (I’ll believe the “they have no actual gender” when they make a unisex species that isn’t entirely eye candy for straight men) still ends up with many of them doing sex work on pretty much every planet/station with large populations.
    Then there was the apparent male same-sex relationship possibility that was cut from ME2, and the only female same-sex relationship in the sequel was a fling (and oh, the people on the BioWare boards who kept arguing that it wasn’t really a lesbian relationship in the first game because Asari aren’t really women, those were fun arguments and I’m sure they’d feel the same way about a male Shepard romancing a mono-gendered species that appears male).

    That said, I do applaud them when they get progressive. I just wish it wasn’t two steps forward, one step back.

  15. says

    It’s almost painful how badly they’re screwing up Samus. She was the biggest damn heroine in video games and now she’s being turned into a sex object and withering flower. That freakout in Other M not-withstanding.

    It’s depressing that they’re changing who should be an icon to women into your typical boys’ desire.

  16. says

    Let’s not forget Elaine Marley from Monkey Island. And my fav non-sexualized ladies of my childhood, Angel and Spirit from Wing Commander. Through 95% of the series you only see their faces, they’re shown regularly getting promotions in competition with men, and Spirit’s major romance plot has her being the rescuer, not the victim.

    But of course, none of these games were at ALL successful with a male audience, so games had better keep selling boobs just in case. /* Snark */

  17. says

    I’m female, and I love the eye-candy, regardless of gender. But lemme tell you, it IS nice to just… have a female lead character, without every camera angle just so for the Male Gaze.

    I’m not opposed to fan-service, but it would be nice to see some equal-opportunity fan-service and some male eye-candy.

  18. says

    I’m tired of hearing that they “have to” design for their supposed core demographic of sexist hetero males(all the way from 12 to 35+) who supposedly DEMAND this T&A and complain if a female character isn’t oversexualized. It reminds me of advertising companies who complain that they only make incredibly sexist ads because that’s what sells product. Really? Then (for games) why are Bioware products some of the most successful games in recent history, not just with hardcore gamers but in the general market? Why is (for ads) the Old Spice campaign, which mocks toxic masculinity, though not in the most progressive way I’ll admit, one of the most successful ad campaigns of the last couple years?

    I wish they would just come out and admit that 1) they do it because it’s the easy way out and they’re just not that creative, and 2) they’re not interested enough in making non-sexist games to hire enough diverse employees that their game design would be changed organically. Yes, there is a small contingent of assholes who will scream, but it seems to me as if the attention paid to them is like the Tea Party – they get much more press than their numbers warrant.

    This was a total rant, but this shit really pisses me off.

  19. MONNKEY says

    haha im barely reading this about a year after it was posted!!!
    anyways no more complaining people because now they have soul caliber 5 i think it was u can create ur own character, either male or female, and u can have the girls small chested or big chested so thats awesome but personally i just play as klick XD

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