One of the points I constantly bring up as a barrier to gender inclusive game design is how women are hypersexualized — meaning that they are constructed to be characters whom presumably male characters would like to have sex with, they are often portrayed with exaggerated sexual characteristics (how often do you find a female character with A-cups? Or with a non-curvy figure?), and presented in a way (through costuming and posing) that is meant to show them as sexually available.
One of the most, if not the most, common rebuttal I get to this argument is to reduce my logical arguments to me saying that the only “acceptable” avatar is an “ugly” one. This, of course, is a problematic reaction on many different levels. I would first like to clear up the argument I’m actually making, then delve into an analysis why the dichotomy of “ugly” versus “pretty” used in the rebuttals is not a useful one, and finally offer suggestions for what companies can do to be more inclusive in their character design.
I. If it’s not about making “ugly” avatars, then what is it about?
Studies have shown that many qualities are attributed to people with attractive features–sometimes referred to as the halo effect. These qualities include being seen as warmer, kinder, stronger, more sensible, more outgoing, more socially persuasive and dominant, and even smarter than others.[From Better Game Characters by Design by Katherine Isbister, p. 7]
When I criticize the portrayal of women in video games as being hypsersexualized it has almost nothing to do with creating “attractive” characters or not and everything to do with conflating objectification with attractiveness. As Isbister points out in Better Game Characters by Design, “Whatever the reason, it is the case across cultures that myriad traits considered positive tend to be associated with more attractive people” (p. 8 ). This includes both men and women and is the basis for her recommendation to make most of your characters attractive.
This may come as a surprise to my critics, but as someone who is sexually attracted to women I do, in fact, enjoy looking at women I consider attractive. And, when given a choice of character customization, I even tend to create women who I find visually appealing. The same goes for the men I create. The problem is not, and has never been, with the player wanting to be represented, or accompanied, by attractive people. I agree with Isbister’s point that this is a fairly natural part of being a human being.
The problem comes in when “attractiveness” for women is defined, as Sheri Graner Ray points out in her book Gender Inclusive Game Design, “as male players would like them to be–young, fertile, and always ready for sex” (p. 104). For player characters, an argument can be made for them disproportionately being young (although that argument weakens when you get into MMOs and the like), but what do fertility and sexual readiness have to do with being a competent hero? Men certainly aren’t typically portrayed like that, and rather the elements that are exaggerated in them tend to be strength and otherwise power-related.
Simply put, the point I try to make every time I bring up how female characters are hypersexualized is that it is inappropriate sexualization, which puts many women off (not all of women are interested in playing characters created for a presumably male player’s wank fantasy) and perpetuates the idea of “attractiveness” in women being inseparable from sexual availability.
II. What defines “attractiveness”?
Of course, what is considered attractive… can vary wildly across cultures… From eyebrow piercings to lip plates, human beings have evolved culturally and historically specific modifications of what “ideal” beauty is, and these traits also come into play when making an attractiveness judgment.[From Better Game Characters by Design by Katherine Isbister, p. 8]
Further addressing the point about a narrow view of what’s “attractive”, I’d like to bring up the point that I do, in fact, advocate a broader range of characters in games. For males as well, obviously, but especially for females because the range is currently much more narrow than for males. I do like seeing “fat” characters in games, I would like the option sometimes to play as an older woman, and sometimes I want to play a twiggy woman with no curves and no protruding breasts.
And I reject the argument that these kinds of portrayals are somehow in opposition to creating attractive characters. Being fat and older, for instance, didn’t interfere with Toruneko spring boarding from Dragon Quest IV into his own series — a wildly popular series in Japan, I might note. What says that the same couldn’t be done for an interesting female character who just happened to not fit the current beauty standards?
Going back to Isbister’s point, which is very similar to the one that the concept of the beauty myth is founded on: beauty is subjective. While there may be some very basic components, like symmetry, that appear to be universal, most of the trappings of what we consider today to be “attractive” is socially constructed. Though extreme thinness is seen as desirable in, say, America, the same doesn’t hold true in, say, Indonesia. When I took a course on women in Indonesia as part of my Asian Studies degree, my teacher (who had a wiry build) told us about how every time she went home, her mother plied her with food, worried over how thin she was, and constantly talked about how she could never get a man unless she fattened up. This is, of course, slowly starting to change as the Western media takes hold of Indonesian advertisements and popular culture, but even that only serves to strengthen my argument that what we view as “attractiveness” can be influenced and changed by the media that we consume.
III. How do companies change without driving off customers?
The argument that can be made for maintaining the status quo is that most games are designed with a Western audience in mind, and therefore appealing to the Western ideal of beauty only makes sense. I agree with that, to a point. I don’t think that companies would be able to do a 180 overnight on the way that they portray their female characters, especially given all the pressure of the culture outside of video games that also shape society’s attitudes. But what I do think that they can do is to work in small steps to broaden the views.
MMO designers and RPGs with customizable characters have it easy; they can make a huge impact by providing a wider variety of body types. This has already been provided to a certain extent by various games in the form of the options for having an old-looking face and white hair, some games provide model scaling that allows you to customize the width of your avatar, and, of course, there’s also a few games out there that allow users to create custom meshes. The one thing I haven’t seen, however, is companies providing their female avatars with customizable breast sizes. Women don’t all come in D-cups or above, and seeing that reflected in female avatars would be, in my opinion, a huge stride forward in terms of gender-inclusive game design.
Another thing that games in general can do is to make sure that there is a diversity of portrayal in the NPCs. This is especially important for supporting characters who get developed deeply enough to explore the stereotypes created by their looks. I agree with Ibister when she says, “Good designers also build memorable characters by taking well-worn stereotypes and crafting characters that have a few traits that go against the type” (p. 14). A player might see a fat woman NPC and write her off as uninteresting, but if she ends up being a well-developed and interesting character, they may find themselves warming to her, which will help prime them to have good feelings about fat characters in the future. Just as stereotypes can be broken by showing how truly diverse individuals, so can new archetypal paths be created by creating engaging characters and storylines that fit path you wish to create.
The beauty myth is a pervasive force that permeates many aspects of our lives. Even if all video game companies took my suggestions and began changing their games today, that alone wouldn’t be enough to get society to allow for a broader spectrum of “attractiveness” in women. But I write on video games and want to design video games because I do think that popular culture has a great deal of power.
In many ways, games have come a long way since my childhood, and I have seen the impact on that in terms of more women getting involved with the hobby and an increased chance in me being able to pick up a game and see a character with whom I can relate to. Over the past few months, I have seen and been part of a coalescing of gamers interested in gender-inclusive game design and even further increasing the female voice in the gaming industry.
Female gamers come from all walks off life — old, young, fat, skinny, in a riot of colours, with all sorts of sexual orientations, some of whom are femme, others are butch, and even more who fit somewhere in between. And it is for these women, as well as myself, that I criticize hypersexualization of female characters as being the norm. Because for every one woman who can relate to that portrayal, there are dozens more who feel themselves to be alienated because that’s not what “attractive” means to them.