The Realism Defense

Earlier this month, Collie of Collie’s Bestiary posted about her experiences with Planescape: Torment.

A short while ago I started playing the computer game “Planescape: Torment,” and stumbled across this issue again, with painfully eye-opening results. Keep in mind, this game won numerous awards for its storytelling and quality in 1999, the year it was released — which makes me wonder in appalled horror just how awful the other games were. But to continue: I first noticed the sexual objectification of women with the game’s job/species designations, which float above the head of the graphical character on the screen. There were monsters, and men and women. As I recall, men were classified about 50% as townsmen and 50% thugs. Women were similarly classified as either townswomen… or harlots.

What?! Um, hold on. Why were there no male harlots? Why no female thugs? Is the game trying to teach us that women can only be for sale, and only men are capable of violence? I found myself bewilderedly wondering: are the creators of the game afraid of women or something, that they feel the need to so dehumanize women in the game?

My first reaction was to attempt to excuse these aspects of the game as “ignorable.” There’s no need to look at the portrait gallery to play the game, and the “harlots” don’t actually have much in-game purpose (they can improve Morte’s Curse ability; that’s about it). It seemed a waste to miss out on a game that had so much else going for it. This, of course, is precisely the wrong framing – it puts the burden on the player to put aside her own discomfort. Besides, there are other uncomfortable aspects to the game which are not so easily ignored, such as the geek-girl fetish of the Brothel of Cartesian Dualism Slating Intellectual Lusts, or how every girl’s crazy for a gothed-out Hulk. A better way of approaching these issues is in terms of the costs and benefits of the design decisions – is it really worth alienating a sizable portion of your audience for this?

I. Penalizing Women

There’s been a lot of debate over The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion‘s character creation process, which gave different attribute bonuses based on the character’s sex, and did it in such a way that male characters were more optimized, especially for fighting classes. As tikae notes:

It’s that if you want to have a female character, you’re going to be punished if you want to be anything except for a mage – and you’re still not going to be as good at that as male characters of most races are. It’s just how the numbers work. Making it a punishment to choose a certain gender is always going to be bad game design, whether it’s political or not.

First edition AD&D had an even more unbalanced portrayal of sexual dimorphism – the maximum allowable strength for women of any “race” was significantly lower than that for men, with no attempt to balance this penalty. In other words, men were penalized for playing cross-gender characters, and women were penalized for playing same-gender characters – again, especially warrior types.

Arcanum goes even farther than that – many of the species in the game are simply only playable as male. The designers cite the extra work and storage space that would be required to include artwork representing female dwarves, gnomes, etc., and explain it away in-game by referring to Victorian convention. The upshot, though, was that players had significantly fewer options if they wished to play female characters.

II. What Is Real? How Do You Define “Real”?

In addition to simply being glossed over, all of these examples of sexism in RPGs also get defended by portraying critics as valuing “political correctness” over “realism,” a defense that’s especially pernicious because it goes outside the game to make claims about the world in general.

But what do we mean by realism in the context of gaming? I’m not talking about the tired idea that, in any story with magic or supernatural elements, there’s no need for verisimilitude – that’s just a defense of bad writing. When we speak of realism in a game, we usually mean two things: immersion and complexity.

Immersion is the believability of what Roger Giner-Sorolla calls mimesis:

As stated before, I see successful fiction as an imitation or “mimesis” of reality, be it this world’s or an alternate world’s. Well-written fiction leads the reader to temporarily enter and believe in the reality of that world. A crime against mimesis is any aspect of an IF game that breaks the coherence of its fictional world as a representation of reality.

Complexity is the depth of implementation of the game world. Immersion and complexity are often in conflict, as every additional detail is an opportunity for a crime against mimesis to be perpetrated. What we call realism, then, is the combination of the two: a world sufficiently detailed that “rings true” to the player.

Guilded Lilies points out that what breaks mimesis will vary from player to player, citing the requisite detail for any discussion of sexism in gaming, Lara Croft’s breasts:

I feel it is pretty safe to say that women and men have different impressions of male and female game characters in computer games. Exaggerated female body parts may fall into the category of fantasy elements that men are willing to accept, but for women, this might just be the fantasy killer that interrupts her experience of suspended disbelief. A woman knows intuitively that having to haul around an enormous rack would make, for example, Lara Croft’s acrobatics impossible. For a male playing the same game this might never arise as a conflict, and likewise enjoying the presence of such things, he may never be aware that suspension of disbelief is required to maintain his immersion in the story line.

III. Reality is Overrated

The thing is, realism alone – i.e., the combination of mimesis and complexity – is not necessarily entertaining. There are games which are perfectly consistent and coherent in their game worlds, but simply aren’t a lot of fun because those worlds aren’t very interesting to the player (for me, strategy games like Railroad Tycoon and Colonization fell into this category, as did Oregon Trail when I wasn’t trying to make my friends die of dysentery). And there are other games with interesting, believable worlds, but whose complexity bogs down the gameplay until it’s intolerable. Realms of Arkania is the classic example in PC RPG-land; Xenosaga and Star Ocean: the Second Story approached this point for me with their multiple point-advancement systems. What game designers should be asking themselves is not whether a feature will make the game more realistic, but whether it will make the game more fun.

IV. Scope is a Design Decision

The realism that’s being defended in the above examples is selective at best. Some elements get focused on while others are ignored entirely; it’s not so much that these design decisions are expected as it is that they “feel right” to the perceived core audience of male gamers. Gaming, especially fantasy role-playing, has been a “boys’ club” for so long that these little touches of sexism have become cliches that players take for granted. If an area is poor, the reasoning goes, it will have prostitution, and that will invariably take the form of female streetwalkers, no matter what the rest of society looks like. In a multi-species society like Sigil, why would all of the prostitutes be human women?

What the realism defense ignores is that any game – indeed, any narrative or documentary medium – is limited in scope. The game designer makes a conscious choice about what to model in the game world; including sexism under the guise of “realism” makes a statement that sexism is sufficiently important to be included in the world model.

V. A Misguided Attempt at Anti-Censorship

If these aspects of the game could be omitted without notice – since few people complain about the details that aren’t in the game – why does criticism of them always raise such a fuss? Aside from the general backlash against “political correctness,” I think there is a more specific backlash against perceived censorship of games a la the “Nintendo Code,” where adventurers went to cafes to drink soda pop and called each other “spoony bards.” The problem with such a response is that it conflates legitimate design decisions with “fixes” superimposed on the games – the equivalent of renaming the “harlots” to “dancers” or something and blurring the artwork, cosmetic changes that serve to break mimesis by emphasizing what’s omitted.

VI. Boys’ Club Backlash

I also think there’s a subgroup of players who are simply reacting to having their privilege challenged. The following entitlement-laden Usenet post on Planescape: Torment started a sizeable flamewar:

I also appreciate the way the women are dressed, showing much of their breasts and buttocks. To me it is not the main thing of course – who would buy a game just because some of these tiny little figures look a bit sexy, it is just not enough for any real erotic thrill, but it is a small aesthetic delight that adds to the overall thrill of the game. I think a bit of sexiness belongs within a RPG. As I understand it, it is part of the fantasy-world.

The later replies defending this mindset use all the standard arguments – it’s PC, they’re just trying to make games less enjoyable, there aren’t enough women players to matter, etc. I guess when the games are being specifically targeted to you, there’s nowhere to go but down.


Game designers would benefit from asking the following about any design decision, especially those that involve gender:

  1. Why am I including this feature?
  2. How will this decision make the game more enjoyable?
  3. For whom will this decision make the game more enjoyable?
  4. For whom will this decision make the game less enjoyable? Is there any way to minimize this?

Designers and players alike need to stop using the idea of realism – “that’s the way the world works” – as an excuse for condoning sexism in games when they’re called out on it. It’s simply passing the buck.

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7 thoughts on “The Realism Defense

  1. I’d just like to point out, suitably enough given the subject of the post, that the reason all the important women in Planescape: Torment are attracted to the Nameless One is that part of his natue is to attract miserable people in every sense and relationship that he can. Dak’kon sees him as oppressor and mentor, among other things, because Dak’kon’s personal issues make these roles that are central to his internal conflicts. Ignus is much the same way. Morte relates to him as a failed responsibility and source of guilt for something he contiues to do.

    The four major female characters have such vectors that make him suitable as a love interest. Annah has spent her entire life ostracised by everyone except one old man that she /knows/ has largely been using her as a human resource all along, and sees love as something carrying the acceptance she craves. Grace is a creature created for sex that feels she has to contain that aspect of herself in order to maintain her self-respect. Ravel is, if anything, miserable for the lack of the usual female objectification – someone who has lived practically forever and has always been wanted for her abilities and her knowledge, always feared and mistrusted, never loved, never seen as a sexual interest or even a relatable person. Dionarrah was already in love with the nameless one and exists in death knowing that her beloved used her to the point of getting her killed and damning her to life as a phantom, who resents that greatly but wants his approval so deeply that she continues to pledge her allegance to what is essentially the shattered remanant of him.

    Really, the only reason the male characters aren’t also attracted to him is that none of them go for other men. (And actually, other than Morte, pretty much all of them are basically asexual.) He is, without a doubt, the most important person in any of their lives regardless.

    There are, as well, much deeper questions you can ask about the unconscious elements leading to the formation of these characters than “Why must they all find the male lead attractive?”

  2. While I agree that many of the male characters in Planescape: Torment are also “bonded” to The Nameless One, I think there’s still some fanservice in how attachment from all the female characters is expressed as sexual/romantic, and attachment from the male characters is not. The choice to make all the males, and only the males, “basically asexual” (although it can be argued that Ignus burns for The Nameless One in more ways than one) is another design decision.

    Showing how the women are “in character” strikes me as simply another form of the reality defense – a mimesis defense, more accurately, since there’s no external reality for these characters. It ignores that the characters are themselves designed. In the case of Fall-From-Grace and Annah, designer Chris Avellone has said that they were inspired by Betty and Veronica from Archie comics – i.e., they’re created to be The Nameless One’s girlfriends.

    This sort of ubiquitous attraction isn’t unique to Torment, either, which is why I think it’s worth mentioning. Torment is merely an extreme case because of how far from conventionally attractive the lead character is supposed to be.

  3. Wow, you mentioned my article — I’m delighted! Thank you so much, and I hope my comments here are of interest to you.

    After reading your article, I’d like to say that I wouldn’t have a problem with the game designers portraying realism — if they actually did so. For example, in first edition D&D, where female strenth is penalized, let’s equally penalize male endurance, since studies repeatedly show women are sturdier than men. Yes, this is a horrible generalization — but so is generalizing that men are always stronger than women. I see no reason we can’t similarly penalize males in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.

    Or in Arcanum, let’s recognize “Victorian convention” is as poor a basis for game design as it is for social convention today — which is why we no longer labor under those conventions. Then let’s have at least one of the species be parthenogenetic (since that’s part of reality), where the female gives birth to a genetic copy of herself, and the species has no males whatsoever. In fact, while we’re at it, we should recognize the repeated studies which note there are more human women than men in the world today, and make several of the species reflect that “reality” by having female-only options to play them.

    It’s not adherence to “reality” that brings us Lara Croft’s breasts — it’s simple male horniness. It’s not even equal-oportunity horniness. If it were, we’d see guys in games with crotches that bounced as much as Lara’s breasts. Sounds painful, doesn’t it?

    The problem with the “realism” argument is it’s always used selectively, to bolster conventional social prejudice. If game designers were really dedicated to realism in their games, Lara Croft would be built like an athlete, with small breasts firmly restrained in a good sports bra.

    I rather liked one of your closing comments: ‘I guess when the games are being specifically targeted to you, there’s nowhere to go but down’ — well put, and I hope it encourages those individuals to ponder what going up might look like. I also think your reply to Kunan was right on the money.

    Also, remind me never to play Oregon Trail with you! 😉

  4. Fascinating breakdown. I find it highly irritating that Oblivion penalizes female characters where – as I recall – Morrowind did not.

    And excellent conclusion. No more passing the buck. Screw realism…if your an artist, and your medium is games, then lets make games that reflect the way things should be, not the way they are.

  5. -Im not anti-feminist if anything im pro. But this whole thing about realism in games your taking a bit too serious. Im a gamer I’ve played Oblivion and the so called penalties are like 10 points. You can make that up in one Lvl advancement. Also morrowind DID have defferences when it came to men and women. You would get entirely defferent dialogues and women NPC’s would be more open to you You would have to play both female and male to get the whole story. I noticed that Collie says that:
    -“The problem with the “realism” argument is it’s always used selectively, to bolster conventional social prejudice. If game designers were really dedicated to realism in their games, Lara Croft would be built like an athlete, with small breasts firmly restrained in a good sports bra.”
    -Tombraider was by no means a realistic game. On the other hand Oblivion is actually trying to recreate reality as much as they could in a video game FANTASY.
    -GregED if people made games the way things should be then there would be no blood and death or sickness.
    -The average male body has larger more powerful upper body frame, While women have a far more efficient lower body. So in a game that is attempting realism it make since that a male would have more strength for swinging swords and body slamming. While a woman would have much more endurance and be able to stand and fight for much longer periods.
    -This doesn’t mean a man is better than a woman it simply means we are defferent. Im in a wheelchair naturally that means im not going to do so well in the long jump (lol….. I could give it a try)
    -However I play other games that are obviously objectifing women and that angers me. WoW the female characters are half naked and God knows what the perv on the other end of the server is doing while he stares at your avatar. For God’s sake if they want to have scantly clad armor at least give the option to put some kind of clothing under it or over it to conceal the goods. When I play a Fantasy RPG i like to have a beautiful faced woman in there every once in a while. Remember the Elves in Lord of the rings would they have seemed so mystical and magical if they weren’t beautiful and im speaking of the male elves too. But they werent wearing string bikinis ether and I assume thats one of the things you are concerned with as well. I understand where you are coming from guys and I hope you find a solution to this issue but please don’t take it to war pardon the expression thats the worst thing you can do with an Ideal because when you do that you just hurt your own cause. I wish I could help with your causes but I have disability rights issues I must contend with i was denied my rights because the school thought access ramp and wheelchair accessibility was an unecessary expense. Good luck.

  6. The trouble with games like Oblivion is that the realism intended to justify sexual dimorphism in the game is not supported by the game itself. In that game, you can give a woman not much bigger than Jessica Alba a twenty-pound hammer, and she will swing it at high speed without tearing her own arms off. Then the little Breton girl can strap this same ludicrous weapon to her back and run back and forth across an entire country for weeks on end without food, water, or even breaking a sweat. We already have here someone could kick a Navy SEAL’s butt. None of them could do all that.
    Might as well let her be a strong warrior from the start, and forget making her train like mad. After all, you can gain muscle mass, magic powers, and neural connections in your brain just by being asked by some guy named Baurus what you do for a living. Anybody who’d allow that kind of drivel pass by should never, EVER be allowed to even SAY “realism.”

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