Gaming has two big problems, and these ain’t them

This weekend I had the pleasure of going out with a few friends for dinner. There were three ladies seated at our table: there was Chelsea, the unstoppable marathon-running yoga instructor whose arms rival Michelle Obama’s in their toned and powerful awesomeness. There was Emma, the almost disturbingly-beautiful raven-haired ingenue with eyes the size of an anime character’s and curves the size of, well, an anime character’s. And there was Lauren (hey, that’s me!), the perennially slender yet deceptively out-of-shape waif whose dormant athletic abilities only roar pathetically to life if pizza and beer is on the line.

“Huh,” I thought to myself as I surveyed the group, “Here we are. An amazon, a sorceress, and an elf. Looks like Kamitani was on to something.”

Dragon’s Crown caused a minor kerfuffle when some criticized its artwork for being sexist. I pulled up a screenshot of the sorceress and my heart sank: such achingly beautiful artwork wasted on big, big, big titties—titties so big they defied the laws of physics, titties so huge they eclipsed the sun! I wrote the game off as a depressing waste of artistic talent.

But then it came out, and I started playing it, and my opinion changed. As usual, context is everything.

The elf, the sorceress, and the amazon.

The elf, the sorceress, and the amazon.

The much-maligned sorceress does indeed have gigantic, gravity-defying knockers on extremely prominent display, but the two other female playable characters provide an illuminating contrast. The elf is a petite rogue clad head-to-foot in practical light armor, her only exposed skin a tiny gap between boot and cuff. The amazon is a nearly-naked superwoman with bouncing mid-sized breasts perched atop rippling pecs and thighs of pure thunder. Although she’s admittedly scantily-clad, the amazon is a revolutionary depiction of a physically strong female. Though strong women have become a mainstay in fantasy, they are almost always of the Buffy variety: their strength is magical, thus editing out the necessity of huge muscles, because gross! The female body-builder type is very rare, and is often depicted as being grotesque, freakish, and terrifying. Instead, Dragon’s Crown‘s amazon has soft features, flowing hair, glowing skin, amble breasts and hips—and the musculature of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. A character like this comes around only once in a great while, and she lingers in the public consciousness for many years afterwards.

The amazon, in all her rippling glory.

The amazon, in all her rippling glory.

I recognize that this argument isn’t good enough for many feminist critics of video games. “Why isn’t the amazon fully clad in practical armor? Shouldn’t her breasts be smaller? Why isn’t she also black and transgender and differently-abled!?” Me, I’m a realist, and I see progress for what it is. Dragon’s Crown is not the definitive game for revolutionary gender presentation, but it’s certainly more progressive than many. Besides offering a wide range of female body types, these three female characters constitute an equitable half of the six total playable characters, a vast improvement compared to many games that don’t even offer a female choice at all.

There’s an important note to be made here as well regarding the type of characters we’re talking about. Gaming is a unique medium, and its characters can’t be measured on the same scales as movie or novel characters. These are not characters, after all, but classes: the personification of fantasy combat styles. They don’t have names, they don’t have individualized identities, they are merely physical manifestations of the game’s willingness to cater to different playing styles. It’s important it consider that this format can incentivise male gamers to play as female characters. The sorceress is the most difficult class to control, but the payoff is so amazing that primarily hardcore gamers are flocking to play as her. The least-played character so far seems to be the fighter, a hulking male character recommended for beginners.

And let’s talk about those boys for a moment, shall we?

Starting from top-left: the fighter, the sorceress, the wizard, the dwarf, the elf, and the amazon. Y'know, just chillin', gettin' their mead on.

Dragon’s Crown’s six playable characters: the fighter, the sorceress, the wizard, the dwarf, the elf, and the amazon.

Our Y-chromosomal cast members are the fighter (a long/fair-haired pretty boy in stylized gigantic armor), the wizard (an also long/fair-haired pretty boy, but with a much more modest silhouette), and the dwarf (a diminutive, bearded, bulging, hard-drinking type armed with mallets and hammers). A common argument amongst the game’s defenders is that the men are portrayed with equal exaggerated physical characteristics; the common counter-argument says that muscular men and bouncing nearly-naked women are not equals, as they are both part of a male power-fantasy where the dudes are awesome and the ladies exist only to excite them. I think this argument would be sound if the men were idealized visions of themselves. But they’re not. They’re women’s idealized visions of men. Let’s look at the fighter and the wizard. Grab a non-gamer and ask them to describe them: “uhhh… wicked girly” was the first thing out of my coworker’s mouth. And yes: they are! They’re kinda girly! The long hair, the thick eyelashes, the large eyes, the fair skin and hair… it’s part of the bishonen (literally: “beautiful boy”) aesthetic, an idealized and somewhat feminized depiction of men that is marketed almost exclusively to Japanese women. I’m leaving out our poor dwarf here because, let’s face it, there’s no sexifying Gimli—but our other males are a Legolas and an Aragorn, and Orlando Bloom was not cast to please “teh str8 menz” of the world.

Exporting gender expectations across cultures doesn't always work out like you'd planned.

Exporting gender expectations across cultures doesn’t always work out like you’d planned.

Japanese games are plagued with sexist tropes, some of which are vastly more disturbing than others. (And I’m not exempting Western games, either—they’ve got their own problems.) Japanese game makers have proved time and time again that they’re totally down to brutally sexualize little girls in ways that are abjectly horrifying. So am I going to pick a fight about large, in-charge bust lines with pedophiliac, pornographic, and rape-happy programmers on the loose? No. No, I am not. I’m going to spend the weekend enjoying a game that lets me play as a tall, ripped glamazon with a huge battle-axe.

Guys, there are bigger problems than the sorceress's knockers.

Guys, there are bigger problems than the sorceress’s knockers.

Big ol’ gazongas are not, inherently, offensive, after all—women are born with the bodies they are born with, and studies show that cup size is growing the world over. It’s a widely-known reality among women that the larger your chest, the sluttier you are judged to be. When I trudge my a-cups to work in a plunging neckline, I get compliments on how adorable I look. If I loaned the exact same shirt to coworker with larger bosoms, she’d be swiftly called into a supervisor’s office for an incredibly uncomfortable discussion about work-appropriate attire. A girlfriend in high school “blessed” with double-Ds couldn’t wait to have a reduction, as she hated the attention they generated. Women with big breasts exist, there are more of them every year, and they are constantly shamed and judged for them by men and women alike. I would posit that some of the outrage directed at the sorceress is misguided big-boob shaming.

I think it’s worth examining the breasts in context with the rest of the artwork as well. Kamitani’s style is incredibly lush and beautiful, clearly inspired by old Dungeons and Dragons and Tolkienesque imagery but reimagined as sexier, more exaggerated, more beautiful and strange. Kamitani clearly delights in the female form, and he doesn’t censor himself for finding them sexy—but his female bodies aren’t censored either. His mermaids may have gorgeous asses and his battle-nuns may be sprawled provocatively, but their elbows are knobby; their legs sinewy with musculature; their breasts aren’t just big round bubbles but lovingly, painstakingly detailed depicted portions of their anatomy. Compare his artwork to that of almost any other mainstream animated game, and you will see an almost reverentially realistic approach to female anatomy. Object to the poses and the sizes and the parts, but taken as a whole, Kamitani’s supple, soft, breathtaking style is in many ways an ode to women’s bodies. Anatomy matters—not just the “fun stuff,” but all of it.

A problematically provocative package besmirches this beautifully brawny bad-ass battle-nun.

A problematically provocative package besmirches this beautifully brawny bad-ass battle-nun.

What are we really wailing and gnashing our teeth about when we talk about women and video games? There are two main problems. The first is a real-world fight to convert the boys-only space of gaming into an open club. Nobody likes having their safe space intruded upon, no matter how open-minded they are. (Ask a gay man in a gay club that’s been invaded by a drunken bachelorette party. Or a college kid when Facebook suddenly opened up to high schoolers. Inviting others into your clubhouse sucks in almost every situation.) So female gamers are being marginalized, disbelieved, mocked, and even threatened for butting in and making them clear a spot for them.

The second problem is with the games themselves. Women are sick of male power fantasies, where all the men are cool and heroic and strong, and all the women are pretty and weak and useless. We’re sick of women’s roles being purely auxiliary in these fantasies—a prop to propel the male hero to action, to motivate him with our pain/death/abduction/suffering/romantic disinterest. We’re sick of the notion that maleness is the default, that women are expected to role-play as men but never the other way around. We’re sick of being sacrificed, being silenced, being side-lined.

Context is everything. Consider the phrase “you have a beautiful body” coming from both a lover and, say, a parking attendant: it’s pretty different. Personally, I don’t mind seeing flirty, sexy, silly images in a silly game. Dragon’s Crown is about running around beating up orcs and krakens; it’s not a gritty real-world drama with a serious tone and complex, true-to-life characters. Yet there are so many games that do aim for high drama, yet see fit to occasionally pause all gameplay to give the gamer (who is male by default, obvs) the opportunity to dominate or sexually humiliate an on-screen woman.

In MGS4, defeated female foes crawl around crying while you take sexy pictures of them. And this is one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved series in gaming!

In MGS4, defeated female foes crawl around crying while you take sexy pictures of them. And this is one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved series in gaming.

Dragon’s Crown’s crime is objectification, and I think it’s a petty misdemeanor. Do bouncing buxom wenches populate the game? Yes. Can you poke their bubbies with your cursor? Yup. Are a lot of them portrayed in sexualized positions and costumes? Check. But let’s look at the big picture here. Do you have the option to play as a woman? A woman who isn’t kidnapped, tortured, or raped? A woman who can save the day completely independent of male assistance? Can you play as a woman who’s stronger and more muscular than the men, where you aren’t penalized with weakness for choosing to play as a woman? The answer to those questions is also “yes,” and I think that’s more important.

Large breasts are not an obscenity, and a large-breasted cast is not a feminist death-sentence. If you want to dismantle conceptions of feminine beauty that exaggerate or emphasize their secondary sex characteristics, you’re going to need a much bigger boat than Dragon’s Crown. I’ll take a big, beautiful, jiggling rack any day, as long as it’s one that I’m in control of.

Comments

  1. says

    Lara Croft is a great example of a feminist friendly character. Okay, she had big boobs. But she was also toned, intelligent, witty, and a badass shooter/fighter/climber/archaeologist. She had big boobs, fine. But so do a lot of women!

    • Lauren Schumacher says

      I have zero authority to speak on Lara Croft because I honestly haven’t played enough of her games to make an informed opinion. I haven’t picked up the reboot yet, and the only game I ever played thoroughly was Tomb Raider 3, quite an oldie… All I remember about it is how much I loved that goddamn mansion tutorial level, especially once I realized I could lock the butler in the meat freezer.

  2. Platy says

    Everything that matters is context.
    The problem is not that sorceres has HUGE breasts that appears to have no nipples.
    The problem is that every single magic user of the female sex (including morgan saleswoman) is RIDICULOUSLY more naked than the other magic users.

    Amazon makes sense in context because she is a barbarian. Both the dwarf and Roland the barbarian don’t have armor. This creates a context.

    The sorceres lack of bras and lack of large robes found in both the magician, the blue gandalf and the priest (who ressurects the dead from the same skeletons she animates) are in almost identical types of clothing.
    This context makes sorceres clothing makes no sense, specialy considering that the ONLY thing that makes sense in her clothing is the hat

    • Lauren Schumacher says

      This is a very interesting point, and not one that I’d thought of.

      I think I interpreted the NPCs a little differently. Kamitani is clearly drawing on western fantasy tropes (to such a degree where an entire level is based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail). I saw the priest and shopkeeper NPCs not as magic users, but as slightly different tropes. The priest, to me, was a cleric. And Morgan the shopkeep was actually a spin on the foreigner-tradesperson trope. The shopkeepers in these old fantasy genres were often vaguely Jewish or Middle Eastern, sometimes benignly, sometimes less so. I feel like I’ve seen so many hooked-nose, greedy, hand-wringing “foreigners” servicing a lily-white cast in fantasy games that I was just relieved. Morgan is definitely a magic user, it’s textually supported in her quest–but I thought she had more of a feel of an old FFT dancer, a pseudo-Arabian wily capitalistic concubine. (And Lucain is just Gandalf, straight up 100% Gandalf, obvs.) I just wasn’t classifying those NPCs as “magic users” in my head, but rather spillover western fantasy tropes.

      But I don’t think you’re wrong. I think you have a totally valid and interesting perspective, I had to stop and think about how I felt about it.

      Isn’t it interesting that a game from the east based on fantasy-pop-culture of the west (D&D, LOTR, Monty Python) is getting a lot of flack FROM the west for being regressive? Perhaps our fantasy culture is ready to move past those tropes, but they’re still somewhat novel and fun to other cultures.

  3. Anthony says

    That “safe place” analogy falls flat. Women are already playing games. They aren’t “intruders”, they are also players. If the attempt here was to demonstrate how males feel about females playing games, then that’s the males’ problem.

    I don’t think the right approach is to make your female characters sexy so your “typical hetero male” will play them. Maybe just make them good characters and people will play them?
    I don’t care who the game was made for or what inspired the creator. It was sexist then and is sexist now. That being said, anyone can still enjoy and play the game despite its flaws.

    Oh, and there are people like this out there. http://www.examiner.com/article/there-s-actually-nothing-wrong-with-the-sorceress-dragon-s-crown
    The only good point in there is that America, in general, is more scared of sex than violence.

    It’s not that I want games with minorities, I want games made BY minorities.

    Still, good write up.

    • Anthony says

      Sorry, but the duder that wrote that piece on the examiner. Is something else. “…[Alex Mahan] gets to play the latest hardware and software at E3 while rubbing elbows with gorgeous booth babes.” His title is LA Video Game Babes Examiner. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!

      • Lauren Schumacher says

        Nooooo! My first article and someone’s compared me to a self-describe “babe examiner?” That’s…just devastating… Ugh, just looking at his list of articles makes me need a shower.

        I do think that gaming has historically been a safe space for men–not the consumption of games, but the industry itself. Ideas like booth babes, erotic post-sex trading cards, and Gainax jiggle mechanics do not emerge from co-ed game development teams. They’re the week-old crusty sock on the industry’s bedroom floor, and company’s coming: ain’t nothing wrong with jerkin’ it, but dude, don’t be a pig about it! Clean that shit up when you’ve got company coming!

        I do have to disagree with you when you say “I don’t care who the game was made for or what inspired the creator.” I think that point of view is going to make your enjoyment of art a bit limited. It’s important to examine things in the context of their creator, their inspiration, their time, their culture… Otherwise you’re imposing a PC attitude that might not be entirely fair.

        I mean, take Shakespeare, for example. Two Gentlemen of Verona ends with a male character agreeing to let his own fiance be raped by his best friend; but Shakepeare also wrote revolutionary female characters like Tamora and Lady MacBeth and Viola and Portia who are fierce, independent, ambitious, resourceful, even bloodthirsty that inspired new types of women in literature for centuries afterwards. You have to judge that in the context of his time, for every cringe-worthy phrase that would in modern times be dubbed “utterly misogynist,” he wrote dozens that were forward-thinking and proto-feminist.

        Not to directly compare Dragon’s Crown to Shakespeare, ha, but I think the same principal applies. In the modern context of gaming, where it’s still normal for male-dominated developers to make male-default playable characters where female characters remain passive tools for the male hero’s progress, it’s a progressive game. Twenty years from now it will likely be seen as an embarrassment, but right now it’s progress.

        And don’t hear me excusing its tawdriness. Bouncing titties and battle thongs ain’t exactly The Feminine Mystic: The Game. But this article is really my attempt to give a polite golf-clap to a game that gets a C- in Feminism, when I feel it’s unfairly being given F’s by people who are ignoring the trend of gaming’s bell curve.

  4. says

    I don’t play a lot of games, but the ones I do have decent leads that can be male or female. Fallout and Oblivion/Skyrim treat the character the same no matter if you play as a guy or a gal. My son keeps trying me to play Mass Effect, which was the first game I caught him playing as a girl. She had full armor and helmet. I also have to admit to enjoying Dragon Age–when you play as the female human you get to have a great and well written flirtation with the male lead.

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