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Body Politic
by James Youngman on 02/02/12 01:53:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Originally posted on the Chromed blog here.

A recent article on the Border House blog discusses the issue of handling sexual dimorphism when designing new species for games. The article gives as its examples of process the Turians from Mass Effect, and the charr from Guild Wars 2. Only male Turians feature in the Mass Effect games, which has made the issue moot in that case, but turns out to be a revealing choice, exposing an issue in thinking on this topic. Art director Derek Watts puts it this way:

“They're all males in the game. We usually try to avoid the females because what do you do with a female Turian? Do you give her breasts? What do you do? Do you put lipstick on her?”

That comment reveals an extremely limited view of sexual dimorphism. Sadly, this is exactly what James Cameron did for the intelligent aliens in the film Avatar. In that film, which went to great lengths to feature biologically plausible aliens, the female aliens, called Na'vi, did in fact have breasts, a nonsensical decision in the context of that film. Our own Vince Keenan facetiously remarked “It's because they're lactating mammals.” What a bizarre conceit for an alien race!

Compare this with the take presented by Kristen Perry, responsible for the design of the female charr in Guild Wars 2:

“It really didn’t make any sense to have boobs on a charr female, particularly with all the effort we took to make her sleek and fierce. We thought they should have no breasts at all or at least hide them under some fluffy fur. Above all else, we needed to be true to the race, of course! […] I gave them a choice: either be subtle and downplay the breasts [...] or go full-on realistic. Yes, that’s right —none or six!!”

That the debate was between “none or six” demonstrates that critical thought about how to show sexual dimorphism in this race was given. In this case, the male of the species had already been designed for a previous game. Despite this limitation, when the time came to design the females, the artist did not just add female human secondary sex characteristics to the male charr. Because of this, a more unique, interesting, and sensical creature arose.

To arbitrarily make our invented species map to humans is to ignore the fascinating diversity of life on this planet, as well as our own creative potential. Penguins, blue whales, peacocks, hyenas; these animals all have wildy different degrees and expressions of sexual dimorphism, both from humans and from each other. Even working within the technical restraints of needing to match human rigging, as in the Mass Effect games, aliens could be made to map the sexual dimorphism of any of the above species, rather than implicitly following the pattern of homo sapiens.

The design of a species' sexual dimorphism also tells players about the reproductive strategies of that species. The reproductive strategies of a species inform our understanding of its society. Male angler fish are dwarfed by their female mates, whom they fuse with, becoming reduced to little more than gamete factories. Male deer, who are polygynous, lock antlers with other males to compete for breeding access to females. Peacocks endanger their lives growing and grooming vast plumage to impress peahens. Female sperm whales live together in pods with their young, while mature males spend most of their time wandering the oceans alone. Male honeybees only have one set of chromosomes, and the queens are the only fertile female females, which, in a fictional intelligent species, would map very neatly onto a three gendered society.

Ours is a creative industry. We can imagine, manifest, and make plausible, fictional races bearing little or nothing in common with our own physical appearance. We can do the same with the genders of those races, and we miss a tremendous opportunity to explore new ideas by failing to do so.

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Tora Teig
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Excellent, I have given this much thought. I remember an article discussing the subject in World of Warcraft - the Taurens, in particular. Where the female Taurens (they are like minotaurs - cow-human-beasts) actually have a set of breasts just like a human would. And considering that yes - it is a fusion between species, including some biped, possibly humans-- the desicion still seems a little odd to me. Also there is a huge difference in size in most games - the males are huge and the females petite. And the girls always show a lot of skin.

I don't know what we are afraid of, diversity? I couldn't agree more, you are absolutely right!

(found it: - you should read it!)

Eric Schwarz
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Frankly I think it's just the fact that developers want their characters to appeal to players, and in MMOs especially, sexuality and appearance is a big part of that. It also helps to humanize non-human characters that would be difficult to identify with otherwise.

Jesse Tucker
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I'm going to have to agree with Eric. While I'm all for the most biologically informed versions of imaginary races, the closer these races are to appearing human the easier it is for many people to role-play as an alien race.

James Youngman
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@Tora - Thanks for the article! Fascinating read.

@Eric and Jesse - You seem to be responding very narrowly. Even if I grant that the goal is to make playable characters more appealing, that still would only be expected to effect playable races. It is my intention with this article to address the question more broadly than that.

I'm not prepared to grant that the human based only approach is correct in the case of playable characters, either. To do so would be to presume a universality in what players find appealing, something we know to not be the case. Adolescent heterosexual male fantasy does not represent a universal definition of appealing, even if that demographic is overrepresented among players of a given genre or game.

Luis Guimaraes
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Target audience.

Roxxy Goetz
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@Tora - Thanks for bringing this up so quickly. It reminds me of some rumbling that happened when D&D 4E came out, and players discovered the female Dragonborn had chest features remarkably similar to human breasts (which were, in fact, not).

Unfortunately, it seems that tabletop RPGs are just as slow (if not worse) than video games in balancing the sexual dimorphism of non-human races. This is a problem I run into fairly often in my own line of work, and unfortunately it gets bumped to the back burner in favor of the "chainmail bikini" argument.

Thanks for posting this, James. It's a problem too easily overlooked, and the people who address and conquer it deserve the all praise they get.

Jamie Mann
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Striving for more conceptual explorations in video games is laudable and there's definitely a strong element of "frustrated male designer" in many character designs.

But. While I don't want to sound like a hide-bound reactionary, there's good reasons for AAA video games to be the way they are. Fundamentally, they're commercial entities and need to avoid taking risks which affect their commercial viability.

People have to be able to identify with the characters they control - this isn't necessarily the same as the "wish-fulfillment" concept being banded around in another article. And to a lesser extent, they need to be able to understand the actions and motivations of NPCs. And to top it all off, video-game plots generally need to be relatively simple - the player is meant to be focusing on the gameplay, not the intricate details of character politics/relationships.

(feel free to insert exceptions to the rule here. Some companies have enough money to be able to experiment; some games have a high cross-demographic appeal, which means the developers can explore more diverse subjects - the GTA series and Mass Effect come to mind. But most publishers and development houses are often just one or two box-office bombs away from going bankrupt: they simply can't afford to experiment)

With that said, there's absolutely nothing stopping people from creating games which explore more complex subjects; realistically though, you're not going to get an AAA budget to do this with, as it's simply too high risk. Instead - much like the movie industry - complex and avant-garde topics need to be explored within the indie/arthouse movements. And as the concepts get more unusual, so to does the need to self-fund the production.

So go ahead, make a game which features sentient beings with tentacles, multi-part brains and a symbiotic relationship with a second species - personally, I'd love to see someone exploring the Chanur universe ( But don't be too surprised if it's critically acclaimed but makes little or no money....

Tora Teig
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@James Exactly! (and glad you liked it!) I don't think that the characteristics of playable characters have to "appeal" to players (how? what does that even mean? It's absurd). I mean, Super Mario doesn't appeal to me, not sexually or in any other typical human way, neither does Pacman or Prince of Persia for that matter. I do think that having an attractive player character can be /nice/, but it's not mandatory because of that. And sexifying creatures that are not biologically human - in a human way, just seems to undermine the world. Why would species completely different from ours seek the same ideals?

Like if I ran a Peacock game studio that made games for peacocks, and I was designing humans in a game - would I put plumes on their bums and heads? Well, that is a little exaggerated. But something/someone doesn't have to be appealing in a "safe way" for players to enjoy a game. Like people can't emphatize or understand a creature that is not primarily human. Because I think we can. It is probably easier if they look like us, but we're still in the uncanny valley anyway. Things that are exotic or different can be appealing in their own right. And, again, can make a whole new world seem more real.

It doesn't have to be made universal that aliens have to be completely whack and crazy-looking, so we don't know if the gap in their chest is its mouth or its ear. But we don't have to "put lipstick on it" to make it work either.

@Roxxy I know there was a thread on here earlier that discussed the Chainmail Bikini :D haha. It is sad, but slightly funny in a melancholic way. Like a prawn wearing socks :(