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'As a woman': Misconceptions in the diversity discussion Exclusive
'As a woman': Misconceptions in the diversity discussion
October 22, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

October 22, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

When I was asked to plan the journalism panel at this year's Game Narrative Summit at the recent Game Developers' Conference Online, I thought my colleagues and I could take the opportunity to talk about diversity -- yet we wanted to go beyond what you'd think of as a "women in games" panel.

When I met up with colleagues and fellow panelists Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice ahead of our panel, we started to joke around about all the things that we definitely did not want to say as part of our presentation. Over lunch, we tossed back and forth a bunch of satirical dialogue phrases that began with "as a woman, I...", a send-up of the skewed idea that just because women want to talk about feminism, that means their gender necessarily influences every single one of their ideas and opinions.

We might have just been laughing over burgers, but it was clear that our humor hid a real worry: That some of the people who make games might misinterpret a call for diversity and the concept of creating games for perspectives other than your own. And our jokes revealed that there probably are, in fact, at least a few worrying misconceptions out there when it comes to what people want when we ask for equality.

Our goal was to to address the viewponts of many people who feel like minorities in the game space, which includes women's issues (not to mention that as a panel of three women, we tended to focus on what we could best speak to). Our panel's now available to view for all those who have a GDC Vault pass -- and meanwhile, I've aimed to crystallize and illuminate some common misconceptions about diversity issues in games that we joked about.

Women are offended by women's bodies. Sure, games have a history of exploitative stereotypes, and a legacy of making men heroes while making women objects. Back in the 90s, characters like Tomb Raider's Lara Croft were developed based on idea about what a male creator, or at least, a majority-male audience, would think looked "cool," which meant boobs and butts. We'd like to see a wider range of people represented in games these days, but that doesn't mean any display of an adult woman's body is inherently "sexist" or wrong.

In fact, the panelists and I felt just as disillusioned by the false idea that there was some kind of "right way" to be a woman -- an aesthetic that favors "nerdy," androgynous girls in turtlenecks might have been a sort of compensation for the pneumatic flesh obsession of a prior era. But the idea that all displays of sexuality from female characters are inherently degrading is misleading and even counterproductive. It's not the physicality or sexuality of female characters that bothers women. It's only when they're reduced to that inherently or without purpose, or when there's a prescription made for the "best" way to present a woman

On our panel Mattie Brice stonefacedly joked that she sold games back to GameStop at the first sign of breasts in a game, to laughter from attendees. The problem isn't bodies.

People need to see themselves. Many people's concerns about diversity in games comes down to the frustrating, lonesome feeling of looking at a medium in which there are no representations of people like themselves, a worry people have on their own behalf as well as for their children, who need positive examples in the entertainment they enjoy.

Yet it's not necessarily true that what people most want is "someone they relate to" in entertainment. Actually, plenty of the characters most beloved in popular entertainment gain fans specifically because they aren't like us: For example, Breaking Bad is one of the most popular shows on television, but it's not because most of its viewers cook and sell methamphetamine or relate to drug dealers.

Today's players would rather have interesting and believable characters rather than tokens that look like them for their own sake.

Diversity is dead serious. Doesn't have to be. Actually, we can joke about it. And a lot of games that have had the broadest appeal don't much deal with race, gender or anything "heavy" -- look at the absurd Katamari Damacy and how hard it is for any kind of person not to love. Many players tend to fear the diversity and gender discussion in games because they think the conversation will over-reach their area of interest or undermine entertainment in favor of dour political initiatives. In fact, people often have the most fun when a game's creators have had fun and aimed thoughtfully.

Characters need to be "strong" or "positive". One of the most common questions I get asked as a feminist writer on games is to name some examples of characters that I thought were good or positive portrayals of women. Part of the problem with that approach lies in the idea that interesting and believable characters treated with respect by their creators aren't necessarily "good" or "positive." We accept a wide range of definitions of heroism for men; in fact games frequently feel comfortable placing ugly, troubled or mentally-ill guys in the role of anti-hero, but women rarely receive this kind of treatment.

Instead the conversation revolves around a relatively narrow set of qualities associated with female "heroism," where the character is obligated to be a "good role model" for women. That keeps the conversation static and continues to limit creative freedom by placing parameters about positivity about some kinds of characters and not others.

Is it about characters in the first place? One of my favorite ideas raised on the panel was the idea that even keeping the focus on the characters and people within game stories is only one idea. Jenn Frank pointed out that the "Chekhov's gun" concept is relevant to games: Even if we continue to have a high volume of games about shooting, the nature of a game -- and who it could appeal to -- can be shifted meaningfully simply by trying a different answer to the question of who's holding the gun and why.

The appeal of a game to new or broader audiences has as much, if not more to do with the tone, circumstance and environment as it does with who appears in it and what they look like.

Our panel on diversity is now available for all GDC Vault members.

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Maria Jayne
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Female characters I liked in games :-

Anna - Planescape Torment
Fall From Grace - Planescape Torment
Morrigan - Dragon Age
Alyx Vance - Half Life 2
Jax - Mass Effect 2
Tali'Zorah - Mass Effect 1&2
Kreia - Kotor 2
Jade - Beyond Good & Evil
Harlequin - Arkham Asylum
GLaDOS - Portal 1/2
Triss - Witcher 2

These are just a few, I'm sure I missed some too. It strikes me from that short list that there is a wide variety of empowered and engaging female characters already and that they appeal to both male and female gamers because they are great characters. I think we are past the stage where there isn't diversity in female characters. Female protagonists on the other hand, are lacking.

Matt Robb
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I'd like to second GLaDOS as an exceptional character. I was extremely impressed with how she played out in Portal 2. I found myself far more invested in the outcome of the story than I expected primarily because of her.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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I dont want to start a deep philosophical discussion, but i don't know if we can classify GLADOS as female.

It had a distorted female voice, and hence got qualified as female, but can we really assign gender to it?

Vin St John
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@Aleksander - In Portal 2, GladOS's character was characterized as female with a bit more of a heavy hand than in Portal 1. I'd also say that Portal 2 seems to lean a bit on the player's preconceptions that two female characters might be more likely to compete with one another that a female and male character - GladOS makes some personal comparisons between herself and the player character, Chell, that would work in any gender configuration, but I think are bolstered somewhat by the audience's idea that same-sexed peers often find themselves in competition with one another.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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I always saw GLADOS explicitly genderless, it was an it.
Its what gave the character additional mystique and depth.
Yes in Portal 2 we get strong hints that Caves assistant is/was actually GLADOS, but in the end, GLADOS deletes those files and still sounds the same.
There was also quite a bit of retcon going on in Portal 2.

Picking the female voice was probably for a few artistic reasons on Valves end. If you listen to the Portal 1 commentary one of the reasons mentioned is that a pleasant, female voice guiding you through death-traps is the kind of contrast they waned to achieve, playing on both the farcical- and mild horror themes.

We will alway classify voices into the male or female category, since thats our modus operandi as a two-gendered species.
I still uphold that GLADOS isn't female, and even shouldn't be classified as female.

Its not biologically female, and if you try to define "characteristically" female or some such nonsense, you just play on stereotypes how "female" is supposed to act/behave/be.

Either way, you lose with both in my opinion.

GLADOS, Shodan, they aren't female or women.

Devin Wilson
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I don't think it makes much sense to say GLaDOS's apparent gender is irrelevant. So much of her dialogue in Portal 2 that was spoken to Chell is really important to consider in the context of femininity. GLaDOS's little jabs at Chell's appearance were part of what made the writing in that game so incredible, and it means something completely different coming from a woman than coming from a genderless machine.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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and it means something completely different coming from a hyperintelligent genderless AI posing as a female to elicit a certain emotional response.

Ian Uniacke
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I thought that GladOS was the quintessential mother character and the reason daitre of Portal 1 was learning to cast off the seeming safety and trustworthiness of mother. Of course, using mother in this sense is more of the philosophical archetype and not NECESSARILY feminine.

Jason Lee
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April Ryan from The Longest Journey and Zoe from Dreamfall. Both well written believable characters who were attractive without overtly sexualized, follow a character arc from kind of a shiftless and likable but not heroic character to rise to the occasion for their respective adventures, and are perfect examples of "interesting and believable characters rather than tokens".

As for GLADOS, the computer is literally genderless but in the context of the greater themes about a "female First Person 'shooter'" and the reversal of guns/projectiles as phallic/violent to the portal gun as movement/spatial reclamation, I think THEMATICALLY we can talk about GLaDOS as a 'she'.

I always thank my overpriced Liberal Arts degree for helping me at times like this :)

William Johnson
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What makes GLaDOS so great is that she is this threatening all powerful voice of God, that in fact has no power and is completely helpless. Her only weapon is passive agressive taunting to try and stop Chell. GLaDOS think she has a great understanding of human nature and can manipulate the situation with psychological warfare, but all her knowledge is either only half correct, misinformed, or completely misses the point. That's comedy!

Emppu Nurminen
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I think people are more bothered about the fact that game industry is covering the women in mild-slimey sleaze with little/tiny clothes they have instead of going completely nude. I never understood that why nudity is such an issue, when with or without tightly-fitting clothes makes still the same forms what women have in those games.

Michael Pianta
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@Maciej Why not? 13 year olds manage to buy M rated games all the time.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Emppu Nurminen
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Yet people fail to see, why covering the nude little bit up with some bad rags won't do the trick. Shouldn't that be exactly a call for more nude skin to show? ;)

Guillaume Couture
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@Brion Foulke

I think you are misusing the concept of sexual objectification. Females are sexualized and objectified in a vast majority of mainstream mediums like video games, cinema, music (voice, videoclips and lyrics), etc. Males, on the other hand, are depicted in a more varied way and usually are empowered. When we say females are objectified, it goes further than sexualizing them. It is presenting them as sexual tools. Objects, rather than humans, that cannot choose and therefore can be treated in any way possible. That happens a lot with prostitutes. People objectify them because they pay for them and then they think it is legitimate to do anything they want to. It also has close ties to rape culture and the cult of "perfect" beauty.

Justin Sawchuk
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I dont care if I play as a man or women, as long as its a good game. The only game I actually liked that can I remember playing as a women was beyond good and evil.

Justin Sawchuk
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Oh and prefect dark.

k s
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I second both those games and your sentiment.

Toby Grierson
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"Characters need to be "strong" or "positive""

This is an important myth to shoot down IMHO and it's extremely common for any character with an "identity" to suffer from it or its inverse; basically, all the best characters have a lot of terrible qualities.

But there's a common pattern of people seeing a character with an "identity" like their own – say, gay or female or whatever – and then picking apart every feature of that character as some sort of a statement.

A particularly bad example was an article on Slate which I'll link here:

The writer is upset that the character from Brave has red hair (like herself) and then decides that every detail of this character is part of the red head stereotype, which she then goes on to describe with several mutually exclusive points. They can be, for example, both "promiscuous" and "asexual" and both are the redhead stereotype.

But it's not truly ridiculous until you see the creator of Brave:

Now having seen what appears to be a black Autobot die first in Transformers, and what goes on in some studios (at a prior project we were given some explicit and pretty sexist guidance about what to do with female characters) I can understand people being sensitive to stereotype portrayals.

But oversensitivity also goes a long way toward only white, dark-haired males ever getting interesting parts.

One has to be careful about what is actually an annoying stock character and not merely an imperfect character. Action heroes _must_ fail sometimes or you get something like a self-directed Stephen Segal movie. They _must_ have flaws.

Lyon Medina
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"One has to be careful about what is actually an annoying stock character and not merely an imperfect character. Action heroes _must_ fail sometimes or you get something like a self-directed Stephen Segal movie. They _must_ have flaws. "

Very well said Toby, and thank you for the references and formulated comment that sticks to the topic and not a soapbox fueled splash on the page that carries no weight on the conversation whats so ever.

Toby Grierson
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The oversensitivity I'm referring to is an extremely specific phenomena.

I am pro-advocacy as I've said on this forum before. I did not support the Hitman trailer or any of the other incidents discussed on here. You're telling me we should be upset if they can't make a female character skeleton, and I agree.

Perhaps oversensitivity is the wrong word.

Simply put there is a specific phenomena that both artists and critics imagine that every detail about a character who isn't a white male is a _statement_, and one of two things often happens:

1) A racist person throws in a jive-talking cool black guy and kills him first.

2) Everyone who isn't white and male is flattened to a paper-like depth.

One is obviously more bad, but they're both bad. I am simply concurring with the writer of the article that #2 is also bad. I am not saying that it is the main enemy right now or a bigger or more relevant problem. I am saying "I concur with you Leigh Alexander, and here is why".

Or to put it another way, "I agree that we should be concerned about this, let's do it even better by making more interesting characters". I am on the same side of the culture war as you.

I'm not exactly sure if this is a response to your post because frankly, it is a word salad.

Toby Grierson
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I feel compelled to argue because the way you write makes it feel like it's some kind of a personal war against me as an individual.

However, you are correct. This is a tokenism matter and the solution is usually easy for a creator who's interested.

Still disagree strongly about that particular Brave article, but it does not warrant further discussion.

Have a nice day.

Jenn Frank
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Thanks for this, Toby. During our GDC Online panel I maintained and enforced an oversimple attitude that certain characters *need* to be "strong," but my definition of strength was incredibly narrow (even though, in the course of the panel, I'd said something like "there are different kinds of strength"). But even then I was applying gender norms even to my attitudes about "strength," requiring that all my ladies be Strong Like Man (I referred to this problematic ideal as "She-Ra," obviously).

Hours after the panel—I hadn't stopped thinking about this, and I asked Mattie "WHAT IS MY GLITCH?"—I thanked Mattie for her contribution. She had asserted, during the panel, that characters ought to be free to be "vulnerable," and in a multitude of ways, and that "vulnerable" need not mean "weak." It was so eye-opening for me—I'd always thought of a "strong character" in just this one way, in terms of physical or intellectual "strength," even though you can certainly write "strong" characters who are physically, intellectually, emotionally weak. Maybe you *can* write a damsel-in-distress, but write her "strong," too—somebody who is broken in tough, interesting ways. So that was an illuminating moment for me, as a member of the panel, realizing for the first time that I have these strangely skewed ideas about "strength" and "weakness" in characters.

So thanks, Toby, for underscoring all these ideas. The greatest danger—admittedly, it depends on the type of story, but for writing's sake anyway—is falling into "stock," as you say.

Toby Grierson
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You know a lot less about me than you think. In any case, not everyone is going to have a perfectly thoroughly understood and nuanced view of every aspect of life. My ignorance is unfortunate but the simple reality is that most people cannot devote themselves to understand the issue that matters to you most (and the word is agonizingly full of problems). If your reaction to a less-than-perfect ally is a disgust, than you may go pickle. I will continue to learn what I can at the very sparse intervals I can manage. Again, I retract the term "oversensitive" and I've learned something from you. Perhaps we can be on better terms in the future.

Toby Grierson
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I spoke in good faith and I stand by that.


David Croeser
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Some very interesting points, Leigh. I think this serves to highlight that this issue is a lot more complex than a few vocal commentators would have us believe. Certainly these days it is harder if not impossible to get away with a vacuous, sex object as a female character in a serious context. I think there should be room for all kinds of characters - even characters we may not like in games - so long as the audience is treated with a modicum of respect.

Say what you want about the motivations for Lara Croft's physical attributes, she was definitely not intended to be a stupid sex object.

To add to the list of interesting female protagonists I would suggest Alice from American McGee's Alice.

warren blyth
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I got hung up on this one point:

"It's not the physicality or sexuality of female characters that bothers women. It's only when they're reduced to that inherently or without purpose, or when there's a prescription made for the "best" way to present a woman."

Isn't design generally concerned with reducing things? Who's to say there is no purpose?

The reduction of male physicality or sexuality generally doesn't offend men. I think this is an interesting disparity. When I see a 6pack super-cut male model as my only option in some video game, I'm not offended. I think it may even appeal to me as a sort of masculine aspiration, quite often.

(Well, as I type this I distinctly remember being a little put off by The Secret World's character creator not letting me choose to be anything but super 6pack man. but I brushed it off as a quirk, of a game with limited graphic ability. I think it was also the first time I'd actively tried to recreate my real world appearance in a character creator)

I suspect the key problem is moreso that women feel they are being told what to aspire to, by an imagined group of male game developers. "Welcome to our dude party, where we all agreed women should have these dimensions." Maybe my thoughts here are lining up with the writer's notion of a prescription for what is best. not sure what is meant by prescription.

Just seems like body issues weren't a concern with ms. pacman. Mario famously has a mustache because it helped make the pixels readable as a face. When the game art was just struggling to make a clear symbol, people seemed less offended by stereotypes. But now that we have very realistic graphics, women are more concerned about how that reality is represented? But we aren't making reality yet, right? There's still a large focus on readability and exaggerated features, yeah?

... I guess I'm mostly curious how offended women really are. Are they horrified (as one might be by casual blackface in a game), or are they nitpicking (as one might because their exact shoulder width wasn't an option within the character creator's hundreds of options?).

Vin St John
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Most cases of overly sexualized female characters do not seem to fall into the bucket of character designers attempting to make easily readable character silhouettes or convey information visually. Fighting games which introduce a character by having her lean over in front of the camera, or fantasy MMOs which feature illogically revealing armor are not doing so because it's good design, they're doing so because it's exotic and exciting, especially for heterosexual male players.

The point is that it's also alienating for many players (particularly female players).

M Hemming
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The stereotypical videogame male, tends to be an unrealistic powerful depiction of a dude, and the stereotypical female tends to be a male sexual fantasy of a lady. It would be as if all representations of males in the media looked like Cloud from final fantasy wearing a thong. And the camera angles featuring him would show his butt and crotch a lot. In every game. And alternate costumes would all be extremely tight and/or revealing. And most of the time he would be relegated to being a sidekick, and get constantly captured or have the most ineffectual weapons. While all women wore full body armour and looked as if they could take on 10 orcs in a fight with no problem, even if they didn't have extreme muscles.

Michael Rooney
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That line stuck out to me too actually.

One thing I don't like is the underlying assumption that they are frequently reduced to that "without purpose." I've seen a handful of times (not the majority, but frequent enough to point out) where people are willing to ignore the purpose to present it as being "without purpose" in order to justify their offense.

k s
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I think a big part of why women take issue with body image of female characters but we men tend not to do the same with male characters is how women have been treated for centuries (ie sex objects and little more).

I'll admit I prefer looking at a good looking woman over a fugly one and could care less about the look of a man but that does not mean I judge a woman solely on her looks. Just like real women game characters should be judged on more then their appearance alone.

Jenn Frank
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We briefly, briefly touched on this in the panel, and thank you. I'd wanted to discuss it only sparingly, because a woman's dimensions or her dress are, for my own part, the least of my worries, and I become irate when the "objectification" discussion gets whittled down to clothing. Which is problematic because, from my vantage, a woman ought feel free to wear whatever she likes. (This was something I wanted to stress to Leigh before the panel began, in fact, because it is the WEIRDEST distraction. Why should I care that Ivy is near-topless? I, for one, am not arguing against it! For something to be "provocative" it must somehow "provoke," and because I am not titillated, the "but how is she dressed?" thing seems regressive and silly. Like, I really don't care that a woman has great legs.)

Returning to your question: Mattie Brice, fellow panelist, discussed this really well in terms of "gaze." I am not speaking for her—I can only do my best in recounting it—but her argument sounded to me like, men are presented in an "idealized" way, yes, but not necessarily in the way that heterosexual women (for instance) "idealize" men. Game characters might be more interesting if, instead of shying from "ideals," we let *other* people define the "ideals." I think that is what Mattie was saying. If that is her contention, I roundly agree. The characters in Gears of War are hardly my romantic ideals, for instance, but they make terrific can-do avatars. But *my* ideal, for instance, is much more a "Gordon": a lanky, nebbish, bespectacled nerd with a gun. That's interesting—and as a "romantic ideal," much more appealing—to me.

So this is actually a very simple argument when you pare it to its essentials: men are designed by heterosexual men, and women are also designed by heterosexual men. And excepting indie games, there's no real reversal. I guess I'm saying, "as a woman," I might not change the way women are depicted, necessarily, but my "ideal man" could well be skinnier and more impotent. It's a more interesting decision, and more people can relate to it, even if they themselves aren't skinny, impotent men.

This, by the way, was a major crux of the panel: we aren't necessarily demanding to see our ilk "represented" onscreen; instead, we're asking for more interesting decisions be made with "character," should the game itself call for it. We believe the medium has grown enough by now that much more interesting decisions can be made. Yes, in the course of the panel we posited that, if a character's sex and gender be "female," for instance, there be a real decision and motivation behind it. Maybe that evaporates when you talk 2d and 3d fighters, but the rest of the time? There *should* be a reason some Princess Peach becomes the "objective." We're nearly at the point where, if a man is a developed character, his Peach should be, too. I don't think that's too controversial.

Basically, we're arguing for both: that a woman (or whoever) be as well drawn as a man character, if needed, or—if we really are dealing only with avatars—that a man be drawn a little differently, and according to a "different" valueset.

Laura Stewart
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There is a difference between reducing something to an essential and workable model, and eliminating agency from a character in a game to the point where they exist to be seen.

When you reduce male athletic action heroes to having a six-pack and being shirtless, the character is functional and believable. You don't strip away his ability to kill things. On the other hand, giving all of your female characters breast enhancement surgery and requiring them to move around and run, you are stripping away a range of motion for an aesthetic quality that doesn't enhance game play. Especially given the staggering lack of good bras.

It's really not the percentage of skin shown that objectifies women (or men) in video games. It's when women are reduced in gameplay options to avoid wardrobe malfunctions. Or repetitive bouncing injuries.

And you can get alternative body models. There are plenty of other (other!) magazines out there with athletic body types, Runner's World and the like, which show the equivalent of "six-pack" women. The equal "objectification" of men (as DDing all your females) would invoke unnatural sizing of something else... And then requiring him to run long distances, wear tight armor, and ride a galloping horse.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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It reminds me of that one story...

"That there, that is a boob plate. I made that one. The woman in the photo asked for it to be like that. She fights in it. I worry constantly that she's going to fall hard and it will crack her sternum, even with the padding. Note also that it seems almost perfectly designed to guide sword points and arrows into her heart. They still have to penetrate the armor but, honestly, that's a design flaw. However, it looks good and makes her feel sexy and badass at the same time. That's important too."

Laura Stewart
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@ Brion: Do you mean hypersexualize or objectify? These aren't the same thing. The point against objectifying a person is the removal of moral obligation. The cover of Cosmopolitan is hypersexualization. Taking pictures of girls unaware and posting them on Reddit is objectification, in which men can go around saying they can't figure out why people think they are doing something wrong.

And objectification is not a question of realism either. Realistically, people can't fly, but some superheroes just can. Take Storm from the X-MEN. She can fly and cast ball-lightening. But when she has to be greater than a DD, fight in a tube-top, sprint distances in high-heels, that's objectification. All of those activities would cause a character to take self-inflicted damage, unless you suspend the game mechanics concerning physical bodies for those instances, not for player advantage, but to fulfill the desire of some players to see female bodies twisted and contorted in impossible activities.

The occasional tavern wench with cleavage may be realistic. But I don't play Tomb Raider simply because it's sympathetically painful to watch her run around. Although I can appreciate that men lack a means to personally experience what I mean.

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The problem is not to being reduced to a single facet character per se, it's that the facet female characters are reduced to is the male fantasy. Male reduction to a male fantasy is not a problem for men (big biceps and cut abs), but female reduction to a male fantasy seems to generally produce characters and scenarios that women don't want to play.

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Hi Brion, thanks for the reply.

"Many men seem to have a problem with the whole Yaoi thing which is very popular with certain groups of females."

That would be reducing males to a female fantasy, which is why it probably freaks some guys out.

Laura Stewart
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@ Brion: Objectification doesn't have to involve sex attraction at all. Here's a scenario. A woman listens to a sermon or a radio show which ingrains in her the belief that homosexuals are subhuman and vermin. She finds out her neighbors are gay, and files a false claim of sexual abuse of a minor child with social services, who then remove the gay couple's children. She can tell herself she's done nothing wrong because they aren't people, so she can bear false witness all she likes.

As for the objectification and game physics and a DD female character: the physics of a human body require it to take damage if a player falls beyond a certain distance or stays underwater too long or is poisoned. I'm a 32B, and I would be in agony to sprint a quarter mile without a bra. A DD female character without a bra might be incompacitated. It's like shin splints. So with a lot of DD characters, first designers give her a physical "handicap" on her range of activities, and then they have to suspend the laws of gravity around her upper torso.

Objectification isn't creating a female character that fulfills a male sexual fantasy, or even hypersexualizing to the point of camp. Objectification is distorting a woman into an object and providing the object as the source of sexual fantasy- an object that can't complain.

warren blyth
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Cool. Lots of interesting insights.

I think I got lost in my own framework of concerns. I've been focusing on "what is the context for this" too much. (it's a valid question, and a good tool to destabilize lazy standards. but it distracted me from the core problem)

The core seems to be that default design notions have been established, and they need to be changed. ie., it's usually "how do you draw a dude? big biceps!" vs. "how do you draw a girl? big breasts!"
When asked for context, it kinda makes sense that a big bicep guy will be doing all these game activities. but it makes no sense for a big breasts girl to do the same things. if the stereo type for designing women was "big thighs!" i doubt this would be such an issue.

(I get the male gaze argument, and sexualization argument, and concede them. was more interested in "what's wrong with easy-to-read design?")

Luis Guimaraes
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@A S

Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Nathan Drake, Kratos.

But are these characters male-exclusive fantasies?

Zoya Street
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Isn't the fact that the main characters of Breaking Bad are middle class white men part of the reason for its popularity? HBO subscribers can see themselves in it.

Travis Stewart
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"Popularity" is kind of overstating it. The season finale of Breaking Bad, while receiving a larger amount of viewers throughout the season than ever before past, still received lower ratings than a late-season (yet non-finale) episode of the famously little-watched series Community.

Also, do white middle class men really turn out for dramas about the slow degradation of good people in complete monsters?

Travis Stewart
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But that strike me as an overly-simplistic formula for how an audience relates to a main character, and one whose thinness is further exposed by the general lack of interest in Breaking Bad. It was at its smallest audience when it was fully about a white middle class male teacher who made drugs to pay for cancer treatments, and is at its largest audience (which, as discussed, is still pretty small) now that it's about an irredeemable drug kingpin who is rather well-off.

warren blyth
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Leigh's point was that you DON'T have to identify with the leads of Breaking Bad, to enjoy the show.

Zoya, I think there are plenty of options for viewing middle class white men on TV. I wouldn't say this is key to Breaking Bad's popularity. I think the key is the unconventional character and plot.

specifically, it is a show about a couple born losers eating shit, repeatedly. But a couple times each season, each will explode in a spectacular display of power. I think people identify with the first part, and aspire to the second.

Gonzalo Daniel
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Strong characters just need to be that: Strong. You need to know where they are going to and coming from to understand their actions and decisions, so you can connect with them.

Just look at Sarah kerrigan from the starcraft saga. You know where she's at, and the events that molded her to the antagonist she eventually became. She has all the physical attributes, but she's deep and complex in essence and that is what makes her an outstanding character. Sadly, I can't say the same about her performance in Wings of Liberty, but in the first Starcraft and Broodwar, she is easily the strongest female character in the history of videogames.

Kate Craig
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To be honest, I'm kind of tired of strong characters, female and otherwise. I've seen it a fair bit, I know where it's headed, and a little mystery and ambiguity in a character would be lovely for a change.

Jason Lee
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I think the use of strong within the context of the article and strong as you're using it here are a little different. Any interesting character needs motivations and goals in traditional storytelling to get from point A to B: that's what you describe. She's talking about it in the context of traditional "heroic" depictions, and hinges especially on the trope of the "strong woman" who at this point is what I like to call "the lazy man's attempt at feminism".

I do think that a good character doesn't need to be strong the way Kate says, but motivations and "where they are going" creates an arc that makes them care about them. To use earlier examples, Anna from Planescape starts rather unnoble, cowardly, and mean, but through character development and her motivations becomes a (despite playing a romance support role to the hero). Zoe from Dreamfall starts as a directionless college student with normal everyday but kind of unheroic life problems to a full on adventure that brings out positive qualities we don't see in her when we first meet her.

Devin Wilson
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I apologize if this comment seems rambly or otherwise tone deaf. It's mostly just my impromptu thoughts on the general issue.

I don't remember what it was, but I read something fairly recently that changed my understanding of the phrase "strong female character".

The piece argued that "strong female character" doesn't mean "tough female character". Whether or not a character has a y chromosome isn't important if all they're doing is beating everybody up, because that just makes for a boring character.

"Strong female character" should not be read as the opposite of "weak female character", but instead the opposite of "flat female character" (and I don't mean in terms of breast size, obviously). A frustrated woman with complex desires (and some degree of agency, of course) is always going to be more interesting than a man effortlessly and mindlessly destroying everybody in his path. In the case of the former, it is the _character_ who is "strong" regardless of her brute strength.

This is why stories in video games are typically so dull. It's so often "boy meets force of evil; boy destroys force of evil after collecting all the weapons and power-ups". It's not that this is a "strong male character"; it's actually a completely flat male character. Some have argued that video game characters are necessarily flat (so the player can project themselves into the role), but the fact remains that we should be given more interesting motivations in games than "save the world".

Also, it's not that sexualizing female characters is bad. It's objectifying them for men that's the issue. This makes them flat characters, or worse: non-characters. If all they want is what a male character/audience wants, then that's no good. That's patriarchy in a nutshell, and it makes them nothing more than a tool for male characters/audiences.

Sexism in media is complicated! It's not as simple as asking "what's she dressed like?" or "can she beat everybody up?", and if we only write female characters with those questions in mind... then we're in bad shape.

Jenn Frank
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Not "rambly," and not "tone-deaf"! I think this is as good a summation of portions of the panel I personally might've hoped for! Now I wish I could undo all previous comments (sorry, I typed as I scrolled) and instead I'd say "see Devin."

Thank you! You are en pointe.

Lyon Medina
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Characters must have a flaw, that is what makes them relatable. If any character is perfect than that instantly becomes a stereotype. It's a very hard balancing act that no one has the measurements too or the unbiased opinion on. There can be no perfect betrayal of a character, sex, race, ethnicity, class. Because if there were, we wouldn't be having these discussions.

This article is very good; I only wish that I could have heard the panel.

David Croeser
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I think possibly an interesting further discussion would entail the reasons that modern society would want to look to video games for role models. Do we in fact look for figures to identify with in games or do we, on a subconscious level, see games as disposable pleasures not to be taken seriously?
John Carmack was once quoted as saying "story in a game is like a story in a porn movie". This may certainly have been true of games in the past but has the rise of a more diverse gaming audience demanded increasingly elaborate narratives and consequently a more believable/respectable class of protagonist to go with them? The stereotypical characters of the past may have served their purpose when gamers were simply more interested in gameplay than they were in the deeper existential motivations of their favourite character.
Do deeper more meaningful characters rather than stereotypes in fact serve to detract from the generally abstract nature of videogames? Should we not be going in the opposite direction and in fact abstract characters to the point of absurdity? Are we in fact detracting from the fun of games by attempting to place real world notions of identity onto characters which tend to exist in seemingly ridiculous realities?

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To echo some of Michael Josefsen's thoughts, as far as I'm concerned, I just want to control someone that looks cool. If they're well designed, if they can do interesting/fun/awesome looking moves and I enjoy "being" them for a little while, the work's been done. No need to talk to me, no need to let me put the controller in my lap while I watch another tedious cut-scene. I want to PLAY a fun game with awesome looking characters that do really cool and fun things. That's it!

Little anecdote: We gathered around a friend's big screen a few years back to get our first look at Bayonetta. While the guys were having a real laugh at the over-the-top nature of Bayonetta, her whole persona, her actions and what-not, the women who were there walked away liking Umbra Witch Jeanne the most. My girlfriend, an artist, wished Bayonetta looked a little less like a man in drag and more feminine. Basically, that character was about 85% there, just needed some proportions shifted a bit.

Just sayin'.

Dane Warnick
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Not sure if its already been said but in portal 2 it is reveled that GLADOS used to be a woman named Karen and was in the picture with cave Johnson so I'd classify her as a female and there is even recognition on her part of once being human and having her conscious put into the machine we know as GLADOS.

Jason Lee
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When they did that I felt a bit like how they showed the story of Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode III: it was a story I felt was stronger bolstered in a bit of mystery. Portal 2 making that explicit about her story and who she used to be actually I felt took away from the elegant minimalism of the storytelling in the first.

Keep in mind this is nitpicking that there is a loose thread in an amazing tapestry.

Nick Harris
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I went to some trouble at the beginning of Mass Effect to make my Commander Shepard resemble Angela Bassett, when I got to choose my appearance in Skyrim similar features were selected for a Redguard woman with a distinctive tribal appearance that included woad and a Mohican haircut.

I suppose I'm doing my bit for the underrepresentation of minorities as protagonists.

Heliora Prime
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My favorite female game characters I can think of right now are:

Julie Strain - Heavy Metal Fakk 2 (PC)
Konoko - Oni (PC)
Red Lotus - Deathtrap Dungeon (PS1)
Darcy Stern - Urban Chaos (PC)
Sarah Kerrigan - Starcraft 1 (PC)
Juliet Starling - Lollipop Chainsaw (PS3)

As I look back, I'm kind of surprised it isn't filled with the regular T&A
female characters. Though I love the design of Rachel (Ninja Gaiden)
and Ivy (Soul Calibur). Yes I less armor = more protection in video
games is completely silly but actually that's what I like to look at.
And that's what I like to see monsters getting smacked by.

Most of them have a good personality in the game, blocky as hell
since they're old games. And they have a lot of actions like hanging
of ledges, acrobatic jumps etc. They also know how to fight.
Juliet is just fun, with the boyfriend topping it. And the asian sensei dude.

I find Lara Croft way to arrogant and superior, don't like her.
Also Rayne (Bloodrayne) acts like a guy. Bayonetta has the same
superiority complex as Lara. I haven't played Half Life 2 and Beyond
Good & Evil simply because I like to play games with demons and
sexy female characters (crucify me if you must).

I also like to play overly muscular dudes like He Man and Juggernaut.
Though I can't get myself to play God Of War games, he's just to angry
and evil imo. Raziel is my N1 game character of all time.

So I don't see the problem with women in skimpy outfits, as long as
they have their muscle head dude counterpart to balance it out.
I don't care if every game character walks around naked (still waiting
for a Devilman Game on current gen consoles)
And as long as they have strong gameplay.

Besides kind of ironic it's a woman thing, that they see Lara Croft as
en example? I don't see God Of War or Gears Of War players 3 times
a week in the gym trying to look like those dudes. We don't care, neither
should women.

warren blyth
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Well, it's ok to like porn, and makes sense to want everyone else to like porn too.

a) but call it what it is.

b) recognize that not everyone gets into game making or playing because they enjoy sex, titillation and exploitation. Some people would rather not make porn.

c) Maybe consider that the guys should also act like they're in the same porn as the women. If only one gender is getting all porny, then your entertainment is sort of brainwashing you, with regard to the sexes.

It's generally not ok to enjoy brainwashing, or to want everyone else to enjoy it too.

Ramon Carroll
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This sounds like it was a great panel, Leigh. I enjoyed reading this article, as it was intelligent and informative. Thank you for weighing in.

Heliora Prime
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Waha, okay maybe I was a littlebit to honest there. It maybe a phase I'm going through.
I use to play a lot of Starcraft 1, Quake 3 freezetag, Command & Conquer and I was
completely hooked on Demon's Souls and Dark Souls last year. So I do play games for
gameplay. And right now I play Fall Of Cybertron Multiplayer every single day which has
an amazing core gameplay feature. Perhaps Dark Souls ruined action adventures and RPG's
for me since it does it so well. There are blogs about what to do after Dark Souls out there.

At the moment I'm simply into the setting/visual style of games and the actual lack of
deep gameplay I take for granted.

Jamie Roberts
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On the subject of sexuality not always being a bad thing, I find a surprising example in Street Fighter 4 with the characters Cammy and Juri. Cammy is not an inherently sexualized character, despite her somewhat revealing outfit. She's a tough special forces soldier with a convoluted past. Juri's personality, on the other hand, is very sexual in nature. Not only that, but her sexuality seems to be about her own desire, not about being passive eye-candy for the viewer.

Because of this difference, when Juri's character is suggestive, it feels completely natural. When the camera pans over Cammy's ass at the start of a fight, however, it feels exploitative and cheap. Juri's sexualization feels consensual, intentional on her end, and part of a more complicated personality. It doesn't feel like she's being reduced to an object. When Cammy is sexualized, however, it feels invasive, disconnected from her character, and reductive. It says "she may be a fighter, but all we care about is her ass".

TL;DR It is completely possible to have a female character presented with sexual aspects without it being offensive or objectifying. It's also possible to be creepy and demeaning when handled poorly.