It's a People Problem
"Boys will be boys, and so will a lot of middle-aged men." - Kin Hubbard (1868 - 1930)
Good old Lara Croft and her faithful sidekicks are back again. And by sidekicks, I mean her chest, her short-shorts, and the perennial argument about the portrayal of women in video games.
There seem to be two common approaches that get dragged out every time this comes up. There's the usual "this doesn't matter" and it's usually accompanied by some landscape appreciation for Lara. And on the other side I have a former colleague who is of the opinion that every female character should look like Velma from Scooby Doo and if they don't then it is a slam against women and anyone who even brings up any other viewpoint on this issue is just defending the status quo (and therefore should be burned at the stake).
I maintain neither one of them see the whole picture. The problem is not just sexism, but rather personification in all its forms and the disconnected way the issues are being handled in game design.
You may not have heard the term before, or at least not in this context. In usability design terms, personification is the process of you, the user, attributing human qualities to your agent in the environment. In game terms, this is a holy grail that is fervently sought after. They want you to identify with your in-game avatar to give the game a feel of immersion. The more human-like it is, and the more you identify with it, the easier that state of belief is to gain and maintain.
Those breasts are definitely out there. There's no denying them. I'm not trying to invalidate that issue at all. The latest set of screencaps from the new Soul Caliber game coming out display girls with bra-sizes that would be measured in acres. And they're barely restrained by two shoe strings and two postage stamps. Trying to reach around that mass to fight would be purely impossible, if you could even see over them. Even Hugh Heffner has to be looking at those and thinking that's just a bit too much here.
But those discussions are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many ways game character designs damage the vital connection between the player and their character. Find a way to peek past the "tracts of land" and think about all the different characters in the games you play.
- Exposed naughty bits everywhere isn't the only demeaning problem for women. Don't forget stupidity and incompetence. Like that ODST in Halo 2 that shows up in the level where you take out that first Prophet. Yay! We've got a female who isn't a pilot! Then she starts coming onto you like you were in a singles bar, and you're stuck with her like gum on your shoe. This woman is a Helljumper. That means she's a veteran professional soldier with enough cojones to free-fall from orbit in a metal coffin with no chance of recovery if something goes wrong. But confronted with the Master Chief she melts into a useless puddle of idiotic innuendos in a battle situation. Give me a BREAK! We have a handle on one of the three main bigwigs in the Covenant Alliance here! Flirt on your own time.
- It's not just NPC's. For example, take Inphyy from Ninety-nine Nights. Move past her oh-shoot-me-here armor and her soft-pr0n game intro. Play her through the first few levels. Things go okay, but then you get to stare aghast as she starts throwing a babbling, weeping, cast-yourself-on-the-ground temper tantrum in front of a subordinate. And it's not even for a decent reason; it's because she had a spat with her brother. That's the head of the Knights of Light!? Puh-leeeze.
- Unless you're a wise old martial arts master guy, you better not age. And when I say age, I mean at all. Remember Sir Auron from Final Fantasy X? Great character. Kicks butt all over the place, and even gives good story. All through the game he gets crap about being an old man. If you do the math from the facts in the game, he would be 33 years old (if he wasn't already dead but if you'll follow the immutable point). How does it feel to know that you're really old, guys? At least he's there. I tried to think of a female equivalent in age and story role, and got nowhere. I have come up with a theory about grown women. I think they morph into crates once they turn 26. They wrap themselves in a wooden chrysalis and change into their final form. The next day they emerge and shake out their skirts as 80-mumble year old NPC's and shuffle off to live in a random village in the nearest jRPG. It would explain why those things are all over the place and there's no grown women in sight, wouldn't it?
- Muscles and ready weapons aren't the only problem you guys have. A lot of these guys are just plain nuts. The list of sociopaths and crazy-cases is as long and illustrious as the Mr. Universe wannabe's. The line forms behind Kratos. And the bishie guys can all huddle behind Cloud Strife to feel safer from the beefy guys.
- If you're all willing to rumble we can pull up race stereotypes and ethnicity. Unless you're a white male between the ages of 18 and 24 you're a villain or nowhere.
- Kids really get the shaft. Both genders are depicted as brats, as tragic cannon fodder to advance the heroes' story, or abused and neglected in ways that would get their parents arrested in the real world. Some are forced to fend for themselves as young as 10 or 12 (Pokemon, Zelda, heck just about any kid's license you can think of). Kids of all ages are just sent off to save the world and fight wars, with the full approval of the adults in their lives who stay home to mind the store. Might as well re-title half of the E and T rated games "Children's Crusade". And even if they do get to stay home until they're an older teen before they go off to be heroes, they are depicted in incredibly damaging ways. Many are shown as being thrown out into the world into traumatic and deadly dangerous situations, with little or no backup or support from responsible parties.
Read through that, and tell me how many of them are being addressed by looking at this from a solely feminist viewpoint? By my read, just one and that one not even completely or intelligently. That's not enough. Yes, I am a woman. I also fit into several of those other categories, and feel just as uncomfortable when they are misrepresented. Why are the contents of my t-shirt more important than it's size, or the gray in my hair, or my relationship with my children?
Does it Matter?
Serious disconnects in personification affect the way games are played. If I'm stuck in a rear-view camera and I have an option between a scantily clad female and reasonably clothed guy, I'll have the guys out front unless actively forced by gameplay to change. This can be the kiss of death in an RPG. Unless I catch myself I will have huge gaps in levels and skills between my characters based on how they are dressed. It nearly killed my first time through FFXII. I had a 15+ level gap between Balthier (my lowest level male character) and Ashe (my highest level female character). They were effectively split into a girls team and a guy's team. The disparity got so bad as the game progressed I couldn't shuffle the girls into a combat at all otherwise they'd just die when the monster breathed their general direction. I had to go back and force myself to power-level them before I took them into the last bits of the game.
Guys, let me put the issue to you in a different way. This may not make sense because you've never been forceably faced with a real equivalent to what the girls are getting. Being stuck staring at Tidus' cute little leather clad butt for all the traveling in Final Fantasy X is annoying, but at least it's covered. Put him in a g-string equivalent to Fran's from Final Fantasy XIIand how do you think it would feel? Seriously, it's a good butt. Any guy would be proud to have it. But how would you like to stare at the dimples on it for a hundred hours and be forced to try to identify with it to play the game?
Give me Gears of War with the guys dressed like Chippendale's Dancers, and then let's see how you do. I grant you there's a realism problem there, but it's only fair. Us girls have been coping with similar disconnects for years. They're in battle so they should be wearing armor. Yeah. Well, Lulu's traveling from one end of her world to the other beating up bad guys with a stuffed animal. She'd have sun poisoning and skin like a lizard on her décolletage after a week stomping around Spira in that dress. Not to mention the rash she'd have from having to wear that much personal adhesive to keep her cleavage inside her bodice during that nice low bow. At least most RPG's give me some option. Most other games don't. If I play Gears, I have to play it as a hulking brute. I've made an uneasy peace with it. If you're a female gamer, you'd have had to.
Game developers aren't totally at fault here. There is a lack of symbiology for this in general, and popular media is just as bad or worse. To demonstrate using visual cues that a guy is strong and brave and etc, you show him with big muscles and a compensatory weapon (since you really can't show him with his kilt tilted here). It's a tradition going back centuries. Strong, lantern-jawed types or unwashed mancubs going off and save the world and the damsel are all over the place. But that set of visual shortcuts don't mean the same thing when applied to a woman.
What should they do? Well, we as a society don't really don't have a visual shortcut for demonstrating power in a woman that isn't also tied into her secondary gender characteristics. You simply can't handle it directly unless she's so old her sexuality is out of the equation. Dame Judy Dench as "M" in the recent James Bond flicks, for an iconic example. With no visuals, you have to build it into the story like Beyond Good and Evil or give her rank and have people demonstrate they respect her like Miranda Keyes in Halo 2. But both of those techniques effectively remove a female character from the front lines in the twitch realms. You don't have the story room to really carry it along, or since most player characters are grunts of some sort you can't have a lot of rank. Angel from Wingcommander really couldn't work as a player character, for example.
We need to take a long look at how we manage the whole problem, not just what's jiggling. It ends up as a smokescreen to hide all sorts of other issues that should be addressed. The game companies and other media types don't want to have to change the way they do things so they downplay the problem as just a "feminist" thing, and people who shout about women's issues are not covering the whole problem and often alienate the very people they need to work with to solve it.
Here's a couple articles and such to give you some launch points for investigation:
The Doll Technique and Racial Attitudes, Penelope J. Greene, The Pacific Sociological Review, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Oct., 1980), pp. 474-490
Assembles some seminal work going all the way back to 1930 about gender/racial identification with kids and their toys.
Agents with Faces:The Effects of Personification of Agents, Tomoko Koda / Pattie Maes
Gives an overview of a small study done at MIT about how realistic in-game avatars affect the player's experience, and also a good source of terms for farther study.