I often video game in my off time. Mostly RPGs (role-playing games), just because I love the storytelling –at least, if they are any good. But I do enjoy an MMO now and again.
MMO. Massive Multiplayer Online game. The type of game that has lots of people from all over the world logging in to play together. The best known is called World of Warcraft, if that gives you some idea of the type of game.
(Muse: You realize you are totally advertising your geek resume, right? Everyone read the previous paragraph and now assumes you are a pimply-faced virgin.)
I no longer have pimples.
Anyway, I enjoy it mostly for the social aspect and the character progression. The one I like the most is called Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO), which is obviously based on that nominal work. And it adheres to the lore pretty well. But I have branched out in to some other MMOs and I started noticing something about those others.
Every single female character is dressed like a streetwalker.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully understand that many, or even most, of those female characters are being played by male humans. Even so, I am at a loss to understand why every character has to dress like she’s getting ready to seduce her boyfriend who has been away for two weeks.
Okay. I took a whirl in a game called Tera. It originated in South Korea. The guys’ costumes and armor? Bulky. Heavy. Emphasis on power and destruction. The girls? Well, see below:
This was one of the least trampy things I could find this character to wear, and that was a result of grinding (i.e., repetitive killing) for a long while to get tokens to trade for it.
Sure, there are other ways to get a less lingerie-like set of armor or costumes but involve a) spending real-life money at the game’s costume shop or b) spending a ridiculous amount of in-game currency and buying it from someone who went with option (a) above.
You contrast this with LOTRO, where this form-fitting outfit was about the most immodest thing I could find for a character:
Granted, some people would make the argument that Tolkein scarcely acknowledged women as contributors to his stories so they never had a chance to dress down. Fair point. Still, nothing like the first picture exists in this game.
(Muse: Why are all your characters women?)
Long story. I’ll toss in a brief explanation at the end.
Anyway, I stopped in another couple of MMOs and by and large, I found there were varying degrees of this (skimpy-costume-ism) present. And then I started thinking: why is that?
Well, the gut answer is that the games were designed by men and for men, and men want scantily clad women, so that’s it. Okay, perhaps. But that’s hardly comprehensive. First off, there is some research that suggests that images of female sexuality is arousing to both men and women. Sex sells and in the western world, that means using women to send the message. So at a visceral level, it is as much an appeal to female players as male players. Second, while I know plenty of dudes who will play a female character and dress her like a dominatrix, I haven’t met a single one who would admit to buying a game for that sole purpose. So I would hardly call it a selling point–especially since a game like Age of Conan, which featured a lot of barely-dressed women, tanked on release because the gameplay was abominable.
I did a little non-scientific empirical surveying, asking women I know who play video games if the idea of scantily-clad women in the games bothered them. The results were basically a bell a curve, with a few women being greatly bothered, a few pleased with it, and the majority not caring much either way as long as it didn’t affect the game itself. Most did indicate that they liked options. Given options, I think some women will dress their characters conservatively. Some won’t. Some will just play. But they all like to have the choice.
I really got to thinking about this whole notion of sexification of-
(Muse: Is that a word?)
On my blog it is. I got to thinking about this whole notion of sexification of women in spec-fiction, across media, when I recently heard a female author express satisfaction on seeing the proposed book cover from her publisher, that the female main character was neither depicted as a sex object nor as a damsel in distress. That’s cool.
On the same panel was a woman whose most recent book featured a woman holding a gigantic sword, wearing a cleavage-bearing bodice, and a come-hither look. And the author was happy with her cover also. That’s cool too.
I believe it comes down to choices – and really, to agency.
(Muse: What? Women want to proactive in their own lives? That’s crazy talk!)
I’ve read a lot about characterization of women in the spec-fiction world. (Just for a moment, I’ll stay away from the issue of real-life sexism in the industry and stay on characters.) I’ve read a lot on the male gaze, the latent sexism in the way we are trained (by society) to write, and various iterations of the Bechdel test.
To me, most of it is a lot of arm-flailing over nothing, as long as women have agency.
(Muse: And here is where you get yourself in trouble.)
Let me finish. I’ll admit that I am not someone that thinks that men and women are interchangeable save for plumbing. I don’t think our brains are wired the same.
At the same time, who says women can’t be strong? Brave? Vile? Deceptive? Evil? Lusty? Ambitious? Honorable? These aren’t gendered-traits. I don’t even know what the hell a gendered trait would be. Feel free to make arguments on that.
If you want a woman to be the central protagonist of your book, you have to make her an agent. She has to be a proactive do-er. That doesn’t mean she has to act like a man. It does mean she has to be a driver for the plot. And frankly, how hard is that? If you write about a strong, decisive character, who takes steps to effect change in their universe…well, that is much more important than whether you give them tits or not.
At the same time, weak protagonists–especially those who don’t grow out of it–will irritate even the most stalwart readers. That remains my single greatest criticism of Fifty Shades of Gray. The protagonist was a whiner who let everyone around her guide her fate. She wasn’t an actor. She was acted upon. Those types of main characters are just not interesting to me.
You can argue that not enough women are portrayed in a non-sexualized main character roles. I’d be open to that argument. I would counter by saying that this, like many social mores, is slowly changing and you are seeing more and more main female characters not defined by their sexuality. I think that’s a good thing, since there are strong women in our own world and if we want to make our works relatable to the readers, those women should be represented. At the same time, there are always going to be the Anita Blakes of the writing world that are nothing but writhing balls of hormones, and are not above vamping to get what they want. There are women that do trade on their sexuality and again, they should represented. There will be an audience for both.
And why not? It is about choices, right? If some women want to read about strong, positive role-models, more power to them. If other women want to read about undead-werewolf sexual orgies, more power to them, too. And neither side should be shaming the other for what they like.
Agency. Choices. More of both is better for everyone.
And to close….
My wife used to play LOTRO with me and she stopped after a while. When I asked why she stopped playing, she listed a few reasons, the last of which was…
wait for it…
“There weren’t enough sexy costumes.”
I started to do a facepalm. But after a second, I just nodded.
She had made her choice.
(Addendum: Back in 2010, I was playing a game called Fallout 3. For the characters, there was a perk (skill) called “Lady Killer” or “Black Widow”, depending on the gender of the player. Both gave the same effects in opposite directions. For example, “Lady Killer” allowed a male player to do more damage to female enemies and gave unique dialogue options when talking to female characters, with “Black Widow” working the same way for female players with male enemies and characters. Well, it did not take me long to realize that about 3/4 of the enemies in the game were male. So, it became an enormous gameplay advantage to be a female character and take the perk right away. The character from the first screenshot above? Only females can be that class of character, which fits my playstyle perfectly. So there you have it. Mostly, I play females for gameplay reasons. The rest of the time is inertia. It has nothing to do with staring at digital ass. I am not that hard up.)