Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Reasons for the Backsliding in Portrayals of Women

I've noticed that several game bloggers have seemed despondent due to the notion that the game industry is backsliding on its portrayal of women. I don't think they're wrong that this backsliding is happening, but I don't think they understand why it is happening. Because they are supremely confident in the righteousness of their cause, a lot of these bloggers seem have written off the other side as unrepentant misogynists, and have not taken the time to understand why the game companies are acting as they are.

In my view, people are basically rational. They have underlying reasons that drive the way they act. Sometimes the reasons are illogical or not the best reasons, but they are reasons none the less. So what is the reasoning of many current game companies?

Let me illustrate what I think the underlying reason behind much of the backsliding through an example. Here is Trion's poster child, Crucia, for their upcoming RIFT expansion, Storm Legion:

Crucia is front and center on all the expansion materials. Her depiction is obviously going to upset or annoy most feminist gamers. Trion has to know this. So why did they go this route?

Here's a question for you. If a game company publicly says that they are looking to expand into the female market, to attract more female players, which of the following is more likely:
  1. The game will become easier.
  2. The game will become harder.
  1. Pet-collecting will be added to the game.
  2. Player vs. Player combat will be added to the game.
If we are honest, we know that the Option 1 is more likely in both cases. Those ideas may or may not attract female gamers in reality, but we know which direction a game company is going to go in when they say they want more women.

Because this causal relationship is real, the reverse signal works as well. A signal that the company is slightly female-unfriendly is also a signal that the game will emphasize difficulty and more hardcore elements like PvP.

Back to Trion, who is their biggest competitor who is also launching an expansion this year? That's right, World of Warcraft, with Mist of Pandaria.  So Trion is setting up a very stark contrast: fluffy pandas vs Crucia.

It's all about signalling. In the past few years a lot of game companies have chased the casual and female markets, very often by watering down difficulty and other game elements that the dedicated gamer playerbase enjoys. The change in the portrayal of women for many game companies, including Trion and a lot of the companies at E3, is a signal that the game companies are refocusing on their base, and are implementing mechanics that the base enjoys. It is also a signal that the company is focusing on an older audience, rather than trying to attract kids.

It is a clumsy signal, in my view. It risks alienating players who would otherwise try the game. But I think it is an effective signal--not to mention that it does attract the male eye--and that is why a lot of game companies are employing it today.


  1. I just see it as being like the Evony ads. It cheapens anything it is applied to.

  2. What you say mostly makes sense, but I am confused by the it is also a signal that the company is focusing on an older audience, rather than trying to attract kids.

    Surely this sort of eye candy is more targeted towards adolescent males than an older audience?

  3. I'm with Carson. This is aimed straight at the "OMG bewbs!" adolescent male market. It may be a stark contrast with Kung Fu Panda, but they could have easily come up with a better way of differentiating themselves from WoW.

    I'd also dispute that people act rationally most of the time. In my experience, very few people make decisions in a completely rational manner; most of the time, emotions rule the day. Viewed in that light, the backsliding of portrayals of women makes sense because game companies are trying to target a specific audience with the primal emotive response of "sex sells".

    The people green lighting these portrayals make the same emotive responses, because otherwise they would rationally argue that alienating potentially up to half of their base is a bad idea.

  4. The main problem with this idea is that "hard game" or "PvP" needs no signaling. They are signals of themselves.

    If you want to market your game as hard all you have to say "this game will be hard". See Diablo 3 where the slogan was "If you kill Diablo on the hardest difficulty, Jay Wilson will go to your home and give you a hug" It signals hardness better than any boobs.

    If you want to see successful signaling of PvP, just look at EVE: "EVE is unfair" is the best way telling that ganks happen. There are no boobs in EVE.

    The babes signal that the target audience is indeed kids (even if not the 8-years old). The babes signal that this is a game where lolling, Chuck Norris and anal jokes are welcomed.

  5. People _believe_ they make rational choices. They _believe_ their argument is rational and it may indeed look like that. If you look under the hood however the childhood of an individual makes the person how they are today. All kind of (chain) events such as "stepfather beaten her, not knew her real father", "bullied on school due to red hair", "was never challenged in high school", "nostalgia", "was always the most popular in the middle of attention" cloud people's logic without them, or others, realizing this. How often do you read these "WoW used to be better in TBC" sob stories and you wonder how much nostalgia is influencing that person's judgement?

    As for that woman the above posters make good points about it IMO. I'd like to add I am enrolled in TERA beta and made a sorcerer. I started to do the demo quest where you are level 20 and learn your class. After login, one of the first things I noticed was my high elf sorcerer was running around on high heels, just like the demon hunter in Diablo 3. They had some kind of summer design, with a lot naked. Can't be comfortable to run around with, fighting.

    PS: Also signed up for TSW beta and got an invite, all this happening after reading your TSW reviews. Thank you!

  6. I hadn't previously been aware of this character. What she mostly signals to me is 'this game's armour designs are going to drive me up the wall'.

    And remembering back to when I played Rift, the armour designs for my female heavy armoured character did indeed irritate the hell out of me so truth in advertising I guess.

    I also seem to remember that *back in my day*, the females of tasteless adolescent hormone ridden exploitation box-art had a bit more meat on their bones and at least wielded an infeasibly large sword or glowing magic staff as tall as they were high. Harumph! You young whippersnappers get off my lawn!

    And now, as an older male demographic, whom time and marketing executives have forgot, I feel I must confess to a hideous shame...

    ...I find the female pandas as modeled by Blizzard, female pandas who wear human clothes and know kung-fu (and thus can kick your ass!) at least an order of magnitude or two sexier than Crucia of the strategically glued on metal bits.

    In fact considering this further I find the *male* pandas as modelled by blizzard also at least that order of magnitude greater in hotness than Crucia. I had not previously been aware my dormant gay side went for the big asian mighty glacier type, but it appears it is so.

    So I guess, if sex sells, and these guys are trying to sell to me...Trion? You are doing it wrong. Blizzard? Have a cookie.

    ...and yes, now, now, I will report to the re-education camps for my crimes against both taste, sanity, and waaaaay too much information.

  7. ...also, those box-art females of my tasteless hormone ridden adolescence, I mentioned?

    They all had there very own pet saber-toothed battle-tiger, every man jack of them! No exceptions! Nuhuh. Nary a one. I remember it distinctly, and my memory is inf..in..inffl...

    ...sorry, what was I saying?

    Oh yes, We are indeed living in depraved and fallen world when these blatant fanservice marketing campaigns neglect to provide their women with the necessary battle-tigers to denote their level of godesslike studliness and all round awesome.

    *angrily shakes cane at sky*


  8. I think it's really simple. When companies design characters, especially main characters, they're going to try their best to look good. Unless that certain game has a special theme, this basically means guys will be muscular and masculine, while girls will be sexy and pretty (how often do you see overweight or puny main character?). Then, to show off these features, the guys will have something like sleeveless shirts, which show off their bulging biceps and girls will have low-cut shirts that show cleavage.

    These games are all fantasy, in one way or another. No one is going for "average" or "decent-looking". People are going for extremes with as much exaggeration as realistically(?) possible. It doesn't mean much to me since I've gotten desensitized to it, but I do admit I'd rather look at something "nice" than "so-so looking". So, I feel it's fine. In the end, I believe gamers will stick with the game only if the features offer what they're looking for anyway although nice presentation certainly helps.

    P.S. I checked out Crucia's boobs, but I won't be checking out Rift. Sorry, Trion.

    P.P.S. While WOW certainly does have Pokemon features and its graphics are more cartoonish, I wouldn't say its not sexualized either. At least, not when you look at the players. Don't forget the naked Night Elf female dances on top of inn tables!

  9. I wonder if the use of scantily clad elfs and roaring barbarians doesn't signal something more basic--"this game is a fantasy". (Just like a swooning woman in the arms of a man tells us "this is a romance"). That would make the push for realism even more a motivation for the industry to head in the opposite direction. The more we cry, "that plate bikini isn't realistic!", the more companies and artists passive aggressively emphasize the fact that it's not intended to be.

  10. The whole thing is mainly bloggers with too much time on their hands. A realistic suit of armor is about as exciting as a wooden spoon. No one really wants that. For that matter, if you polled women on whether they would rather look like Rift-girl here or Hillary Clinton, well that would be one useless poll because we all know the answer.

    I would personally go for a little more modesty in the art design, but am I going to join a crusade for it in the name of feminism? Good god no, these are videogames...they just don't matter that much.

  11. Another couple of possible theories why...

    * Is Rift loosing subscribers to Tera?

    * Lazy marketing - one reason why scantily dressed women have been used for years. However, while it might grab the attention of a certain audience, it doesn't sell the product.

    However, I think that strange marketing also applies to WoW. I think WoW (and MMOs in general) have a greater variety of players than other game types: ages, genders, hardcore <-> casual, etc.

    Yet every WoW TV advert seems targeted at men, aged 16-24. Why? If I was in charge of their marketing I would celebrate this diversity to increase their players. Instead they target their advertising lazily, reinforcing stereotypes, and making it more embarassing to admit playing WoW in non-gamer circles.

    How many professionals would openly admit to playing WoW as a hobby in a work context?

  12. @Gevlon
    And how is that a bad thing? No one is the target audience for every game. I would say that the adolescent teen male is a key demographic for game developers.

    Your assumption is that this is mutually exclusive? You can target an audience through a lot of means. I would agree that it could be beneficial to release statements saying the game will become harder/is hard. Would this reduce the value of scarcely dressed woman for a % of the demographic, no! It just helps differentiating from WoW and other MMORPG's.

  13. "So what is the reasoning of many current game companies?"

    I guess my question back to you is: "So what?". Assigning some capitalist reasoning to sexism doesn't make it less alienating. I mean look, even your post, which is logical and that you wrote with the best of intentions, has managed to summon the usual "stop whining, ladies" responses. (Not all commenters, of course!)

    Whether a company is trying to attract hormonal teenage boys or serious gamers or tell people that their game is easy.. it makes almost no difference to my visceral reaction to it. Women are still being marginalized by games. They're still being misrepresented. They're still being told that it's a boobtacular man's world.

    So I guess while I agree that the motivation for sexism in games is more frequently money than any mustache-twirling evil, I don't see what difference that makes.

  14. Hmm, that picture doesn't really signal anything to me other than Crucia must have a killer gym membership.

    And to add some anecdotal data to what Anon said before me, my wife who plays mostly female characters almost always plays one who is attractive when given the choice. I remember when a fellow female guild member gave her a dress in WoW and her reaction was something like "Oooh, sexy! It shows off my bewbs".

  15. @Bearness:

    These games are all fantasy, yes, but they're Fantasy (genre) not just simply Fantasy (daydream), the greatness of Fantasy (genre) -- such at it is -- is in demanding that we suspend our disbelief in all this impossible stuff that's being thrown at us, and getting away with it because it all hangs together so well with enough of the bits adjacent to real life being true to real life, that we're never pulled up short by stuff that doesn't fit. The craft is in selling the illusion. Maintaining verisimilitude is important when your trying to portray the clearly unreal as real.

    The problem with this over-egging of an in your face adolescent idea of teh sexy, is that for all too many of us it breaks us out of the illusion in just the same way as having a bunch of players who have named their characters in l33t, or ever third player character bearing a moniker that's a new creative mispelling of 'Drizzt'.

    And at some point in the self-referential scantily clad arms race for attention, the whole thing seems to leave any connection to actual sexuality behind, heads off into laughable self-parody, and eventually ends up at someplace downright weird and disturbing (see supermodels and fashion designers for a non-game example). The female image in the OP clearly falls into the 'laughable self-parody' bucket for me. Certainly your mileage will vary.


    Dude, I saw you palm that card there, now don't go claiming that you didn't...

    ...how about you rerun that imaginary poll of Rift-woman vs Hillary, but with both them at the same bodily age and then get back to us. ;)


    Okay, I can buy that as a genre marker of the packaging and marketing, but with Romance Novels (and let me assure you I know that of which I type) those shirtless guys with the mullets, with swooning heroine rampant emblazoned upon a field of rearing horses, don't generally wear that level of impractical getup in the actual text of the book, especially not when engaged in combat, whereas in games my character all too often does.

    And if it is there as a genre marker, how come the packaging of the last three Elder Scrolls games consisted of semi-abstract geometric designs, and the packaging of the two Dragon Age games were pretty much all about the pools of blood? When the genre's big hitters don't use the markings are they really relevant genre markings at all?

  16. re: "If a game company publicly says that they are looking to expand into the female market, to attract more female players, which of the following is more likely:
    The game will become easier. The game will become harder"

    I don't understand what the issues around the presentation of women in games has to do with their difficulty. A game can be easy or hard, and can have boob shots or not. These are not linked, and if the game does link a lack of boob shots with more friendly to women then they are a lost cause.

  17. I think it's really simple. When companies design characters, especially main characters, they're going to try their best to look good. Unless that certain game has a special theme, this basically means guys will be muscular and masculine, while girls will be sexy and pretty

    It's not quite as simple as that.

    The designers are mostly men, so the male characters tend to be power fantasies ("What do I want to look like?"), and the female characters tend to be sex fantasies ("What do I want to look at?")

    If you got a focus group of women and asked if they wanted to look like Crucia, I think you'd get comments like, "What's holding the top on? Is it super-glued? Won't those pointy things stab me in the stomach when I lean forwards?" (Meanwhile, scantily-clad male characters are always wearing something reasonably practical, like a leather loincloth or kilt.)

    With a little bit of market research they could probably come up with character designs that appeal to men and women at the same time, and they'd double their potential customer base. But for some reason a lot of companies don't want to do that kind of research, and when the topic comes up they immediately get defensive: "The girlz are trying to spoil all our fun!" It's weird, especially since it seems to happen so often.

  18. I'll never understand the argument that shameless sexual marketing targets the "adolescent male market."

    Does Sports Illustrated only have an adolescent male fanbase? What about AskMen.com, whom have bikini galleries right next to articles about picking the right $2000 suit? Are there really that many teenage HBO/Showtime/etc subscribers? And don't me started on how you are likely to see more cleavage in Cosmopolitan and other such women's magazines than men's magazines half the time. Are those for boys too?

    Sex sells... to everyone. Crucia looks that way to please the averagely aged 37 year-old MMO gamer as much as the 17 year-old one.

    As Liore notes, that doesn't make it okay, of course. Just less likely to change.

  19. I'm here late but I can't resist commenting. The fact that "female unfriendly" signals "game is challenging" MEANS that the developers are unrepentant misogynists. Those things are NOT causally linked in any way and their constant association is, pure and simple, a symptom of systemic casual misogyny.

  20. Crucia is a Goddess, she can wear whatever she likes and then turn into a powerful dragon. If i was a goddess i would wear nothing, and rejoice in my own perfection ;P

  21. Not really on topic... but this isn't Crucia. Crucia is a dragon, this is one of the key NPC's that introduces you to the new stories in the expansion. Some princess.

  22. I am a woman and have played online MMO games for 15 years and no way do I even come close to looking like Crucia or any female game avatars.

    My mother raised me to be independent, as I raised my children to be. I am educated. I have worked with the best and the worst of people.

    I do believe that society in general is to blame for how women are portrayed. Businesses are only giving society what it demands.

    However, as a 'woman', I am not offended by these 'game avatars' in the least. I do not think they demean anyone. They are fantasy and as a female gamer, I want my avatar to look great! I don't see too many of these so called "feminists" you speak of in games. Because if they were, they would be playing the male characters .... and in 15 years of MMO, I know of only one lady friend of mine who played a male character and she is not a feminist... she just liked the avatar looks.

    Game avatars are fantasy. They are eye candy only. If something feels they are exploiting women, then that person lacks the confidence in herself as a woman and clearly is having trouble separating reality from fantasy and needs help.... but that is just this 48 year old woman, mother of 3, grandmother of 3's opinion.