Let's talk about sexualisation in video games

Let's talk about sexualisation in video games
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

June 1st 2016 at 3:05PM

With the line between what players and acceptable and offensive seemingly blurring, James Batchelor asks how devs can ensure they design characters without controversy

It’s no secret: sex sells. But there’s a difference between creating appealing, marketable characters and oversexualising them to the point of gratuitousness.

The problem is, the line between them is increasingly hard to define. Online debates around characters in Overwatch, Street Fighter, Metal Gear Solid and more show conflicting views of what does and doesn’t need to be censored.

In this climate, designing a heroine for your game might seem a risky business, so how do you ensure you avoid offending your audience?

First, says Rhianna Pratchett (pictured) – the writer behind the Tomb Raider reboot – we need to establish the difference between ‘sexualised and ‘sexy’.

“Sexualisation is not inherently a bad thing,” she says. “Context is the key. For me, ‘sexy’ is based on the character, while ‘sexualised’ is about the audience.

“Sexy is more than just looks – it’s about attitude, personality and a certain amount of owned power. Sexy transcends gender, age and sexual orientation. Meanwhile, sexualisation tends to about be about the perceived desires of an audience. And characters can be both. Take Bayonetta, for example: she is definitely sexualised, but at the same time owns her sexuality. It’s very much part of who she is, she is in control and that’s sexy as hell.”

TV host, writer and producer Liana Kerzner adds: “I’d love devs to start rethinking what it means to be a sexy woman. In the real world, people find women sexy for being intelligent, competent and tough – a dress that defies physics isn’t a requirement.”

THE WAY YOU LOOK

Much of the debate comes down to visual design – and a lack of realism.

“Observe the proportions of real women and strive to create female characters who represent a more normative look that would resonate with the majority of women,” advises IGDA executive director Kate Edwards (pictured).

“Recent games such as Mirror’s Edge and the Tomb Raider reboot have done a better job of creating female characters who look more natural, and their appearance and lack of extreme proportions don’t detract from the gameplay or story in any way.”

This also applies to your characters’ wardrobes – specifically the practicality of what they are wearing.

“You can tell a lot of male designers don’t know the first thing about how women’s clothing works, because they put all this practical detail into their male characters’ armour, then create female wardrobes that are stupid,” says Kerzner.

“Take Cammy from Street Fighter. Her costume is strong, cute and sexy all at once – but any woman who has done gymnastics or martial arts will tell you a bodysuit with no legs ends up riding up your butt.”

Animation is another oft-criticised aspect of female characters, with many arguing that walking with an exaggerated hip swing is overly sexualised. A recent episode of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women In Video Games series was almost entirely dedicated to the difference between male and female animations.

Sexualisation is not inherently a bad thing. Context is the key. For me, ‘sexy’ is based on the character, while ‘sexualised’ is about the audience.

Rhianna Pratchett

“Realistic bodies should move like bodies,” says Kerzner. “Natural breasts move very differently than implants, and a lot of boobs in video games move – or don’t move – like they were installed by a surgeon. When you make a female character look like she’s had implants put in, that’s a character trait. It’s something that should be decided more consciously than it currently is.”

Kerzner (pictured) adds that even voice acting needs to be considered if you’re trying to portray a realistic female character: “Real women get angry, yell, swear, and throw things. Take the limiter off. Female characters are shackled because developers are too worried about them being ‘likeable’.

“I’ve done voicework, and I’m always astounded that the directors tend to select the most vanilla take I give them. Accents, interesting inflections, and anything that would add character to the character tend to be passed over for dialogue delivery that’s inoffensive above all else. I’ve gotten really good at what I call the ‘Disney Princess voice’, because it’s the only thing that’s current considered safe. As a performer, though, it’s really damned boring.”

Pratchett says the secret to creating a balanced character is to consider every aspect of them carefully, and question the choices you are making.

“Don’t over emphasise the sexuality or gender of a character, either through their art, animation or narrative,” she suggests. “And, in the words of Mr. Timberlake, bring sexy back. Build a character’s sexuality into who they are, not who you want them to be for. Ask yourself: who is this character, how do they act, dress, talk, and why? Don’t just stuff them into a skimpy outfit and think ‘job done’ – unless your game is basically about stuffing characters into skimpy outfits, of course.

“If you’re trying to hit a wider demographic – and the audience for games is more diverse than it ever has been before – why wouldn’t you just pay more attention to your characters? Make them more than just their gender, sexuality or looks. Appeal to your audience through the myriad of human emotions and responses. Not just what makes them hot. And if your game is about making players hot – because VR porn games are coming, right? – then own it.”

TALKING ABOUT TRACER

A recent example of the debate around sexualised game characters centred on Blizzard’s latest release Overwatch.

Originally the Tracer character was shown in the pose you can see here, but the studio changed it after complaints that this was not in keeping with her character. We asked our experts for their thoughts.

Rhianna Pratchett says: “Although I didn’t personally find Tracer’s pose a big deal, I did think it was interesting that many people – including the developers themselves – seemed to feel that the sexualised pose just didn’t fit with her character.

“However, very little fuss was made about a character like Widowmaker, who is more traditionally sexualised, because it had been built into her character and was part of who she was. Context matters.”

Liana Kerzner believes there are far worse examples out there: “I didn’t even think she was that sexualised – she just had a wedgie. The Overwatch character designs, across the board, are astoundingly good, and they’re all sexy in their own way. Tracer is a character who I think has a crazy sexy voice. And yet someone determined that it’s wrong for her to ever be conventionally sexy, because... ‘think of the children’.

REAL WOMEN

Kerzner observes that there’s a distinct difference in how many male and female characters are presented. Men, she says, often tend to be relatable, while women are ‘perfected’.

“This double standard needs to change,” she says. “If you choose realism, any romanticised element will seem out of place. But devs constantly design realistic men and romantic women in the same game.

“Real female cops, firefighters, army veterans and MMA fighters have a steel to their appearance that we don’t see in the current crop of ‘likeable’ heroines. There are exceptions: Anna Grimsdottir in Splinter Cell, for instance. She looks like she’s had late nights, stress and too much coffee. She’s still glamorous and sexy, but she doesn’t still have the skin tone of a sixteen-year-old. Similarly, Jayma in Far Cry Primal is covered in scars from animal attacks because she’s a hunter.”

We’ve been indoctrinated with the idea that games are inherently made for a ‘presumed male audience’, and while that’s true for some games, it’s not across the board.

Liana Kerzner

Female characters are often cited as overly sexualised, but our experts argue this happens to men as well – yet people aren’t talking about it.

“We see many male characters that are unnatural in appearance, with perfectly chiseled bodies and rippling muscles,” Edwards says. “The difference is that many of these male characters are viewed as powerful and strong, whereas the appearance of most female characters skews more towards sex appeal.”

Kerzner agrees, adding: “Catwoman from the Arkham games has been criticised for the way she walks, having a sexy voice and so on. But what about the hyper-masculine Batman? 

"He is depicted with the physique of a bodybuilder even though his combat style is martial arts. His heavy boots would negatively impact his ability to climb buildings.

"Why was Catwoman singled out for criticism? Because we criticise a woman for being overtly sexy in ways we don’t criticise men.”

THE DEBATE CONTINUES

While fresh examples crop up all the time, this is not a new discussion – nor is it confined to our own industry. As Pratchett observes: “All entertainment fields, particularly comics, are discussing this topic in some form or another.”

But it is something the games industry should be more conscious of – especially given the gender ‘balance’ of our global workforce. A 2015 IGDA survey discovered that 79 per cent of developers are male.

“This means we’re more likely to see representations that are appeal to the male eye,” says Edwards. “This is slowly changing as more devs realise that oversexualised character design is becoming passé and unnecessary for serving the intent of most games.

We see many male characters that are unnatural in appearance, with perfectly chiseled bodies and rippling muscles. The difference is these are viewed as powerful and strong, whereas the appearance of most female characters skews more towards sex appeal.

Kate Edwards, IGDA

“Ultimately, the artistic freedom of game developers needs to be upheld, but developers need to be mindful of their creative choices, especially if their intent is to maximise their game’s appeal across all demographics.”

Kerzner concludes: “We’ve been indoctrinated with the idea that games are inherently made for a ‘presumed male audience’, and while that’s true for some games, it’s not across the board. Look at the early marketing for the Atari 2600 and the NES: the target audience is families.

“The problem is TV marketing, which is subject to rigid filtering by target audience, and gaming content for women is seen as ‘too niche’. Gaming is stuck between a rock and a hard place: its marketing doesn’t match its products. The industry’s growth with women is being restricted by unnatural barriers, and when people get trapped in unnaturally close quarters, they fight. That’s what’s happening now.”

NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: WE NEED TO TALK

Turn the page and you’ll find an analysis of the debated sexualisation of characters in games – a recurring topic in this industry.  

At first read, it probably looks like I have purposefully targeted female opinions. But this simply isn’t the case. Gathering comment for this feature was surprisingly tough. I contacted not just individual men and women but entire studios – particularly those doing a commendable job of portraying strong female characters.

And yet very few were willing to weigh in on the debate, even with the offer of anonymity. The reasons for this vary: lack of an available spokesperson, or tight deadlines ahead of E3. Perhaps, but it was impossible to escape the feeling that people just didn’t want to be associated with such a discussion. 

In an era when the internet can be highly toxic to anyone who dares to have an opinion, this is perhaps understandable, but arguably not acceptable.

If we want to advance this medium and explore its potential for storytelling, we need to not only address these topics in games – we also need to talk about them. How else can we understand consumer expectations and changing attitudes to key issues that affect our audience if we as an industry are afraid of expressing our own thoughts on them?

Develop is always ready to talk. My email’s here: jbatchelor@nbmedia.com.

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Develop.