Understanding Equivalence

I have an occasional series on depictions of women in gaming. These posts, here and elsewhere, will almost always get a “who cares?” comment. (Because it is worthwhile to post that you did not think something was worthwhile to post.) Chainmail bikinis are either unimportant or perfectly justified.

We could discuss what happens to your customer base and gaming culture when half the population at first glance says, “This is not a place for me.” But why bother when LMFAO has provided some of the most insightful commentary with their video “Sexy And I Know It.” Seriously. A simple gender-flip of a standard music video makes many people “uncomfortable,” “traumatized,” and “deeply scarred.” (In case the preceding failed to warn you, the video is not completely safe for most workplaces.)

To understand what the big deal is, imagine that video being completely serious. Imagine having at least one-third of male characters in your game looking, dressing, and moving like that, including the robot(s). Imagine a world where as much effort is given to lovingly rendering that “wiggle wiggle wiggle, wiggle wiggle yeah” as breast jiggle.

There is a false equivalence in the unrealistic depictions of men and women in gaming. Men designed by men for men will tend to look a bit different from men designed by women for women, and “men designed by men for women” is not the same thing. (It is amazing how many boys call something “gay” when it is perfectly heteronormative but for the other half of the population. The notion that sexualized depictions of men are “gay” is a barometer of how male-centric one’s perspective is.)

You have a vicious circle if you are reducing your female audience through marginalizing depictions and then using that skewed audience to justify the depictions.

: Zubon

Yes, some women like musclebound men in spandex and fantasize about hunting demons in thigh-high stilettoes; outliers do not shift the median. My circle of gamer friends includes a burlesque dancer, but she is not usually in those outfits.

Update: image of mesmer armor, captioned by the poster: “I think this is THE image that sums up the problem with GW2′s armour..”

35 thoughts on “Understanding Equivalence

  1. dndhatcher

    I read it twice.

    I think that is part of the indifference you see with the “who cares” responses. Most people can see the problem, when you offer nothing but the re-stating of a known problem its basically just a waste of time to read.

    I still have no idea what I am supposed to do. What action should I take to help make the situation better? If you are not proposing a solution, your words are effectively just a whining lament about a situation you cant change.

    1. Jabberwockist

      I know how you feel. Kind of like whenever you hear about the ridiculously cruel and futile living conditions in North Korea. Yeah, it’s awful, but what am I supposed to do about it? Rent a plane and drop pro-democracy tracts over Hanoi?

      There’s a problem with that line of reasoning, though. The problem is, life is big and unpredictable, and you never know when you might have the chance to do something. Maybe the stance on North Korea will come up in a political debate, and I’ll change my vote. Maybe someone will Kickstart a project to broadcast the Internet into North Korea, and I’ll have a chance to back them. Maybe my workplace will hire a new IT specialist from Seoul, and he’ll turn out to be a refugee from North Korea who wants to go back some day and rescue his family, and he’ll ask me if I want to help. Far more implausible opportunities arrive on a daily basis.

      Now let’s take it back to female characters in electronic games. What can I do? Well, I can refuse to buy games that I’d feel uncomfortable playing when my wife or daughter walks in. I can take it a step further and explain on the game forums why they’re not getting my business. I can request options from games I already play: “Dear Riot Games: I’m a support player who is interested in purchasing Janna, but I feel uncomfortable with her currently available skins. Could you guys come up with an outfit that doesn’t make me feel like I should be stuffing twenties in her garter? If it’s less than 1000 RP I’d probably instabuy it. Thanks.”

      If nothing else, I can just be a bit more sane and sensible whenever I talk to other gamers, or to women about games that alienate them.

      1. Brise Bonbons

        I think acts as simple as being a sane voice in the storm of misogynistic comment threads is helpful. Engage with female bloggers about what they want in games, listen to their concerns, and call out sexist trolls trying to derail the conversation for what they are.

        Overall, work in the background to establish a space where female gamers and creators can vocalize what they want out of games without facing threats of violence or sexist insults. It is not any one person’s place to “solve” this issue, but everyone has little things they can do to support women in expressing their views in a respectable environment.

        It’s easy for men to come in and unconsciously hijack these sorts of discussions, since our voices are given higher priority – also we aren’t immediately accused of being shrill or hysterical when we complain. Because of this, I think it’s important to be very careful when we try to go in and “make the situation better”.

        Anyway, I’m no expert on these matters, so I could be entirely wrong, but that’s my take on it.

  2. Consideration

    I don’t see why that would be traumatic. It’s a beach. Looks kind of like Venice Beach near where I live. Beaches contain people wearing very little. Men wearing less than women because, hey, law and custom. Venice, at least, tends to have weightlifters, although I suppose that’s not a common trait of beaches.

    You can’t necessarily equate the two things, of course. I suspect if you made a video game where the male characters all had large floppy packages in constant motion you would be more likely to drive away female gamers than attract them. On the other hand, there’s a reason you see so many long-haired pretty boys in certain kinds of games.

  3. Bishop200

    Strangely, more woman seem to like the chainmail bikinis than guys, maybe it’s because they think it’s what guys want, maybe it’s simply what they like and maybe guys don’t want people to know they like chainmail Bikinis. Anyway, a true armor for my female warrior would be welcome :(

    1. Brise Bonbons

      I would add the possibility that women who don’t like chainmail bikinis are probably avoiding these games (and the label of “gamer”) entirely, skewing the results of your informal opinion poll.

      Imagine you have a dance club where the men are known to wear thongs and no pants. Imagine the patrons who will choose to go to that club, knowing this fact. You can’t then go in there and say “well, it seems like most men like to wear thongs”.

      That seems like a pretty flimsy metaphor, but I hope you get my point. Maybe I just like to envision crowds of men in thongs.

      EDIT: I don’t mean to be critical of your post, I’m just trying to expand on it. Sorry if I come across otherwise.

  4. Syl

    I wish more people understood this, but then all-or-nothing arguments are so much easier to throw around and articulate….Sometimes I feel like wading through a morrass made of hollow cliches and lined by strawmen when trying to have a serious discussion on the subject.

  5. pjharvey

    There’s a nice comment from the director of Saturday Night Fever in the DVD’s audio commentary, where he points out that people reacted badly to the early scene of Travolta in his black chuddies, camera looking up to his head from crotch height. The director noted that were it a woman in the shot not only would no one have complained but they would have enjoyed the scene.

  6. flosch

    God, that video was silly, but I guess that was the whole point. And the music! (Horrible, but I guess that, on the other hand, is besides the point).

    Now, I don’t have a real problem with wiggle dicks. I find them strange, but then I find those wiggle fake tits just as strange. I don’t see how you could be any more offended by one than the other. Of course, there are people that are… I just simply don’t _get_ why? Maybe I’m weird in that I don’t care either way? ;)

    To come back to games, it seems we’re slowly getting some better depictions of both men and women in games. Less “booth babe” style on the one side, less “steroid accident” on the other. Of course, they still are there, but I guess we have to live with those the same way we have to live with louts and bad music…

  7. Curuniel

    I have been playing TERA (not necessarily because I like the game – the female character design would have ruled it out under most circumstances for me – but for a research project). Unfortunately for my desire to legitimate video games with my research, TERA is hands-down the worst example of this issue I have ever seen. My high elf looks like a stripper and sounds like a porn star when she’s gathering frickin’ herbs, and don’t get me started on the dance.

    Point is, this is a thing. As a female gamer I find it frequently insulting. I don’t mind a little fanservice, but give me an alternative to choose from please! Sometimes it’s little things like all waistlines having the g-string dip in the front/rise at the sides (cf Diablo III demon huntress).

  8. Meagen

    If you point it out in one place, it’s “who cares? it’s just one game, if you don’t like it, don’t play it”. If you point out multiple examples everywhere in a genre, it’s “who cares? that’s just how things are”.

    It’s completely trivial and a waste of our time to discuss and we should be doing something more productive with our time, and at the same time it’s extremely important that no changes be made and extreme effort needs to be made to ensure everyone knows how much of a big deal this totally isn’t.

    1. Zubon Post author

      Meagen has the comment of the week.

      If you scroll to the bottom of these comments, you’ll see a link from Harbinger Zero that is an extended version of this comment, minus the irony.

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  10. Ravious

    It’s pretty well known that men respond to visual things more than women. I wonder, knowing that, what women designed by women for men would look like in an MMO…. especially considering the marketing aspects.

    1. Brise Bonbons

      Isn’t much of the costume work in GW2 overseen by a female designer? I remember some interviews where she talked about banning certain elements, such as no stiletto heels on combat boots, but there is still a hell of a lot of T&A in GW2′s costumes.

      I wonder about the idea that women are less responsive to visual stimulus than men, at least in this specific context. Primarily, I wonder if the research takes into account that the “female gaze” is so poorly represented, and that women are constantly bombarded by the idea that their desire is less valid then that of men. I mean, how are they correcting for the social pressures women deal with when trying to form their own visual sexual appetites?

      1. gwj

        Related note, when the female charr were being created, I think it was Ree who opposed the people on staff who really really wanted them to have boobs. So she issued an ultimatum: “They’re cats, so if you give them boobs, they have to have six of them.” Thought that was both funny and appropriate.

        1. Curuniel

          Not Ree, Kristen Perry. She became one of my ArenaNet heroes when I read that. She’s also chiefly responsible for the sylvari re-design, if you need any more reasons to love her.

          Brise, the ‘male gaze’ thing is something I always think of too. Women are strongly encouraged/culturally trained to consider what men seem to find attractive as what THEY should consider attractive, hence girls who ‘tart up’ and consider it empowering themselves. Women who love slender, big-breasted, scantily clad game avatars may just like that look, but it’s heavily influenced, right?

        2. Zubon Post author

          Of course, you get into a different problem if you start patronizingly accusing people of having false consciousness. Scylla and Charybdis.

        3. Brise Bonbons

          To try to expand on my original point, I’ll offer this anecdotal observation:

          If I want to find sexy pictures of ladies which are catered to my ManDesire, I can go to the local chain bookstore and pick up everything from tattoo and car magazines, to lad mags/porn, to music magazines, to pot culture magazines – even women’s fashion and general interest magazines!

          My wife has to import Filament from the UK. I think they might carry Play Girl at the chain store, but I’m not certain, and it’s not to her taste anyway.

          As to Curuniel’s comment, it’s certainly true that our society tells everyone in it that male desire is inherently the strongest, most valid, and most important. But my point was just that women are not really encouraged to develop and express their own visual desire in the way I am as a guy, and I wondered how the research Ravious mentioned takes that into account. I don’t think simply showing men and women pictures of naked people while monitoring their genital blood flow is going to be a fair test given our cultural baggage.

          Maybe it is though, I dunno.

    2. Dustin

      Could you point me to some studies that show that men respond to visual things more than women? I’m not familiar with the literature here, but it strikes me as the sort of claim that could be difficult to establish unproblematically.

      Setting that aside, I think it’s tricky to get anybody, a man or a woman, to design something “for women” in the sense you have in mind. I take it this is part of what Brise was getting at (though I could be wrong!). Designers who are women still acquired their design sensibilities in a world dominated by men’s desires.

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  12. Miranda

    Actually, I don’t mind sexy avatar costumes for female. I prefer my characters to look a little bit sexy but the problem is that it can go too far. Chainmail bikinis, for example, are way too revealing but I don’t mind miniskirts. Real women wear cute/sexy miniskirts all the time so its okay to have them in the game but outrageous stuff like metal bikini bottoms are not good at all.

    1. Brise Bonbons

      In light of the comment I left Ravious above this one, I’d be curious to hear any opinion you have on GW2′s costumes. They seem to have mostly avoided the “underwear” look, but there are still plenty of hoisted bosoms and bared midriffs.

      1. Curuniel

        My opinion, and the one I’ve seen ArenaNet people express on occasion, is that those sort of outfits are ok as long as they’re not the ONLY clothing that female characters have available (cf TERA). If I can choose between a chainmail bikini or a realistic suit of plate – and best of all, options in between – for my warrior, I’m fine with that.

        Besides, “hoisted bosoms and bared midriffs” aren’t nearly as impractical battle-wise as some game outfits!

        1. Zubon Post author

          Not only and not default. If players really want stripperific outfits that much, they will pay the extra couple of dollars for the cosmetic option.

  13. Dustin

    Good post. Here’s one other example I think is helpful to keep in mind when we’re talking about equivalent portrayals: nobody (as far as I know) thinks that the correct response to Hollywood’s systematic failure of the Bechdel Test (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For#Bechdel_test) is to start making tons of films where no men with names ever have a conversation that is not about a woman.

    This post correctly highlights the major problem with the “men are idealized, too” response: Men are not being objectified the way women are (partly because depictions of men are still men’s fantasies of men, as you say, but also partly because our culture does not have a history of marginalizing men, defining them entirely in terms of their relationships to women, and identifying them solely in terms of sex).

    But I think another way of getting at the same problem from a different angle is to say, “The problem is that people are being objectified. Saying that everybody is being objectified, or trying to solve it by also objectifying everybody who isn’t currently being objectified, is missing the point. Systematically objectifying people is bad, full stop. We don’t solve the rampant failure of the Bechdel Test by promoting rampant failure of some sort of reverse Bechdel Test.”

  14. nugget

    I wonder if it’s also partly cultural? As a girlnugget, asian games tend to have a lot more male models I find attractive. >.> Come to think of it, same with asian comics. Particularly the blokes in the Tin Ha series (if you google it). And they don’t get called out for looking ‘gay’. IIRC that comic series is pretty popular with both genders.

    1. Brise Bonbons

      Those are some very good points that fill in a lot of background we haven’t been discussing directly.

      With the caveat that I’m a white guy from the US, it seems to me that mainstream men in Japan and Korea are more engaged by their fashion cultures and industries. By comparison in the US Midwest, men are only expected to dress up for their boss and God, with the idea of a “sexy” outfit mostly equating to “take your shirt off” (which explains all the “sexy” male video game and comics outfits, I suppose). My wife always complains because she’ll spend an hour getting dressed and not get a single comment, whereas I take 5 minutes to put on a skinny tie or shove a pocket square in my jacket, and people marvel at my manly fashion sense.

      Honestly, I find it very hard to relate when a female gamer says “sometimes I want my avatar to look sexy”. It’s a concept that is so far outside what is expected of me, it’s hard to empathize with in anything but an abstract “society does blahablah to gender attitudes THE MALE GAZE” sort of way. It’s something I need to consider more after reading the comments in this thread.

      1. Nom

        There’s also a meta-game to this entire discussion. The fashion industry has a vested interest in pushing a somewhat unobtainable ideal as the pinnacle of female beauty, so they can sell products promising to move you towards this ideal. Here in Australia, it’s hard to watch half an hour of commercial TV (except perhaps men’s sport) without several adds that promise “a younger, more youthful you” – it’s selling the idea that what’s important to attain is youth, which is a particularly effective sale since the customer is actively struggling against nature.

        My point is: “sexually attractive” is not absolute, it’s highly conditioned. So there’s a feed-in to this entire discussion saying “this is ‘sexy’, this is what you should desire”.

        The opposite position, to which many of us are biased internally but which gets short shrift in the headline media, is that “beauty is seen in what we do”. How many games sell a character’s beauty by *who* they are, not *what* they are?

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  16. Nom

    Let me add a provocative thought, and see if it leads anywhere productive:

    * There have been times when the measure of a woman was keeping a home and a family, and training her daughters to follow her.
    * There have been times when the measure of a man was providing for and protecting his wife and children, and training his sons to follow him.

    Yet today, looking at our media, one could draw the conclusion:
    * The measure of a woman is to be admired for her youth and appearance, and to draw they eye of men (and women?).
    * The measure of a man is being able to bed women, preferably many.

    Quite a contrast. Note how the latter turns women into things, and men into users of things. Neither has purpose beyond the here and now. Objectification in imagery is certainly an issue, but I suspect it’s a symptom of a far more profound disconnect.

    1. Curuniel

      There was also a time when the measure of a woman was the number of cattle she brought her family at marriage, or the worth of the dowry she was sent with at her marriage. For that matter the worth of men has been their income, their profession, or how many pigs they can give away at a feast. All these times coincide with each other.

      Something to think about: although this focus on appearance for women may seem hollow, I’ve heard it expressed that it’s actually a measure of self-control: are you willing to go to the gym, wear make-up, diet and use anti-aging creams etc in order to manage your appearance? Or will you “let yourself go”? Obviously then, if you’re fat or unkempt, it’s a sign of general untrustworthiness and inadequacy. This can go for men too, perhaps even beyond appearance and into “if you’re not a player, you’re gay/effeminate/weak and not worth admiring.”

      So glad I know so many men who don’t buy that!

    2. Brise Bonbons

      We’re still adding great posts to this thread? How exciting!

      Nom’s post does a good job of pointing out one way entrenched sexist ideas can be damaging for men, as well, though I hesitate to wander too far down that road in this specific discussion.

      Our modern media is all over as regards women. Obviously there is the constant drumbeat of “look younger or else!” But you still see commercials that consciously reinforce the narrative of women being the masters of domestic labor, or shopping. I don’t think it’s surprising that in these commercials we also usually see men being portrayed as cretins who are only interested in sports and sex – The marketers nudge us knowingly, “it’s just how guys, are, right?”

      Curuniel’s points are great too, especially as relates to our culture’s application of moral value to appearance. A chubby man might be “just a silly but lovable nerd”, whereas a chubby woman is somehow failing in her moral duty to be attractive. Again with the assumption that only skinny can be attractive, which effaces personality, attitude, personal style, and all the other things that make up a person’s public presentation – as Nom points out well a couple posts upthread.

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