High Heels

Digital high heels are entirely cosmetic. They are almost recursively cosmetic.

High heels serve certain functions in meatspace. They make someone taller. They make legs look longer and change their shape. They make it harder to run and present various other mobility problems depending on the specifics of the heel. Some like these cosmetic aspects or not.

Digital high heels do none of these things. If you want to make a taller character, you make the model taller. If you want the legs to look different, you can do that directly, too. When you look at a character in high heels, your simian brain is applying intuitions and judgments that have absolutely no applicability in a virtual world. Her shoes and leg appearance and entirely independent. If you just wanted her to stand on her toes and levitate a few inches off the ground, as if she were wearing invisible heels, that would be easier than implementing the high heels. It is all cosmetic, and it is completely independant of any physics.

This applies to both pro and con. Reasons I don’t like high heels? No applicability to digital high heels at all. She could have no feet and still play soccer; the game rules do not care about appearances. She cannot feel uncomfortable, and I can give her superspeed just as easily as any other character. The reasons you think high heels are sexy? No applicability to digital high heels at all. They are little pixels that have no effect on her leg shape or gait. It is purely fetishizing footwear, and imaginary footwear at that.

I need to work out how this affects my intuitions. We are primates, poorly adapted to virtual worlds. But until everyone else engages in introspection, we must also deal with all the primates who think that the digital high heels are sexy or marginalizing. The whole point of cosmetics is to affect perceptions, and those perceptions will drive players to or from your game.

: Zubon

22 thoughts on “High Heels”

  1. “The whole point of cosmetics is to affect perceptions, and those perceptions will drive players to or from your game.”

    Indeed. Similarly, cosmetics will alter perceptions in interesting ways, not necessarily intended. Perception is in the viewer’s court.

  2. They also look really dumb when they’re added as an actual growth to the clawed foot of a race, such as female Aman (TERA) and Asmodians (Aion). I guess the point is to ‘feminize’ their beastly feet.

    I notice in many non-human ‘beastly’ races in games, the males are fully realized into their nonhuman characteristics, whereas the females are mostly human-bodied (to stay sexually appealing) with only minor ‘decorative racial elements’ applied here and there more as makeup than as actual physical characteristics. Most of WoW’s nonhuman races are prime examples of that. I find that sort of racial design choice really lazy and boring, personally.

  3. Are you saying that because these things don’t have a quasi-physical effect in game they have no relevance beyond that which we bring to them? If they did have a programmed-in disadvantage, would it then matter to which gender they were assigned?

    Or is it that none of this “matters” because it is all both imaginary and arbitrary? If so, isn’t that a reductio ad absurdam argument under which the entirety of every game could be rendered meaningless?

    Does an image have less socio-political weight because it’s “virtual”? If high heels are sexy, at what point is that they cease to become so? Is a photograph of someone wearing high heels sexy? A drawing? A description?

    I’m not sure those high heels can support the weight of all this discussion :P

    1. The picture is of a person, who is being physically changed by the high heels. The drawing might be intended to be realistic and would have the same tendency.

      To your first question, if you asked me, I’d say yes, since that’s exactly how you defined it: no effect beyond that which we imagine. To the second, then they’d have a ‘real’ effect.

  4. Damn it, Zubon. I don’t come to KTR to think!

    That said, images can be very powerful as well as the reactions we have to them. I don’t think that many game artists even think beyond the point of “This is so cool!”

  5. A conversation with the missus

    Me: “Hey [Significant other], you have a lot of pairs of high heels. What do you like about them?”

    S.O: “What?…well I like how they look and how I feel wearing them…”

    Me: “What about if you were playing a video game and your character wore them? What would you think?”

    S.O: “Huh? Do they make you run slower? If it doesn’t make a difference to the game but look pretty, then that’s good? Surely?”

    1. Point: many women don’t care much about this stuff either. Taken.

      However, as a female player I do sense a difference between “that’s unrealistic but it looks cool, so hey” and “that’s totally ridiculous and makes her look like a stripper”, or the case where one decides to play a race of inhuman appearance only to find that a female of that race is, in fact, the same supermodel with a different skin colour or different ears or something. Even my beloved GW2 is guilty of this to some degree, see female norn.

  6. See also: digital corsets, digital glasses, etc.

    I do have to the question the assertion that the high heels “makes [the Demon Hunter] look like a stripper” and similar. Do the people that feel that way also feel that way… IRL? What exactly is it about the digital representation that rubs them the wrong way? And why doesn’t that apply to meatspace?

    For the record, I think the high heels are dumb because this is Diablo; impracticality aside, does high heel “technology” even exist (or have a place) in that world? I don’t think so.

    1. Very true Azuriel, although raised heels may make sense stilettos certainly wouldn’t!
      I would say it should apply to ‘meatspace’, though with the same leeway that I allow games. There’s nothing wrong with high heels, but there’s something questionable about thigh-high leather stilettos paired with tight miniskirts that dip suggestively under one’s belly button, in most situations.

      Beside which, if I saw a woman wearing stiletto heels for, say, hiking, I would raise an eyebrow, meatspace or game.

      1. So what we’re saying is that it’s not really about shoes – it’s the complete look, in the context of the game, which carries with it connotations of exotic dancers.
        The shoes just highlight this by being incongruious with the game world (and impractical for a dungeon raider).

        I believe that the artist was trying to create the image of character with something of the demon about her – evoking images of succubus etc – as the original DH was designed to be part-demon.

        1. I felt it had more of a connotation of a dominatrix, which sort of dovetails into the Demon Hunter general “edginess.” Evoking a succubus look would indeed fit the game world… to an extent.

          To be honest though, she could have just had normal boots on and it would have came across just fine. Maybe have some more belt buckles or something to compensate.

          1. Exactly. Jack Boots are already plenty kinky, and they could have covered them with period- and task- appropriate “sexy” cues without resorting to anachronistic sex symbol shoes (demon-binding manacles, eh?).

            At some point it’s just shallow, lazy design. If you do a modicum of research you will find heaps of period-appropriate and truly fantastical “sexy” ideas that are much edgier, especially if you look beyond generic ye olde-times-Europe (which they clearly do with the monk).


            I think Bernard has a good point, too, reminding us of context. In reality your perception of a woman wearing heels will vary greatly based on the setting (i.e. a swank office versus a hiking trail) and the rest of her appearance, because we carry around a package of rules telling us when and how it’s acceptable for a woman to look a certain way. A woman in 4 inch heels and a fine evening dress is classy, because she’s probably wealthy and thus morally upstanding; a woman in 4 inch heels and cuttoff jeans is trashy because she’s Not Doing it Right – she’s probably even poor!

            But these fantasy games rarely try to place characters within the most minimal fictional context, so we’re left applying our real-world attitudes because there’s nothing else. I mean, what if the peasant women had lines like “ooh, she’s so glamorous” when the demon hunter walked by? At least you’d get a tiny sense of one reason she might dress that way.

  7. Substitute grenade launcher, or oversized pauldrons or any other artifact of a modern game and you can have the same conversation in terms of the “need” of that object relative to what the game demands or even requires. The problem with high heels specifically isn’t their lack of purpose, its that they represent something that’s already a vanity item in real life, and like a large number of objects in virtual space the designers translate all the glamor and coolness/sexiness factor of the object into that space (part of wish fulfillment) with none of the hassle. I guarantee you I can’t put a tuxedo on IRL with the click of a button, for example.

    Me, I’d love a game that made high heels an option that boosted a character’s charisma score or something, improving certain social interaction rolls….but at the expense of amuch slower movement or even an occasional tripping animation. Likewise, I’d love a realistic modeling of what would really happen if everyone wore oversized pauldrons, or plate mail made of what appears to be three inch thick pig iron, or any other number of things which are utterly ridiculous in terms of realism, but exist as they do entirely for purposes of being fantasy wish fulfillment.

    As for the sexy/fetishistic high heels themselves, solution is easy: every art team should have a fair number of female and gay artists on staff who can insure that there are just as many ways that anyone can sex up their male avatars as is typically possible for the female avatars. The male view dominates art design on women for these games, yet fails to step up to the times, and women are turning into a growing majority of MMO players out there; they really need their own fan service, too. (I will grant that GW did this right early on)

    And damnit, if I want to play a lady BBG chiss in SWTOR, let me! Why is it only the guys can be fat in that game?

    TL:DR: Don’t remove high heels; let everyone wear them! That, or develop realistic high heel physics.

    1. Unfortunately I don’t think it’s as simple as “just make everyone equal” or “just make it realistic”.

      Even if the art team was split 50/50 women/men, and both genders had the same character customization options, think about all the inherent privileges men would still have:

      As a man, I log in knowing I am THE PERSON this game was intended for. Men like killing things, obviously, and men like numbers and math. Who knows why girls are playing this game, maybe they like to play dress-up.

      I can be confident no one will tell me I’m bad at games because of my gender.

      If I see a pair of high heels on a character wearing a combat outfit, I can be almost entirely certain they were put there expressly as a friendly gesture towards my oh-so-horny ManBrain. Silly man, is everything about sex to you? Here, have some more cleavage.

      I can choose to play a nearly naked, chiseled barbarian character, and people probably won’t assume I like to dress that way in real life. Playing dress up is just not a man thing, you know?

      When I see chubby male characters available, I can assume it’s to give me more options to create a character who is humorous or looks like me. When I see only thin female options, I can assume it was done because men clearly only want to look at hot women, obviously.


      In short, due to all the cultural problems outside the game, I’d argue that developers should meet higher standards when it comes making the game more inviting and friendly to female players.

      Obviously you don’t do this by playing to female stereotypes, but by working hard to explode them and defy conventions. I don’t think female characters impractically wearing high heels does that.

      EDIT: Camazotz, I’m not trying to aim all this at you – my intention was to riff off your post and cover some other thoughts I had in context of it. Hope I don’t offend, I agree with what you’re saying for the most part.

      1. “Who knows why girls are playing this game, maybe they like to play dress-up.”

        Or maybe they actually like the game for the same (varied) reasons the guys do.

        1. Sorry. I thought I telegraphed my intention for that to be taken as a purposefully dumb comment, but I can see that it fell flat. Bad writing on my part.

          Clearly every individual has their own varied reasons for actually wanting to play a given game. I agree completely that no group of people can be simplified into having one master-reason for wanting to play, read, watch, or listen to a given title.

          My only point was that playing in a traditionally male-targeted genre like MMOs, a woman stands a good chance, at some point, of being questioned as to whether she’s playing the game for the “right reasons”, because it’s not a game that fits stereotypes of female interest. I saw this happen quite a bit in Guildwars 1, when male players would assume female players were there to get attention or play dress up, and somehow were not capable of being seriously interested in the game.

          I might get a similar reaction if I tried to play a Barbie game, I imagine, but even then, I don’t think players would try to actively exclude me in the way male players often do to female players intruding on “their” boy’s game.

        2. In City of Heroes (the Exalted Lord High Grandmaster of MMO digital high heels (and club outfits, silly barbarian gear, bikini armor and the rest)), playing to “play dress-up” is, somewhat ironically, one of those “same reasons the guys do.”
          I know I’ve spent possibly insane amounts on costume slots and parts.. and I’ve had days where I log in, spend an hour fiddling with costumes on a couple of alts, then logging out without any real intention or thought of doing any XP or loot earning activity..

          1. Yeah exactly. Such stereotypes are dumb and clearly wrong, but I think they still color many attitudes. Plenty of men play RPGs in order to mix and match costumes. Plenty of women play them for the combat power fantasy or socializing.

            I think the hardcore or old time RPG players have a different set of stereotypes than the younger crowd of players, too. I don’t think anyone reading this blog is likely to walk in and start talking about how women like RPGs because they’re about characters and relationships. But I’m confident if you look at, say, the majority of the WoW playerbase, or the Mass Effect forums, you’d get that attitude a lot.

  8. This is a tough one…

    Imagine that a non-human race can have a human pet in chains and that pet skin color is black?
    Or a male human whose gear is skirts, colors and armoured bra’s?

    I’m sure that further examples can be given from here to Goodwin’s Law. My point is that, if I understood your point correctly, it’s never “relax, is just a game.”
    When such complex issues (in this case Women’s Emancipation) are touched by a game it’s bound to generate controversy. Specially in a time where despite being in 21st century, women are still second class citizens in most countries of the world.

    You don’t need to go to Afghanistan, just go to any central or south European country or even US, and you’ll see that women are payed, on average, less than a man and all the power positions both public and private are held mainly by man. So people freakout when they perceive women being represented as sex objects in a game.

    I am not a fan of the politically correct religion… But I’ll be the first to admit that many racists/mysoginists/ will use an anti-politically correctness attitude to persist in hate speech.

    Is this too serious for a game? Maybe but who here can say he/she doesn’t take games seriously?

    1. I don’t think you have to be a fan of political correctness to take these problems seriously, or to ask creators to take responsibility for their actions and words.

      Using the demon hunter example: In contrast to what many frothing MRAs will claim, no one is trying to censor the artists involved. They are perfectly free to do whatever they want, but they can’t turn around use free speech (or “it’s just a game”) to avoid responsibility and criticism.

      I think the key here is that by calling people out on subconscious or lazy sexist attitudes and actions, we want them to think and be more aware, to do better work – not to abandon showing sexy ladies entirely.

      The Diablo 3 artists are totally free to portray the demon hunter as sexy – but they need to understand that to do it right, they need to be smarter and work harder than they would have to otherwise. When they choose a problematic subject matter, they have to set higher standards for themselves, to work past all the easy cliches (like stiletto heels) and find more creative solutions that are still sexually charged, while being responsible and serious.

      It’s very possible. Look around the internet at all the female-run sex-positive blogs and tumblrs springing up – there is plenty of room to imagine character – much sexier than the current demon hunter, I might add – while still doing so in a way that respects her character, personality, value, and little practical concerns, such as running or jumping.

      At least that’s my take on it.

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