Sexism, Character Design, And The Role Of Women In Created Worlds

Sexism, Character Design, And The Role Of Women In Created Worlds

There are many things I expect to see in a panel called “East Meets West, Art Direction for a Worldwide Audience”. I expected to hear Isamu Kamikokuryo, the art director for Final Fantasy XIII-2 discuss how Japanese artists focus on creating new worlds, Norse mythology and its influence on the game, and drawing inspiration from Cuba for some of the beautifully rendered backgrounds. I expected to hear Jonathan Jacques-Bellêtete, the art director of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, talk about influences like Andrew Loomis and Metal Gear Solid. I had hoped for an interesting back and forth between the two designers on how technology influences artistic development as well as what happens to geographic differences in artistic influences in our increasingly connected worlds.

I did hear all of these things, but also something that pinged my feminist gamer radar.

In describing his influences, Jacques-Bellêtete mentioned he was heavily influenced by Metal Gear and Final Fantasy. Then he went into a two minute riff about “always trying to have very beautiful female characters,” noting that these were characters he would want to sleep with. After making a semi-disparaging remark about female characters drawn in a North American style, he concludes “I’d rather have female characters from Final Fantasy or Soulcalibur to sleep with.” This draws chuckles from the crowd.

And there it was, the truth about character design that so many players know but most designers wouldn’t usually articulate: most of the egregiously sexist character designs are based on f**kability, rather than playability.

Drawing attractive characters isn’t a crime. But it starts to become grating when characters are not only attractive, but hypersexualised and mostly defined by their appearance. Even when characters aren’t hypersexualised, they can still be boring and flat in execution if there is more attention paid to animating her curves than the character herself.

But the model for art in our fandom communities is often sex appeal first, to the detriment of characters. Over in the comics world, Laura Hudson broke down the problems with the faux empowerment form of “liberated sexuality” that is so common in contemporary storylines:

Let’s start with Catwoman. The writer and artist have decided that out of all possible introductions to the character of Selina Kyle, the moment we’re going to meet her is going to be the one where she happens to be half-dressed and sporting bright red lingerie. That is in fact all we see of her for two pages: shots of her breasts. Most problematically, we are shown her breasts and her body over and over for two pages, but NOT her face. No joke, we get a very clear and detailed shot of her butt in black latex before we ever see her face looks like. Can’t you show us the playful or confident look in her eye as she puts on her sexy costume? Because without that it’s impossible to connect with the character on any other level than a boner, and I’m afraid I don’t have one of those. […]

[W] hat I keep coming back to is that superhero comics are nothing if not aspirational. They are full of heroes that inspire us to be better, to think more things are possible, to imagine a world where we can become something amazing. But this is what comics like this tell me about myself, as a lady: They tell me that I can be beautiful and powerful, but only if I wear as few clothes as possible. They tell me that I can have exciting adventures, as long as I have enormous breasts that I constantly contort to display to the people around me. They tell me I can be sexually adventurous and pursue my physical desires, as long as I do it in ways that feel inauthentic and contrived to appeal to men and kind of creep me out. When I look at these images, that is what I hear, and I don’t think I even realised how much until this week.

In many ways, the constant barrage of this type of imagery (and characterisation) is not unlike the sh*tty neighbourhood I used to live in where every time I walked down the street, random people I didn’t know shouted obscene comments about my body and told me they wanted to have sex with me. And you know, maybe a lot of those guys thought they were complimenting me. Maybe they thought I had tried to look pretty that day and they were telling me I had succeeded in that goal. Maybe they thought we were having a frank and sexually liberated exchange of ideas. I’m willing to be really, really generous and believe that’s where they were coming from. But in the end, it doesn’t matter that they didn’t know it was creepy; it doesn’t matter that they “didn’t get it,” because every single day I lived there they made me feel like less of a person.

That is how I feel when I read these comics.

As a gamer, full cosign. Two years ago, at my South by Southwest panel with N’Gai and Naomi, I talked about how in my 22 years of playing video games, I’ve been all kinds of characters: a Bandicoot, a Lombax, a pervert squirrel, James Bond, some dude addicted to painkillers, a few different folks hustling in the underworlds of Vice City, San Andreas, and Liberty City, Lego Batman, Joanna Dark, Laura Croft, Karin and crew, Tidus and crew, Sora and crew, and easily hundreds of other characters. But to play as a black woman, to inhabit and play as someone is similar to my real life identity? I’ve had five opportunities in twenty-two years. And that’s if I count characters that are biracial, characters that appear in reflections, and one tan coloured viera.


And, to add insult to injury, these characters are also undermined from the get go. My first introduction to Resident Evil‘s Sheva Alomar was an arse shot.


So, at question and answer time, the feminist gamer Goddesses shined down on me and allowed me to ask Jacques-Bellêtete about his comments. I wanted to know how the approach to female characters influences their design. Do designers put more thought into female lead characters, or are they illustrated in the same way as characters who are intended to be eye candy? How does that presentation impact their playability?

Jacques-Bellêtete immediately blurts out “I feel like you’re trying to trick me,” laughing apologetically to avoid stepping into a controversy landmine. He takes pains to explain that Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a female lead narrative designer. Mary DeMarle shaped the story in a way that created strong primary female characters, which makes for different themes. He acknowledge that I was “kinda right,” in that there is a difference in the approach to design between main characters versus characters he termed “cannon fodder.” He also noted that it is “such a cliche of our industry that women have big boobs” so most of his teams draw women with smaller chests — so much so the designers requested a big breasted character. But he ultimately agreed, “we broke the [usual character]mould a little bit because of the women in the lead.”

My question was the final question accepted, since N’Gai Croal (who was moderating the panel) had one more surprise — he had asked Kamikokuryo and Jacques-Bellêtete to each interpret each other’s work. So, Kamikokuryo drew Adam Jensen, and Jacques-Bellêtete drew Lightning. Jacques-Bellêtete’s work was unveiled first — and lo and behold, it’s a tit shot. For comparison’s sake, here’s what Lightening normally looks like versus Jacques-Bellêtete’s interpretation.


(Interestingly, Kamikokuryo said Jacques-Bellêtete’s work reminded him of Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop, and so he adjusted his work to have Adam Jensen share the same fate as Spike.)

Seeing the Jacques-Bellêtete’s image after his explanation about how he interprets female characters was disappointing, to say the least. But it was not surprising, as this type of sexism is endemic to nerdy industries. In a medium where we are only limited by our imaginations, where we can dream up princes rebuilding the cosmos with Kamataris and shelve that fantasy next to dystopian futures, it’s painful to see that kind of creativity doesn’t extend to the majority of women in game worlds. No matter how creative we are, we still can’t get past this base level sexism.

After the panel, I approached Isamu Kamikokuryo and asked him the same question I posed to Jacques-Bellêtete. I’ve been a fan of Final Fantasy for years, and a small part of that is due to the range of female characters that inhabit the world. According to Kamikokuryo, this was the first time he took on character design for the franchise. The same three artists have been doing the character designs from Final Fantasy VI to XIII. “So,” he said through his translator, “We thought deeply about what we wanted to express with each character when designing.”

Seriously, that’s all we feminist fans really want to hear.

A certified media junkie, Latoya Peterson provides a hip-hop feminist and anti-racist view on pop culture with a special focus on video games, anime, American comics, manga, magazines, film, television and music. She’s the editor of, former contributor, and has written for outlets like Vibe, Spin, Slate’s Double X, Bitch Magazine and the Guardian.


  • SAme answer as always: guess what, its marketing. If they were marketing to you, it might be different. Also, if guys didnt find girls attractive, there would be a whole lot less people in the world. Its natural, live with it.

        • Err, I think you need to look up your definition of feminist. If feminism = chauvinism, then the civil rights movement = black supremacy. Just sayin’.

          Hell, I got no problem with sexy girrrlz in gaming. As a female I find the portrayal of women in Katherine Heigl movies way more degrading than in videogames – and that shit’s marketed to women! But maybe the article is trying to make a statement about what the dominant images within the industry say about our cultural conciousness. It doesn’t hurt to stand back and question things now and then, y’know?

          Yeah tl;dr & all that.

          • Guess you haven’t heard of Feminists like Andrea Dworkin, Mary Daly & Shelia Jefferys.

          • Nice straw(wo)men you got there. But you forgot Valerie Solanis. Son I am disappoint.

    • …you honestly consider this to be an extreme point of view? You must have lived a very sheltered existence up until now.

  • As for the lack of black women in games, Don’t forget games where you can customise like the old Deus Ex and Mass Effect for being able to choose races underepresented in video games.

    But I agree with this, a lot of the time I feel that games and their designers have not grown up. I find it hard to take the women characters as seriously when they wear combat armor with their entire stomach exposed, and obviously the cleavage too.

    Final fantasy is sort of at a disadvantage though, that if they made the breast sizes more realistic and covered them up, most of them would look 11 years old :S

  • If you’ve ever looked at Bellêtete’s tumblr, this should come as no surprise. He’s very frank about his admiration for a ‘well formed’ female body. On the flip side though, DX:HR did give female gamers a rather attractive male lead.

  • I have to agree with what shes saying. But in saying that, the “media” industry in general are like this.

    Sex sells as they say.

  • I for one think that the general line of thought for Male character design is disgusting. They are all just hulking slabs of meat with gravel for voices, its terribly sexist.

    I mean, as a male gamer I find myself strained to compete with the male image presented by the industry.

      • Hell yeah, most of the characterisation in even AAA games is worse than a straight to VCD C-grade action movie. I guess games are sometimes meant to be that ‘fantasy’, often marketed at teenage boys, but what sort of example of a good man are they setting? Meh anyway, I don’t really care. I just think some games have shit characters.

  • Personally, I think this article is awesome… bravo.

    As a guy I’m obviously very happy for the female characters to be eye candy, but this should never impact be to the detriment of the character and where the intent is eye candy it should equally apply to the male characters.

    Gears of War gets it right in number 3 where the female armour looks like it would actually serve a military purpose for a change.

    • Adeline in Dragon Age 2 also wears full plate mail the entire game. Thats because she is a warrior class and is the captain of the city watch.

    • Gears of war 3 made me laugh because the guys are actually wearing less then the women.
      However, they were a little flat. The most I really saw of Anya was anger and sadness.

      I think that the best female lead is Jade from beyond good and evil.

    • You’re missing the point. Porn is meant to be sexual. Games aren’t (mostly anyway)

      Perhaps a better way to put it is, Porn has to be sexual, its the mandate for what it’s trying to achieve. But games have the option, and it’s disappointing to see that when dev’s more often lean toward building a female character’s profile using more sexualised images than just neutral ones.

      I think the only game’s where a respectful stance toward a female character was taken were Half Life 2 (Alyx) and Beyond Good and Evil (Jade) Both characters are strong and well formed characters, without skewing toward any sexualisation.

      • I’m not missing the point, my comment was intended as humour. Clearly one of us is lacking the sense.
        I understand the issue being discussed, and I think it’s something the industry should be dealing with (in fact, I think the are dealing with it – to a degree). However, I think the article is substandard and lacks substance. The writer’s prejudice is over exaggerated and is reminiscent of a stereotypical vegan/PETA bluster. This prevents me from taking their argument seriously.

        Another on for your list:

        • I wouldn’t say I have no sense of humour, but you’ll just have to take my word for it.

          Some of the comments on Kotaku this past week have been a bit vitriolic, so I’m prone to take comments like yours a little too seriously.

          Agree that it’s definitely something worth discussing, but whether it’s a poor article or not is a matter of opinion. But I think it’s great that she’s presenting that aspect of things to dev’s, even if she’s not doing it in the most professional manner (ambushing?)

          • I’ll take your word for it. As I implied, I could be the one with a defective funny bone.
            No harm done. My comment wasn’t exactly sensible.
            She definitely gets kudos for going face to face with dev’s regarding the issue. I’m just repelled by these sorts of articles, regardless of subject.

  • More playable black women in games: Purna from Dead Island and Samantha from Gears of War 3.

    One point a lot of people forget in these arguments is that men in video games are also “unrealistic”. The default male Shepard from Mass Effect 3 was based upon a male model and according to the Gears of War games I need to work on getting rid of my neck. Where is the representation of the short fat male that is not used for comic relief?

    • Samantha I don’t think is actually supposed to be black. I think she’s just very tan. She’s voiced by a white woman, and has no “black features”. Compare her face to Cole’s. Cole has “black features” in his face, while Sam doesn’t.

    • L4D2 Characters

      I wish females werent so overly busty though it just feels stupid just cover it up for god’s sake.

    • You should of seen the article about the use of the word Bitch in Arkham City yesterday. First time I’ve raged as hard at the AU comments as I usually do at the USA ones.

      Spent way too much time and effort arguing my point in the comments section.

    • I didn’t find the article amazing.
      I did find it interesting though. I’ve never noticed the way female characters are introduced before and now feel like I have to go back and check. It’s unclear to me whether the author is just remembering and seeing things a certain way because of her views, or if things are as bad as she makes them out to be.
      Personally, I don’t really mind that a character may be designed to be “f***able”, even when creating my own characters in games like Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age I try and make them as attractive as possible, to make them either someone I want to be, or someone I want to look at. It’s human nature and not just confined to the male gender.

        • I understand that,(and don’t need an explanation of the problem, thank-you anyway) but I just feel that it’s currently being blown out of proportion by band-wagon jumping males. A great deal of males seem to be up in arms about this just because they think they have to be, or they want to SEEM more understanding.
          I think the author of this particular article is not actually helping the issue either. She’s deliberately skewing things to her own more-extreme-than-most point of view.
          As a female, over-sexualisation doesn’t overly bother me because I know as the games industry grows up, so will the people who make the games.

          • I do agree that as the game industry continues to mature this problem will eventually fade, as will many others. But I feel that for the industry to mature this stuff does need to be talked about and more importantly for it to be accepted that it’s okay to discuss it. The reason that topic tends to be brought up buy people who may be though of as extremists is that they’re currently the only ones who feel that it needs to be discussed.

            Eventually as the topic becomes more acceptable calmer more sedate minds will pick up the conversation and things will progress in an easier to handle manner.

          • This keeps happening even in supposed ‘mature’ industries. It’s an endemic problem, not limited to nerdy pursuits. Although we’re a little less adept handling it than most, we’re doing better than, say, movies are, in that gaming has several popular female characters that are actual characters. Hell, even Lara Croft’s better than what most movies manage to achieve.

      • Not me, I create my characters based on their character.
        In Mass Effect, I made my femshep a Spacer (one who spent most of their life on spaceships and cruisers) and made her skin very pale due to the lack of natural sunlight. At the same time I gave her rather bright lipstick, eyeshadow and red hair, suggesting that she’s a little self-conscience about being so pale and she uses make-up and dyes her hair to draw attention away from it.
        In Dragon Age, my character was a Wood Elf, so I gave her rather messy hair because she lived in the woods to much.

          • I wasn’t saying you said there was. I was saying you said she thought there was. So what I said was more directed towards her and what you said about her, rather than what you said. You know what I’m saying?

          • But she exists, as a concept…

            I’m just yanking your chain, buddy.
            I like the approach of character customisation based on more than just aesthetics. Clever.

          • I know, but then I would be responding in double and triple negatives and then we’d be going around in circles all day.

  • “Five if you include the reflection in Portal”

    Her name is Chell, not “the reflection”. Moreover, you don’t actually play as Alyx Vance. It’s shit like this that makes me wonder if people actually play the games.

    • You also don’t automatically become less of a character for being sexualised, as much as feminists would like to claim as much (while conveniently ignoring how many male characters are sexualised too).

      There are characters that are overly sexualised and fall short in all other areas, in both genders. That doesn’t automatically make any woman an unlikable character for showing cleavage or any man an unlikable character for showing abs.

      • The problem is that female characters are consistently sexualised for the sake of objectification. Just look at the array of different male body types in the Street Fighter games compared to female ones.

        • I don’t think Street Fighter’s about to credit you much. It has just as many non-sexualised women as it does sexualised ones, compared to dozens of shirtless, ripped men.
          Or are the only Street Fighter women you know of Chun-Li and R. Mika?

  • Good article and I hope to see more of its kind poping up all over the place as I feel this is an issue that really needs to be brought to attention. Some of the comments in this article and others like it are an example why that just as much blame can be placed on gamers as can be placed on designers for the state of female characters in games. In saying that though there are just as many well designed, well written female characters in games as there are well written and well designed male characters, the vast majority of male characters are just hunks of sentient meat with the personality of a 15 year old. So while male characters aren’t blantly designed in a sexist way there is still a huge problem of the overall quality of character design in videogames.

  • If people are SO GOSH-DARN offended by what is in the game, DON’T BUY IT. Boobies + profits = more boobies!

    • Also in reply to my own comment, Kotaku is sexist because it doesn’t give female writers capitalisation in their bylines. It’s all a Great Big Conspiracy. Where is Adam Jensen when you need him? Oh, sorry, I mean Jade Whatsername from Beyond Good and Evil.

      (I realise this is not actually a reply to my comment, but until they implement an edit button, it will have to do.)

    • But with the majority of games choosing to portray women in way that many women find alienating you’re essentially saying that women just shouldn’t play videogames.

      For women who enjoy videogames but are tired of feeling alienated the only choice they have is to complain about it. They’re not asking for games designed primarily for women, just that female characters stop being designed primarily for men.

      • As you’re so pointedly asked others to do so, please provide facts and evidence to support your claim that:

        “the majority[1]” of games “choosing to portray women in way[2]” that “many women find alienating[3]”.

        Links, if you please.

        Also, I don’t believe that the suggestion was “essentially saying that women just shouldn’t play videogames” – you’re skewing the intent of the post to invalidate the point raised and attempting to discard and paint the entire thing as a non-solution.

        They didn’t say that at all. They said that if people (of both genders) keep buying games that are offensively hypersexualising female characters, then studios will continue to produce those games and concepts as that’s where they get their profit.

        If enough people chose not to purchase these titles while vocally making known their reasons (hypersexualisation of female characters), then the loss in profit would encourage companies to do it a different way, which would attract profits, which would change the entire market and how female characters are generally represented.

        As in: market forces.

        Yknow, being a valid point and all. Don’t let that part worry you, however.

        • Zap is as quick as lightning, too bad RantOClock is a couple of ticks short of a full cuckoo.

          I, a male at last check (probably about 10mins ago now), do not purchase/listen to voluntarily Commercial Hip Hop music because of the way it objectifies women. Also because it is lyrically bankrupt, but that is an addendum.

          Similarly, I do not buy hot dogs because of the way they represent a large and generally unattainable phallus… I may have gone off-topic. The lines are blurred.

        • Proving point [1] is difficult since I do not have the time to run a thorough statistical analysis of every game made. But I can at least give you a series of examples.

          I’m not sure what needs to be shown to prove [2]. Videogames and their content do not pop into existence spontaneously, people have to create them and then choose the content that goes in to them.

          To prove point [3] it needs to be made clear that that what I mean are female characters whose design appears to have been chosen for no reason other than to appeal to the male ideal of the female form for no other reason to appeal to this male ideal. There are the occasional character that are sexualised in a way that informs and adds to their character but these are incredibly.

          So examples of [3] that help to aid but not ultimately prove [1].

          The recent portrayal of Catwoman in Arkham City.

          Tomb Raider. They didn’t give her large breasts, a tight top and thigh hugging shorts because they’re practical for running around in the jungle. Just look at the last box art for a Tomb Raider game. it does a good job of highlighting what the creators felt were the most important aspects of her character.

          Any of the female characters from the following fighter game series, Street Fighter, Soul Calibur, Mortal Kombat and Dead or Alive. For extra points compare the variety of female body types to the variety of male ones in these games.

          Since we’ve got Dead or Alive as an example let’s take a look at Team Ninjas Ninja Gaiden series. I’m sure you remember Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 had the ground breaking six-axis motion controlled boob jiggling.

          As for your second point. I understand the concept of market forces quite easily thank you. If people keep buying games with BOOBS then people will keep selling games with BOOBS. It’s not a complex idea and I think I grasped it rather easily.

          To me it appears that Almighty Booka is saying that if she doesn’t like the games content (i.e. BOOBS) she should just not purchase it and stop complaining. My point was that this is a poor excuse for her not to, as you put it, “vocally making known their reasons,” and she has every right to do so because she is limited in the ways she may actively change current market forces.

          • Let me put it this way:
            “Oh look, there’s that item I absolutely hate. I’m going to buy it and then complain loudly about it!”

            If this makes perfect sense to you, then abandon all hope, ye who enter…

            Anybody who has worked in a company with any more than 10 workers knows that “Customer Feedback” is there purely to service the customers to make them feel like the company actually listens. The reality is they don’t – they look at the sales figures.

            THEN if they are concerned, they MIGHT ask a select group of people whose views may or may not represent yours, their completely unscientific and uneducated opinions.

            My advice: just don’t give them your money in the first place. The only thing they understand is the bottom line.

          • Expecting Team Ninja not to make sexualised female characters without a lick of subtlety or reason is like throwing a steak to a starving dog and expecting it not to eat it.

            That is to say, you are looking in the wrong places. Every industry will have content that has poor portrayals of certain groups, whether by gender, race, or interests. Pointing at a group known for their objectification of women and saying how bad it is is just pointing out what we all already know and criticise them for already.
            Weren’t you around to see how utterly horrified Metroid fans were to learn of Team Ninja’s involvement in Other M?

            Street Fighter I already mentioned has plenty of non-sexualised women as well, though it seems you want there to be a female version of Blanka or something.

          • First, thanks for the considered reply. High quality discourse is much preferable to a round of NO U.

            However, to pick up the majority of your response – you didn’t respond to part [3], specifically, support for your position that the majority of females find the representations in Tomb Raider and other listed examples alienating.

            That is a rather grand, all encompassing statement to make in a discussion such as this, especially when you can not provide evidence to support the argument. THAT is one of the major issues I took with your first assertion – if you complain about other people doing something, then you do the exact same, I call it bullshit.

          • I think the biggest issue is that on the internet, there’s the misconception that your words have more weight than they really do. Or because you can find a few pages of commentators that agree with your point that you have a significant group of people that share the same view as you.

            It’s all well and good to say “look at these feminist websites and blogs that talk about how sexist these videogames are!” “Look at this female games writer talking about women in videogames!” See! The Majority of women hate it. Look at all these people who love guns on, the majority of people love guns.

            But really these are tiny drops in the ocean of society that does not reflect in any way, shape or form the mindset of the majority.

            “Feminism” on the internet is a tricky thing. Firstly because anyone can decide they are a feminist with little to no real research. In fact many women who call themselves feminists online assume that they have a right to as a woman, even though they have not taken the time to study the movement and what it actually espouses.

            Because of the internet, we have more information than ever, but there’s no policing of how this information is viewed so we end up with a great deal of “experts” on matters that they really have no idea about, and in fact contradict many of the ideals they should uphold.

            The next point to make is that many “feminists” online tend to view videogames in an overly simplistic light that befits their lack of research and consideration of the complex systems that exist in society and the industry.

            You can’t just make it about man vs. woman, or “privilege”. You can’t say how you are “oppressed” because of the portrayal of an arrangement of pixels on a screen or the molding of plastic that doesn’t align with your values (Something stressed by an actual “feminist” to me once).

            This is because MONEY is the ultimate equaliser. Your dollar as a woman has the exact same value as an african trans-gender homeless person’s dollar. The dollar knows or cares not what or who you are, and neither do these companies.

            The only way to instigate change is to somehow make your dollar as a feminist worth more than the dollar of their current market. As far as they are concerned, they never had your purchase to begin with, it wasn’t part of their plan, you are just a bonus if you buy their game.

            It’s like me flicking through an issue of Cosmo and being offended that the portrayal of men in both the ads and the articles is antagonistic, derogatory, and laughable. Cosmopolitan magazine couldn’t care less, they never made this magazine for me, they made it for girls who want to sabotage their relationships and then ask why they can’t ever find “Mr. Right”.

            And in fact, if you as a consumer are offended by a product that you are in no way forced to interact with or purchase, and DEMAND that it be changed, YOU are the one doing the oppressing. You are oppressing all the people who did want that product in its intended form. There is no benefit in destruction, only creation.

            If you don’t like what you see, CREATE something you will like. You, yourself. Not anybody else. Nobody will do you any favours in a billion dollar industry.

            “Feminists” love to talk about “derailing” and love linking at people who clearly display a lack of sympathy or understanding. Well I feel like I need to make one for people who don’t understand the way marketing and demographic systems work. Because I am sick of repeating myself over and over.

            Oh, and if “TL;DR”, then you are a child and shouldn’t be on this website in the first place. Try instead.

  • I don’t mean to mock or diminish the author’s credentials or anything, but “hip-hop feminist and anti-racist view on pop culture”?
    That’s… a new one. Interesting, to say the least.

  • Hmm, I’m torn. You have personal issues that I’m sympathetic with mixed with a completely biased and sexist belief system. I think you have some valid points and I commend you on writing how you feel in an open forum where you will be judged by people but you really can’t claim an equality epiphany when you’re a feminist.

    There’s no way you ‘all of sudden’ had a moment of realization, your simply justifying your belief system which is discrediting to a large degree.

  • How was Alyx undermined by sexuality in Half Life 2? She was a powerful woman, and was one of the best developed characters I’ve seen in a videogame, ever. In fact, the best. Alyx is awesome, and her character is believable.

    • I’ve always thought that too when people mention Alyx as evidence for sexism.

      I believe she was portrayed as a strong, valuable and intelligent character that wasn’t there because she was good to look at (and she isn’t even dressed in provocative clothing) and she was there for the same reason the player was: To save the world.

  • I find it amusing that whenever someone posts an article that even hints that their might be sexism in gaming the commenters will immediately point out that the article is poorly written, pointless and poorly researched. And if the writer is a male that he is a white knight or if a female a feminist.

    If you’re actually going to throw out these accusations maybe you should actually try and validate them with examples?

    P.S. Feminist and white knight are not magic words that immediately invalidate that someones argument.

    • I find it amusing that in most of the comments on these articles, people of both genders point out examples or concepts that invalidate some of the concerns raised, while applauding and agreeing to the general premise of the article – yet some other commenters reject all of these and focus simply on the outlying posts and then generalise and ignore all sensible and mature discussion that occurs.

      Like yourself.

  • To be fair, most male gamers aren’t sweat glistening muscular adonis’ either. Did you completely not consider that angle at all?

    • You realise that there are a large amount of male videogame characters, main and support, that are not as you described “sweat glistening muscular adonis’”

      And even those male characters that do support this stereotype are not consistently portrayed in clothing and poses to accentuate their sexual appearance for no reason other than to accentuate their sexual appearance.

        • Nathan Drake.

          Idealised? Yes. He is a idealisation of a body build that is mostly average (average height and build, some muscle but nothing hyper accentuated), not what I’d call a “sweat glistening muscular adonis” though.

          Sexualised? No.

          I’m not aware of any case where Nathan Drake is portrayed in a sexualised manner for the sake sexualisation.

          • Oh, please.

            Nathan Drake is represented in idealised form, as agreed.

            By creating the toned but not gym-junkie everyman, who:
            – has a compassionate side
            – is caring
            – makes mistakes like a regular person
            – has a good sense of humour and can be a goofball on occasion (ie: is “fun”)
            – has an achievable but still muscular form
            – is arguably “rugged” and “unshaven” to show he’s not a “pretty boy”
            – is honourable
            – is “strong”
            – is thoughtful around women,

            Nathan Drake is the perfect representation of a sexualised, “achievable but not intimidating”, male character who ticks all the boxes and would be right at home in a Mills and Boon novel.

            The slightly dark and mysterious, slightly dangerous, caring lover that men are always told to be in order to attract women, by women in the media and through women’s magazines and for-women media.

            .: Sexualised male character.

          • Hear hear. 100% truth, and yet I still play Uncharted without considering my own adequacy. Why is it not the same case for the author of this article?

          • No Zap, that is a romanticised character, not a sexualised character. Everything you have listed provides the character with options, depth and definition. A sexualised character reduces the options for, and the depth of, the character.

            Nice work over the last couple of days rantOclock. Your efforts are appreciated.

          • You can have a sexualised character without them being a worthless character. Being sexualised does not automatically make a character bad. While not as sexualised as say, Lara Croft, Nathan Drake still has that going for him.

            One of the better examples of sexualising a character done right is Kaine, of Nier. People like to just look at the character and call her clothes ridiculous (as the characters in the game do), but when you actually go through the story and find out about the character, the way she dresses is an important part of her.

          • I don’t find all these two dimensional portrayals of women interesting in the slightest.

            In fact one could argue that there is MORE for female audiences in terms of members of the opposite sex they can relate to and “enjoy” more than there is for male audiences in games. Because many male characters have nuance and depth, and personality, that’s what mature adults want, isn’t it?

            It’s a fault of many “feminists” to assume that what these game designers want is reflective of what the male audience wants as well. That’s a classic mistake and is akin to the kind of generalisation and oppression that created the need for the REAL feminism in the first place.

            I find it insulting to be told that there is plenty for me as a male gamer because there are all these scantily clad women on screen, and that female gamers have nothing. We are the ones who have very few compelling characters of the opposite sex to “interact” with in games.

            And that’s FINE, it’s not a big deal, it’s just a game, I don’t turn on my xbox 360 to make a meaningful connection to anything that occurs on it in terms of characterisation, and neither should anyone else. Not yet, anyway.

            If we do though, that’s awesome, but to expect it of a bunch of nerds writing narrative on the side of coding the game so it’s actually fun and works is losing focus on what matters. The gameplay!

            And if all the in depth representations of men aren’t enough for you as a female player, and you want more women to play as; well, if you won’t play as a character who doesn’t immediately reflect your personal ideals, gender and body image, then by god you’ve got some growing up to do.

            People who “imagine” themselves as the protagonist are childish and immature. It’s a game, it’s a narrative, it’s not real life, know the difference. And this obsession first world society has with being the star of the show in everything they do has destroyed all storytelling mediums.

        • +1

          I’ve always thought the characters in the Uncharted series have been pretty good – obviously Nathan and his cohorts usually getting the beefy end of the story behind them. Even the females in his story aren’t cartoon characters just there for eye candy. And Nathan himself is an interesting paradox – masculine yet feeble(he’s a goffball), slight of build but confident.

          • If you think that Nathan is “slight of build” it just goes to show how much the portrayal of men in the videogame industry has warped our view of them as well.

  • For some reason I don’t think black women are gaming’s main audience… But as said before, most games where you customize your character allow you to change the skin colour, so there are more than 5 black female gaming characters.

  • US Census Data, 2010:

    White persons, percent definition and source info White persons, percent, 2010 (a) 72.4%
    Black persons, percent definition and source info Black persons, percent, 2010 (a) 12.6%
    American Indian and Alaska Native persons, percent definition and source info American Indian and Alaska Native persons, percent, 2010 (a) 0.9%
    Asian persons, percent definition and source info Asian persons, percent, 2010 (a) 4.8%
    Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, percent definition and source info Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, percent, 2010 (a) 0.2%
    Persons reporting two or more races, percent definition and source info Persons reporting two or more races, percent, 2010 2.9%
    Persons of Hispanic or Latino origin, percent definition and source info Persons of Hispanic or Latino origin, percent, 2010 (b) 16.3%
    White persons not Hispanic, percent definition and source info White persons not Hispanic, percent, 2010 63.7%

    Not saying things need to be in these proportions, but wouldn’t it stand to reason that there’s a 12% chance a character would be black, and 72% chance they’d be white?

    Where’s the article decrying the number of Hispanic leads of either male or female gender? Technically, they’re a larger group and should have a much higher representation. Can anyone name five Hispanic leads in the last five years?

    • To be fair, I’m pretty sure I’ve read an article asking why aren’t there more Hispanic characters on Kotaku in the past.

      • I’d think it would be hard as a designer as well to make a strong character who represents an under-represented culture without running into major issues.

        For example, if you make them like every other character with a slight cultural flair, are you potentially running the risk of “diluting” that culture or trying to make them “white”? I’ve seen that come up before, as doing so can feel offensive (and rightly so) to people who look at a game and say “Finally, someone who represents my culture….wait…it’s like a slight accent, what?”

        On the other side, if you go deep into the culture in the character your representing, how easy is it to stray into cliches and stereotypes while trying to avoid the problem above?
        I’m not saying it shouldn’t be attempted, not at all – just simply that it must be a hard task to get it exactly right and balance everything to make a character memorable and representing a culture correctly without being offensive.

        CJ in GTA3 had a lot of articles written about him complaining that “they’re just focusing on gangbangers, why not have him be a lawyer, a doctor?”. Fair enough complaints about how a race/culture is represented in a AAA title, but how could that be balanced or avoided? Not attempting it at all?

  • That’s an interesting point on GTA. How come there’s never been a female protagonist? Just about everything changes between the main characters apart from gender (and being a sociopath).

    • It’s a good question.

      I think there’d be a lot of questions asked of a game that had a woman running down people, killing people, and potentially being able to be curb stomped by NPCs until dead. I’m sure a lot of people would be upset that a woman could be depicted taking a beating like that.

      Not saying it’s a good excuse, simply that it would be an important factor.

      • Saints Row 2 is basically exactly like that. As far as I’m aware the feminists love it because the game allows them to pick any kind of gender identity they want.

    • Are there many women gangbangers/gangsters/thugs? Popular media portrayal of the underworld implies it’s mainly men in positions of power, so I imagine that has something to do with it…

      • Underbelly Razor disagrees with you..

        And I have seen plenty of gang oriented shows (The Wire for example) that have women in positions of power

  • While I agree with the hypersexualisation of many female characters, putting all the blame on male designers isn’t entirely fair. Women have a lot to do with how they are portrayed in our society; I mean, I’ve got female friends who I’ve never seen without a ton of makeup, always wearing fancy (sometimes sexy) clothes, etc. I’ve asked them why they do it, they say they want to look their best for other people, they feel pressured to do it. “Who do you feel the pressure more from, guys or girls” “girls”. The pressure to be “perfect” is real for women, and they have entire (female-dominated) industries like makeup, fashion etc to support it. Not to mention that any discussion of things like cosmetic surgery like breast implants are filled with women saying things like “having bigger boobs = more confidence” (extremely simplified obviously). So it’s not really surprising that portrayals of women in the media, in video games etc follow from this huge expectation of what women should be like, which is often dictated by women themselves.

    Of course, I know a growing number of women who have chosen to ignore the pressure and live their lives as they want to, which I’m glad about. I think this contrived pressure to the best for someone else undermines real gender equality.

    • You’re perfectly right. This compulsion to look sexy is driven as much by females, as it is by the guys. The irony is, while a sexy look may make women feel stronger, the stronger woman is actually one who can resist compulsion and societal pressure.

      This is what I believe the author was trying to get at: there is just not enough variation in female character design. Sure, sex sells. It can’t be helped. Our brains are wired to instantly pay attention to sexual signs. If female characters are continually depicted as extremely sexy, though, then it just ends up objectifying them. This is something we should hopefully be working to avoid. By introducing non-sexualised characters, it will help to better represent femininity in games.

      And possibly attract more females to gaming as well. I can hope.

    • The portrayals of women in media do not follow on from an expectation of what women should be … the expectation follows on from what media tells them they should be.
      Advertising, fashion, trends etc these things to not reflect society, they shape it.

    • True that. I always thought it ironic the pressure girls are under and are immersed in are so often things made by girls

  • The article is a good read but I don’t think it makes a strong case for change. It more seems like a statement of “man, these oversexualised female characters are annoying but they seem to sell and the nerds like em”

    All too true but at the end of the day, it’s all about marketing your product so people will buy it.
    Sex sells.
    I’ve heard it a billion times but that is the way of the world and unless that changes – which it wont – we will continue to see the hypersexualisation of not only video games, but every thing we look at it. Sunglasses sell better with half naked women for crying out loud. SUNGLASSES.

    I think it is less about being creative and more about being smart. Lightning is still meant to be attractive regardless of her tits.

    As for black-female leads in gaming well it comes down to how many people will be able to relate to this person. It’s the same with movies. There are a ton more white male leads than there are black male leads and only 4 black males have ever won an oscar for lead actor and 1 for female lead. I think that goes a long way in saying how all media types deal with the issue of black protagonists.

    The question they ask themselves before they start all this, I am sure, is: will this sell better with X or Y and if X is a white male lead and Y is a black female lead, they are most likely going with X.

  • I’d like to see more “real” female characters in games, just like I’d like to see more male characters in games.

    My problem comes from your mistunderstanding of what’s happening, though. These characters aren’t hyper sexualised – they’re hyper idealised. Spliting hairs, perhaps, but an important split because it comes down to the root of the issue – biological wiring. Those curves? All physical indicators of a good breeding partner males are programmed to seek, and females are programmed to desire to be.

    To put it in perspective, look at the male leads – all tough, strong, “cool” males who can do anything. It’s the same problem – hyper idealization. No guy can hope to reach that level, but it’s everywhere all the same. And yes, these are all traits based on biological instinct(though grossly misunderstood in terms of attraction, I wager, as it’s guys trying to design guys that girls like).

    This is all escapism, obviously, allowing the majority of the games typical audience(sorry; I hate it as much as you do) to be the ideal male, with an ideal girl. Shallow? Completely, but I don’t think that’s bad, either – the bad is when that’s *all* there is. More characters like Alyx, or Francis, or Lightning even(Imo the least attractive quality is the visuals, which don’t hurt to be sure) would be a great and welcomed change.

    Not every problem is a feminst thing – lets fix the actual issue, rather than making it a gender fight for a change.

    Oh, and the lighting pic is clearly based heavily on some of the concept art – based heavily enough it could of been stolen, really. Would of liked to see lighting from FFXIII.5 though, so much more badass.

    • It’s very much a feminist thing; you said it yourself that the hulking hypermasculine males and hyperidealised women are escapism – but from a male perspective.

      It’s probably “good marketing” (from a warped sense of success) to give female characters gigantic bewbs and curves, but it reduces the humanity of the characters if they’re mostly designed as walking eye candy.

      I get that many people who buy mass-market games are white, horny, heterosexual adolescent males – that’s fine, all power to them – but if we imbue games with artistic merit, there’s at least a modicum of responsibility for designers to create their characters as humans and not walking sex objects.

      You said it’d be nice if we had more realistic female characters, sure, but while the worst examples still exist – and while designers for major companies draw concept art based on breasts and nothing else – there’s an absurd problem with the industry.

  • wow, can i complain that there’ a lack of asian characters in videogames then?

    And who the heck is Laura croft??

    • Yes, you can, and Laura is the small busted sister of Lara. She doesn’t get as much attention, even though she’s the talented one in the family, keeping it financially stable. I’m glad she’s finally getting some mention.

  • Male characters in games suffer from the same stereotypes too which seems to have been overlooked in this article. Majority of all male leads are flawlessly handsome with a sculpted body.
    I think it all comes down to this; you don’t hire a cast for a game you create your cast. At the end of the day are unattractive characters marketable?
    It may interest you to know that a prototype statue of Mass Effect’s Liara T’soni was shown to the public and due to negative feedback on the disproportionate size of her bust the statue has been changed to fit more with the games character. Males complained about this.
    I do strongly agree that you rarely see a non white main character in video games which needs to change.

    • I was going to make this point also but you beat me to it. Any hero character is going to be built to societal perceptions of beauty, male or female. Nathan Drake is rugged and good looking, Etzio is dark, charismatic and good looking, Marcus I assume is good looking. This was one mans off the cuff comment about beauty and a feminist took it too far. Way to represent.

    • The difference though is the masculine stereotyping is about a presentation of power and superiority, the female stereotyping is about sexual submission.

      • “Sexual submission” seems a bit excessive, given that Lara Croft and Bayonetta are considered sex symbols by many, many gamers and are not submissive. They’re clearly women with their own goals and plans and desires. Additionally, the idea that feminine sexuality is intrinsically submissive is a pretty misogynistic idea in and of itself.

        “Sexual avaliability” or “sexual enthusiasm” seem to be more accurate at summing up the kind of stereotype you’re talking about. Ironically, this is a stereotypically MASCULINE trait (“all men are sex addicts that want sex anytime, all the time, right now”). If anything, women are stereotypically meant to be coy and hesitant and innocent about sex, and ultimately not particularly interested in it.

        The Lara/Bayonetta/etc. sexualized action girl is a woman with a (stereotypical) man’s sex drive, so I wouldn’t accuse that stereotype of glorifying sexual submissiveness at all.

  • I think it’s brilliant that western game designers actually put some real work into their female characters, if you look at the ladies in Gears of War 3, Uncharted 2, Deus Ex, Red Dead Redemption, none of these characters seem like they’re decided purely to titillate the male players.

    But it seems like with games out of Japan, the East just doesn’t give a crap, look at MGS4, a whole cast of women antagonists, and you have a mini game where you photograph them posing suggestively.

    It’s a cultural issue though. In the West we’re taught objectifying women is wrong, which it is, but in Japan objectifying women is a whole industry, Hostess bars, which western human rights workers wrongly assumed where just brothels, are bars that men frequent for the express purpose of objectifying women.

    I wouldn’t expect the over emphasis on scantily dress and provocative behaviour in female characters in Japanese games to stop any time soon. But Western games have stronger female characters than most TV and films.

  • “But Western games have stronger female characters than most TV and films”

    Couldn’t agree more. If you’re to believe the prevalent image of womanhood you see on TV & in film these days you’d think all girls are shallow shopaholic humourless prudes who only have sex to land a husband and have children.

    Sorry but I’ll take Bayonetta or Lara Croft over that any day of the week.

  • I agree with the sentiments expressed in the article. I’d certainly like to see more interesting female leads instead of female leads designed to give me a boner.

    I think you can design a female character to be attractive without shoving sex down your throat (and oh god that comes out wrong).

    I do think there is a place for that type of character though. For instance, a beer-n-popcorn game would suit that type of character due to the machoism. Just as in a female-oriented game you’ve got your pretty boy characters.

  • The article makes very valid if potentially heavy handed points. I don’t mind a bit of fan service in my games but this is a question of equality.
    For all the LOL players out there I had an interesting conversation with a female friend the other day. We were looking through skins and somehow the subject of Which skin would you use if you get get your partner to dress up for you.

    I had plenty to choose from, from the fun to the down right lewd. But flipping it around where are the attractive outfits to give the female fan service. I think she decided on Tango TF or maybe rugged Garen. Rugged Garen is high on the list of what she could find to get her man dressed up as.

    A little consistency would be nice.

  • I have a strong aversion to some kinds of feminism (although I strongly agree with some other kinds), but let us cut through the rhetoric and look at what this article is saying:

    1) People like characters they can relate to, and people relate to characters that are more like them (i.e. same sex, ethnicity, etc).
    2) Female characters are not designed with the purpose of being related to by a female audience, but rather the purpose of providing additional entertainment (in the form of fanservice) to a male audience.
    3) This makes the work less appealing to a female audience because it makes it harder for them to relate to the work.

    This is a legitimate argument to make.

    I’m all for fanservice (although I think all demographics deserve fanservice, with exclusively-hetero-males being one of several target audiences rather than the only target audience), but on the other hand I can see why women would like to see more characters designed FOR THEM, i.e. for them to relate to rather than for men to find hot (not to suggest that the two goals are mutually exclusive).

    I think it goes beyond mere body proportions, obviously. The video game character I relate to the most is far buffer than I am, but the similarities in personality and backstory make it easy for me to identify with him.

    I think if female characters got as much attention paid to characterization and backstory as they did towards appearance, and they were created with an eye towards relatability for a female demographic, you’d go a significant way towards solving the problem the article identifies.

  • Fact – Women dress differently depending on what they are trying to achieve.

    A) Slut for men – lots of skin and cleavage.

    B) Style for women – expensive clothes and making it look like there was no effort involved when really there was.

    You can tell when a woman wants to be complemented and by who based on what she is wearing.

    Let it be known that men just don’t give a flying fuck. We just want to do what we want to do. Simple as that and if hypersexualised women are going to be thrown into that, then so be it.

    The market wants what the market wants and the product will deliver. Don’t have a go at the designers for this, blame the market as they are to blame. Sure there are a few women wanting more realistic role models in games, but there are much much more who either don’t care or want the hypersexualisation.

    Bottom line don’t blame the designers for adhering to what the market wants and what will sell, after all would you get up and go to work if you wern’t going to earn any money for it? no, Notch knows I wouldn’t

  • I think the part of the article about not being able to play as a black woman is deliberately leaving out all the games where you get the option to choose your race or skin colour. Yes if you leave those games out, there are not very many games where you can play as a black woman.

    If you include those games, than you have WAY more options.

    I think customizable characters should become the norm. That way it makes the whiners have to find something else to complain about. Like the language, or the hair styles.

  • I get where they’re coming from but it’s not like representation of the human body is unrealistically stylised only for women in games. I mean, look at Gears of War. They’re like, the macho, ‘roided-up versions of men that a lot of guys wished they could look like (ok, maybe not that ‘roided-up, but you get the point). I mean, even more “normal” representations of leading men in games are usually chisel-jawed, sixpack toting badasses, and how many gaming men can say they look like Chris Redfield or Claude Speed, et. al.?

    • I don’t think the problem is unrealism or stylization. Its more about the audience that the stylization is meant to appeal to. The unrealistic men are meant to provide a fantasy of awesomeness to a male audience, and the unrealistic women are meant to provide a fantasy-girlfriend for a male audience.

      Basically, the games are designed with the assumption that the audience is male. Now, whilst most of the audience is male, quite a lot of the audience is female. So, shouldn’t at least SOME of the characters be designed to appeal to both male AND female gamers?

  • Much ado about nothing… the look of a character should represent its personality traits – they are just archetypes after all.

  • Fuck, every time I read one of these articles the comments end up being a colossal buzzkill. The immediate reactionary attitude reeks of misunderstanding. I bet you the same people claiming “sex sells, it’s what the market wants” are the same people that bitch and moan about every other game being an FPS and how much they hate Activision. But it’s what the market wants, guys!

    Sorry fellas, you can’t have it both ways. But if you’re insistent on telling developers to keep on doing what they’re doing and not change the way they think about gender, or character, or anything else – be my guest. Just make sure you know who to blame in ten years time when you’re bitching about how all characters look the same.

    P.S. This article is nowhere NEAR extreme.

  • This is really sad. It really irks me when people expect something out of someone else’s imagination. If you’re so damn mad at the industry why don’t you go in and change it up? Make a realistic strong non-sexualized black heroine and be on with yourself. And if your only excuse is that the industry wouldn’t let you design something like that, then that is straight BS. Many super successful video games have risen from DIY’ers and independent studios. Don’t expect caucasian or asian males to make a character you’d find appealing because you’re not the one making it. They’re guys, there’s no problem with them creating things in their fantasy. Fine tuning your art style to the likes of other people’s tastes directly contradicts art at its definition; you wouldn’t be expressing anything. When more people see video games as art and not “responsibility” induced media politics then we’ll get somewhere. If your idea of your race and sex is so strong, get together black female programmers or inspire black female’s to become video game developers, because last time i checked I haven’t found anyone with that description.

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