Sexism in video games. The conversation has echoed through the internet and the halls of game development companies for months now, as it has seemingly become the topic whose time has come. With women like Anita Sarkeesian doing her best to get the message out there (despite heinous threats against her person), there finally seems to be some serious critical attention being paid to the choices designers make in creating their female characters. If you aren’t familiar with Sarkeesian’s work, I would point to Feminist Frequency and her video series Tropes Vs Women to get some background.
Part and parcel with the discussion of character design has been questions of how female characters are depicted in game advertising. However even in a time when companies are examining how to reach their audiences, there are still some stellar examples out there of blatantly sexual advertisement that is ignoring the conversation altogether. They just seem to be skipping the discourse completely in return for one thing: boobs.
This article is brought to you by some late night reading I was doing that was interrupted when this advertisement caught my eye:
Well, if that isn’t a way to interrupt what you were doing. Ironically I was actually looking up an article on sexism in games when this little jewel popped up. After I finished staring, I then went from laughing my butt off to horror back to laughing. Because – really guys? REALLY?! In the face of such ridiculousness its hard to not laugh because such ads just jump the shark from sexism into plain preposterous.
Once I’d recovered from my laughing fit, I got down to looking this gem up to find out what the heck it’s all about. Wartune labels itself as an “Epic Strategy MMORPG” that secretly seems to wish it was World of Warcraft. But since it isn’t, I suppose its advertisers wanted to find some way to lure in players. So they decided to just forget about, you know, TACT and went for the obvious advertisement choice. With a pop up ad so tacky that it might make some porn execs roll their eyes, Wartune is just another example of the silliness that goes on.
Now, you might think that this is an isolated case of the silliness of internet game advertisements. But it’s not.
Remember these, folks? For a while, you couldn’t log into a website without tripping over the awful advertisements for Evony. It was a city builder that promised it would be “FREE FOREVER!” and decided to use heaving breasts as their primary way to draw people to their game. The amusing part was the game was clearly aimed at a fantasy audience, but as their advertisements went on they just plain through out the premise of sexy elves and went right to modern-looking women on display. The thing became such a huge internet joke that Plants Versus Zombies made a great parody of it for their own game, with a boob-showing zombie asking you to “Save Your Lover!” It was so ludicrous as to become a joke. The game still exists, though now the woman shown smiling at you from their front page is in a Renn Faire style gown and far more covered. As you can see, the precedent was always there for Wartune to build on.
But surely these are just internet games, right? Nothing so egregious could exist in mainstream-
Sorry, nope. Couldn’t even get through the sentence. It isn’t just the tiny online games that do it, folks. The nigh ludicrous objectification lives and breaths in AAA games and has for years. There are so many examples I could give, but let’s just put out a couple here to give some context to the conversation:
Here’s just an example of the historical context. This is a Commodore 64 game called Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior. This is in fact the back cover of the game. The front shows a giant muscle-bound male Barbarian standing over the above woman as she reclines in his shadow. At least on the back they let her stand up and hold a sword. Remember, this is a Commodore 64 game. All the characters are on wee little pixels so basic they make your Super Nintendo look like Star Trek technology.
Want to get more mainstream? Let’s have a conversation about some ads for Soul Calibur. Now I’m a huge fan of this fighting game series but the advertisements for Soul Calibur 5 made me wonder if they forgot they were marketing a game and not skin care products or butt floss. Meet two characters from Soul Calibur 5. Who are they? I can’t tell because no distinguishing features of theirs are actually showing!
Now look, I get it. Sex sells. But there are lines sometimes that just seem so ridiculous that you can’t help but laugh. And then maybe get mad. Mostly at such blatantly over the top examples, however, I have to wonder how worried the designers must be about the weakness of their product that their answer is: “We just have to have boobs! More butt! Whatever you do, don’t put a face on it! Just maximize the sexy factor and they’ll come and play!”
And the sad part is that it kind of works.
Take Dragon’s Crown. This game created a whopping controversy by first creating characters with such gravity-defying proportions that they made people across the industry cringe.
Then it made even more headlines when the designer tried to explain away the ridic proportions of his women by pointing out the guys are just as bad, and then turned the whole thing into a bad gay joke. It was kind of a nightmare all the way around PR-wise but the game came out. And all the gravity defying boobs did their job – they got the game the PR it needed to garner more attention. Am I saying that is why they designed it that way? Maybe not. But maybe it sure didn’t hurt either. The game’s out there. It’s part of the discussion now. And no amount explanation can justify the chiropractic nightmare that is that character design.
Not all examples of bad representations of women in game ads are so blatant of course. These just stand as the eye rolling, knee slapping, I have to laugh so I don’t get furious examples of the egregious sexist representations in games. They exist, I believe, so that when people come out to say that there isn’t a problem with sexism in the industry and that women should just calm down, I can pull these beauties out of the drawer. I keep them around so as to provide juxtaposition to other examples of sexist ads to ask ‘how very different are they?’
Case in point the comparisons being made between how the female characters are portrayed in two of 2013’s biggest AAA titles, Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us.
Now I’m a huge fan of Bioshock Infinite but when the cover to the game came out, there was an uproar over the design. Elizabeth, our female companion to the hero Booker DeWitt, is relegated to the back cover of the game box. Sure, she’s clothed as heck (thank heavens for small favors) but she’s on back. Heck, even the Barbarian bikini woman got to be on the front too! Kenneth Lavine, lead designer of Infinite explained his choice as meant to appeal to the “uninformed” consumer. He described actually visiting frat houses to find men who hadn’t heard of Bioshock and then designed the cover based on their suggestions. Dude on front? Check. Gun? Double check. Woman relegated to somewhere less important? Done!
By comparison, The Last of Us placed lead character Ellie front and center in the advertisements for the game despite pressure not to do so. In fact, designer Neil Druckman reported in the above linked article that their company Naughty Dogs was under lots of pressure to take Ellie out of the ads altogether. Still they stood their ground and right now, you can’t throw a stone in the game industry without hitting praise for The Last of Us and its brilliant Ellie. This was a conscious choice that Naughty Dogs made about how they were going to present their female lead and it paid off big time.
Comparing the over-the-top T&A show of the above ads to the more subtle question of representation in Infinite versus Last of Us does nothing if not to point out how insidious the problem really is. While critics can discuss the problems of the big name titles, though, and the more subtle choices designers are making, sometimes it bears pointing out the blatant ones too. Otherwise stuff like this might slip us by: