Thoughts Of A Feminist Gamer On Whether ‘Sexy’ Video Game Characters Influence Which Games We Choose To Play

Well first things first, what makes a video game character sexy? Isn’t deciding what is sexy purely a subjective thing? Yes it is, so with this in mind I have decided, for the purposes of this piece, to define sexy in the context of video game characters as being clearly designed to be aesthetically appealing or titillating.

So a while ago I ran a poll on Twitter. I asked my followers, most of whom are gamers, the following question

“Does making video game characters ‘sexy’ have any impact on whether or not you buy or play a game?”

I used the same definition of sexy as above. The response was interesting. While a few answered that attractive video game characters are a small consideration when buying a game, the majority of responses indicated that the inclusion of sexy video game characters is not a consideration at all when deciding whether to purchase or play a video game. As a contrast I followed it up with this question.

” Would intentionally unattractive or ugly characters put you off?

The response to this question was the same. A small number answered that it may affect their decision but the majority claimed that the inclusion of unattractively designed characters would not be a consideration when deciding whether or not to purchase or play a game. With both questions everyone that answered rated video game character design as being fairly low priority in purchase/play decisions. Higher priorities included plot/story, opinion of trusted reviewers/youtubers, game play, graphics, reputation of the developer and whether or not the game was part of a well established franchise. Some responses also indicated that while those questioned didn’t mind characters being designed to be sexy, they objected if it was thought to be clearly at the expense of other, higher priority, concerns.

So why am I asking these kinds of questions? Isn’t wondering about the sexiness of video game characters a little superficial?

Yes, it is superficial. However as video game graphics quality has improved so has the desire to make video game characters visually more detailed in design, this has often included them being sexually appealing. This is of particular interest to me as the video game industry is facing a lot of criticism at the moment by many feminists for it’s decisions to design video game characters to be sexy, particularly female ones. Complaints include unrealistic body types (Big breasts, tiny waists, overlarge muscles, generally preposterous anatomy) sexual objectification and the casting of sexualised characters as little more than props, again particularly women. The game Dragon’s Crown was heavily criticised for it’s sexualised characters. The game featured grossly over muscled males and hugely breasted females, all in very revealing clothing. The artist, George Kamitani from the developer Vanillaware, had to explain and apologise to any offended by his designs (interview found here)

But again, why should any of us gamers care? It would seem from my (admittedly small) sample that most of us don’t really care either way. There are more important things to be thinking about, right?

 

Well here’s the thing, the video game industry thinks we do care.

In the last ten years the popularity of conventions marketed to gamers has exploded. According to Wikipedia the number of people attending  PAX Prime increased from 39000 in 2007 to over 70 000 in 2011, after which the hosts gave up trying to keep count (View Wiki entry here) Here’s a graft of the attendance numbers for San Diego Comic Con

SDCC-Graph-615x327

Graft was taken from a article ‘San Diego Comic-Con By The Numbers’ by Kyle Hill which can be viewed here

Inevitably hand in hand with the increase of convention attendance is the increase in popularity of cosplay. If you’re unfamiliar with cosplay, it’s basically people dressing up as their favourite characters from video games/anime/manga/movies. The surge in the popularity of cosplay has prompted some video game companies to make cosplayability more of a consideration in video game character design. An example of this can be found in Metal Gear Solid V. The Metal Gear Series was already known for it’s very muscular male characters. In a series of tweets the creator of the Metal Gear Solid Series and Vice President of Konami Digital Entertainment, Hideo Kojima, revealed that he had instructed character designers to make Quiet, a mute female sniper character for MGS V, more sexy/erotic in order to make her more appealing to potential cosplayers (Taken from Polygon article, text can be viewed here) The Final Fantasy series, developed by Square Enix, has made sexiness of video game characters a priority more and more as the series has progressed, sometimes to the detriment of story and gameplay. Square spent around 40 million dollars developing Final Fantasy 12 with lavish attention being given to it’s character design, only for the game to be disliked by the series fans for it’s characters lacking development and interaction, unbalanced gameplay and it’s storyline. Even more money was spent on Final Fantasy 13, with characters made even more detailed and pleasing to the eye. However Final Fantasy 13 was almost universally despised by the fans.

But it isn’t just about cosplayers. Video game developers and publishers also believe that their audience wants characters in video games to be sexy because of focus groups and play testing. An example of this occurred in the free-to-play shooter game Warface, created by game developer company Crytek. In an interview with Wired, Crytek Executive Producer Joshua Howard explained that female character skins in the game were more sexualised because of feedback from Russian and Chinese audiences (interview available here) The video game industry believes that sexy video game characters help to sell games. This may or may not be true. Interestingly when I looked at whether or not there was any research into whether video game character aesthetics had any effect on video game sales I was not able to find any (if anybody out there knows of any please feel free to link in the comments)

So do I, as a feminist gamer, think that video game characters should be designed to be less sexy? Particularly if we don’t care if they are or not? Well after asking the above questions on Twitter I then decided to think about those questions in reference to my own buying patterns. The answer was that yes, for me character design as part of the overall art style was a factor on whether or not I’d buy a game. I read about the anger over Dragon’s Crown and I admit that the character design put me off playing the game. I know that is somewhat unfair to what may have been an awesome game but it is just a personal preference. As for games in general, personally I would like to see a greater variety of designs, ages and body types in video game characters. I think they could benefit from a wider range of characters designs that will complement the greater variety of stories that games are now trying to tell. But does this mean that sexy should be banished to the naughty step? Well no, like everything else sexy should be a one tool among many at the the artists disposal, to be used as part of the overall grand scope that I know video games characters have the potential to achieve. However I believe it is the Industry itself that needs to allow artists and developers the creative freedom to add more variety to their video game characters. I’m not trying to say video games can’t be sexy, as always everything in moderation. It all rests on how the artist sees the characters they wish to create. They should be able to explore the possibilities without interference.

So that’s what I think. What do you think? Does the attractiveness of video game characters make a difference to whether or not you play a game? Has there been a particular game where you’ve been put off by the character design? Would you like to see more variety in video game character designs? Leave a comment and let me know. As always feel free to disagree with me but please do so respectfully.

A quick note to finish. I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone that answered my questions and got involved in the discussion on Twitter, you are all amazing and writing this would not have been possible without you. I’d also like to draw your attention to #GamerVoices a tag started by youtuber and my Twitter friend Gaming Anarchist. It’s a tag on which to talk about games and post content made by gamers. #GamerGate is vital, what it has achieved is amazing and I’ve made some great friends there. But also check out #GamerVoices and let’s make just talking video games fun again.

Thanks so much for reading

Angela

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts Of A Feminist Gamer On Whether ‘Sexy’ Video Game Characters Influence Which Games We Choose To Play

  1. I think this was well thought out and well written, but there is one place where I find it myopic.

    “As for games in general, personally I would like to see a greater variety of designs, ages and body types in video game characters.”

    I think that’s already the case. Princess Peach isn’t sexy, and neither is Mario. There’s SkullGirls. Most of the dudes in CounterStrike aren’t that hot. Neither is Donkey Kong. Nor is Alice from in Madness Returns.

    My point being: while, yes, there are overly-sexualized images out there, that’s in the minority of games, and there are already tons of ages and body types – and even species – out there in different games.

    And for the record, I’m a male and you can add one to your statistics. How sexy a female character is in the game is usually irrelevant to me. I say “usually” because while it never gets me to buy a game, some times it makes me not buy a game. A good game doesn’t need boobs to sell it, so when the sexualization is prominent I have to wonder what they’re trying to make up for.

    I also suspect lesbian gamers don’t buy games for the women in tight catsuits. That’s not how people really are in general. They’re buying a game to play a game – usually adventure or such. Semi-nudity won’t make up for a bad adventure, boring combat, horrible storyline, etc., no matter how much some hack wants it to. Gamers will be the first ones to call BS on a bad game whether there are sexualized images or not.

    If a game is good, it will be good in spite of the T&A, not because of it.

    So I liked the entry, but I do think that one thing is a bit myopic. I invite you to go to a place like Steam and check out the thousands of games, and you’ll see that most have nothing like that in there. Yes, some do. But most do not.

  2. You say that being put off by the character design in a game is “somewhat unfair to what may have been an awesome game”, and I have to ask… why?

    Games are more than just mechanics, and if it fails to appeal on an aesthetic level, it has (in part) failed as a game. Maybe it seems weird to characterize an aversion to a sexualized character as an aesthetic objection, since hey, sexy (sort of) means aesthetically pleasing, right? But I think you’re not acknowledging a difference between “sexy”, and “sexualized” in your post. You seem to use the terms interchangeably, but I’d like to suggest that in fact they’re critically different from one another.

    It’s the difference between “a character who is sexy”, and “a character who is designed to appeal to sexual interests”. Does it read as a representation of one of the many great ways there are to be a person, which certainly includes sexually attractive, or as “look, boobs! y’all like boobs, right??”? It’s that whiff of pandering objectification in the latter that, for me, actually makes me *less* likely to buy a game that seems to exhibit it. I’m insulted by the suggestion that such a ploy would appeal to me.

    I’m sure I’ve missed out on some otherwise good games because of this, but if part of the experience of playing it includes feeling like the person those designers seem to think I am, then the game’s not a good experience overall.

  3. Depends on the game, really.

    An average game purchase – for me – is primarily based on the criteria listed (developer, franchise, genre, plot, reviews). But I’d openly admit that I’ve purchased a game because of an attractive man on the cover, played around in the character creator of RPGs making the hottest/prettiest characters, complained if the game’s protagonist is ugly and fallen for handsome men (Chris Redfield, Cullen and Nathan Drake – hell yeah!) and admired beautiful women (Bayonetta FTW, Clara Lille, Elizabeth and Morrigan, mhm!)

    But I’ve always had a more artistic eye – as an artist, designer and genuine lover of creative expression I’ve always been interested in the aesthetically pleasing aspects of entertainment; particularly WHY characters/environments/objects are designed in that way. I love reading art books because developers often explain things audiences might otherwise not realize about characters or environments (ex. Bayonetta’s hair was initially red because Christian Europe believed redheads were witches or otherwise untrustworthy).

    At the end of the day, a game’s gameplay and narrative quality matter more than attractive characters – but it certainly doesn’t hurt having them.

    I, personally, find Hollywood’s standards and beauty magazines’ cover models far more damaging to a person’s (female or male) body image than any cartoon, comic or game character.

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