We’ve spent some time discussing sex in video games, including erotica, cultural differences, and nudity—but thus far, I’ve passed over some of the most egregious examples of sexual content in games: the sexualization of characters in costuming and design. This stuff isn’t sex in video games, per se—there is no explicit, on-screen sexual content happening here. But that doesn’t mean that sex isn’t implicit.
Before I start, I want to make sure we’re clear—there’s nothing wrong with sexy characters. I mean, you might consider placing limits on what you find acceptable for your kids to interact with, but what I’m going to be talking about in this piece is not “sexy characters”—it’s sexually objectified characters.
Now let’s get something else out of the way. Most video game characters are stylized. While female characters are ridiculously proportioned and clothed, male characters aren’t particularly realistic either; they tend to be masculine in the extreme. Let’s be real—they’re steroid-abusing tanks who wouldn’t be able to move their beefy necks far enough to look both ways before crossing the street.
Video game dudes are bigger, “better,” and gruffer than real men, and that’s a problem. We don’t want young boys (or older boys) growing up thinking that the ultra-macho beefneck up there is any kind of ideal to strive toward, and boys aren’t free of the body image problems that come with unrealistic depictions. It’s not the same problem inherent in female character design, though. Because, see, here are the female characters in Duke Nukem:
Male characters and female characters alike are designed, overwhelmingly, for the male gaze. As Jimquisition pointed out in his thorough take-down of male objectification in games, male characters are what men want to be, and female characters are what men want to have.
This power fantasy is often reinforced by the roles that female characters tend to play in games—the damsel in distress, the prize at the end of a puzzle. But even when females are fully capable, powerful players in the story, they’re still objectified, as a rule, by their clothing, the camera angle, or the pose.
Since we’re specifically discussing sex in video games, I won’t go into power play and gender roles in too much depth here. But it’s important to accept that video games don’t objectify men in the same way that they objectify women. Male characters are depicted unrealistically, yes—but not sexually objectified.
Okay, okay, I know I keep using Duke Nukem as an example, and machismo and sexism is kind of his thing. It’s a parody, after all. The problem is it isn’t just Duke Nukem.
The most obvious form of sexualization in gaming is costuming. We’ve all heard of the chain-mail bikini, but some character designs make that chain-mail bikini seem positively prudish.
The most important factors here, especially when we’re talking with kids about costuming, is who is dressing the characters and who the characters are being dressed for. When a real-life woman walks down the street in a chain-mail bikini (rare, I know, but it could happen) we can make the reasonable assumption that she probably wanted to dress that way. Maybe she’s an actress, maybe she’s in cosplay, maybe she’s just a person who really likes chain mail. Regardless, this person made a conscious and weighted choice to dress that way, and there’s no shame in that (or at least there shouldn’t be).
However. When a video game character prances on-screen dressed in a chain-mail bikini, we need to examine the reasons why that is. Who designed her? Why did they design her that way? Who was their intended audience? Almost exclusively, all of the people in that scenario are men.
(That doesn’t mean that character designers are evil guys forcing their misogynistic attitudes on everybody! These people are talented and hardworking. For one thing, there is a lot of complicated decision-making that goes into both design and marketing, and currently, the assumption is that sex sells. It sells to men, because men are supposedly the ones buying video games. Thus, sexy women sell video games. There are a lot of problems in these assumptions, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
This unfair dichotomy isn’t just present in fantasy, of course. German game producer Crytek came under fire recently—sort of—for its female character designs in their modern war FPS, Warface. The company reportedly asked its male fans to vote on aspects of female character designs, and what they came up with was boob windows and midriff-baring female soldiers. Real female soldiers? Not so happy about it.
An even more egregious example is Quiet, from the as-of-yet unreleased Metal Gear Solid V, a mute soldier who has been tortured:
Metal Gear’s head of production, Hideo Kojima, has stated: “I know there’s people concerned about ‘Quiet’ but don’t worry. I created her character as an antithesis to the female characters who appeared in the past games who are excessively exposed.” Kojima has said we’ll all feel bad about judging Quiet’s design once we figure out what happened to make her dress that way, but I’m skeptical. It also doesn’t really matter. She’s still yet another female soldier dressed in a thong and bikini top.
And if there’s still any doubt that female character costumes are hyper-sexualized, check out the difference between the same armor set on a male and a female in the game Dragon Eternity:
As an aside, the Dragon Eternity example is a good one because, yes, the male character is missing some important armor too—nobody ever said video game designs had to be realistic. But the female design is wearing a thong, bra, and some kind of sheer thigh-high stockings. Like the “Rocky Horror Picture Show!” Out of place? Sure. Totally unreasonable? Well, yeah. But hey, at least she’s sexy.
Triple D-Cups and Ant Waists
Sexualization of design isn’t just about revealing clothing, of course. While design of bodies and design of costuming often go hand-in-hand, there are some other serious implications for kids when female characters are anatomically impossible. Most female video game characters are thin, with large breasts and hips, vacant stares, long legs, and poses designed to accentuate these features.
And note: when I say anatomically impossible, I’m talking about this kind of stuff.
It’s also the case that the ways women in games stand, walk, move, and even talk can be and are often sexualized. Female characters tend to stand with their hips cocked, mouths open, and chests thrust forward. Their in-game banter is flirtatious. Women are also more likely to be depicted engaging in sexual acts, or as sex workers. (Not real sex workers, who are people with thoughts and dreams and agency, of course. Fantasy ones.)
The features that character designers choose to accentuate in female characters are typically those that are deemed sexy in women—lips, breasts, hips, legs. Constant exposure to this type of depiction in video games—as in any other media—can be damaging to kids. It affects self-esteem and body image, and it promotes the idea that women’s bodies are sexual by nature and not by choice.
Kids need to understand that this is not an “ideal” to strive for (either in oneself or in a romantic partner) and, again, to ask why the characters were designed this way and for whom.
This is tricky territory as well; but it’s important to discuss with kids. It’s rare that games feature female protagonists, but when they do, there is often a sense of voyeurism—it’s a long-standing joke that men are tired of male protagonists: “Who wants to stare at a guy’s backside for hours on end? Give us a female protagonist any day!” This is all in good fun, but it plays into a harmful cycle of sexualization wherein women’s bodies are depicted as being present only for the benefit and consumption of the players controlling them.
Lara Croft is an example of one of the first characters where this was an issue. Tomb Raider was marketed using scantily clad impersonators at trade shows, and an ad campaign for the game had men leaving strip clubs in order to track down Lara. In the game itself, players can manipulate the camera angle in order to see her from all sides.
And, lest we forget, Dead or Alive 5 features a mechanic where players can control the female characters’ breasts. Like, actually jiggle them up and down with the controller.
This type of objectification implies it’s okay to treat women like possessions and toys. It’s not comfortable for most female gamers, and it’s not a reasonable representation of human beings and sexuality regardless of who’s playing.
Talking To Kids
Discuss costume design with kids. Discuss who designs costumes, why, and for whom.
Point out positive attributes in all characters—male and female—and avoid making personality judgments based on appearance.
Design some of your own costumes! Redesign characters so that they are more realistic, more interesting, etc., and if your kids start designing sexualized costumes, tackle the problem head-on. Ask why they made that choice? Ask if a real woman would be comfortable wearing that costume. Ask if they’d wear something like that themselves. (Again, stylization is cool, and not all costumes have to look like functional medieval armor—it’s just a fun project to get kids thinking about character design and intention!)
Read Eschergirls on Tumblr. Ami Angelwings tackles the problems in character design in a lighthearted, funny manner. The blog can get a little racy sometimes, but teens will get a kick out of it and learn something at the same time. Repair Her Armor is another good one.
Have fun with Female Armor Bingo:
Finally, don’t get discouraged. There are games out there that don’t sexually objectify their female characters. I’ve played and enjoyed plenty of games whose female characters are overtly sexualized. Although it’s important to always strive for diversity, agency, and equality, it’s also okay to pick out the positives from a story. Just don’t forget to also acknowledge the negatives! Teach kids how to consume the media they love mindfully, and hopefully someday they’ll become mindful creators and teachers themselves.