With Heels Built Right In: Questioning Sexism in New Release Wildstar

Posted by | June 06, 2014 | Opinion | One Comment
Wildstar screenshot(Source: GamezRoomX)

Wildstar, NCSoft’s new space fantasy MMORPG, was released this week. With the game’s cartoonish graphics and former Blizzard developers on board, Wildstar clearly hopes to make a play for World of Warcraft’s coveted player base. The game owes a good bit of its art style and gameplay to World of Warcraft.

Players can join either of two warring factions seeking to colonize the new world of Nexus. Nexus turns out to be the ancient home of the well-organized and financed imperial Dominion faction, but the rag-tag Exiles faction manages to land on the planet first. Exile players must help their people settle a new home, while the Dominion players work to evict the Exile squatters and learn about their own history on Nexus. Each of the factions are portrayed as good and just to the players within them but villainous to players in the opposing faction.

In my book, the Warcraft influence is mostly a net positive, but Wildstar seems to have brought along some of Warcraft’s baggage too. Despite making its debut a whole decade after World of Warcraft, Wildstar still struggles with the same sexism issues that its spiritual predecessor does.

Do All Female Characters Have To Be Sexy?

At character creation the female avatars in Wildstar are characterized by a playful sexiness, while the male avatars are characterized by power. The male avatars can be sexily powerful as is the case with the game’s human men, or they might be monstrously powerful in the case of the Draken men with their hunched posture. There are many options for male avatars offering a decent variety of body types and looks. The options for female avatars, however, are restricted to the sexy in ways very oriented to the male gaze.

The Draken women don’t share the stooped posture of the males, and the robotic Mechari have high heels built right into their legs. While there several body types to choose from, they all share relatively robust hips and bust connected by thin midsection. Even the heavier physiques, of which there is maybe one per race, still maintain the same extreme hourglass proportions.

For example. (Source: Rikudou Gaming)

For example. (Source: Rikudou Gaming)

This isn’t to say that Wildstar completely denies female avatars any power. Most of the animations in the game allow for players to read power into their female characters. The combat animations for female avatars mirror those of their male counterparts, and the female NPCs I’ve encountered so far show potential. Nevertheless, the lack of choices for female avatars compared to males, along with one hyper-sexualized choice that is available, is what players first encounter.

She might be wearing hotpants, but she can take you down.

She might be wearing hotpants, but she can take you down.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a female avatar being sexy, but when sexy is your only choice, character creation becomes disempowering. Character creation is our first introduction to our character in an MMORPG, and Wildstar sends the wrong message when avatars are designed to appeal specifically to straight men regardless of any choices the player makes.

The lack of options implies that female characters are only invited into the Wildstar universe if they’re attractive enough, and that implies that the Wildstar universe is a straight male universe. A variety of men are welcome. Women can come along if men find them attractive.

 How Do Community Members Feel About the Sexism Issue?

Wildstar is far from the only game guilty of sexist character creation, and it is far from the worst offender. Watch_Dogs, released only a few days earlier, has a narrative with each plot point pushed forward by female characters disastrously getting killed or kidnapped. On Wildstar’s forums the subject of sexism in character design is often met with a dismissive sentiment of, “sure, but why bother bringing it up?” With so many examples of similar sexism in gaming’s history, even acknowledged sexism is often met with a sense of futility. Gamers will say “sexism is just the way things are” as if this medium were immutable and not created by people who can be encouraged to do things better.

Studying anatomy, for example. (Source: Rikudou Gaming)

Studying anatomy, for example. (Source: Rikudou Gaming)

A common response to challenging sexism in games is “don’t get the game if you don’t like it.” In other words, we should just get out if we dislike the rules of the club. But if we care about the future of gaming, then simply avoiding troubling games is unproductive. For the most part, game developers want their games to appeal to as many potential customers as possible. If you’re a gamer who doesn’t fit the straight male stereotype, it’s important to tell the developers what you want.

The good news is that more and more gamers are asking for progress. Many recent titles are more inclusive to a wider variety of people. Games covered here on Pixelkin, like Elder Scrolls, The Last of Us, The Secret World, Gone Home, and Transistor, are just a few of the games being released now that reflect our increasingly inclusive world.

MMOs like Wildstar have an advantage in that they are expected to evolve constantly and they have communities built around them actively providing feedback. The Wildstar community is not being shy about pushing for change, either. The game has just been released, but the game’s community is constantly raising concerns about progressive gender issues. Many gamers within the community are working to make it a welcoming space. I’ve seen calls to provide more non-sexist options for female characters on the forums and in game chat. In fact, I’ve seen in-game chat, which traditionally is a depository for Chuck Norris jokes, turn into a platform for feminist advocacy. I’ve seen forum threads where people not only discussed more options for female characters, but challenged the concept of gender categories as well.

Is Wildstar Responding to Criticism?

While many of the design choices made by the Wildstar art team are disheartening, positive changes have already been made in response to beta testers and forum posters challenging the designers. Designers have already reduced breast size, offered more body types, and removed cringe-inducing breast physics in response to player feedback. They’re small steps, but it proves that the designers are capable of listening.

Progress starts with people speaking up and demanding change.

Jason de Kanter

About Jason de Kanter

Jason grew up a PC gamer from the days games came on cassette tapes. He has worked as a writing teacher, and knows his continued interest in gaming creates a shared vocabulary with young people. Jason loves bringing new players into the gaming hobby. His preference is for multiplayer games–particularly ones where players can form their own communities to work together. You can catch him blathering on at length about various issues with geek culture at KitschKobold.blogspot.com.