Where My Girls At? : Androcentrism in Videogame Development

I’m going to be talking a lot on this blog about characters who are only female because their sex is central to their character, about a lack of diverse female representations, and how female characters fall into certain stereotypes. The beating heart that all these smaller sexist arteries and veins spring from is a concept called androcentrism.

Ms. Pac-man is really just Pac-man’s stage name when he does drag. Unless you believe that the application of boots, heavy makeup, and a giant bow makes a boy into a girl.

Despite the many, many people who like to insist that sexism is over we still live in an androcentric society. We view men as the neutral default and women as a stranger and more specific variation of the man.  It’s present in our language, in the marketing we use to sell products, and in our visual iconography. A stick figure with split legs can be interpreted as a man or as gender neutral, but a stick figure with a skirt is female only. A round circle with a slice cut out of it can be read as a man, but additional feminine signifiers are required to turn it into a woman.

A brotherhood can have female members, but a sisterhood with male members would be viewed as strange. A group of men and women can be reduced to ‘guys’, but never to ‘gals’. It’s even present in our jokes. If a joke starts out with a man walking into a bar, the joke doesn’t have to revolve around his gender. But if the joke starts out with a woman walking into a bar, her gender is almost certainly going to factor into the punchline. This is because jokes are generally stripped down to their most basic information. If you tell a joke about an doctor, and his occupation has nothing to do with it, the listener is going to wonder why you bothered to specify unnecessary information. It’s the same way with ethnicity and gender, because white men are viewed as the neutral default in our society.

So a man is seen as general, and a woman is seen as a specific kind of man. This means that most designers or artists don’t need a specific reason to make a monster or character male, but they need a justification to make a character or monster female. At the same time, female characters or monsters appear more conspicuous to the audience compared to males. This is why it’s been decades since Samus’s initial reveal and yet it still remains a narrative trope to ‘surprise’ the audience with the fact that a powerful character is female. No one is surprised when a mysterious character of unspecified gender is male, because male is the natural expectation.

Brotherhood of Steel, yeah okay, way to make me feel included.

These androcentric expectations result in players rarely batting an eye at video games with all male or almost entirely male casts, while most game with all female casts are designed and marketed as eye candy for men.* A game with all male characters is simply a game with all male characters. A game with female characters is a bullet-point on the box, a specific selling point.

This one has mud wrestling, just like the fighting games with men in them do!

These games are fairly rare. Usually limited to the fighting game genre or the occasional niche top-down bullet-hell shooter, they’re obviously designed to appeal more to men than to women. With few exceptions, the range of characters either resemble a dating-sim lineup or a catalog full of glassy-eyed models selling sexy halloween costumes.

I’m glad that logo is covering up her crotch, otherwise this would be downright indecent.

I could spend an entire post talking about how weird these games are, but the fact is that they’re niche titles within niche genres. Despite the omnipresent claim that ‘sex sells’, these games never seem to have any staying power in the market. The majority of the videogame market is now over 21 and many consumers no longer appreciate the type of blatant pandering that assumes their sex drive is still that of a horny teenager.

No really, sex sells, which is why this is a highly respected classic that people actually remember existing.

Unfortunately games like this still do damage, because they reinforce the idea that if there’s more women in the game than men, they must be there as eye candy. This contributes to a trend in video games where women usually appear in media images surrounded by a plurality of men. The inverse of this rarely happens. And if you imagine in your head the reverse, it seems strange. There’s no logical reason it should, except that it’s what we’re used to seeing. Having only one or two female characters in a game full of men is seen as completely normal, but if you reverse the genders, suddenly it’s notable, suddenly it’s something that requires justification.

So you could remove all the women from this image and it would still be seen as normal…

…but this would be unusual. Even if I’d had more faces to copy-paste.

Granted, Gears of War did attempt to justify why there no women in the first two games, but it was a horrifying justification about breeding camps that made any pro-choice woman’s stomach turn. Generally games don’t bother to explain why there aren’t many women, because they don’t have to.

Which isn’t to say that a lack of female characters goes unnoticed, particularly by other women. Unless I’m playing a defined protagonist, I always prefer to have the option to play as a woman. I don’t exclusively play as women, but I probably choose a female avatar about 70% of the time when given the option. When I was in junior high I was quite keen on a game called Heroes of Might and Magic II. There were several reasons for this, the foremost being it had a huge demo and my parents didn’t appreciate my inclination towards videogames. You could recruit female heroes in the game, which I really liked, but I remember viewing the troops with some consternation. Out of all the human troops, only the archers were female. The only supernatural creatures that were female were fairies, ghosts and medusas. The last strategy game I played, King’s Bounty had only Dryads, Fairies, and the obligatory Succubi.

For extra annoyance, they also dressed in really cheap looking stripper costumes.

It’s a fairly consistent pattern that goes back to looking for justification to make something female. Warcraft III’s Night Elves have a decent share of female troops, because people love sexy purple girls. Uh, I meant to say because they have a matriarchal religion. But elsewhere, they are lacking. In historically based strategy games, there’s a reason for all-male armies. But these are fantasy games. Is wizards killing dragons really more plausible than female knights in armor? Is that really what’s going to break your suspension of disbelief?

The most unusual absence of women I’ve seen recently has been while playing Diablo 3. At first I thought it was just my imagination, but as I paid closer attention I realized it was true. Every single villager corpse you find lying around the fields and dungeons is male. There is a model of a female corpse strung up as decoration that is used in several locations, but the corpses that you encounter constantly, whose pockets you are constantly rifling through for loose gold, are always male.

“Are you serious, spider-queen? This is the equality you want? The right to be corpses?” But it’s weird not to have them, it implies unusual things about the world. It implies that the vast, vast majority of the population is men, and that they are the only ones venturing out into the world. It might be less conspicuous in a game where there weren’t so many other obvious omissions of women. Despite the leader of the Iron Wolves being a woman, there are no other women in the Iron Wolves. There are no female guards at Bastion’s Keep, there are no female guards in Tristram. Hell, there’s an all-male coven with a female leader. It’s a bizarre decision, made even more bizarre by the fact that none of it should have been very difficult to implement. Models for female townspeople already exist. A simple retexture is all it would have taken to diversify the corpses. A more generic-looking version of Asheara could have been used to diversify the Iron Wolves.

But there’s only enough double-sided tape in Caldeum to hold up Asheara’s outfit, so I guess they couldn’t recruit any more women into the Iron Wolves.

The lack of female cultists is the most glaring omission. It’s as if Maghda has some trust issues after Adria left and has been stamping ‘no girls allowed’ on the coven recruitment fliers. The cultists are veiled, and it would be easy to modify the design to look more feminine. But that isn’t even necessary, because there are several different cultist models. It would have cost no extra time to make the summoners women, just a different voice actor and a slight adjustment of proportions. The dark summoner concept art even looks distinctly feminine, although the in game model is clearly male.

Check out those hips. And is that boob-armor I spy?

But even simple additions to a video game have to be a conscious decision, and when something makes no real difference to the gameplay, it’s easily overlooked. this is why video games can be a particularly difficult medium in which to confront this double-standard. Every character in a video game has to be diligently created down to the last detail by 3d artists. Every motion they make is controlled by the animation artists. Shortcuts like motion capture and 3-d scanning still require heavy amounts of clean-up and fine-tuning by the artists. Similar character can often reuse art assets. Characters that share the same skeleton and have similar builds can often use the same animations. However, the higher the visual fidelity of the game, the more difficult it becomes to share assets and animations, especially across gender lines.

An extra complication comes from the consumer demand for female characters to be more attractive than male characters. While men can get away with shaved heads and textured stubble, women are expected to have realistic and attractive hair and eyelashes. This isn’t to discount the amount of effort that goes into crafting a Nathan Drake, but I’ve never seen consumers complain that Nathan isn’t attractive enough. In contrast, even the most beautiful female models I’ve seen in video games always seem to have some vocal detractors.

Killzones, Battlefields and Modern Warfares mostly breeze by without complaints about all-male or nearly male casts. An unusual exception to this usual apathy was Brink. Maybe it was because the game focused so heavily on character customization. Maybe it was because its science fiction setting made it harder to justify the lack of female characters. Personally I think the fact that the developers admitted that they would have liked to have female characters if it was financially viable made them an unfairly prominent target. The level of outrage against a lack of female characters directed at Brink was completely disproportionate when compared to similar games like Team Fortress 2.

Admittedly, I was also disappointed that I couldn’t play a woman in Brink, but the scale of what they were attempting to achieve in terms of character customization made them an unfair target. I constantly saw detractors erroneously claim that adding female characters would have been quick and easy. I saw people claim that it was as simple as ‘morphing’ the male models to be female, despite the fact that every morph target is created by hand by an artist, not some automatic process the computer does for them. Adding proper female characters would have nearly doubled their character art budget for the game, and I seriously doubt the people who clamored for an easy fix would have been satisfied with one. Which is better, no women at all, or women who are conspicuously half-assed compared to the men? Female representation is worth fighting for, but I don’t think anyone should ever diminish the effort and time that it requires to make it happen.

However, there are a lot of games that COULD add female characters just with a head-swap. Under bulky modern military gear, men and women don’t look noticeably different at all below the neck. So depending on the game, its art style and its setting, new bodies and new animations may not be necessary at all. In that case, all that’s needed is new heads and new voice acting. Possibly new facial animations if the new female head ends up too different from the male.

They’re even considerately wearing gloves so you don’t have to replace the hands!

I get it. Getting told that your gender inclusion is less important than including destructible walls sucks. You’re understandably angry and you want to lash out at those cheap hacks undervaluing your gender’s presence.  But every video game starts out with a list of essential key features and then a bunch of other features that the developers would also like. When time starts to crunch, some of those features have to go. And they’re going to get pulled out like jenga blocks, where whatever affects every other part of the game the least is going to get whisked away first. And here’s where androcentrism comes to bite women in the ass again, because having male characters is considered essential, but having female characters is not.

So that is some bullshit right there. And some of the reasons developers will give for not including women are not going to be completely honest. So do complain, but be informed. Make it clear that you understand what you’re asking for. Nothing makes it easier for a sympathetic developer to disregard your opinion than erroneously telling them how fast and easy it would be to do something. The fact is that most consumers have very little idea how time consuming video game production can be. Their first instinct when confronted with the lack of a feature is to blame the development team for being lazy. Another popular demand is for the development team to simply hire more employees, but having too many cooks in the kitchen comes with its own complications. Outsourced art has to be implemented by in house artists. The more in house artists, the more difficult communication and art style matching becomes.

Videogames should have more women. Not because it’s easy, but because it’s important. And not just because it’s the decent thing to do, but also because it’s profitable.

Female gamers have always existed, but they’re becoming increasingly numerous, and they like having the option to play as a girl. I always loved FPS games, but I was apprehensive about approaching games that focused on online deathmatches against strangers. The game that changed that for me was Unreal Tournament 2k4, and one of the main things that attracted me to it was the number of non-stereotypical, badass looking female characters and the fact that they actually used them in their marketing. Gamers have responded extremely positively to Bioware’s increasing dedication to their female protagonists. League of Legends is extraordinarily popular and reaching an audience far wider than its niche genre used to appeal to. Part of that is its unique business model, but the number of female champions is very appealing to women, even when most of those female champions are half naked. The conventional wisdom in marketing has been that if you don’t appeal primarily to teenage boys, your game won’t sell, but the opposite has been increasingly true. Especially in hardcore competitive genres that are naturally unwelcoming to new players, having female characters that aren’t just eye candy sends a semiotic message to female customers that they might be welcome too.

I know it always means a lot to me.

*I’m not including videogames with all female casts that are designed to appeal to young girls. Those are their whole own bag of sociological nightmares and there is no way I am willing to do the research necessary to talk about them because they are too depressing.

~ by obligatoryspiderqueen on July 19, 2012.

One Response to “Where My Girls At? : Androcentrism in Videogame Development”

  1. […] last time I posted about Androcentrism I discussed how the male gender being considered the neutral, unmarked gender by society encourages […]

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