Starbucks and butts

I am writing and posting this today from Starbucks, on a mini iPad with a maddeningly small keyboard, because yes you guessed it, Comcast has struck again. I will not bore you with the sordid details, but I am in my third day of trying to find someone — anyone — there who understands troubleshooting beyond the level of “Reboot your modem” or “We can send a technician on Friday”.

Every time I get on the phone with those troglodytes, I feel like I am trying to explain a wrist watch to a chimp. The chimp appears interested, and there seems to be intelligence behind those eyes, but after I’ve explained and am nodding hopefully, the chimp thoughtfully takes the watch, shakes it, then tries to eat it.

There is no hope.

But while I am on the subject of not understanding, I will weigh in on the most recent Blizz sexism controversy, fraught with danger though it may be.

I am sure you can find the details if you want to, but apparently someone’s mother took exception, in Twitter, to a depiction of a female character in Overwatch, claiming that the pose — an over-the-shoulder angle clearly featuring a butt crack through skimpy clothing — was harmful to her (the mother’s, not the character’s) daughter.

There is a very persuasive argument to be made that, if the mother thinks such depictions could harm her daughter, possibly she should not allow her daughter to play the game, and for her to demand less “provocative” art is to impose her values on all the people who like the game as it is thank you very much. And that if the motivating values in her daughter’s life come from a game, there is a pretty serious parenting gap.

I see that.

On the other hand, there is an equally persuasive  argument to be made that every online game currently worth playing sends the message that the basic worth of female characters lies in their stereotypical sex appeal, that they exist mainly to serve as eye candy for male players as well as to cater to those females whose purpose in life centers around sexual teasing.

I see that, too.

I do not have children, but I am actively involved in the lives of several nephews and nieces ranging in age from 6-19. My siblings are doing a fantastic job of raising smart, independent, caring boys and girls with well-grounded values for the modern world. Some of them play MMO type games and some do not, and those who do play are just as sensible, delightful, and respectful of others as those who do not. I cannot see that playing these games has harmed either the boys or girls (well, “girl” actually, since only one niece plays) in any way.

But having said all this, I still think there are a couple of points to be made. The first is that current “serious” online games are without a doubt highly sexist. They have been created primarily by and for adolescent or adolescent-thinking males, at least so far as character art goes. (Only recently, there have also started to be strong female protagonists, but historically they were all male.)

Don’t believe me? All you have to do is look at the “armor” for female and male characters. Almost without exception, the male armor is thick and protective — sometimes ridiculously so — while the female armor looks like something from Victoria’s Secret: low-cut, cleavage-revealing chest pieces; and high-cut, thigh-exposure and butt-enhancing leg pieces, some of which even bear a strong resemblance to fishnet stockings.

The point is not that the game depicts sexuality, rather that it is all one direction: female characters are drawn for their sexual attributes, male characters are drawn to emphasize their strength and heroic virtues. And when young people are bombarded with this same message –that men are serious and important and women are for sex — from many aspects of society, even the games they play, it takes a toll.

If it is not directly and constantly recognized and counteracted by parents, it sends a strong subliminal message to boys that females exist primarily to serve their sexual needs, and any role other than this is secondary. It sends a message to girls that they have no inherent worth unless they have a cartoon-inspired impossible body, and that any aspirations they have beyond pleasing a male are really just kind of a cute endearing hobby. It makes it ok to value women’s work less than men’s, to dismiss women’s opinions as less important than  men’s, to treat women in some parts of the world as chattel, to even think there is such a thing as “legitimate rape.”

Yes, I have expressed the message in its most extreme form, and young players with good role models will not necessarily fall prey to it. But make no mistake, what I described is the message. I get that some males reading this think it is all over-sensitive “SJW” claptrap. After all, what’s wrong about appreciating the female body? Nothing, just as there is nothing wrong about appreciating the male body. But when your gender is the constant recipient of such “appreciation” — at school, at work, at the mall and grocery store, walking down the street, even in a lousy computer game for cryin’ out loud — it begins to seem less like appreciation and more like creepy stalking and voyeurism.

Many males, especially younger ones, simply cannot comprehend this, because the idea of “unwanted sexual attention” just does not exist for them. For a couple of years during my Army service,  one of my many extra duties was to present the required annual Sexual Harrassment training. It was a horrible duty, because I just could not get the whole “unwanted sexual attention” across to the males in the class, so they tended to giggle and chortle (until I shot them a withering look).

However, I finally figured out how to make them understand. I am not proud of this, because I had to exploit an inexplicable military phobia, but I set up a scenario of someone in their unit was constantly ogling them, she would think up reasons to touch them, kept trying to be alone with them, and so forth. This scenario evoked snorts of laughter and comments like “Oh well, you know sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do,” and “Oh yeah, gimme some of that unwanted sexual attention, baby!” Then I would add, “Now suppose this soldier was male.”

Shocked silence, then comments like “I’d punch his blankety blank lights out!”

Unwanted sexual attention was now a concept they could understand.

Most educated and sensitive adults, no matter how trivial they personally may think these allegations of blatant sexism in online games are, can at least understand they are not trivial to some. And if you are Blizzard or ATVI, you must take this seriously, because if you hope to increase your profits, if you hope to make eSports The Next Really Big Thing, you must expand your customer base beyond adolescent-minded males. You must capture the dollars of more women. You must persuade fathers that they are not setting a bad social example for their sons by playing these games, and you must try to make a game that men will not have to apologize for if their daughters, sisters, nieces want to play.

Online games cannot fix the world’s problems, they cannot mend all of society’s ills, nor should they be expected to. But they do not need to contribute to them, either, they do not need to pander to and perpetuate our nasty side. They can set an example of fair play and respect for all. It is not only good business, it is good humanity.



About Fiannor
I have a day job but escape by playing WoW. I love playing a hunter, and my Lake Wobegonian goal is to become "above average" at it.

12 Responses to Starbucks and butts

  1. Grumsta says:

    This debate has been around as long as I’ve been playing fantasy role-playing games in the early 1980’s. There was a similar debate around the art (especially book covers) and even lead figures of the day.

    The box art for the UK version of RuneQuest is a classic example (easy to Google for it). There is an “unrealistic” flesh-to-armour ratio, to put it mildly. I remember the term “chainmail bikini” being used a lot at the time. The US box art had a very realistic (but still very feminine) armoured figure for its cover; quite why they felt the need to change it for the UK market is still beyond me.

    One of the main influences cited for the look of females in fantasy games is the artist Boris Vallejo.The irony is that only his female art is ever used as inspiration, even though his males are similarly scantily-clad, Conan-style.

    I play and raid with several females of varying ages, and the majority adopt the fantasy look over the pragmatic look for their characters. Of course, not all classes are plate-wearers so a skimpy cloth set is entirely viable.

    I think Blizz need to open up transmog to allow male and female characters to either be “realistically” dressed in full flesh-covering armour (which is kinda the point of the stuff, last time I checked), or adopt a Vallejo-esque all-out fantasy art look where *any* item can be made to look like anything else, or omitted entirely as with headgear now, and shoulders in Legion.

    I’m still surprised that we as players don’t get more options regarding the body shape and age of our characters, only the face and hair. No doubt there are several more cans of worms waiting to be opened there…….

    • Fiannor says:

      I had not heard about the Vallejo historical connection. Interesting. I think your suggestions for more choices for transmog and for character body styles would go a long way towards tamping down the idea that only female characters in WoW should be able to look sexy. Especially the ability to choose body styles.

      I am not against creating a character that looks voluptuous and wears skimpy “armor” in WoW, I think if that is part of the fun you have in the game, then go for it. What I do not like is the fact that if you select a female character, she WILL have a certain fantasized body style emphasizing her primary sexual attributes. (Well, not so sure about dwarves or gnomes, but honestly that is part of the problem too — why do all female dwarves have to be stocky?) And if you select a male character, he can only display secondary sexual attributes, such as muscles (which are not optional) and facial hair, no primary ones.

      Other games allow a much wider range of character body type selection than does WoW, this is where the game really shows its age in my opinion.

      I am sure it will come as no surprise to you that I tend to select a practical yet understated armor look for most of my characters for raiding, questing, etc. However, my party clothes get fairly edgy!

  2. gnomecore says:

    All the armor and weapons are not serving any realistic or practical reasons in the first place. It has nothing to do with combat things, its design is defined by purposes of coolness, status, fantasy. Ridiculous shoulders, unbelievably huge weapons you won’t be able to lift alone saving perform any fighting. In a game you must define the race and gender at a first glance. It is not only about stature, but outfits too, yes.

    And there are lots of varieties in WoW to make your character look like what you want. I have a vast range of female toons, and while some of them are fully dressed from toes to chin with no visible skin except their faces, some of them are wearing slutty or barbaric outfits. Like in real life, you are free to choose your character’s fashion and stick with it.

    • Fiannor says:

      You are right about the purpose of armor and weapons being the “cool” factor rather than any pretense of practicality. And I agree that it is useful to be able to identify a character’s race at first glance, but gender I am not so sure about — why does it matter as far as the conduct of the game goes?

      While it is true that you can tailor a female character’s armor look to suit you, it is true only to a point. Depending on the race and class of armor, it can be difficult to find, for example, a chest piece that does not plunge almost to the waist, that is not extremely low cut, or that does not show most of a midriff, especially if you are looking for a particular color scheme. Similarly, even shirts for female characters often do nothing to fill in skin gaps left by some of the armor. Thus, often you are left with “choices” along the lines of, do you prefer bare cleavage, plunging neckline, or bare midriff. Similarly, a significant number of leg pieces default to skimpy shorts, bare backsides, or the like.

      You are right to point out that there are choices for your “look” — Blizz is doing a bit better on this lately. It’s just that most of the choices still default to featuring a female character’s sexuality most of the time.

      • gnomecore says:

        The same applies to male characters. But it depends on a race. While I won’t even notice it on my Tauren, the same chest piece would look extremely “fabulous” on my Blood Elf. In real life, one would wear some pants and they fit, the other wears them and looks dreadful.

        And like in real life, if you don’t like a thing, you are not obliged to buy or wear it. And it’s hard to find a color scheme as well in a real shop sometimes for the image you build 🙂

  3. Athie says:

    These sorts of scandals are actually really easy to sort out. They start like this: a body part is visible in a game scene.

    1) Is displaying that body part socially appropriate in context? (For a butt, socially appropriate display contexts would be stuff like doctor’s exams etc.) If the display is not socially appropriate in context, then it is almost definitely sexualized.

    2) If bodies are sexualized in the game, does this include male bodies or just female ones? Do we see George Clooney Batman suits, KISS codpieces, tightly sculpted male bums, etc., or is it only females? If sexualization is gender-inclusive, then the game is sexy but not sexist. If sexualization is only for women, then the game is sexist.

    People sometimes mistakenly claim that the depiction of male muscles in games is a parallel sexualization. This is a mistake because having big muscles that show through your clothes is not socially inappropriate display in a combat context and is thus not actually sexualizing.

    So ultimately, the issues are simple. If a game sexualizes women and not men that game is sexist. All that’s left is bickering over how bad a particular act of bigotry is — and that’s usually a losing game.

    • Fiannor says:

      Spot on! Your analysis is exactly what I was trying to get at. I am not against body sexuality in a game, but a) it should ideally be by player choice, and b) it should be equally applied to both and/or all genders in the game.

      Well said, thank you.

    • gnomecore says:

      Could we have a social code issue here? The examples you used refer to something extraordinary, like a fictional superhero or a quite shocking rock star image. We couldn’t probably expect this in everyday life. Stressing the groin area is not considered appropriate among men unless in very, very special situations or communities. If a common guy tries to do so in everyday life, he’s immediately a target for laughs and mocking. Smth. like Howard wearing big, big belt buckles in The Big Bang Theory or Peter Griffin buying a big red car 🙂

      At the same time stressing the certain female body parts is making her more attractive (if stressed with taste and smarts), not a target for jokes. A small dress, an opened cleavage or back could be quite appropriate at parties, restaurants and what not.

      • Athie says:

        If you’re saying that in real life it’s often more acceptable for women to display their bodies in sexual ways than for men to do the same — well, absolutely. We shouldn’t want to argue that video games are somehow the only sexist part of our society.

      • Fiannor says:


        Aaaaand — you have just proved the point.

        Why shouldn’t women ogle men’s rear ends or “packages”? Men certainly ogle ours! Just because you personally think it is weird doesn’t mean everyone does. And it is due in no small part to the fact that society condones displays of sexuality for women but not for men, that women are devalued in virtually every area of endeavor except those related to sex, motherhood, or wife.

        (In fact, showing cleavage or wearing a skimpy dress does frequently make a woman a target for jokes — just not the kind civilized males usually share in polite company or with women.)

        All I am saying, and I think all @Athie is saying, is when only one gender is depicted with overt sexuality, a game is by definition sexist. That society at large may be sexist neither changes nor justifies this fact. You apparently would find it uncomfortable to be forced to display the details of your primary sexual attributes in order to fit in with social practices and to be considered attractive, I understand that, but not to put too fine a point on it, women live with this every day of our lives, even though at times we may be uncomfortable with it, too. We just have to deal with it, and honestly in a computer game I see no reason why males — virtual or otherwise — shouldn’t be subjected to the same sexuality standards as females, societal practices notwithstanding.

        You have said that you enjoy looking at your female characters in WoW — certainly nicer on the eye than male characters in your opinion. This is great, the game is after all meant for fantasy, escape, and enjoyment. So why am I not allowed to create a male character that would allow me to do the same? Why should I not be able to enjoy male characters as eye candy, with clothing and bodily depictions that feature and draw attention to their primary sexual attributes, if I want to? The answer, sadly, is that the game is designed and maintained primarily by males who consider this — as you do — weird and joke-worthy and “not appropriate”. Why, because it makes them feel a tad squirmy and uncomfortable? Well boo-hoo. But female characters? Hey, T&A all the way, because who doesn’t love looking at that?

        WoW is undeniably sexist. That has not kept me from playing it, because, well, unfortunately so is the world, and I am used to dealing with it. But just because I play the game and can cope with its juvenile depiction of women does not mean I don’t like to point out the game’s sexism once in a while. Kind of like the little kid in The Emperor’s New Clothes.

        And thank you for your comments, they are definitely causing me to think through this in increasing levels of complexity.

  4. gnomecore says:

    “You have said that you enjoy looking at your female characters in WoW — certainly nicer on the eye than male characters in your opinion. ”

    Surprisingly enough, I’m talking about faces here, not bodies 🙂 Tauren, Blood Elfs, Dwarfs, Orcs – are male-only options for me. The others are female-only options. I guess it has nothing o do with sexuality, just aesthetic pleasure.

  5. Fiannor says:

    I am shutting down comments on this post, because I have had several inappropriate misogynistic and/or homophobic rants that either I or my bad language filter removed. Who knew that a simple discussion about equal treatment in a game would bring out such spittle-laced invective? (I know, Internet, right?) At any rate, those whose comments remain, contributed in a positive way to a good discussion, so thank you.

    Now let’s move on.

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