The complicated problem of female sexualization in games and virtual worlds

23 Jun

This is an opinion piece and I’m going to begin this post with my conclusion: games that have voluptuous shapes and skimpy clothing for female characters need to have modest and less curvaceous options as well, to allow women to participate without being unwilling sexual objects. There are a few important words there, including options and unwilling. It’s 2014 and long past the time that game designers should have realized this.

A couple weeks ago, I posted a photo of my avatar at level 24 in the fantasy MMORPG TERA Rising. She is a race that is vaguely half human, half rhino and I created her to look tough and aggressive, not sultry. The default armor at that level revealed her ripped abdominals, but was not slutty. Yet when I leveled a bit higher and bought her some excellent gold armor, not only were most of her breasts revealed, but the idiotic physics engine makes her chest armor bounce along with her bodacious bosom as she moves. So here she is at level 32, wearing armor that is simply ludicrous, with her ankles better protected than all her vital organs:


In the TERA forums, a woman recently asked what modest clothing choices were available for the human avatars. A few people assured her that the cloth armor for humans wasn’t overly sexual, but I’m not so sure.  Here’s a page that shows the male and female human cloth armor of different types. I made a gif to show both options for one level:


The female choice is certainly cute, though hot pants and a low-cut, navel baring top aren’t for everyone. This is a game where 99% of the quests involve killing things, not delivering drinks at a nightclub. The male robes look bulky, but at least he won’t be jiggling around the map in kitten heels.

I don’t want to paint the game’s creators as creepy pervs for styling male and female characters so differently (well, not completely). Even where female players could choose more modest or warrior-like races or attire, plenty choose the ultrasexy options, from thigh-high stockings and French maid costumes to breast implants and bikinis. You need to pay extra for those and I’ve seen lots of them. There is also a character race in TERA called the Elin, who look like barely pubescent anime girls. The game lore says that they are adults and that is the normal appearance for their race, but… yeah, right. Their clothes are cute and extremely short. I can see the appeal of playing one of them as a tank, just because it would be funny to have a tiny girl taking on huge monsters and winning, but the lolita-esque sight of a small cartoon girl in slutty clothes can be troubling.

At least in virtual worlds, an avatar has many choices. There’s plenty of slutwear in Second Life, but it’s often designed by women and it’s purchased and worn by women. In a world of options, it is not forced on anyone. My avatar there has some revealing clothing, but her primary wardrobe ranges from business casual through formal and would be appropriate in most office settings. Many women choose to wear very skimpy, gravity-defying clothes in SL. Why not? There aren’t many places those outfits could be worn in the offline world, and if they make someone feel happy and attractive, great. I don’t buy into the idea that women dress themselves that way because of “the male gaze” or because we’ve internalized male ideas of beauty. When my avatar is in something well-made yet revealing, I think she looks sexy and that’s pleasurable to me, no matter what anyone else thinks. It’s just not my normal style. Like in RL, if a dress is too short, I wear it over leggings. Too low-cut? I can layer a shirt underneath. I’ve seen quite modest clothing and even head scarves available in SL; it’s not as easy to find as the latex and leather club wear, but it’s there.

As in the conclusion that began this post, I think choice is crucial. In this case I’m talking about female players, who should be able to take on a virtual persona with the level of sexuality they choose to share. If the default male character design is a warrior or sorcerer, the default female character design should not be a go-go dancer. I know several men who play as female characters because they enjoy watching sexy avatars bounce around while they’re doing quests, but they don’t consider how that reinforces that females in the game are objects for their lusty appreciation and not players in their own right. Though I don’t want to deny female players the option to flirt and be sexy if that’s what they choose, there needs to be another path.

Sometimes, it just comes down to women wanting to play as characters they can relate to. Controversy has been spinning around the absence of playable female characters in the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Unity release, especially as the game’s technical manager at Ubisoft suggested that adding female characters was just too much work. Insomniac Games tweaked Ubisoft in their promotional material for the game Sunset Overdrive. Rather wonderfully, they say that the character you play can be male or female, different skin colors, different body types, and all of the clothing is gender neutral.  “So if you want to be a dude in a skirt, you can be a dude in a skirt.” The female character they showed while making that point is wearing robes that might remind some of a popular assassin-themed game…

Gender-neutral clothing is a fantastic choice if they can make it work (tip of the hat to Tim Gunn). I’d be happy with female-tailored versions of the default male outfits in most games — and that doesn’t mean cutting out large sections to reveal some T&A. For a related issue, I recommend browsing The Hawkeye Initiative, which posts fan art of male comic characters (often Hawkeye) in similar poses, clothing, and anatomical detail as female comic characters. It doesn’t take many images to understand how ridiculous some of the female art can be.



Posted by on June 23, 2014 in Gaming, Gender & Sexuality


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5 responses to “The complicated problem of female sexualization in games and virtual worlds

  1. ellabrightside

    June 23, 2014 at 7:06 pm

    Great post Kay! I completely agree with the idea of more choice – having non-sexual options as female players makes a lot of sense. I am finding myself surprised by my response to this issue these days actually. I’m really torn on whether overt female sexuality is harmful, or just needs to be recontextualized as a positive thing for women to claim as their own. You’ve inspired me to write a post on this!

  2. Kay

    June 23, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    Thanks! Drop another comment with a link when you’ve written something; I’d love to read it!

    I’m torn too. I don’t think slutty clothing or even ridiculous skimpy armor is a universally bad thing. Empowered women comfortable in their bodies — virtual or not — are hot! However, if a woman cannot choose what she wants to reveal or conceal, a level of sexuality is being imposed on her and I can’t support that.


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