The Tits Have It: Sexism, Character Design, and the Role of Women in Created Worlds

Lightning, drawn by Jonathan

This panel is all about titties and I feel like its my fault!  – Jonathan Jacques-Bellêtete

There are many things I expect to see in a panel called “East Meets West, Art Direction for a Worldwide Audience.” I expected to hear Isamu Kamikokuryo, the art director for Final Fantasy XIII-2 discuss how Japanese artists focus on creating new worlds, Norse mythology and its influence on the game, and drawing inspiration from Cuba for some of the beautifully rendered backgrounds. I expected to hear Jonathan Jacques-Bellêtete, the art director of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, talk about influences like Andrew Loomis and Metal Gear Solid. I had hoped for an interesting back and forth between the two designers on how technology influences artistic development as well as what happens to geographic differences in artistic influences in our increasingly connected worlds.

I did hear all of these things, but also something that pinged my feminist gamer radar.

In describing his influences, Jacques-Bellêtete mentioned he was heavily influenced by Metal Gear and Final Fantasy. Then he went into a two minute riff about “always trying to have very beautiful female characters,” noting that these were characters he would want to sleep with. After making a semi-disparaging remark about female characters drawn in a North American style, he concludes “I’d rather have female characters from Final Fantasy or Soul Caliber to sleep with.” This draws chuckles from the crowd.

And there it was, the truth about character design that so many players know but most designers wouldn’t usually articulate: most of the egregiously sexist character designs are based on fuckability, rather than playability.

Drawing attractive characters isn’t a crime. But it starts to become grating when characters are not only attractive, but hypersexualized and mostly defined by their appearance. Even when characters aren’t hypersexualized, they can still be boring and flat in execution if there is more attention paid to animating her curves than the character herself.

But the model for art in our fandom communities is often sex appeal first, to the detriment of characters. Over in the comics world, Laura Hudson broke down the problems with the faux empowerment form of “liberated sexuality” that is so common in contemporary storylines:

Let’s start with Catwoman. The writer and artist have decided that out of all possible introductions to the character of Selina Kyle, the moment we’re going to meet her is going to be the one where she happens to be half-dressed and sporting bright red lingerie. That is in fact all we see of her for two pages: shots of her breasts. Most problematically, we are shown her breasts and her body over and over for two pages, but NOT her face. No joke, we get a very clear and detailed shot of her butt in black latex before we ever see her face looks like. Can’t you show us the playful or confident look in her eye as she puts on her sexy costume? Because without that it’s impossible to connect with the character on any other level than a boner, and I’m afraid I don’t have one of those. [...]

[W]hat I keep coming back to is that superhero comics are nothing if not aspirational. They are full of heroes that inspire us to be better, to think more things are possible, to imagine a world where we can become something amazing. But this is what comics like this tell me about myself, as a lady: They tell me that I can be beautiful and powerful, but only if I wear as few clothes as possible. They tell me that I can have exciting adventures, as long as I have enormous breasts that I constantly contort to display to the people around me. They tell me I can be sexually adventurous and pursue my physical desires, as long as I do it in ways that feel inauthentic and contrived to appeal to men and kind of creep me out. When I look at these images, that is what I hear, and I don’t think I even realized how much until this week.

In many ways, the constant barrage of this type of imagery (and characterization) is not unlike the sh*tty neighborhood I used to live in where every time I walked down the street, random people I didn’t know shouted obscene comments about my body and told me they wanted to have sex with me. And you know, maybe a lot of those guys thought they were complimenting me. Maybe they thought I had tried to look pretty that day and they were telling me I had succeeded in that goal. Maybe they thought we were having a frank and sexually liberated exchange of ideas. I’m willing to be really, really generous and believe that’s where they were coming from. But in the end, it doesn’t matter that they didn’t know it was creepy; it doesn’t matter that they “didn’t get it,” because every single day I lived there they made me feel like less of a person.

That is how I feel when I read these comics.

As a gamer, full cosign. Two years ago, at my South by Southwest panel with N’Gai and Naomi, I talked about how in my 22 years of playing video games, I’ve been all kinds of characters: a Bandicoot, a Lombax, a pervert squirrel, James Bond, some dude addicted to painkillers, a few different folks hustling in the underworlds of Vice City, San Andreas, and Liberty City, Lego Batman, Joanna Dark, Laura Croft, Karin and crew, Tidus and crew, Sora and crew, and easily hundreds of other characters. But to play as a black woman, to inhabit and play as someone is similar to my real life identity? I’ve had five opportunities in twenty-two years. And that’s if I count characters that are biracial, characters that appear in reflections, and one tan colored viera.

All the options

And, to add insult to injury, these characters are also undermined from the get go. My first introduction to Resident Evil‘s Sheva Alomar was an ass shot.

So, at question and answer time, the feminist gamer Goddesses shined down on me and allowed me to ask Jacques-Bellêtete about his comments. I wanted to know how the approach to female characters influences their design. Do designers put more thought into female lead characters, or are they illustrated in the same way as characters who are intended to be eye candy? How does that presentation impact their playability?

Jacques-Bellêtete immediately blurts out “I feel like you’re trying to trick me,” laughing apologetically to avoid stepping into a controversy landmine. He takes pains to explain that Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a female lead narrative designer. Mary DeMarle shaped the story in a way that created strong primary female characters, which makes for different themes.  He acknowledge that I was “kinda right,” in that there is a difference in the approach to design between main characters versus characters he termed “cannon fodder.” He also noted that it is “such a cliche of our industry that women have big boobs” so most of his teams draw women with smaller chests – so much so the designers requested a big breasted character. But he ultimately agreed, “we broke the [usual character] mold a little bit because of the women in the lead.”

My question was the final question accepted, since N’Gai Croal (who was moderating the panel) had one more surprise – he had asked Kamikokuryo and Jacques-Bellêtete to each interpret each other’s work. So, Kamikokuryo drew Adam Jensen, and Jacques-Bellêtete drew Lightning. Jacques-Bellêtete’s work was unveiled first – and lo and behold, it’s a tit shot. For comparison’s sake, here’s what Lightening normally looks like versus Jacques-Bellêtete’s interpretation.

Lightning

Lightning, JB version

(Interestingly, Kamikokuryo said Jacques-Bellêtete’s work reminded him of Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop, and so he adjusted his work to have Adam Jensen share the same fate as Spike.)

Seeing the Jacques-Bellêtete’s image after his explanation about how he interprets female characters was disappointing, to say the least. But it was not surprising, as this type of sexism is endemic to nerdy industries. In a medium where we are only limited by our imaginations, where we can dream up princes rebuilding the cosmos with Kamataris and shelve that fantasy next to dystopian futures, it’s painful to see that kind of creativity doesn’t extend to the majority of women in game worlds. No matter how creative we are, we still can’t get past this base level sexism.

After the panel, I approached Isamu Kamikokuryo and asked him the same question I posed to Jacques-Bellêtete. I’ve been a fan of Final Fantasy for years, and a small part of that is due to the range of female characters that inhabit the world. According to Kamikokuryo, this was the first time he took on character design for the franchise. The same three artists have been doing the character designs from Final Fantasy VI to XIII. ”So,” he said through his translator, “We thought deeply about what we wanted to express with each character when designing.”

Seriously, that’s all we feminist fans really want to hear.

Resources:

Social Justice and Video Games SXSW Panel Slides
The Big Sexy Problem with Superheroines and Their ‘Liberated Sexuality’ [Comics Alliance]
Augmenting the Deus Ex: Human Revolution story [GameSpot]
Deus Ex: Human Revolution offers old school racism with your gaming fun [Feminsiting]
GODDAMMIT VIDEO GAMES: THE FIRST FEW HOURS OF ARKHAM CITY IS LOTS OF FUN, BUT SUPER-DUPER SEXIST [Film Crit Hulk]

  • http://heb-mythology.blogspot.com/2011/11/blog-post_590.html Shmoolik

    I am also a game designer and women suffer the same problems with my all-male staff. It is discouraging probably the best word for the blinders I see these people also wear wildly talented. I wish I had a dollar for every time a design was rejected with the comment “Review:. You want something beautiful to look at” So much for equality.

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  • Dfg

    “so most of his teams draw women with smaller chests”

    how does that work with DE:HR when almost all the female characters use the same body model which has fairly massive boobs? even the specifically ‘non-augmented’ Mei has the same model as every other character in the stripjoint/love hotel.

    check the pole-dancer in there too, someone obviously spent a lot of time and effort on her animation as unlike most of the characters she doesn’t look like a puppet being operated by a twitching meth head. seems like they forgot to animate the hands properly though, maybe they were a tad distracted?

    seems like there is way more variation in the male body models than female too. Malik is great. yelena could be worse, like she isn’t actually wearing heels.

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  • Mousey

    The chick in Devil May Cry 2 was black :)

    My friends think its weird… Whenever there is a game where I can choose my race and gender (mainly mmos) I always choose to play as a black woman. In fact I didnt play Lord of the Rings Online because there seemed to be no way to make your character look black (hobbits came pretty close). My husband played as a black woman in Fallout 3 because he knew it would please me. I have always felt that black women were “underrepresented” in comics and video games and while I guess I understand why, its still nice to play as someone you can somewhat relate to. Loved this!

    • http://casualdoes.wordpress.com/ Randomessa

      Just FYI (and I know I’m coming into this very late), but you can in fact play as a black character in Lord of the Rings Online if you choose Gondor as your land of origin. In fact, you can be on the quite dark-skinned side of the spectrum (not just tan or caramel-colored).

  • Mousey

    The chick in Devil May Cry 2 was black :)

    My friends think its weird… Whenever there is a game where I can choose my race and gender (mainly mmos) I always choose to play as a black woman. In fact I didnt play Lord of the Rings Online because there seemed to be no way to make your character look black (hobbits came pretty close). My husband played as a black woman in Fallout 3 because he knew it would please me. I have always felt that black women were “underrepresented” in comics and video games and while I guess I understand why, its still nice to play as someone you can somewhat relate to. Loved this!

  • http://rhinocrisy.org/ saurabh

    There is definitely a problem of audience. I feel like for many game designers (certainly the ones I work with) the intended audience is the designers themselves, which is often straight, white males. I can’t imagine there are a majority of situations where the primary decision-makers on game content are not straight, white males.

    In fact I think it’s kind of obtuse that this is the case, since these days, as a whole, women play games more than men do. But most designers want to make the game that makes them happy, even if it is an incoherent mess, looks ridiculous, or is insulting to women. So the audience (or starving potential audience) be damned.

    The best answer to this, I think, is just to get more women and people of color making games (and comics). The more that happens, the more games will end up looking like real people instead of some pimply nerd’s fantasy.

    Also, I agree that Valve’s efforts have been impressive. They do a great job of having interesting ethnic and gender representation in their characters. I’m curious about what makes their company culture so different – anyone got some good reading?

  • http://rhinocrisy.org/ saurabh

    There is definitely a problem of audience. I feel like for many game designers (certainly the ones I work with) the intended audience is the designers themselves, which is often straight, white males. I can’t imagine there are a majority of situations where the primary decision-makers on game content are not straight, white males.

    In fact I think it’s kind of obtuse that this is the case, since these days, as a whole, women play games more than men do. But most designers want to make the game that makes them happy, even if it is an incoherent mess, looks ridiculous, or is insulting to women. So the audience (or starving potential audience) be damned.

    The best answer to this, I think, is just to get more women and people of color making games (and comics). The more that happens, the more games will end up looking like real people instead of some pimply nerd’s fantasy.

    Also, I agree that Valve’s efforts have been impressive. They do a great job of having interesting ethnic and gender representation in their characters. I’m curious about what makes their company culture so different – anyone got some good reading?

    • Notebook

      The tendency for designers to make games that they themselves will enjoy does make plenty of sense from the standpoint of the mechanics and from what I read. In other words, a fan of RPGs would more than likely make games that are RPGs, FPS fans will make FPSs, and so on. Though I’m sure it’s not the case with all designers who can create games in different genres.

      I imagine the more progressive designers not only design a game that they’ll enjoy but others will as well. This not only includes putting in more PoC and everything [though I'm pretty sure the art director, character designer, scenario writer, etc. has more control over that usually, and that's not counting the marketing people who may force people to change things due to thinking the main audience--straight, white male--won't be able to enjoy it for some reason] but making it more accessible to the less hardcore crowd. This can go both ways–either the game can be too obtuse for anyone to enjoy but the designer themselves or it can be too simplified where it’s not fun [I never played Dragon Age 2, but I know plenty of gamers have accused it of the latter].

      Though it really does ultimately come down to having more PoC designing their own games when it comes to including more diverse casts.

      As for Valve, I’m no expert at that. Maybe the fact that they’re both a publisher and a developer means that they aren’t as limited to be told what they can put in their games. On the other hand, they do kinda suffer from “Valve Time” relentlessly…

    • Notebook

      The tendency for designers to make games that they themselves will enjoy does make plenty of sense from the standpoint of the mechanics and from what I read. In other words, a fan of RPGs would more than likely make games that are RPGs, FPS fans will make FPSs, and so on. Though I’m sure it’s not the case with all designers who can create games in different genres.

      I imagine the more progressive designers not only design a game that they’ll enjoy but others will as well. This not only includes putting in more PoC and everything [though I'm pretty sure the art director, character designer, scenario writer, etc. has more control over that usually, and that's not counting the marketing people who may force people to change things due to thinking the main audience--straight, white male--won't be able to enjoy it for some reason] but making it more accessible to the less hardcore crowd. This can go both ways–either the game can be too obtuse for anyone to enjoy but the designer themselves or it can be too simplified where it’s not fun [I never played Dragon Age 2, but I know plenty of gamers have accused it of the latter].

      Though it really does ultimately come down to having more PoC designing their own games when it comes to including more diverse casts.

      As for Valve, I’m no expert at that. Maybe the fact that they’re both a publisher and a developer means that they aren’t as limited to be told what they can put in their games. On the other hand, they do kinda suffer from “Valve Time” relentlessly…

    • Notebook

      The tendency for designers to make games that they themselves will enjoy does make plenty of sense from the standpoint of the mechanics and from what I read. In other words, a fan of RPGs would more than likely make games that are RPGs, FPS fans will make FPSs, and so on. Though I’m sure it’s not the case with all designers who can create games in different genres.

      I imagine the more progressive designers not only design a game that they’ll enjoy but others will as well. This not only includes putting in more PoC and everything [though I'm pretty sure the art director, character designer, scenario writer, etc. has more control over that usually, and that's not counting the marketing people who may force people to change things due to thinking the main audience--straight, white male--won't be able to enjoy it for some reason] but making it more accessible to the less hardcore crowd. This can go both ways–either the game can be too obtuse for anyone to enjoy but the designer themselves or it can be too simplified where it’s not fun [I never played Dragon Age 2, but I know plenty of gamers have accused it of the latter].

      Though it really does ultimately come down to having more PoC designing their own games when it comes to including more diverse casts.

      As for Valve, I’m no expert at that. Maybe the fact that they’re both a publisher and a developer means that they aren’t as limited to be told what they can put in their games. On the other hand, they do kinda suffer from “Valve Time” relentlessly…

  • Anonymous

    It’s things like this which make it hard to really see nerd culture as having any elements to it that are countercultural or that don’t reify the mainstream. We see comments all the time about the poor geeks of old who are experiencing a new age of popularity due to geek culture mixing more with mainstream culture and what’s being exposed for all to see now is that for all their protestations of being against or different from the more mainstream activities, geek culture is still a culture where the interests of straight white men are catered to first and foremost, where women are thought of as “cannon fodder” and are designed to be viewed as sex objects and where anything that might give them greater depth of character is viewed as causing problems. So it’s the attitudes of the mainstream, but with less outdoor activity.

    • Anonymous

      Very well said! This is the problem I have with “geek culture”. A lot of the times, it just seems to be a wussified version of your stereotypical jock culture, except that advocates of geek culture love to act as if they represent some kind of bold new modern movement.

      But take a quick look at geek culture, and it’s mostly still all about white guys getting to f*ck hot women.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=502622327 David-John Purkis

    The bad character animation seems to me a problem of the third-party character animation solution employ. It’s not even a gender issue; during conversations, characters frequently gesture and move in a disconnected way from what they’re actually saying. 

  • Brandon

    Japanese/Brazilian and Black are not mutually exclusive identities… someone can be both.  And in fact, there are plenty of black Brazilians.  Watch some futbol.

  • Oy

    Vanessa Lews from the Virtua Fighter series can be added to your list of playable black women. So you’re back up to 6.

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  • Anonymous

    Whoa, I haven’t thought about Jet Set/Grind Radio since Dreamcast…

    And yeah, we had a long discussion about Jade (comments are lost, but Pat did a quick framing):

    http://www.racialicious.com/2007/03/15/race-and-video-game-player-characters/

    From what I can remember, a lot of people assumed Jade was multiracial, but also heavily assumed to be WoC. After that, guesses were all over the map.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=502622327 David-John Purkis

      That’s an interesting article. I’ve never really thought of Jade’s calculated brand of a-racialism being a bad thing (maybe because she’s so often put forward as a positive role model for female characters in general). If you stop and think about it, it IS a bad thing, because it prevents her from being included in lists like the one above, if not for practical reasons then for definitive ones. 

      I guess it also reeks to me of tiptoeing around the real issue. I’m going to imagine that Jade would have feelings on her actual racial background one way or another when I finally get around to playing through BG&E HD :D

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  • Mechainsanity

    In a medium where we are only limited by our imaginations, where we can dream up princes rebuilding the cosmos with Kamataris and shelve that fantasy next to dystopian futures, it’s painful to see that kind of creativity doesn’t extend to the majority of women in game worlds. No matter how creative we are, we still can’t get past this base level sexism.
    Perfect and eloquent way to describe how i feel about a lot of the gaming/comic/general “nerd” culture. BTW, Isamu Kamikokuryo sounds like a pretty rad dude. 

  • Anonymous

    It’s hard to believe that’s his entire concept of Lighting. It’s like he figured the positioning of her L’Cie tattoo and her costume were part of a conspiracy to make us think about her breasts without seeing them so AHA! He revealed the secret. Such an odd way of approaching that character.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fragglera Rachel Kantstopdaphunk

    seriously dope article. I don’t really play video games, but my gf does, and I’ve begun to notice some of the trends you touched on.  And that you can literally choose only 5 black women characters, even when including mixed race characters. That’s both sad and insane. I’d assumed video games were sorta like scifi; where you could have at least a little bit more diversity due to the not-so-mainstream appeal. I guess I was wrong about that. Its really too bad, not even just on a basic diversity in representation level, but even on an aesthetic level, we allow a particular, incredibly narrow (lol, pun NOT intended!) white beauty standard to reign as somehow the only kind of beauty that counts, ignoring all the other ways to be beautiful that we see every day in the real world. Its pretty sad.

  • guithegood87

    I just dropped by to say: I loved every post form this blog, and how the content fight against the actual “oh! you putting in the race/gander card, shame on you!” I’m from Brazil, and the scenario here is pretty different, but it’s fun about how is at the same time, the same thing! People here tend to say we are a multi-colored racism-free contry, but hey, it’s not!

    Talking about gender in gamming, well, this post proves a point: game desing is sexist in general points! The art-designers aren’t even ashamed of confess this! So why wouldn’t us gamers discuss that? Should be ok with the fact that every lady that holds the spotlight is a hypersexual almost nude lady?

    Of course not!

    It will keep happening, I’ll keep playing, but would be very cool if this change, this may be part of the job, but not all of it. I would really love to enter deep in this subject, but the barrier of the lenguage will make me drop out right here – to much time reading english, no even close writing so…

  • K*

    Ugh, I made the mistake of going to Kotaku to read this there. It was a great article, but the comments … ridiculous. One of the idiots there actually said that women need to act like women while fighting.

    I bet he has a huge neckbeard.

  • http://twitter.com/MalikPanama Malik

    There’s the racially ambiguous tanned woman ‘Jade’ from Beyond Good & Evil too. Granted the creators have said that she isn’t ‘any’ race (as does the ending of the game). That’s the best I can give. 

  • Name Hidden, Please

    Do I like this? No, I love it. I can tell you as a woman working in the comic book industry, it’s not much different over on the paper side. It’s frustrating, I’m told “Girls aren’t our main audience”. I can only imagine what is said on the digital side. :c  Thank you again for the wonderful article. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/DanielFRoss Daniel Forrest Ross

      I am continually amazed by that attitude in the comics industry. How does a marginal, shrinking business convince itself that going out of its way to alienate half the world’s consumers is a bright idea?

      • Name Hidden, Please

        They are afraid to take risks. They think that men and boys are the only people with money, apparently, and that if it’s not the macho-est of macho machos that ever did macho then “nobody” will buy it. Like Tosufai said, the comic and video game industries have huge problems with sexism and racism. It’s deeply rooted and I have no idea how it can be fixed. Women working in the field voice their concerns and those jackasses in marketing always shut us down.  Other jackasses in development call us overly-sensitive and tell us we’re ‘over thinking’ things. 

        • Katrina Senti

          Cos, you know, women can’t own property and are technically owned by their husbands – oh wait, it’s 2011, not 1900! Jesus facking christ, they really need to get their heads out of their arses. Women consume just as much as men, and would probably consume more games if they didn’t literally go out of their way to alienate us.

        • Katrina Senti

          Cos, you know, women can’t own property and are technically owned by their husbands – oh wait, it’s 2011, not 1900! Jesus facking christ, they really need to get their heads out of their arses. Women consume just as much as men, and would probably consume more games if they didn’t literally go out of their way to alienate us.

  • http://ozoozol.livejournal.com/ ozoozol

    Do you have an opinion about the Erudites from the original Everquest?

  • Spotpuff

    Anyone else find it interesting that 3/5 black women in gaming are from Valve?

    Seems like they’re trying,  at least.

    • http://floatboth.com MyFreeWeb

      And these aren’t sexualized. Just compare Alyx Vance with the ones around her.

    • http://floatboth.com MyFreeWeb

      And these aren’t sexualized. Just compare Alyx Vance with the ones around her.

  • Anonymous

    Depressing but not surprising. The comic and video-game industry is absolutely rife with this sort of problem, it’s also deeply rooted in the community — Fallen Earth’s female characters were sexed-up after release because the playerbase complained that they weren’t attractive enough, one of the most commented threads in the Rift beta was a petition to increase how endowed the female characters were. On top of that, if this article had been posted on a gaming website the author and anyone supporting her position would have been the focus of abuse from a deluge of male-entitled gurning, accusing anyone of wanting more variety of female representation of a whole host of faults.

    Change will only come once more women rise to the top positions within the gaming industry and this prevalent sexism is not tolerated within the studios where it is so often allowed to flourish (a good example of this is the recent IGN gameshow which showcased misogyny of the worst kind. I forget the name of it, sorry.)

    • Ughhhh

       This article was, in fact, posted on the gaming blog Kotaku today. The comments are exactly as you said.

      It was kind of weird how every single ‘cannon fodder’ woman in Deus Ex: HR had enormous, enormous breasts. At least the central(?) female character was a well-drawn Arab woman whose realistically proportioned body is always clothed in a manner befitting her job as a pilot.

    • Kazinski

      Here’s the IGN piece you mentioned. Disgusting.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kb5ev2Dp4I0

      This kind of thing really turns me off from entering the game industry, and makes me embarrassed to associate with gaming in front of my girlfriend or female friends. It makes all male gamers look like bitter, sexually frustrated nerds.

      My hope is that the revelation that women are becoming the largest demographic of gamers (thanks to Social Networking apps and the like), studios will at least have a financial incentive to not alienate an enormous consumer base. In the meantime I’m grateful for those trying to change the mindset from the inside. Keep trucking, your time is coming.

  • JJ

    I wonder if the juxtaposition of your question and the reveal of his design made him at all uncomfortable, or if it totally didn’t register that he had proved your point in spades.