Female protagonists in E3 trailers! AAA devs remember that women exist! [LONG]

Another E3 has come and gone! And it seems that, after the debacle of last year’s E3, that developers are making a bit more of an effort to not fail at easily-preventable sexism. While still nowhere near parity, there were at least more female presenters than severed heads, unlike last year. Similarly, all of the studios managed not to say anything as colossally bone-headed as Ubisoft talking about why female characters couldn’t be included in Assassin’s Creed: Unity.

Progress?

Perhaps more encouraging is the fact that last year, the game trailers that were featured starred characters that were almost entirely white and male. However, this year there were more games featuring prominent female characters! So much so that The Mary Sue did this roundup of E3 game trailers for “23 games from E3 with badass playable female characters“.

Sounds great, right? From almost no games with female protagonists to 23 in one year? What an amazing shift! Unfortunately, what I discovered when I started going through the list is that TMS’ optimism on this front is perhaps a bit… overblown. While it’s true that there are a good number of promising-looking games featuring some pretty nifty-looking female characters, there are also lots of actually-not-super-awesome games in that mix as well.

So while I normally don’t like to do detailed takedowns of pieces featured on other blogs, I thought it would be useful to go through the list of games as compiled by TMS and why the picture isn’t, perhaps, quite as rosy as they paint it. (Although there still are things that are justifiably worth being excited over.) Since genre and game type make it a bit difficult to compare things evenly, I’ve broken this list into a few categories just to make my life easier.

MOBAs that have female characters

There were four games featured at E3 with rosters of set characters that the player chooses from, and three of the four are MOBAs. (It seems League of Legends clones are the new hotness bandwagon that game studios are all trying to jump on?) And not a one of these four games features an evenly split character roster.

The worst of the lot is Battleborn, which is being developed by the creators of Borderlands. Admittedly, the website says that there will be a roster of 25 characters, and so far only ten have been revealed. However, out of those ten characters, only 3 are women:

battleborn

Even worse, the three female characters are all waifishly thin with impossible (no room for internal organs, over-inflated sphere-boobs) figures. And while the male characters are all over the place in type from “ruggedly handsome” to “huge and burly” to “sentient mushroom”, the weirdest any of the women get is a button-ish eye-patch with a funky coat and hat. (Yet another example of the interesting/pretty gender binary, sadly.) I’d also be willing to wager that not a one of the as-yet-to-be-revealed female characters looks either old, ugly, or at all monstrous.

Overwatch manages to do a bit better; 6 out of its 14 characters are female. Unfortunately, as I’ve written about previously, its character designs are also… so. Very. Regressive – which is pretty sad, since Blizzard went into this project with declarations that they wanted to “do women better”.

Now, it is true that since writing my old post about Overwatch, Zarya has been added to the roster. And I’ll admit, that helps, because seriously look at her:

paxeast2015_0014_zarya-overview
Very bicep. So muscle. Amaze!

Unfortunately, one awesome character doesn’t make up for the fact that women still aren’t evenly represented, and the other female characters designs still suck.

Out of the MOBAs previewed at E3, Gigantic is definitely the best, even if it falls just short of gender parity in its character roster (7 of 16 characters are female):

g-griselma

While it’s true that there is definitely some sigh-inducing character design with Tripp and Vadasi (seriously, they look like they’d blow away in a stiff breeze), there are things to be happy about. Griselma is a tiny old woman, which gives her automatic awesome points. (Because old women make anything cooler, especially if they’re grandmothers.) Imani is also a great example of a tough-but-stylish bruiser – and a WoC to boot? Fantastic! Lastly, Mozo is actually a monstrous non-human that is still gendered as female, which is surprising and excellent! She’s still a little on the “adorable” side, but it’s super encouraging to see her and Xenobia look actually monstrous – even if Xenobia is more sexy-monstrous than monstrous-monstrous.

Lastly, I’m lumping in Fable Legends with this category, even though its only multiplayer is an up-to-4-player cooperative mode – simply because it also has a roster of preselected characters that you choose to play as.

Fable Legends comes close, again, to gender parity, with 5 of 11 characters being female. Unfortunately, it also has terrible character designs. Only one of the five women isn’t blatantly objectified, and surprisingly she’s a mage:

fl-celeste

Glory’s costume is actually pretty great! Mage-y without being impractical or sexualizing, it’s a pretty excellent example of decent character design! However, Glory is also the only character who gets to wear pants, and all of the other character designs are ridiculous, implausible, or straight-up problematic.

Take Inga, who is wearing ridiculously bulky plate mail, wields a crazily large tower shield, and yet for some reason has decided – you know what, who needs pants? AMIRITE? Because how would we know that Inga is a woman without some sort of blatant objectification? Then of course, you have Evienne who fights with an improbably large sword, despite the fact that she would die in about 3 seconds flat after tripping over her dress or getting her sword tied up in those stupidly trailing sleeves. Winter is yet another example of a cold-based character who isn’t properly dressed for her element (why only one pant leg?). And Celeste is… well let’s just say that Celeste’s design seems uncomfortably “tribal” to me, given that she’s also the only WoC on the roster.

So while Gigantic comes the closest to having a cast of characters that you can be happy about, most of these games are just “more of the same” as far as trends in MOBA design are concerned. A slight uptick in female representation doesn’t change the fact that female characters are still outnumbered and disproportionately objectified.

Generic customizable characters with no effect on gameplay

Three of the 23 games in TMS’ preview are games where playable characters are simple avatars with no real effect on a supposed plot or gameplay – Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Tom Clancy’s The Division, and Battlecry.

Battlecry is a shooter-MMO centered around squad-on-squad combat, so it’s no surprise that it would include playable female characters as avatar options. However, as far as I can tell, this is the first time in either the Call of Duty or the Tom Clancy franchise that playable female characters will be an option in the single-player campaign. Which, you know, progress? I suppose it’s nice that in 2015, women are finally allowed to get female pixels all up in their AAA murder simulators. But aside from the obvious question of WHY WASN’T THAT AN OPTION ALREADY?, this doesn’t really represent anything terribly new or interesting for AAA games, gender-wise.

Although I will admit that, if one screenshot is an accurate reflection, I do really like the female character design for The Division:

the-division

So there’s that at least.

Story-based, can select either a male or female character

The next category is, thankfully, much more encouraging – even if it’s not universally promising. Six of the 23 games in the TMS preview piece are various flavor of RPGish game ranging from action-stealth to action-shooter to just straight up action-fantasy. These are all games where you have a choice between playing a male or a female character – Mass Effect: Andromeda, Fallout 4, Ashen, Dishonored 2, Nier 2, and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.

(It is worth pointing out that Mass Effect and Fallout do technically have generic customizeable characters, and as such it could be argued that they should be lumped in with the previous category. However, story in games like Call of Duty exists only to get you from one map to the next in the single-player campaign mode, whereas story in a Mass Effect or Fallout game is one of the primary motivations for playing the game in the first place. So since character choice in these games matters beyond “what does my murder hobo look like”, it feels more appropriate to lump them in with the single-player story-based games.)

The shape of the choice between male and female characters varies slightly by game. Both Mass Effect: Andromeda and Fallout 4 will force you to choose up front, either you will play a male protagonist or a female protagonist. As with previous entrants in their respective series, the differences in character appearance are mostly insignificant. (Although it should be noted that the promo art for ME: Andromeda features male and female versions of a soldier character where the woman is standing in a Blatant Sexy Pose. Uncool, BioWare. UNCOOL.)

Ashen and Dishonored 2 are a bit less clear cut. There are options for both male and female characters, but it’s not clear (at least from what I’ve been able to find) if you can switch back and forth or if you are locked in once you’ve made your choice. In Ashen, the character choice seems less meaningful because the characters are literally generic – they’re rendered without faces and only minimal differentiation by gender. However, Dishonored 2 will actually give you the choice of either playing as the previous games male protagonist, Corvo, or as the girl that he rescued in that game – Emily – as the two of you seek to get her throne back. Which, honestly, with a choice like that, why would anyone choose the boring male protagonist over the dethroned heir?

Last are Nier 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – which both appear to be games that will let you switch between male and female characters. Both games offer cause for optimism – Nier 2 looks to be a lush JRPG by Squeenix, who has a history of doing well by their female characters. And Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate actually stars two assassins – twins Jacob and Evie Frye who have very different styles, and who approach their missions very differently.

However, it’s hard for me to hold out great hopes for either games. While it’s great that Assassin’s Creed for the PC is finally going to have a female protagonist, it’s still being published by Ubisoft – so hopefully those elusive ladypixels don’t prove too intractable. As for Nier 2, it’s apparently being developed by the team behind Bayonetta, which… uh. Yeah. They’re the folks that thought that this was an empowering female character:

[headdesk]

Explicitly Female-Lead single-character titles

So out of the 23 games in the TMS preview piece, that leaves a total of ten games that are explicitly female-lead: FIFA 16, Adr1ft, Tacoma, Rise of the Tomb Raider, ReCore, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Walking Dead Michonne, Horizon Zero Dawn, Hellblade, and Beyond Eyes.

female-lead
TOP, LEFT TO RIGHT: Rise of the Tomb Raider, ReCore, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Walking Dead Michonne BOTTOM, LEFT TO RIGHT: Horizon Zero Dawn, Hellblade, Beyond Eyes

(I was unable to find screenshots of the protagonists for Tacoma or Adr1ft, and it seemed a bit weird to include FIFA 16.)

And granted, that’s a pretty good selection! It seems like in the past, the titles previewed by AAA developers almost all starred white, square-jawed, grimdark antiheroes and if we were lucky there might be a female-led game that looked worth playing. Maybe. So this represents a pretty big departure from the All Dudez All the Time school of game development.

The core conceits of all of these games are pretty diverse as well. From Beyond Eyes – which is centered around a blind little girl looking for her missing cat, to Adr1ft – which has you playing a female astronaut trying to survive the explosion of a space station, to Horizon Zero Dawn – which has a post-apocalyptic wildling fighting robo-dinosaurs with a bow and arrow. (Which sounds awesome.)

There is, of course, still room for improvement, as always. The protagonists of these games do skew heavily white (though I’ll note that the protagonist of Adr1ft – Alex Oshima – is rumored to be a WoC, even if I couldn’t find a screenshot of her). And as noted at the beginning of my post, it would be great to see AAA developers catch on to the notion that there are more than two options when selecting a protagonist’s gender. But I’m sure that there are people who feel that these are relatively minor complaints in the face of what appears to be real change in AAA development trends.

Still, while I do find many of these games compelling and encouraging, I’m also holding on to a lot of skepticism. The previous Tomb Raider, the first in the newer-grittier-realistic-Lara-Croft series, was disappointing in how far it went to brutalize a previously-strong female character for the sake of making her “vulnerable”. (A cliche that I’m honestly pretty sick of. What is it about a strong female character that makes developers want to brutalize her to take away that strength? Why can’t we just let a strong female character BE STRONG and leave it at that?) So I’m hoping that the previous game will have reestablished Lara’s “strong female character” cred and the developers will dial back on the brutality this time around.

Mirror’s Edge is also a source of some concern, seeing as how the new game is a prequel to the first two – I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the devs on that team are looking to the previous Tomb Raider game as a cautionary tale and that they won’t be tempted to craft a horrifically brutal origin story for Faith.

And maybe I’m being too grumpy about all of this. Is there a lot here to be hopeful about? Absolutely! But it’s also true that there is a lot here in these previews that represents “more of the same”, and I’m not all that inclined to celebrate game developers who expect us to be excited about character rosters that under represent and oversexualize women.

Smite: sexist, racist, and culturally appropriating [LONG]

[ETA: I’ve revised my comments with regards to the Greek deities and whiteness, which weren’t clear enough, but you should also read the comments.]

I try not to pay attention to MMOs anymore, because the vast majority of them are steaming dung piles of bullshit sexism. However, Smite is a game that kept coming up on my radar for various reasons. When it first came out, my brother emailed me a few pieces of promo art of the female characters. More recently, a few friends over on G+ that have been talking about playing Smite. So when Smite made a few headlines last week for its decision to include Hindu gods as playable characters, I figured that it would be worth taking a closer look since that was the third time in a relatively short period of time that it caught my attention.

As it turns out, I wound up having a lot of stuff to say. So let’s just jump right on in!

Getting ready to rumble

What exactly is Smite? Smite is a MOBA – a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena, a genre made popular by games like Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA2) and League of Legends. Smite, like other MOBAs, has a pre-set roster of characters that you can choose to play as that have set abilities. If you wish, you can pay extra to unlock special characters or alternate skins. And Smite has a lot of playable characters – sixty-six in total.

Those of you who have been reading my blog long enough to be familiar with my numbers posts will know that I generally tend to stick to the same set of criteria when evaluating character designs in video games; typically I will compare the numbers of figures that are shown with: 1) active poses versus neutral poses and 2) fully clothed versus suggestively attired by gender in order to demonstrate the consistent under-representation, objectification, and sexualization of female characters.

However, this time around going to all that effort really felt like a tremendous waste of time. Such an approach might be worthwhile when I’m writing about Magic and how, despite recent improvements in art direction, their art is still very sexist. But when I’m looking at a game like Smite, which is just as blatant in it’s bullshit sexism as League of Legends, it just feels like a giant fucking waste of time.

I mean, look. This is Aphrodite:

aphrodite

Ridiculous, right? Even more so when you consider that she’s not even the least clothed Smite character. So let’s just take it as a given that the female character designs are definitely objectifying and sexist and not waste time beating a dead horse[1]. Especially as there were a lot of characters to look at and other issues of representation that I wanted write about regarding problematic racist tropes.

Criteria examined and overall summary

[Note: When looking at characters, I looked at the default designs and descriptions as shown on Gamepedia’s Smite Wiki. If I get anything wrong here, I blame Gamepedia.]

In the end, the criteria I decided to examine were:

Number of figures by gender: simply the number of female figures and the number of male figures

Whether a character was whitewashed: I considered a character to be whitewashed if they came from a nonwhite culture but were explicitly depicted as white. I did not count a character as whitewashed if they were an animal or other nonhuman, had animal features, or had nonhuman skin tones (there are several characters that are either blue or purple). While some of them seemed like edge cases that could count as whitewashing, for the most part it seemed too ambiguous to make a definite argument one way or another.

Deity alignment: This was taken from the character descriptions on the wiki rather than the artwork; each character had a blurb a few paragraphs long about their backstory. I read each and assigned each deity as either Good, Neutral, or Evil. (A lot of the Greek gods wound up as Neutral, just because they capricious assholes even if they are gods of nominally good things.)

Character Damage Type: Again, as defined on the Smite wiki, I was curious to see if there would be an imbalance of Ranged characters versus Melee characters, since that’s a pretty common area of imbalance in many other video games.

After going through all 66 characters and taking tally, here’s what I came up with:

overall

In some ways, the numbers were a bit surprising even while they were also completely predictable. Female characters account for 30% of all playable characters. However, while they were clearly more sexualized and objectified, they weren’t any more likely to be whitewashed or to be pigeon-holed as a ranged character. There is an interesting difference when it comes to alignment, but I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Bullshit sexism

As previously stated, I don’t intend to waste words proving that Smite’s character designs are sexist and bullshit, because they just are. Many of the female promo art pieces feature broken spines, anti-gravity sphere boobs, and painted on clothing. Almost none of the female characters have clothes that would actually function to preserve modesty in any meaningful way in the real world. So regarding the female character design, I’m just going to issue a blanket: THEY’RE BULLSHIT and move on with my life.

Instead, let’s talk about how Smite is another perfect example of the interesting/pretty binary, which I’ve talked about before:

Notice how the male human gets to have actual facial expressions that convey emotions? While the female character renders all have the same vapid expression but with different hairstyles. Because men get to DO THINGS and EXPRESS THEMSELVES but women get to BE PRETTY.

When looking at the different character types, there is such a huge variety when it comes to male characters! Male deities can be humans, humanoids, demi-humans, robots, giant flying serpents, or even giant-ass rock-creatures. Whereas the female deities? Well they get boobs. And sometimes funny hats.

Case in point, look at what happens when you compare male animal and demi-human deities with female animal and demi-human deities:

animal dudes Animal ladies

(TOP LEFT: Anhur, TOP MIDDLE: Anubis, TOP RIGHT: Fenrir, BOTTOM LEFT: Arachne, BOTTOM MIDDLE: Medusa, BOTTOM RIGHT: Bastet)

The male deities are all very appealing avatar images. They give a strong sense of the culture that they come from, while also appearing strong and heroic. Whereas the female deities? The most important part of their designs are their tits, and making sure that they are clearly visible to the viewer. Giant spider thing? TITS. Man-eating snake thing? ‘DEM BOOBS THO. It really goes a long way toward illustrating[2] the priorities of the design team.

Now the interesting thing about Smite is that is that it also manages to throw in some “benevolent” sexism along with all of the bullshit objectification. Remember how I said there was a weird gender imbalance when it came to deity alignment? Well it turns out that out of 19 evil deities, only one is female:

female alignment

male alignment

Now, you may be saying to yourself – but wundergeek, I don’t get it. What’s the problem? The problem is that the stereotype of women are more wholesome and more nurturing is benevolent sexism, which is still sexism. It’s like the boss I had once who told me he only hired women to work in the office because we were more nurturing and community-minded. I found his comment terribly offensive, but didn’t say anything because I happened to desperately need the job at the time.

However, even if it is a stereotype I will admit that this actually ran counter to what I expected. Given that the female characters in Smite were so grossly oversexualized, I had expected the evil deities to skew female – you know, because sexy women are always evil. Since, you know, [mumblemumble]femme fatale[mumblereasons].

So at least if the female characters are horribly stereotyped, at least we have a mix of regressive stereotypes. Yay diversity!

Racist whitewashing

Something that’s honestly more important than the frankly not-all-that-exceptional-for-video-games level of sexism in Smite is the fact that there is an UNBELIEVABLE LEVEL OF WHITEWASHING. Literally EVERY PANTHEON except the Norse deities is whitewashed, with the worst example being the Greek pantheon – who are shown almost universally as blondes or gingers:

greek-whitewashed
(LEFT: Aphrodite, MIDDLE LEFT: Scylla, MIDDLE RIGHT: Apollo, RIGHT: Athena)

[sigh] Uh, video game industry dudes? I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but Greeks are NOT ACTUALLY WHITE ACTUALLY PRETTY BROWN. Take for example, Tonia Sotiropoulou – who played the Bond Girl[3] in Skyfall. I realize this is an embarrassingly common trope in video games (I’m looking at you Soul Calibur!) but this is pretty fucking awful.

However, EVEN WORSE than the Greek deities are the Chinese deities:

Chinese whitewashed
LEFT: Chang’e, MIDDLE LEFT: He Bo, MIDDLE RIGHT: Hou Yi, RIGHT: Ne Zha

WHY DO NONE OF THEM LOOK ASIAN? Seriously, the only one who maybe looks even sorta-kinda Asian is Chang’e, and even then she still looks Katy Perry doing her best Asian drag. All of them have round eyes and decidedly European features.

And I already know what some people might be saying; OMG it’s just the style, the art is anime-influenced, the art is heavily stylized, blah blah blah. So let’s take a second and zoom in on two of the character portraits for these supposedly Chinese deities, shall we?

HouYi-NeZha
LEFT: Hou Yi, RIGHT: Ne Zha

Looking closely at the faces, you can see that it’s not just the eyes – although those are a big part of why they look decidedly un-Chinese. Their eyes are round, with visible lids, and are un-slanted. But more than that, the features and facial structure overall conveys the impression of whiteness. And given that I see this mistake repeated again and again across all of the character designs, I have to think that this mistake is more than just accidental.

The Chinese deities do not look Chinese. The Greek deities do not look Greek. The Hindu deities do not look South Asian. It’s obvious that effort was put into ensuring that the costume design would be recognizably adherent to the culture that was being referenced, but when it came to the actual faces of the gods being portrayed? The artist doing the designs obviously didn’t bother looking up references for non-white faces, because EVERY. SINGLE. DEITY. has white features. ALL of the deities that are even slightly human have indisputably white features, which is frankly, inexcusable.

About the only positive thing that can be said with regard to Smite’s frankly terribly racist character designs is that, contrary to my first impression, heroic gods weren’t more likely to be whitewashed than evil ones. So. yay? At least we’re engaging in equal opportunity racism and whitewashing here.

Culturally Appropriating

And here we come to the bit that inspired me to write about Smite in the first place. Apparently the publishers of Smite have decided to add Hindu deities as a faction – a decision which breaks with their use of only dead religions for all of their other factions. (ETA: It’s been pointed out to me that Norse paganism is not actually a dead religion, even if it is widely perceived to be. I apologize.) Unsurprisingly, given that Hinduism is a religion that is alive and well in the world today, there was pushback against this decision, arguing that if Hinduism was fair game that figures from other modern religion – like Jesus or Moses should be permissible.

However, Smite’s publishers would like us all to know that they are definitely not going to use Christian, Jewish, or Islamic figures in their game. But don’t worry – Hindu deities are still a-okay!

250px-T_Ram_Default_Card
Rama – one of the chief avatars of Vishnu

…which is, frankly, pretty bullshit. Especially when you look at the list of Hindu deities that are included, like Rama – one of the chief avatars of Vishnu and one of the most widely venerated figures in Hinduism today. And Hinduism is not a small religion! With approximately 1 billion adherents, Hindus account for approximately 1 in 7 humans on the planet – which makes the decision of Smite developers to use religious figures of central importance to a large and vibrant modern religion all the more shocking.

Because it’s obvious that when faced with the question of “where to draw the line” that the developers of Smite were clear on the fact that they weren’t willing to do anything that might offend any adherents of the Abrahamic traditions, many of whom are white or can pass for white[4]. But Hinduism? Well Hinduism is for INDIANS who are just so, you know, EXOTIC.

…which is just more creepy, culturally appropriating bullshit.

But really, given how generally awful Smite is, I guess that shouldn’t be too surprising.

[1] Fair warning. Any comments attempting to argue that Smite’s character designs aren’t sexist are going to be straight-up trashed. I don’t have time for bullshit of that magnitude.

[2] See what I did there?

[3] I have a whole ‘nother rant about Bond Girls and how fucking sexist they are, and how it’s particularly awful that in Skyfall the Bond Girl literally has sex with Bond and then has maybe 3 or 4 more lines of dialogue before dying.

[4] I realize that I am arguing something problematic here. There is a perception that Christianity is equated with whiteness, despite the fact that there are large and vibrant faith communities in South America and Africa and other areas of the world that are decidedly nonwhite. And given the overlap of traditions between the Abrahamic faiths, there tends to be a certain level of automatic goodwill extended to Judaism and Islam. However, I recognize the racial diversity of the communities that practice these faiths and certainly am not arguing that they are worth protecting because of their whiteness or proximity to whiteness.

 

The importance of good art direction

So the big secret project that I’ve been working on has had me thinking about the importance of good art direction in tabletop games recently. Good art direction can make an already fun game compelling and engage new audiences. However, even art direction that is simply mediocre can have the opposite effect by alienating potential customers before they even get a chance to explore what your game is about.

There are a lot of things that go into what makes for good art direction – is the art well-crafted? Is it relevant to the game you’re trying to sell? Is it evocative and inspiring? Does it reflect the play experience you are trying to create? All of these are important goals to strive for in good art direction. But just as important, and sadly almost universally overlooked by major game publishers, is overall inclusiveness of artwork. And I say this not as a feminist culture critic, but as a game publisher.

The reason tabletop RPGs are so art-heavy is because good art sells more games. Quality art by artists capable of doing professional-looking work is not cheap, and acquiring art assets is expensive both in terms of dollars and time spent. Companies like WotC, Paizo, and the rest are ultimately in it for the profit, even if individual employees might happen to be passionate about the medium; they wouldn’t go through the tremendous hassle of procuring such large numbers of art assets if it weren’t ultimately profitable to do so.

By that metric, inclusiveness is every bit as important as craft or any of the other common standards of what makes for good art direction. I can’t tell you the number of times my very first exposure to a game has been through some piece of bullshit sexist art – usually a cover or promo image – that has completely turned me off ever wanting to purchase or otherwise support the game[1]. Given that women account for nearly half of tabletop gamers, this is a pretty huge failure of art direction. Good art direction should only ever expand your potential audience, not eliminate potential customers right off the bat – especially when those potential customers account for nearly half of your market.

The problem is that good inclusive art direction can be a lot more challenging than it looks. Even if you have a design and development team who want to create an inclusive product, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the end result will be stereotype-free. The sheer number of illustrations that most finished games contain means that most development teams will be working with multiple artists. Each artist will bring their own entrenched attitudes and biases, and none of the artists will be looking at the overall picture, so without a concerted effort to keep an eye on the big picture even a well-intentioned development team can wind up simply replicating the industry standard in terms of unfortunately stereotyped art.

So with all of that in mind, let’s take a look at two of the most common pitfalls that get in the way of inclusive game art.

Obstacle the first: Defaultism

First, defaultism is a bit of a tricky thing to define, so I’m going to quote the excellent Strix:

Defaultism is the idea that we fall back on the status quo when something is not defined. We go with what is most familiar and “normal.” White Americans are a little over two-thirds of the population, but the vast majority of our media is dominated by this demographic, not just in games, but movies, TVs shows, and books. Because of the primacy of white characters in media, if a character is not explicitly stated to be of a different race they are often assumed to be white. Similar problems arise with gender expectations and sexual orientation. … Most gamers unconsciously gravitate to the straight white male as our hero, our role model, and the baseline for play. — Whitney Strix Beltrán

(Really you should read Strix’s entire piece on Tor.com about defaultism, it’s quite wonderful.)

Given that the population of people working in professional game development skews overwhelmingly white and male, it shouldn’t be surprising that defaultism is a major problem in roleplaying games. Every numbers post I’ve ever done shows that across all sectors of gaming, depictions of men consistently outnumber depictions of women, and that when women are depicted they are often stereotyped in harmful ways. Defaultism at work, friends.

The problem with defaultism is that even when you’re aware that you have a problem and need to increase inclusiveness in your product line’s art, attempts to take action can have mixed results. Wizards of the Coast, the company behind both D&D and Magic: the Gathering, is a great example of this. With the new edition of D&D, WotC has done a fantastic job of making the new core books inclusive across both racial and gender lines. Unfortunately, the same can’t exactly be said of Magic.

While it’s true that recent expansions have gotten much better in terms of reducing the number of horribly stereotyped and objectified women, it’s also the case that the reduction in depictions of objectified women has probably directly resulted in a much lower number of female characters overall. Unfortunately, it seems that for a fair number of artists working on Magic, the priority is: 1) men 2) sexay wimmenz 3) men 4) non-objectified women with agency.

However, this shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise to the team handling art direction for Magic! Many of the artists illustrating for them are artists they have worked with for years, with known habits, tendencies, and preferences. Given the extreme willingness of some Magic artists to throw card concepts to the wind in favor of sexay laydeez, it’s actually depressingly predictable that an effort by WotC to crack down on depictions of bullshit sexism would result in artists just saying “fine, I won’t draw women at all then”.

Thankfully, there is a way to get around this: always plan for the big picture! Rather than leaving variables like gender and race up to chance or the whim of your artists, make a master plan of all of the illustrations that will be needed for a given project and assign gender/race to each spec before handing out specs to artists. In all likelihood, it will feel silly the first time you plan a project this way. But the reality is that each of us carries biases and stereotypes that require conscious effort and planning to counter.

Of course, taking steps to counter defaultism will likely mean that you’ll encounter…

Obstacle the second: Rogue artists

A nontrivial subset of established game industry artists are men with, shall we say, entrenched views on how women should be illustrated[2].  And quite often, when these artists are handed a spec that calls for a female character, they will find a way to make that female character sexxay even if it makes no goddamn sense. I’ve taken to calling this Wayne Reynolds Syndrome, as the eponymous Wayne Reynolds is a goddamn master at sneaking cleavage into illustrations where the art spec clearly called for a woman who is strong, competent, and not sexualized:

Imrijka_360
Illustrations by Wayne Reynolds

(God dammit, Wayne.)

Now look, I understand that the idea of telling legendary artists like Wayne Reynolds to go back to the drawing board (see what I did there) when they hand in a sketch with sphereboobs and gratuitous cleavage can be off-putting. And sure, Wayne’s women might be overly sexualized, but at least they are also powerful and have a real sense of agency – and that’s no small thing, right?

But again, that is a failure in art direction. Is it extra work having to send drawings back to be revised? Absolutely! Can artists accustomed to drawing objectified women be truculent about making appropriate revisions? You bet! Is it a hassle to have to write emails saying things like “can we have this without ridiculous cleavage” or “please get rid of the nipples” or “give her pants and also make this less crotch-ular”? For sure! But guess what, if you’re responsible for art direction, it’s also your job.

Thankfully, while rogue artists can be an irritating to deal with, they don’t present an insurmountable hurdle. As the publisher, you have all of the power in the employer/employee relationship – artists work for you and not the other way around! When an artist hands you a draft that doesn’t meet your standards, don’t accept it. You don’t need to be apologetic or defensive or embarrassed. Don’t make apologies or justifications, either. Simply be firm and say “this doesn’t meet our needs, these are the revisions that need to be made”. That’s why they call it art direction – you are there to provide directions for your artists.

Caveat: There are more obstacles to inclusive art direction than just these

…which should be obvious, right? One of the biggest problems with making game products that have truly inclusive art is the demographics of the industry and the terrible reality of privilege. Even with the best intentions, sometimes some nasty shit is going to slip right on through thanks to the effects of privilege. When harmful stereotypes don’t affect you, it can be really hard to see them even if you know you have to watch for them!

However, by taking steps to plan against defaultism and taking a firm hand with rogue artists, you will already have a huge leg up on the competition. Because the sad reality is that the bar is already so low that even a moderate attempt at inclusive art direction will still be a huge improvement over most of what’s already out there.

[1] Case in point: there are several people on my G+ talking up Smite right now. Apparently it’s solidly reliable fun! But with character design like this, there’s no fucking way I’m ever going to give it a chance.

[2] Although, honestly, there are a lot of amazing not-dude artists out there. And while there are women who do pinup style artwork as their primary focus, generally I’ve found that female artists tend to be a lot more receptive to not automatically sexualizing all female characters.

Sentinels of the Multiverse: why you always need a woman in the room

[Disclaimer the First: I am going to primarily refer to women and sexism in this post, because this was inspired by a personal experience and that’s the angle that I approach this issue from.  However, you could very easily replace these terms with “trans/non-binary person and transphobia” or “PoC and racism”, and everything I’m saying here would still apply.]

[Disclaimer the Second: I’m going to pick on Sentinels of the Multiverse a lot in this post. It’s a fun game! I enjoyed it! I’d probably play it again! So please don’t interpret this as a scathing non-endorsement. This just happens to be a conveniently illustrative example.]

I recently got a chance to play Sentinels of the Multiverse for the first time, and it was pretty cool. Sentinels is a cooperative deck-based card game in which you play a group of superheroes attempting to defeat a supervillain while also dealing with environmental threats like fires or train derailments. It’s a well designed game that is focused pretty tightly on genre emulation, and it does a great job of it. Sentinels reproduces the feel of superhero comics pretty faithfully through its use of high-powered superhero combat, ridiculous backstories, and… bullshit sexist character design:

Wraith splash

That’s right, all of the female heroes in the base game are drawn with impossibly narrow torsos that leave no room for internal organs and impossibly perky sphere-boobs. Most of them have costumes that expose either cleavage, thighs, or midriff (the Visionary gets all three); though even the one exception (Fanatic) wears boobplate armor that allllmoooost shows cleavage, so even she doesn’t get a pass. The sexy costumes aren’t even “appropriate” to the character concepts! Wraith is a thinly veiled Batman clone, so what’s up with the swimsuit and bandages? Why can’t she have some goddamn armor? Expatriatte is a Punisher-analog who doesn’t have powers, she just has shit-tons of guns. And again, for someone who fights primarily with guns, wouldn’t body armor be more the ticket instead of spandex?

What’s more, Citizen Dawn (a villain) is supposed to be the mother of Expatriette, except you’d never be able to tell because there is no such thing as a woman in comics who appears to be older than mid twenties. Visionary is supposed to be 18 according to her backstory, but you’d never be able to tell from the art that Citizen Dawn isn’t her age!

Sadly, there wasn’t one of the female heroes that wasn’t awful to some degree, and I’m not going to lie: it definitely ruined my fun a little. I tend to want to play female heroes, so long as the female heroes don’t suck (I’m looking at you, 1st edition Descent). But in this instance I stuck to male heroes for the two games we played, since I was playing mostly with people I didn’t know so well and didn’t want to ruin everyone’s fun by harping endlessly about how bullshit some of the card art is.

An important sidebar about depictions of race:

While I said that I was going to focus on issues of sexism as seen through my experience as a woman, I would be remiss in not mentioning that there are some definitely problematic depictions of race in Sentinels as well:

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LEFT: Haka, RIGHT: Ra

For example: Haka is a Hulk analog who is Maori. And that could have been cool? Except despite Sentinels being set in a modern timeline, there is some serious noble savage all up in Haka’s backstory. There’s also the problem that Haka’s powers come from his culture, whereas all of the white heroes’ power come from their backstories – which is exotifying and definitely not cool.

Ra, on the other hand, almost falls into the trap of “powers because culture”, except he narrowly avoids that trap by falling into a different trap. Turns out that Ra has actually been reborn on Earth… as a white dude from New Jersey. And look, Egyptian gods reborn as/portrayed by white people is really fucking common, but it’s also just plain shitty.

[end sidebar]

In reflecting on the game afterward, I was strongly reminded of exactly why it is that I came at superheroes through cartoons and not through comic books. I have a definite soft spot for superpowered hijinx, but even before I became a feminist I was never able to get past the feeling that comics were NOT FOR ME. Cartoons like Batman and X-Men may have had their problems, but at least there were female characters I could latch on to that weren’t depicted solely as titillating or objectified. Storm! Rogue! Poison Ivy! Harley Quinn! Their costumes might have been stupid, but they at least got to be people and not collections of sexy bits offered up to a (presumed) straight white male viewer.

And that sucks for a lot of reasons. It sucks that bullshit sexism is so ingrained in comic books that faithful reproduction of comics almost always comes with an equally faithful reproduction of the things that make comics so very problematic.

Worse, it sucks that I want to like superheroes, but most of the time I feel like I just can’t enjoy them the way my male comics friends do. Because well-done superhero stuff that doesn’t fuck up, or at least doesn’t fuck up too much? Oh man that’s just the best ever. Captain America 2 was the best! The new Ms. Marvel is pretty fucking great! And Avengers might not have passed the Bechdel test, but I’m Team Black Widow forever. Superheroes are great, and compelling, and just plain fun! And all I want, all I have ever wanted is to be able to like them as uncritically as my dude friends have always been able to. Because it’s hard to give something your entire heart when that thing won’t stop telling you that it’s just not for you.

But most of all, it sucks because looking at the art for this game and the character concepts, I get the feeling that the team behind Sentinels didn’t intend to make a game full of sexist art. Because yeah the female character designs suck, but the card art still shows them being heroes and not just broken-spined, dead-eyed assemblages of sexy parts of female anatomy. (Except for that one boobshot-with-no-face of Fanatic. Seriously, what were you thinking letting that one through?) To me, it feels like this was a case of there just not being any women[1] in the room.

Because that’s the problem with the vast gender imbalance in the gaming industry. When the people working in the industry on game design and development are overwhelmingly white and male, shit like this is going to happen without anyone ever thinking that maybe they should do something different. Sexist character design is so very, very entrenched across geekdom, and privilege keeps many male game developers and designers from even seeing that it’s there.

When sexism is the background radiation that pervades our lives, the people who benefit from sexism (men) often don’t notice that it’s even there. Even the most well-intentioned, enlightened, feminist-leaning dude is just plain going to miss shit. He doesn’t need to see it, after all, because it doesn’t affect him. Which is why it’s so very important for there to be women at the table during the process of game development[2]. Sometimes what you need is someone who can speak up and say, “wait, you get why that’s bullshit right?”

Let me tell you, I’ve had variations of this experience more times than I can count since starting this blog that can be summed up as a male friend being surprised when I complain about sexist art in a game because they hadn’t even noticed[3]. And then they admit that, shit, yeah – that thing they like is pretty sexist, and express some level of embarrassment that it needed to be pointed out to them. It sucks! (And not just for them, because let me tell you, I don’t enjoy being that person who craps on people’s fun[4].)

But not failing doesn’t have to be hard! Game design is not a solitary process – it takes time and an awful lot of eyeballs. So just make sure to include women and other not-white-het-cis people as some of those eyeballs, and make sure that they know you’ll take their feedback seriously. The wonderful thing about game design is that it is an iterative process! It’s impossible not to fuck up your first draft – but early designs are always a hot mess of bad writing and clunky design. If you make spotting -ism fails part of your design agenda, it is absolutely possible to make games that don’t punch girls in the feels and tell them they have cooties.

[1] Or n-b folk, or PoC, etc.

[2] They also need to have an environment where they feel safe and supported in speaking out against sexist design decisions, which is something many women in the games industry don’t have. But that’s a topic for another post.

[3] I don’t mean this as an indictment on you, dudes, promise. I’m getting better about spotting racist tropes, but I’m still pretty shit at spotting transphobic and ableist tropes. I’m trying, but it’s hard when that shit just doesn’t apply to me. (See how that works?)

[4] I’ve accidentally ruined Guardians of the Galaxy for a more than a few people and I still feel really bad about it.

Thoughts on Dragon Age:Inquisition from someone who probably won’t finish it

So here’s the deal. It pains me to make this admission. I love BioWare games, and I am something of a completionist. I have played some pretty terrible games in the name of completionism. Hell, I played all of Lightning Returns in the name of completionism. However, I’m probably not going to finish playing Dragon Age: Inquisition.

I tried! Believe me, I tried. I tried to the tune of playing 20 hours, then starting over and playing another 15 hours… and I just can’t. Seriously, folks, Dragon Age: Inquisition is the worst PC port of a console game that I have ever played, and I’ve been playing both PC and console games for a long time. The UI is just insanely bad, inventory management is punishing, and combat is about as exciting as waiting in line[1].

So even though I make a point of trying not to write about games until I have completed them (or mostly completed, in the case of Lightning Returns), I’m going to call it and write about my impressions of DA:I.

Spoiler warning, obviously, but only if you think shit no more than 20 hours in even counts.

Stuff that is bullshit

Because I like to end on a positive note, let’s start with stuff that I didn’t like. Which can be mostly summarized as “Vivienne”.

First, while I appreciate that BioWare’s developers were trying to make a character who is beautiful, empowered, and romantically appealing while also being a black woman – they really, really dropped the ball on Vivienne’s character design:

viv

God dammit, BioWare. THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS. This is literally one of the worst pairs of breasts I have ever seen in video games. Everything has texture in your graphics engine except for the weirdly lustrous plastic of Vivienne’s breasts, which are perfectly spherical and somehow never fall out of that dress, despite that all of the garment tape in the world would not prevent at least some areola peeking out.

Dammit, even Samara had breasts that were less bullshit than Vivienne’s, and that was previously one of the high (low?) bars of awful BioWare boob design.

The thing that sucks most is that Vivienne’s promo art was gloriously free of bullshit boob window:

Vivienne_inquisition_promotional

Why couldn’t we have had that Vivienne? I’ll take a tiny bit of stomach over a boob window big enough to fit a corgi through any day.

So anything positive the BioWare devs might have been trying to do flew right out the damn window, because every time I returned to base to talk to Vivienne, all I could focus on were her bizarrely artificial breasts. Instead of portraying a black woman who is complex and intelligent and attractive, Vivienne winds up as just another objectified black lady. (Literally. Because she is an object. You will never convince me those breasts are real.)

Second, Vivienne also had me throwing major amounts of side-eye at BioWare’s writers.

(It’s important for me sidetrack a moment here to note that I was playing as a Dalish Elf mage. Elf, because why would you play as anything but an elf if “elf” is an option? And mage, since – what with all of the demon-possession shenanigans that go along with magery in the DA setting – mages are automatically the most interesting character type. (Warriors don’t have to worry about accidentally turning into demons whenever they hit people, after all.) With all of the Dragon Age games, the writing is just more interesting if you’re playing a mage, because all of a sudden all sorts of shit gets really personal.

…anyway, back to Vivienne.)

So at the outset of DA:I, the mages – who had previously allowed themselves to be kept in golden cages and basically enslaved – have gotten tired of that shit and have had themselves a nice little rebellion because freedom! Yeah! And then you meet Vivienne, who immediately starts lamenting about how isn’t it a shame that the old system has broken down. You know, that system that incarcerated mages “for the public good” and effectively had no real checks against abuses by those in power who were supposed to look after the well-being of those supposedly “in their care”.

And according to Vivienne, this really is just the worst! Because now those stupid mages are going to run around, letting their magery hang out everywhere, and they’ll go drunk with power and let themselves get possessed by demons so they can go on blood-magic fueled murder rampages. Right? Of course. Because that’s what you do when you don’t have a bunch of murderous, mage-hating fuckheads in full-plate hanging over your every goddamn move. Way to go, you stupid freedom-wanting mages! There go our property values.

…yeah. Holy internalized oppression, Batman. That is some Bill Cosby-level respectability politics.

Naturally, as a mage myself, I tried to challenge her on the… uh… problematic implications of her view that the Circle needed to be reformed and all those pesky mages locked down right away. At which point Vivienne started accusing me of being “just as bad” because everyone knows that the Dalish are child-murderers!

Which. What? No. Just. No. Please, Vivienne. Just go die in a fire, or something. Okay? Okay. Great. (Also, BioWare character designers? Go to your room and don’t come out until you’ve thought about what you’ve done.)

Stuff that I hated but wasn’t bullshit

There was another character that I also hated, but it felt a bit unfair to lump him in with Vivienne because I kind of felt like I was supposed to hate him: Solas.

solas

In addition to looking like a constipated egg with pointy ears, Solas had the most terminal case of mansplaining I have ever encountered in a BioWare game. (And let me tell you, there have been some serious contenders over the years! Like Anders “let me mansplain your magic to you, Merill” in Dragon Age 2, or The Illusive Man and his serious love of “deeply” cynical Ayn Randian monologues in Mass Effect 2 and 3.)

First, let’s talk about how the way to win Solas’ approval is to listen to him talk about his magical research, which is about as exciting as watching paint peel. I went into my first playthrough thinking I would romance him, despite the whole constipated egg thing, because we were both outcasts! And elves! And mages! We had so much in common! Except it’s hard to have a relationship with someone whose idea of romance is “listen to me talk about how amazing I am, and then maybe you can tell me that I am amazing if you want”.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was when he started trashing the Dalish as know-nothing posers. And when I broke in with, “uh, standing right here. Still Dalish”, he doubled down by elfsplaining my own fictional culture to me. At which point I said, “fuck you, I’m going to go romance Cullen, the relentlessly hetero Teutonic guy, because literally anyone would be better than you”, and restarted my game since I’d already passed on my chance earlier.

And yet, even after all that, I still feel that Solas is a feather in the cap of the BioWare writers, because I just couldn’t shake the feeling that he was wearing an invisible fedora whenever he opened his mouth. I’m sure when I’m not playing that he tries to talk to Vivienne about ethics in magery.

Stuff that I loved!

Dorian

Let’s start with Dorian, who is fucking amazing. Can we just take a moment to appreciate how amazing he is?

dorian

Oh, Dorian. I hate mustaches, but I could never bring myself to hate you. I mean, look at you pulling it off with that mustache and fabulous hair and the inexplicably-one-sleeved robe you’re rocking there, you glorious zero-fucks-giving bastard.

I would have romanced Dorian in a heartbeat if he weren’t completely and irrevocably gay. Which, you know what? Cool. Because that whole “I’m gay, except for you because you don’t count because we’re soouuullllmates” trope that you see in a lot of games and other media always struck me as kind of creepy anyway.

Even better? If you don’t try to romance Dorian or Iron Bull (who is also a romance option for female protagonists), the two of them actually hook up partway through the story! And I’m actually sad that I didn’t get that far, because dammit that is just awesome.

Krem

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Krem, who is second-in-command of the Chargers – Iron Bull’s mercenary company – and also trans.

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Krem met up with Iron Bull pre-transition when Iron Bull saved his life, and it’s never treated as a big deal. And later in the game (alas, again I did not get that far), Krem tells the story of his transition, and it’s allowed to just be a thing that happens. In other words, Krem is just a normal (for Dragon Age values of normal) mercenary who happens to be trans, and is out and accepted. And it’s kind of horrible to realize this, but I think this might be the first time I’ve ever encountered an out trans normal-ass character in a video game – so good on BioWare for thinking to make a character like Krem.

My oooonly quibble is that he is voiced by Jennifer Hale – a cis woman. And yes, I do appreciate just how amazing Jennifer Hale is. (FemShep 5evvvvaaaaaa!) However, there’s a lot of amazing talent out there and it would have been nice to see such an important trans role go to someone who is actually trans. Jennifer Hale being who she is, she totally killed it! It just feels like a missed opportunity.

Cassandra

Cassandra is interesting, because she was part of the story framing device in Dragon Age 2, but actually returns for Dragon Age: Inquisition as a playable character.

Cassandralarge

I didn’t expect to like her as much as I did! She’s rigidly inflexible and a total hardass – which combined with the whole “religious zealot” angle made me think I was going to wind up totally hating her. But she also gives the fewest fucks of anyone in the party, except perhaps Dorian[3]. And even better, she makes no apologies for being completely and totally awesome.

Since I was playing a female character, Cassandra wasn’t a romance option – although I flirted with her anyway – mostly because flirting with Cassandra consisted of telling her “you know you’re amazing, right?” and her getting annoyed and asserting that it was all just her job or that someone had to do it or somesuch.

I also greatly appreciated that Cassandra is not conventionally attractive. She’s scarred, and dirty, and her jawline is decidedly masculine. And yet, if she had been a romance option, I would consoled myself about my inability to romance Dorian by romancing her instead. And given that Cassandra is both a party member and a member of the ruling council of the Inquisition, she’s definitely written as one of the strongest romance contenders – which is pretty cool.

Last: CANONICAL MISANDRY

The last thing I loved about Dragon Age: Inquisition isn’t so much a character as a writing/design decision by the BioWare team.

At the beginning of the game when the Inquisition is formed, a ruling committee is formed consisting of the protagonist, Cassandra, Leliana, Kirkwall’s former Templar Knight-Commander Cullen, and a new diplomat character – Josephine. Which means if you’re playing a female protagonist, your ruling committee looks a little something like this:

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SWEET SWEET MISANDRY.

Best of all, Cullen doesn’t crack any jokes about the level of estrogen, or about periods, or about that time of the month. He just accepts that the best people to fill these jobs happen to be women and moves on with his life. Ruling council of mostly women? Whatevs. That’s just how it is.

And predictably, some dudes think this is just the worst thing ever, which makes me love it even more. My Male Tears mug was starting to get a little empty.

[1] To be fair, that’s a sport here. Canadians call it “queuing”, but I haven’t assimilated enough to find it amusing yet[2].

[2] It’s been nearly 9 years since I moved to Canada and I’m still not tired of expat jokes.

[3] And now I want someone to draw fanart of Cassandra and Dorian arguing about who has the fewest fucks

Friday silliness: Bayonetta proportions in real life

After doing my recent post about Bayonetta 2, I regretted I’d given up doing a corrected redraw as completely pointless. The problem was that Bayonetta’s proportions are so inhumanly wrong that a “corrected” version wouldn’t match the original at all. So then I got to thinking…

Maybe what I needed wasn’t a drawing over top of the original artwork to illustrate exactly where the figure went wrong. (Ie: everywhere) Maybe what I needed was to photoshop an actual human woman to have the same proportions as Bayonetta for it to really hit home about how weirdly inhuman her proportions are.

So I decided on Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, since she’s someone we’re used to seeing obviously-Photoshopped images of. Case in point, this awful Cap 2 poster:

captain-america-2-poster-black-widow

Then I just needed to find a mostly-not-foreshortened picture of Bayonetta that WASN’T posed like a porn still. That turned out to be… a lot harder than I thought. But finally, I found this render here:

bayonetta-imagen-i244178-i

Lastly, I needed a full-body still of Scarjo as Black Widow to make sure that I got something un-photoshopped (like pretty much all of her promo photos). I would have preferred her in the catsuit, since that’s most similar to what Bayonetta herself is wearing. But this is what I settled for, since the pose is the most similar:

captain-america-2-black-widow-bhdznrru

All right! So with the images sourced, it was time for some photoshop magic. In order to do this, I overlaid Bayonetta as a transparent layer on top of Scarjo and then just resized-stretched things until they matched the Bayonetta’s proportions. Once that was done, I did some half-assed cloning to blend it together and… ta-da!

scarlett-johansson-black-widow-5 (1)
I’ll admit I got lazy photoshopping the background back in

Yes Scarlett’s head looks tiny, but it is the same size as Bayonetta’s. Bayonetta’s weird beehive hairdo just serves as an optical illusion. I’ll admit that I also should have smudged her thighs a tiny bit wider, but honestly it was close enough to illustrate the point. It’s easy to look at a computer-rendered figure and ignore obvious distortions, because there’s already a level of removal there by virtue of it obviously not being real. But seeing these anatomy distortions on an actual human? I find that really emphasizes how very inhuman Bayonetta is.

On Bayonetta 2 and Female Sexuality in Video Games [TW]

[TW: The first part of this post contains some content looking at rape-as-punishment-of-in-game-failure, as well as a link to a rapey cut scene.]

Recently, I had a decent-sized traffic spike on my old post about Bayonetta and the male gaze… from three years ago. (Usually that post averages 200-300 direct links per month; in October of this year it got 3700+.) Apparently, a bunch of guys on Reddit got really sore that I said nasty things about Bayonetta and hate-read the article so they could talk about how terrible I was.

…weird. And they say the feminists are just “looking for things to be offended by”.

My reaction initially was along the lines of ‘oh well – I feel pretty much everything I said about Bayonetta back then certainly applies to the new game’, so I’d planned on leaving well enough alone. But a few things caught my attention recently that made me think it would be worth revisiting. So first, some thoughts, and then a redraw.

Part the first: you can oppose #GamerGate and still be misogynist

One of the things that made me want to revisit Bayonetta is that her creator, Hideki Kamiya, has actually gained a small amount of notoriety as a game dev opposed to #GamerGate who attracted moderate levels of harassment. (And by that I mean that he was harassed by #GG proponents, but certainly not anything comparable to what women like Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian have faced.)

However, it’s very important to remember that even though he opposes #GamerGate, Hideki Kamiya is still very much a misogynist. Here are just a few things he’s said about Bayonetta in the past:

Well, if I had to pick one, I would say it is the scene where Joy first appears in the game, with Bayonetta and her impostor getting into a pose battle. That was my way of expressing the feminine notion that, to one woman, all other women are enemies. Even women walking by each other will check out what the other is wearing, and might smolder a bit with antagonism. Women are scary. (source: Bayonetta dev: to one woman, all other women are enemies)

I strongly feel that women outside should dress like her. Like, when she does a hair attack, you’d see the skin. I want women to wear fashion like that. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)

But anyway that’s how we’re creating Bayonetta’s moves and all that, and that’s actually the most fun part of this game, thinking about all that stuff. So you will be able to see what everybody in the team likes in a girl from the finished project. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)

[On whether her outfit really is just hair] Yes, completely hair. That means that she’s actually naked, but naked because that’s just hair, that’s not clothing. She has strong magical powers, she’s using her strength, her magical power to keep her hair on her body, to make it form an outfit. So when she gets weak or something, she might just lose her magical power, and if that happens…you know what that means. (1up.com: Bayonetta developer interview)

In other words, Hideki Kamiya is someone who has zero problems objectifying women, whether in real life or in fiction. He also has designed Bayonetta explicitly to appeal to male sexuality, and has no problem equating a woman’s worth with her sexual appeal.

Still, some people point to Bayonetta as a character to be celebrated because empowerment! And choice feminism! Bayonetta’s chosen to be this way!

But that ignores the fact that Bayonetta is not real. All of the choices she makes – how to dress, how to act, who to flirt with and when – are actually being made by her creator, whose only priority is to present Bayonetta as a sexual object that is pleasing to men. Her sexuality isn’t presented as something to be celebrated – it’s something that is explicitly punished.

Part of Bayonetta 2 includes a secret fight against Rodin, a character from the first game who is a friend of Bayonetta’s. Unfortunately, the sequence that plays if you actually lose this boss fight is… suuuuper rapetastic.

If you win the fight, Bayonetta doesn’t have sex with Rodin. Sex is only something that happens if you lose. And yeah, a lot of people would argue that the flirtatious dialogue at the beginning of the scene means that it’s not rape. I mean, how can it be rape if she flirted with him, right? But that’s just victim-blaming of the worst sort. I point again to the fact that Bayonetta only has sex with Rodin if she loses; if sex can only happen with violence, that looks an awful lot like rape.

And then there’s just the whole way it’s presented. Bayonetta is naked lying face down, trying to cover herself while Rodin smokes a cigarette. All of which really just screams rape to me – especially when you consider that “rape” is (disgustingly) still widely used as a synonym for “defeat” by many gamers.

I hate Bayonetta as a character and all of the hollow, awful stereotypes about female sexuality that she represents, but I still find this sequence utterly repugnant.Yes Bayonetta is presented as in charge and blatant in her sexuality. Yes she is aggressively flirtatious. Yes she dresses provocatively. But she is not “asking for it”. No woman is ever “asking for it”.

This is categorically not what female empowerment looks like.

Maybe Kamiya isn’t a misogynist in the sense of hating women. I really can’t say – I’ve never met the guy, nor am I ever likely to have the chance to. But in terms of being someone who promotes the objectification of women and perpetuates toxic sexist stereotypes? Absolutely he is a misogynist.

Besides, have you seen her character design?

Part two: everything about Bayonetta is wrong

So here’s the image that I decided to work with:

20140615210025!Cereza_Bayonetta_2_renderHoo boy. Looking at this, I’m actually a little terrified of Hideki Kamiya, because Bayonetta isn’t even remotely human. Clearly Kamiya has a fetish for weirdly elongated, rubber-boned snake women. Literally every part of her body is wrong.

Let’s start with the easy part. Heads:

Bayonetta-heads

Bayonetta is a whopping nine heads tall. So if you at Bayonetta and think “wow, her head looks really small”, that’s because it’s weirdly tiny. The average human is 7 heads tall, with half a head variance on either side. That’s an extra two heads of height!

Furthermore, Bayonetta’s legs by themselves are 6 heads tall. So just like Hyung Tae Kim’s anatomy nightmares, you could put Bayonetta’s head on just her legs and it would be as tall as a real human. Brr. (I did try to draw that, by the way, but it wasn’t nearly as funny as I’d hoped.)

When doing redraws, parsing the anatomy is usually pretty simple. But with Bayonetta, I found myself stumped and had to resort to drawing part of her skeleton to figure out what was going on:

Bayonetta-skeleton

Oh god. My head hurts.

Looking at this, about the only thing that I can give Bayonetta’s creators for is that she does, at least, have a ribcage and internal organs. However, Bayonetta’s spine is just ridiculous – it’s bent at a 130 degree angle there. And sure, there are contortionists out there who can sit on their own heads, but even they can’t fold their spine sharply in half in the middle.

There’s also this confusing thing that happens in order to elongate Bayonetta’s breasts (we’ll come back to that in a second) that results in her having the world’s longest sternum. The average human sternum is 17cm (6.69 inches) – and is significantly shorter in women. But despite spending way too much time trying to figure out a base for an estimate, all I can say is that her sternum is just too long, okay?

Her arms are also weirdly messed up:

Bayonetta-boobs-elbow

 

To be honest, I don’t know what the fuck is happening with her right arm, other than her shoulder is completely dislocated. I can partially dislocate one of my shoulders (on purpose) and I still can’t reach backwards that far. As for the rest of her arm… Man, I don’t know. I mean, it looks like it might be correct? But the foreshortening combined with the extreme anatomy distortion makes it really hard to tell.

As for her left arm, it’s waaaay hyper-extended. Now I’ll admit that it’s actually not beyond the realm of anatomical possibility – I have a few friends with hyper-bendy elbows and they like to squick me out by bending them freakily. (Stop it bendy friends!) But a choice was clearly made to hyper extend the arm so that the foreshortened hand wouldn’t block the view of her breasts, which. Okay. I guess most dudes don’t share my squick over elbow hyper-extension, but it still strikes me as really weird.

And her breasts! (I said I’d come back to those…) I can’t get over how weird and elongated they are. They look like baguettes stapled to her torso and… just… what? What’s up with that? I mean, when’s the last time you heard a guy say “hey, look at the sub buns on that chick”? Never, that’s when. Because normal humans fetishize round breasts. Melons. Basketballs. Not baguettes.

But the thing I find most disconcerting of all is Bayonetta’s pelvis:

Bayonetta-pelvis

When I was drawing her skeleton, I was weirded out by how tall Bayonetta’s pelvis is. It just seemed out of proportion, and way too large in comparison to the ribcage. So I drew a perspective box around the pelvis, duplicated the layer, rotated it, and stuck it on top of the ribcage. And her ribcage is only a tiiiny bit bigger than her pelvis, which is just about a million kinds of wrong:
Human-SkeletonThe pelvis on this (real, not fake) skeleton is slightly more than HALF the height of the ribcage. It’s true that there is an awful lot of variance in the length of the human ribcage, but we’re not talking anywhere near enough variance to make Bayonetta’s freaky pelvis remotely plausible.

All of which leaves me incredibly stymied. Normally this is the point where I’d try to correct everything and redraw the figure over the original art with normal human proportions. But in this instance, I’ll concede defeat because really – what’s the point? When literally everything about Bayonetta is wrong, it seems easier to just point you to photos of Bayonetta cosplayers. (Who, it’s worth noting, still manage to be very sexy despite their handicap of having an “ordinary” human skeleton.)

Concluding thoughts

There’s a legal concept that I find useful in this situation – namely, fruit of the poison tree. Basically, Bayonetta is not an empowering feminist figure, because everything that she is has been tainted by the deeply-held misogyny of her creators. At no point does Bayonetta have any real agency over her sexuality because she is entirely fictional. Rather than being a celebration of female sexuality, Bayonetta is a shallow stereotype constructed out of sexist stereotypes and objectification who only serves as a mirror for the misogynist views of the people who designed her.

Looking back: comparing old and new M:TG art [MANY IMAGES]

Lately I’ve been having fun going through my collection recently and revamping old decks as well as building new ones.  Because reasons that are boring to people who don’t play Magic, a lot of this deck-building has me going through our new Khans of Tarkir stuff as well as stuff from Return to Ravnica, which is a set from two years ago.

And the thing that I’m really noticing is that Ravnica… really sucks at it’s portrayals of women. For all that Khans artwork didn’t really include women, it also (for the most part) didn’t really fail that hard. I mean, there were a couple eyeroll-worthy pieces of art, particularly the snake tits on Kheru Spellsnatcher. But Ravnica? Man. Where to start.

Which is really interesting! Because it’s not like there’s a ton of time separating the two sets. There are only two years separating Ravnica and Khans. So I thought it would be worth taking a look at Ravnica, numbers-wise, to see how M:TG has changed direction with it’s artwork in the last two years.

The Numbers

Interestingly, while Khans may have had a much lower eyeroll factor, there were also many fewer women over all:

discernable-gender

Yikes!  The percentage of female representation went down by half! Given that women in the Ravnica set were already under-represented, that’s a pretty startling decrease!

However my initial assessment of Ravnica’s art was pretty accurate. Ravnica might have had many more women, but a large majority of them were objectified pretty blatantly:

breakdown

HALF of all women in Ravnica artwork were counted as suggestively attired! As compared to Khans, where only five female characters total were counted as suggestively attired. Yikes!

Still it might be easy to look at the numbers for Ravnica and conclude that characters in Ravnica are just more suggestively attired overall. After all, looking at the breakdown of suggestively attired figures, men account for nearly half. So if there’s equal opportunity objectification going on, that’s not bad, right?

…well. No.

Caveats. Always with the caveats

Because as always, there are very stark differences between suggestively attired male figures and suggestively attired female figures. There tend to be three rough categories of suggestively attired male figures:

1. “Savage” or “bestial” characters clearly gendered as male

With art that falls into this category, the lack of clothing is always a device intended to display their lack of civilization:

Animals

All of the above images depict characters that are clearly not intended to be sexually appealing. Indeed, I’d argue that Golgari Charm is intended to be unappealing. These are just some “savage” beast-men looking to inflict some hurt on someone.

2. Dead stuff: corpses, necromancers, and corpse necromancers

All of the following figures were counted as suggestively attired:
Dead

Which is, of course, ridiculous. These figures were clearly not intended to be sexually appealing. Not unless you happen to find dessicated corpses and dudes without noses appealing, in which case I’d like to remind you that society has agreed that necrophilia is a thing that is Not Okay.

3. Goblins and weirdos

Okay, I’ll admit this is a bit of a catch-all. But seriously, check out this art:

goblins and weirdos

Goblins always throw off the numbers when it comes to counts of suggestive figures, because it’s very common for the art of goblins to include high numbers of figures. And goblins always get counted as suggestive, because they never, ever wear pants. (I mean, I’m pretty sure if it wears pants, you can’t call it a goblin.)

And then there’s the weirdos, by which I mean figures that count as suggestively attired who are not bestial, dead, necromancers, or goblin, but are clearly not meant to be sexually appealing because they’re just… so… weird. I mean, look at the Rakdos Shred Freak. I’m pretty sure that even hardcore fetishists aren’t going to look at this guy and say “oo, look at his muscle definition”.

And the Hellhole Flailer? What the hell is up with this guy? Why are his forearms the size of his biceps? Why are his biceps the size of his thighs? Why does he have a skull on his head? Or does he have a skull for a head? Anyway, whatever is going on there – it’s clear that this guy isn’t supposed to be sexually appealing. And yet that’s how he was counted, along with all of the other savage, dead, and goblin figures.

Which has a clear spoiler effect on the numbers! Because while these figures are suggestively attired, they are clearly not suggestive.

In fact, out of all of the male figures in Ravnica, I’d argue that only one counts as being maybe sorta actually suggestive – the Golgari Decoy:

Golgari decoy

I have no idea what is going on here, but this guy is rocking some pretty extreme “boobs and butt”, which is pretty weird, frankly. Is this supposed to be a satire of the usual female boobs and butt? Or is this just an anatomy fail? I really don’t know.

Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that there are a good number of female figures who were counted as fully clothed, but who are actually kind of sexualized by their frigging boobplate. Take, for example, the Ash Zealot, who I otherwise really like because she is just straight up ending a bunch of zombies in the face:

ld212_ash_uxiyudxxey

She’s so great! So, so great! …except for her bizarre boobplate. The boobs on her boobplate are actually so high that she is actually wearing a pushup boobplate, because, I don’t know, it’s hard to want to go out and brain zombies with a flaming mace if you feel insecure about your saggy tits? I guess?

And unfortunately, Ravnica had a lot of pretty egregious boobplate:

Boobplate
There are 3 or 4 more examples that didn’t fit into this picture, btw.

The first three aren’t terrible, because the art itself is actually pretty rad and is about them being awesome, not about them having boobs. The last three, however, are pretty clearly a case of the artist going “bah, why draw a woman with armor if you can’t see her tits”? Arg.

In which I belabor the point

I don’t want to look like I’m arguing that the reason for the 50% decrease in female representation between Ravnica and Khans is because they got rid of all of the bullshit female characters. Because that would imply that only 50% of Ravnica art of women is bullshit. But the reality is that non-bullshit art of women is vastly outnumbered by the totally-bullshit art.

And it comes in so many different flavors! Flavors like “sexualized spellcasting”!

spellcasters
WHY DOES SHE HAVE DUCKFACE. WHY. AND WHY DOES THIS BUG ME MORE THAN THE TOP LEFT’S BROKEN SPINE???

Or how about “the spec for this card actually has nothing to do with boobs at all, I just super like them”?

Boobs for the sake of boobs

The Oak Street Innkeeper (far right) is the only one of these where you could maaaayyybe argue for the inclusion of some boobage. (But given the extremity of that boob window, I’d argue pretty hard against that). Chorus of Might and Electrickery (top left and top middle) don’t necessarily exclude ridiculous boobage, though the fact that some pretty ridiculously sexualized women were the go-to for otherwise ambiguous art requirement says a lot, I think.

But check out the Wild Beastmaster (top right). If you look up the full artwork, the animals she’s commanding are cropped almost entirely out of frame so that we can see the totality of that boobplate trainwreck she’s wearing. Even worse are the Korozda Monitor and Slime Molding (bottom left and bottom middle). The art requirements specifically called for not sexy ladies. Giant-ass lizards are not sexy ladies. Huge slimes are not sexy ladies. And yet, in both cases, the artist was so devastated about having to draw not-sexy-ladies that sexy ladies were inserted where none was needed. This is why we can’t have nice things.

And then we have the closely related flavor of “I can’t take this art seriously because of these gratuitous breasts”:

Maybe no one will notice

I’m sure that these were all intended to be dramatic pieces of art, but you completely lost me at the ridiculous sexualization. Why would a “Keening Apparition” (top middle) be a Kirsten Dunst-lookalike at serious risk for some nip-slip? Why would a soldier wear armor that completely fails to protect her vital organs? Why would you decide to summon a giant-ass rhino in a “Horncaller’s Chant” (top right) while completely failing to wear pants? Wouldn’t you think that putting on pants before summoning spectral rhinos would be a good call?

Anyhow, we can’t forget the “I don’t even know how that clothing is supposed to work”:

Nipple straps

I have spent way too much time staring at those weirdo straps on Rites of Reaping (left) and still can’t figure out how they would do anything to prevent that vest from shifting, causing her boobs to fall right out anyway. Copious amounts of body glue? Which is also the only explanation I can muster for what the fuck is going on with Treasured Find (right). For fucks, sake, she’s a gorgon. Why would she go through such ridiculous fashion shenanigans if anyone who looks at her is just going to turn to stone anyway?

And last, but certainly not least, we have “what the actual fucking fuck”

wut

No, seriously. What the fuck. What the actual unholy fuck is going on here. Who the fuck thought that this would be a good idea? And why the fuck would an art director let these awful breasttacular trainwrecks slide? Because about three seconds after…. whatever they’re doing in that card art, this would happen:

stab wound

This card is delightfully called “stab wound”, and this is pretty much what would happen to all of these women in bullshit outfits. I have no idea if this piece was intended as satire (I suspect that it is, given the comical facial expression), and I’m reluctant to Google it lest I find out otherwise.

Concluding Thoughts

So I think we’ve pretty thoroughly disproven the notion that sexualization of men and women in Ravnica art is somehow “equal”. Which, you know, yay.

After looking at all this bullshit art, I’m left with a lot of mixed feelings about the direction that M:TG art direction has taken. On the one hand, it’s great to not have to look at bullshit art. Ravnica had a lot of super great cards with some super-bullshit art, and I have some Ravnica cards in my current decks with some pretty terrible artwork as a result.

But on the other hand, I don’t really feel that great about the “solution” to the problem of Magic artists being incapable of not treating women like shit. The only way that Magic can have NOT shitty women is to pretend that women don’t exist, period? What the ever-loving fuck is up with that? It is totally possible to have awesome, fantastical artwork that includes women and doesn’t ridiculously sexualize and objectify them. Look at D&D 5E! They pulled it off beautifully, and D&D is published by the same damn company.

So, you know, thanks for mostly not treating women like shit in the new Khans set. Now maybe we can take another small step and remember that we exist and actually do things.

M:TG – Khans art is great… when it remembers that women exist [LONG]

Recently, I got a chance to attend a local pre-release tournament event for the latest Magic: The Gathering expansion – the Khans of Tarkir. And it was… an interesting experience. One I definitely felt was worth blogging about, in light of the fact that I do know people who are trying to get more women into playing M:TG. But also, I felt like it was time to revisit the art in this newest set and see how it breaks down, since it was my feeling that the art for Khans was “better” than art I’ve seen on previous sets.

First: my experience of the pre-release event

I’ve only attended one other pre-release event; it was for Theros last year. That event was in a game store, which was, frankly, terrible. There were 30 people crammed into the back of the store, which was insanely cramped and dimly lit. There was one other woman there, but she was on the opposite end of the room. And of the guys who were there, it was obvious that a large percentage of them were of the awkward persuasion[1].

Ugh.

But this time, we were both able to go to an event at a local university. Brightly lit classrooms, very spacious, absolutely not confining. Much better right?

Well… it was better in that I didn’t feel any of the low-level threat that I did at my first pre-release. But it was still decidedly uncomfortable walking into the room to realize that the only reason there would be another woman participating is because we came together. Said woman was a friend who has many, many more years experience playing Magic than me, but still – I would have been all alone if we hadn’t picked up the phone and been like, “hey, want to come to a pre-release with us”? And that’s really not a cool feeling.

So combine that with the fact that I was obviously there as a female S.O. to my male husband, and I felt a lot of pressure to do well, which unfortunately didn’t happen. I got very unlucky in that I didn’t have great cards to work with (the good stuff I got wasn’t in the colors I’d registered for), plus I’ll cop to making some mistakes. (It was my second ever tournament, and I’ve only been playing for a year.)

Now factor that in with the fact that I’m a very competitive person who really doesn’t enjoy losing. So my overall poor performance sucked from that standpoint, but also because by not doing well I became That Woman who only does geek things because her husband is doing them and generally sucks. (Stereotype threat is real, and it is zero fun.) And to add insult to injury, the very art on the cards reminded me that this game that I was spending money to play wasn’t for me. So overall, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth.

Which makes it too bad that there aren’t any chapters of the Lady Planeswalker Society anywhere close to where I live, because until the demographics of typical M:TG events change, I doubt I would go to another singles tournament. (I haven’t ruled out the idea of doing 2-headed Giant with my husband.) And yes, I’m fully aware that not going to Magic tournaments because there are no women is a self-reinforcing problem. I get that! But folks, Magic is an expensive hobby, and you can’t force people to spend a lot of time and money on something they don’t even enjoy “because inclusion”. I wish I had ideas on how to fix the gender imbalance, but for now all I have is a big fat shrug. (And the planeswalker my husband pulled in that tournament. Lucky bastard.)

On to the numbers

Veterans of my blog will be familiar with how I do these posts. New readers, the tl;dr is that I look at an entire set of artwork for a given game product and count figures with discernable gender as well as look at a list of set criteria: actively posed versus neutral, fully-clothed figures, and suggestively attired figures. (If you want definitions of these criteria, you can see the original article that I wrote for See Page XX that was the genesis of this blog, examining sexist trends in official game art across all areas of gaming.)

Before breaking down the numbers, my sense of the artwork from Khans of Tarkir was that it did much better than previous sets with the portrayals of women that it did have, it did worse at actually including female characters at all. (Depressingly, those impressions are pretty much borne out if you compare the numbers that I got with the numbers I gathered when I did a breakdown of the M11 core set.)

discernable gender

Only 18% of the figures for which I could discern gender were female! Yikes!

Now things do look a little more encouraging once you actually look at the number breakdown:

Detailed breakdown

Given that women comprise 18% of all figures counted, they’re actually slightly overperforming with regard to active poses. Similarly, they are overperforming when it comes to fully clothed figures, as compared to their male counterparts. And holy cats, suddenly it’s the men who are all sexay instead of the women?

Well… no. Not so much.

Bring in the caveats!

So before we get any further, it’s worth mentioning that out of all of the artwork in Khans, only THREE CHARACTERS are depicted as being both non-human and female. THREE: a female djinn depicted on Riverwheel Aerialists (remember her, because we’re coming back to her in a bit) , the naga Sidisi the Brood Tyrant, and the naga shown on Kheru Spellsnatcher (we’ll revisit her as well).

This becomes significant, because this set featured a much higher percentage of non-human sentient characters, owing to the fact that there are goblins, orcs, djinn, efreet, bird people, dog people, and nagas in addition to vanilla humans in the set’s artwork. The orcs are pretty clearly depicted as male – that one is easy. But the djinn and the efreet are much more ambiguous. I would have been totally willing to believe in them as androgynous races were it not for the lone female djinn – which makes me think that the artists were handed specs that only specified race and not gender and simply defaulted to male, because male is always the default.

As for the bird people and the dog people, an argument could be made that they should be counted as ungendered, since they’re clearly non-humanoid characters. And in general I would agree, except that M:TG artists have had no problem ridiculously gendering inappropriate things in the past by putting tits on things that should not have tits like lions or trees. (And those aren’t even the worst examples I’ve seen – just the worst examples I can remember card names for.)

Furthermore, a depressingly large number of the small number of female figures that were included were depicted as the Smurfettes in a group of otherwise all-male characters:

Smurfettes

Jeskai Ascendency

The Ascendancies (each of the five clans had an Ascendancy card) were particularly bad for this, as they each had large groups of figures, with ooooone woman and the rest dudes. It’s like someone on the art team was giving art revision notes that said “needs women” and the artists changed one figure in each drawing. Which only serves to emphasize even more what an afterthought the inclusion of women is.

Depressing.

Also important to consider is the issue of the seeming saturation of suggestively attired male figures. As I’ve blogged about before, the phenomenon of pantsless/shirtless male figures in fantasy art is something that consistently throws off the results I get when doing these counts. Very often, “primitive”, “savage”, or “bestial” characters will be drawn as either shirtless or pantsless as a shorthand for conveying either non-human or non-civilized status.

So here is an example of some of the male figures that were counted as suggestively attired:

sexy not sexy

So sure the first is a beefy guy showing a lot of pecs punching a bear(!)[2]. But we also have flying bird man with leg-wraps-instead-of-pants, and goblins with no pants, because seriously when do goblins ever wear pants[3]?

The other important thing to mention is that the consistency with which I applied this standard led to some ludicrous results. For example, all of this art was counted as containing suggestively attired male figures:

zombies

The criteria was clear – they have clearly discernable gender (or at least secondary sex characteristics consistent with gender in cis people; I’m not going to try to determine the cis-ness of zombies because that way lies madness). Plus none of them are wearing shirts or pants. So despite the fact that none of them are depicted in any way close to even resembling attractiveness, they are counted as suggestively attired. For that matter, the zombie figure on Dutiful Return is counted as suggestive, despite being called out on the card as being furniture. (I only counted it once.)

In fact, here is the only male figure I saw that I would call actually suggestive, because yum:

Jeskai Student

He’s muscular without being a ridiculous power fantasy or engaging in ridiculously cartoonish violence (ie punching a bear in the face), and his shirtlessness isn’t being used to comment on a “savage”, “bestial”, or “uncivilized” nature. He’s just a super pretty dude practicing some awesome kung fu and being super hawt.

But even then – even then – there is a clear difference in how Shirtless Kung Fu Guy is portrayed from this female naga:

Kheru-Spellsnatcher-Khans-of-Tarkir-Spoiler

I totally eyerolled when I first saw this card, because this is textbook boobs-and-butt… applied to a snake. I had to look pretty closely to verify that she does not, in fact, have boobs[4], but the artist still managed to suggest them with the angle of the straps on her chest. Also, she’s got serious snakespine, so it’s a good thing she is in fact a snake, because that’s pretty much the only way that degree of spine bend would be possible. Lastly, check out how she doesn’t have legs but the line of her belly scales, or whatever you’d call them, still implies a thigh and crotch.

[sigh]

Issues of ridiculous objectification of snake-women aside, there’s also the problem that the Kheru Spellsnatcher isn’t actually doing anything. Shirtless Kung Fu Guy is practicing some awesome kung fu, while Kheru Spellsnatcher is just like OH HAI ISN’T THIS A PRETTY LIGHT HOW U DOIN’.

Thankfully, the Kheru Spellsnatcher is the only piece of art that I whole-heartedly disapprove of. And there is art that I really, really like in this set! Certainly, this set has done a lot to address my previous complaint that fully-clothed women don’t get to be awesome, because here are a bunch of fully-clothed ladies being completely awesome.

awesome ladies

The first two images are of Narset, whom I might add is one of the mythic rares in the set and either totally rules or totally sucks depending on if it was you that pulled her or the other guy. (I’ve seen her in action and she’s just wrong, folks.) But generally, this set was great for pictures of awesome ladies doing awesome martial arts, of which I am always a fan. Particularly I am always a fan of ass-kicking-grandmothers and think this set could have used 2000% more characters like the Jeskai Elder, because ass-kicking grandmothers make anything better. The end.

There were also women getting to do ridiculously gonzo fantasy awesome things, which has definitely not been the case in previous sets:

moar awesome ladies

Check out the Tuskguard Captain being all HOW DO YOU LIKE MY SWEET-ASS RIDE BTW IT IS A MASTODON. Or the Abzan Guide being all DO NOT MESS WITH ME I CAN RIDE A GIRAFFE. And sure, the Chief of the Edge isn’t so much gonzo, but she sure looks like she’s about 2 seconds from ending a dude.

So it’s great to see art like this, because it shows that Wizards has made strides in how they portray women in the last few years. But looking at other products, like D&D – which is also produced by Wizards – it’s also clear that they could do so much better.

[1] Seriously I can’t emphasize how much I hate most game stores. They are not welcoming for many women, and often when I enter one I have dudes literally stop and stare at me.

[2] This, incidentally, is my new favorite card ever and will henceforth be referred to as “Bear Punch”

[3] The answer is never

[4] Thank god! Wizards is finally cracking down on putting breasts on reptiles!

Thoughts on Lightning Returns and cultural appropriation [SPOILERS]

[NOTE: I’m just about to finish Day 10, so please no spoilers on things that come after that.]

I was having a conversation with my husband the other night about cultural appropriation and Lightning Returns, in which I had occasion to make the following comparison: “It’s like an Evangelical white Texan decided to write a game about Hinduism. That’s how wrong it gets everything.”

And I’d really like to expand on that! But before we go any further, let’s break down the specific example I’m talking about.

Lightning Returns: the most bonkers take on Catholicism ever

So firstly, let’s just get started with the fact that in 13-1, Lightning becomes the pawn of the fal’cie, nigh-omnipotent servants of an omnipotent but mostly absent god who created the world and then abandoned it. She then spends the entire game fighting against entities that are roughly analogous to archangels, and soundly kicks their asses. And somewhere in there she somehow befriends Odin and he becomes her beating-things-up buddy, because, I dunno, I guess he just really likes that her name is Lightning?

Then in 13-2, she’s suddenly abducted by a goddess of Death-but-not-really(?) and turned into a valkyrie. And now in 13-3, she’s back working for God again, and she is literally the savior. As in, that is her title now – Savior Comma The[1].

So now 13-3, Lightning Returns, stars Lightning, The Savior, chosen of God – Bhunivelze the Lord of Light, who apparently decided that priestly robes were passe and that Lightning should have priestly bondage wear instead.

Lightning_LR_screenshot
Fetish messiah ftw

And then there’s a bunch of stuff about the end of the world because it’s Squeenix and let’s just cut to the fact that “God’s” base of operations is The Ark, which looks like a fevered acid-trip conjured by the love child of a Futurist and an Art Nouveau aficionado. And that weird tree there? Oh, don’t mind that, that’s just The Tree of Life, AKA Yggdrasil, AKA the World Tree of Norse mythology:

Ark_screenshot

Why is Yggdrasil a plot point in a game that is literally about making Lightning the Christian Bondage Wear Messiah? Let’s not worry about that, okay? Let’s also not worry about that in 13-3, Lightning saves a white chocobo named The Angel of Valhalla, who was really – surprise! – Odin all along! Only Odin is a giant white chicken now, because reasons. And Odin, Valhalla, and Yggdrasil… well Norse culture only predates Christianity by, like, a couple centuries, and Scandinavia is, like, in the same hemisphere and Norse people and Christians are both white, or you know, mostly white, or okay there are non-white Christians but we just won’t pay attention to them because that’s not important.

REASONS.

So, okay, Lightning the Bondage Messiah has been chosen by God to save the souls of as many people as she can before the end of the world so that they can live again in the new world that God is going to create. And no, none of that sentence was in any way a metaphor, because here is Lightning doing some sweet, sweet, soul saving:

saving souls

Oh, and then there’s the official church of God, who are, like, God’s official homies. Only they’re called “The Order”, and they are totes Catholic because seriously check out this badass Cathedral:

photo 2 - Copy

But even though the Order are God’s official homies, they’re also preparing to fuck up God’s shit by doing a ritual to destroy all of the dead souls still hanging around and shit, which would ruin God’s promise to bring back Lightning’s dead sister after she helps him save the world and stuff. Because holding family members hostage is something that totally happened, like for real the New Testament was full of DO WHAT I SAY JESUS OR I WILL FUCKING SHIV MARY SERIOUSLY DO NOT FUCK WITH ME JESUS.

Oh, and even though I haven’t finished the game, I know for realz that Lightning is going to wind up beating up and maybe killing God because Squeenix is telegraphing it so hard, which is also legit Christian, because don’t you remember that time that Jesus and God had that throwdown in the Octagon?

Jesus confirms that is totally what happened.

…I think you probably get the idea by now.

So what does this have to do with cultural appropriation?

What exactly does and does not count as cultural appropriation is always tricky to pin down. Myself, I would say that although Lightning Returns is a bizarre and misinterpretation of Catholic Christianity, I would not call it cultural appropriation, simply because of the context of the two cultures in question. While Japan did not suffer as many ill effects of Western colonial oppression as other Asian countries, it still left an indelible mark on Japanese society. And in general, it is certainly true that Christianity was often a tool of colonial oppression.

And yes Japan does have a history of colonialism itself, and yes it does have a problem with racism against non-Yamato-Japanese. But Japan has never colonized the West, nor has it attempted to forcibly convert Western people or otherwise destroy Western religion. And bizarrely-worded t-shirts aside, it certainly doesn’t have a history of selling misrepresentations of Western religion and culture for profit in such a way that would comprise a threat to the integrity of said religion and culture.

So while Lightning Returns is a deeply weird take on Christianity that some might find offensive (I don’t, but I could understand people who do), I don’t think it’s fair to call it cultural appropriation.

So why go on at such length? Because I think the close-but-not-quite nature of Lightning Returns makes it a useful illustration of what cultural appropriation looks like for people who might not be accustomed to looking out for such things.

There are, unfortunately, a lot of game writers out there who see nothing wrong with raiding non-European cultures for game fodder. Because these cultures are often seen as “inspiration” and not as cultures that belong to real, living people, the result can be big, dumb pastiches of stereotypes and misinterpretations that read as bizarre at best to members of that culture. And because the majority of game developers are still, sadly, white, it only perpetuates the cultural trend of white people commodifying and profiting from the cultures of groups that they themselves have historically victimized.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about writing a game about or set in a culture that you are not a part of. I’m a firm believer in promoting the stories of marginalized groups of people! Hell, I wrote a game set in the Reconquista specifically because I was bothered by the erasure of PoC from European history. But it is wrong to write a game about a culture that isn’t yours if you don’t treat it as something worthy of respect.

Which is where we come back to Lightning Returns as a useful example of What Not To Do!

Looking at Lightning Returns, we have:

* Casual conflation of two distinct cultures from ethnically similar but distinct groups of people (Norse paganism =/ Christianity)

* Use of a cultural or religious symbols to argue for the destruction of that culture or religion (because come on, I don’t have to have finished the game to know that Lightning is going to try to kill God)

* Characters represented in such a way that would be offensive to a significant portion of the real-world members of that culture (Lightning’s bondage messiah gear)

* Representation of a religious figure/cultural hero as something antithetical to their traditional representation. (Jesus was a Jewish carpenter and prophet, not a pink-haired Japanese sword-wielding lady badass who beats up gods for fun.)

So, you know, if you’re struggling with the whole “how not to do cultural appropriation”, you can at least not do those things, which will be a start.

[1] Because a Buffy reference seemed appropriate.

[2] Only it’s Thor that’s the Norse Thunder God, not Odin, but let’s not get sidetracked…