It’s that time again! Time to talk about how I don’t get to play like a girl as much as I want to, and look into possible means as for why that is.
Today, we’re going to talk about the creative aspect of having women as leading characters in your video games. And it’s purely going to be about the art of making video game women, in a vacuum. We’re not going to discuss the impact audience reception has on creating just yet, that’s going to be a topic for our next post in this series, when we’re talking about the social factors. Most creators do create for their audience, but if we start working that in alongside everything else we’re talking about the lines between this post and the next post will blur and then I’d have to write the two of them together and I am too monumentally lazy right now to do that. So yeah, just focusing on the creative side of things today, looking at things from the perspective of the designer, not considering the marketing or receptive aspects of these.
This didn’t come up so much in the last post we did in this series, but at it’s core, the whole issue behind gender representation and everything else we’ll talk about here stems from the way we as a culture look at gender identity. So let’s talk a bit about that first.
I’m going to say I’m pretty experienced at being a man. I’ve got a lot of experience at that. Enough that I have pretty much mastered the art of physically being a man. On top of that, I’ve known plenty of women throughout the course of my life. Taken in their stories, their personalities, their… eh, let’s keep this G-rated. Never been a women, but I’ve observed them plenty. On top of that, as I continually demonstrate through this blog, I am a genius. My thinking is just of a top-tier quality.
What I’m saying is I have absolutely the highest credentials to talk about matters of gender. Accept no substitutes. My word on this is the best-informed you will ever see. And I’m telling you that men and women just aren’t all that different. Naturally, we barely have anything between us. Personality-wise, we in general have a few different drives, usually related to partnering or evolutionally instilled upon us from a period of life that we’ve outgrown faster than our biology has, but aside from that, we’re basically the same. Yes, we have some biological, hormonal, and brain developmental differences, but the differences account for so little proportion of who we are. Men and women have far more in common than we realize. Stripped of everything else, we all have basically the same capacity for caring, for aggression, for nurturing, and for enjoying video games.
But cultures in general do not recognize that. That’s one of the human absolutes, every single known human culture has developed a distinction between gender roles because people in general have a hard time not getting blinded by obvious distinctions. It’s human nature, in an attempt to understand people we attempt to see them as instant wholes based on the most obvious characteristics, rather than taking the time to figure out their individual features and building our concept of them around that. This creates expectations. Implicit, unstated expectations of how different genders are supposed to act, instilled in us since birth, and the mold by which we’re supposed to grow up into. Which is ridiculous. You cannot define a single personality trait or feature that reasonably applies to a full half of the human population. But cultures try. And in so doing, they create more differences between the genders than actually exists.
And that has negative impacts on both sides of the coin. Those impacts don’t always reach a one-to-one match, but the defined gender roles are hurting both men and women in different ways.
But still, it persists. That’s both the cause of what we’ll be talking about today, and the whole reason I’m writing this post series in general.
Right, let’s just get the obvious things out of the way. Game development is a male dominated field. Doesn’t mean there aren’t women creators in prominent positions, there definitely are. A lot of them are making male characters too, but that’s a topic for another paragraph. But even though there are women out in the industry, it’s still mostly made up of men. Why does that matter? Well, people have a tendency to think of themselves as the norm, the default, the generic, the standard. So if you have a creator trying to think of normal features for a character, everything that they’re not trying to make notable is probably going to be pretty similar to their own. Part of the reason why so many Japanese games set outside of Japan has a whole bunch of characters who are half-Japanese even though it doesn’t fit with the real world demographics. I believe we have been seeing more women get into the game development industry; we’ve been seeing that with a lot of creative industries in the past decade. But, and this is completely anecdotal, whenever I’ve been seeing the results of that in the creative industries I’ve worked with, women always start picking up either administrative positions in the industry or broad-focused creative roles first, and it takes them a while longer to catch up in the positions that are more intimately involved in certain aspects of the creative works. In the film industry, I’ve worked with a lot of women assistants, casting agents, directors, and screenwriters, but when it came down to the people more involved in making the actual film itself; the camera crew, the editors, the set constructors, all men. It’s going to be harder for developers to make a full-fledged approach to incorporating women characters when women aren’t involved in the technical aspects of their creation.
There’s also the fact that people have an easier time making characters that are similar to themselves. I went through that myself, with my drawing practice. Drawing men has always come a lot easier to me than has women. There’s a lot of subtle visual differences between the genders, and without practice, it’s hard to get them designed or animated correctly. Those of you who’ve been around for a while might remember that graphic novel I used to post pages of here. I made a deliberate choice to have the two women characters leading things in the opening, because I really needed more practice getting the anatomy right. Women have shorter torsos, longer legs, less of the v-shaped or block-shaped bodies and a bit more of that hourglass or pear figure, jawlines, armpits, abdominals, where the center of balance is carried, etc., all slightly different in a way that’s not obvious to the layman but will leave a character looking off if they’re not addressed properly. And frankly, when we’re looking at all the games out there, not all the artists and animators are quite capable of addressing those differences. You would expect an experienced professional artist to have enough training and practice behind them to do it well, and a lot of them are, but… well, you’ve seen all the games out there. Not every game gets to command the top tier talent, too.
That extends to writing as well. I’m not sure, but I believe it’s credited to James Cameron or one of the other show-makers for Alien that the best way to write believably strong female characters is to write the character as a male then go back and add an ‘s’ to all the ‘he’s when your done. That works, because, again, men and women just really aren’t all that different when it comes to personality. But, as humans have a hard time mentally getting over those differences between themselves and ‘the others’, most anyone is going to have a harder time writing a person of the opposite gender as not being an example of what they think that gender should be first and foremost.
And, just to go over all the factors here, we’re dealing with a long, long history of storytelling that has almost always had men in the more active and leading roles. When we generations of people have all been spending most of their life with a single model of media, widespread breaking out of that model gets more difficult to achieve. That’s why although overall we’re always going in a direction, media does tend to go in a bit of a cycle as the old generation of creators moves out and a new generation comes in. Likewise, although these works are all creative and don’t have to adhere to real-world demographic make up, creative works tend to be more reflective of their culture than they are prospective of what they think their culture should be. And we’re sitting on a culture where, although women have been involved in the military, police force, fighting sports, and every other occupation that has dealing with violence in the job description, they’re still overwhelmingly and most notably filled by men. That translates into creative work, and is then reflected in the action oriented protagonists we’re seeing. And then that inspires the people going into those occupations and it’s all cyclical and self-fulfilling and all that.
Like I said, that’s all the obvious stuff. That’s the stuff you can figure out for yourself if you take the time to think about it. You don’t need me for all that. And honestly, all that stuff above, probably has more of an impact on the gender makeup of our women characters than the more interesting stuff I’m going to talk about next. But because I have a mouth full of words and my own space here and absolutely nothing you can do about any of that, let’s talk about some of the other concerns that come up with creating women characters.
Let me show you something. Here’s DudeShep:
Keep in mind they’re the exact same character. Notice anything different about them?
Haven’t got it yet? Well, let’s show you something else. Here’s Evie Frye:
And here’s Jacob Frye:
They are twins. They are the exact same age. For that manner, here’s Edward, from the same series.
He is the same age as the both of them.
Got it yet? No? Well, let’s go for one more. Here’s Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII:
And here’s Snow:
Both of them are rough and tumble warriors. Both of them are career members of established combat units. Both of them are developed under the same art style. Yet one of them has folds and wrinkles and whatnot on his face like a normal human being, while the other goes into combat with perfect makeup and the face of a porcelain doll.
Same with Sheppard. Both default sheps are badass space warriors, but only one of them would look like they’re older than 17 if it weren’t for the makeup. I’ve got to give the Assassin’s Creed team props for putting a hint of nasolabial folds onto Evie, but even then she looks way less experienced than her similarly aged counterparts.
Our creators seem to have a real problem with getting some lines on the faces of their women. Frankly, that’s something you’re going to see in every form of media where the characters aren’t played by actors. Look at graphic novels, animation, or just plain old 2-D art for examples where the men will be grizzled and worn while the women of the same age will be completely fair and unweathered. That phenomenon is so common, across all sorts of art styles and all sorts of mediums.
To be sure, a lot of that does come from age-old and bilaterally sexist standards of physical attractiveness for both genres. No getting around that. I don’t think that’s all the problem here, though.
If you’ve been around for a while, you know I dabble in drawing myself. I’ve been deliberately working on being able to draw women better. I’ve been running into problems drawing lines on women’s faces myself. Specifically, the moment I put lines on a woman’s face, no matter when those lines are gained in real life, the woman instantly looks like she’s forty. Men don’t have that problem. I can draw 25 year old men, 30 year old, 40 year old, and make them all look distinct. Applying those same practices to women makes them all look middle-aged. Like in art, women are all the same age for 15 years at a time.
Granted, I’m not even close to the skill level of a professional artist, the type you’d like to see behind your games. They’d probably be able to handle it better than I would. Yet, given the complete and utter lack of even mildly creased women characters that aren’t explicitly demonstrated to be getting up there, I’m given to wonder. That could just be an expectation baked until all of us by now, that even a hint of lines in a drawn woman represents her as being of advanced age. Or it could be just what are brains are pulling out, when we’re dealing with a simplified visual representation of a woman.
In any case, I’m pretty sure what it means is that it’s a lot of trouble trying to make a woman character have any lines on the face without looking old. And honestly, getting the image of the character across is going to be more important than having that extra detail in there.
So creators can’t put lines on women’s faces. What’s the creative problems with that? Makeup also serves to make people look more mature after all, wrinkles aren’t the only way. Well, there’s three practical problems that I can see.
The first is… well, real people have lines on their face. Even young ones. Skin creases, that’s just what it does. I moisturize like a warbeast, and I’ve still got the odd wrinkle here and there. Teenagers will get folds above and under the eye. Forehead wrinkles start in the early twenties. Most people will get those nasolabial folds by the time they’re 25. So these women, without facial wrinkles, even the normal ones, end up looking less realistic than the male characters. Depending on the art style, this means they either look more like a child or a cartoon than the males, which is troublesome to deal with while still keeping their actual characters mature and active, or they end up deeper into the uncanny valley than the males. So if you can’t put lines on them without making them look old, and you can’t not have lines without having them look odd or out of place, it’s a little bit more trouble to effectly put women in your work.
The second problem is that it makes the women less expressive. Most of the facial expression in women is going to come from the eyebrows, shape of the eyes, and the mouth, yes, but the facial lines are going to be another tool to more subtly convey emotion. And you know, you are a bit more free to draw a line on a woman’s face when it’s part of a smirk or something without having her look old. I guess that fits into a gap in the viewer’s mind. I haven’t seen a lot of creators really take advantage of that, though, and when they do, it’s primarily in 2D art. I imagine it would be a technical nightmare to simulate with a 3D model. Even if Ubisoft did pull it off with the Fryes up there.
The third… let’s call this Comic Book Syndrome. By way of example, take a look at these. Blond-haired, blue eyed women in the Marvel Universe. Prominent characters within it, too.
Ok, now let me ask you, how many different characters were represented in those five pictures? Any characters repeated? Can you even tell? I guarantee you know the names of at least some of them, can you identify any of them outside of their recognizable costumes?
Yes, theoretically, you could make different looking characters by varying the size, shape and style of facial features. Some creators are able to use this to great extent. You can do the same thing with face shape. But the more features your art style removes from the face, the more alike everyone is going to look. If you’re removing wrinkles from the face of women, that’s one more tool you’re losing to keep everyone differentiated.
And it’s not like it’s completely impossible for a skilled artist to put lines on a woman’s face without having her look old and/or not appropriately hot. Again, Evie Frye doesn’t have all the folds she should, but she’s got the start of them. And although FemShep’s art doesn’t have any, her default in-game model has some subtle nasolabial folds. But the way artists seem to avoid that, I’m guessing it’s way more difficult to effectively work that than it seems at first glance.
How do you draw a woman that looks as physically dominant as most of these male characters, without looking masculine? That’s something that I’ve struggled with for a while. I did end up finding some options myself, such as by encasing 90 percent of them in armor or by making them physically broader and constantly having them shown next to more commonly-sized women, but both of those are pretty limited options.
Appearance is the first way you communicate something. Even before those characters speak or act, players will already be making assumptions about them based on the way they look. And granted, not every video game character needs to look like they could cream everybody in the room without breaking a sweat. And there’s a lot more ways to look dangerous than just being physically large and musclebound. But you do seem to have less options with creating women.
For that matter, creators just don’t seem comfortable with putting muscles on women in general. One the things that irritates me so much about Lara Croft’s new design is that she looks so soft. Lara may not be posed as the wise-cracking easy-going slayer she used to be, but she’s still obviously a woman who does a lot of physical things. She’s climbing mountains, leaping across chasms, and a whole bunch of other huge physical exertions requiring her to haul up her own bodyweight.
Look at those shoulders. They look like worn out soap. With all that she’s able to do, she shouldn’t necessarily be buff, but she should be rippling. She should have a lot more definition. Something akin to a rock climber or aerialist.
She’s not the only one. Faith from Mirror’s Edge is shown to be able to lay out armored men with her fists and is able to vault with her hands. She’s an accomplished traceur, and should have a lithely muscled physique.
But nope. Still soft. And you’ll see this again and again. As technology allows for more detailed graphics, even the very physical women will still look like dolls.
Honestly, I don’t know why devs do this. It’s not like having no muscle definition makes women more attractive or more feminine or seem more active or or more believable as an action protagonist any of the rest of the things you’d be looking from a lead character. You’d think having some definition would actually make for more effective protagonists.
Men are Generic
Protagonists aren’t the only character type in which women are underused as a gender. When was the last time you saw women as a goon? As a mook? As a faceless minion? As one of those thousands of unknown soldiers that you rip through without even learning their name. I would guess you get to play as a woman more often than you find a woman as part of the enemy horde.
We as a culture don’t really think much about our men. Not nearly as much as we do about our women. Women being women stand out in our media. Men don’t, unless they’ve got something else going on with them.
This is a big generalization, but usually, when you’re creating something, you try to fit all the features that you’re not trying to draw attention to into the model that the audience generally expects. That’s why TVs were all shown in cartoons and whatnot as the old CRTs with rabbit ear antennae long after flatscreens started taking hold. Or you kept seeing rotary phones and phone booths long after everybody stopped using them forever.
And so it is with gender and character. We’ll generally see women NPCs as bystanders, citizens, victims, whatever, because that’s where we expect to see women thanks to some societal biases we’ll get into next time. The active characters, the warriors, we’ll be seeing men and men alone because that’s what our mental image of those characters look like. Moreover, we’ve got a lot of action games at play here, and in the view of general conciousness, violence and harm is a thing that should be inflicted by and to men.
That’s also why when we do see women, their gender is more a part of their character than it is for men. At extreme levels, that’s where we get Smurfette or the Baroness or 1960’s Jean Grey or other characters whose main personality feature is their gender. Most depictions of women do have them as more complicated characters than that, but more often then not, their gender is one of the considerations at play in determining who they are, in evaluating their character. Because being a woman is unique and special, or at the very least is outside the general conception of what the white bread model of these characters is. Womanhood is a special feature. That’s not the case with men. For a man to be unique and interesting, he’d have to have design elements going for him.
So, at the end of the day, that means if you want to write about a big, heavy-hearted conflicted badass, but none of the personality traits you want to convey tie into the general idea the public has of women characters, making said badass a woman would be a distraction. Playing to the preconceived notions doesn’t usually lead to great writing, but neither necessarily does going wildly outside of them unless you have the room to do a lot of groundwork, so that leaves creators with a line to walk in which the have to be rather deliberate with their deviations. Making a woman lead can be one of those deviations, but it takes more work than a male one.
So in summation, men are valueless, women are an aberration. That’s what people expect of them in their media, and that’s what creators are playing to.