As seen on Sara’s blog, a story that apparently stunned her into a punctuation mark: World of Warcraft has – brace yourself – it’s coming – are you braced – hyperidealized views of the female form. (I warned you to brace yourself.)
Good game design presents many challenges, not the least of which is to create interesting avatars that will resonate with your player base. While it is understandable that Blizzard would wish to do whatever it can to maintain its success, it is also important to look at the costs of that success.
From a feminist’s point of view, Blizzard’s decision to force all of their avatars into a narrow ideal of human beauty reinforces negative stereotypes that continue to perpetuate inequality through the normalization of a kind of strict binary sexual dimorphism that does not exist in real life.
From a player’s point of view, Blizzard has denied many people the ability to play a character like them, or a character they would like to be. The extreme sexual dimorphism in the races, and the way that Blizzard is quick to “fix” avatars that do not properly fit the ideal, has sent the message to those outside of that body type – not just women, but men as well – that they are not worthy of being represented, that their body types are not good enough for even one avatar in the entire game to represent them.
Leaving aside for the moment that in a fantasy game, most people want to look like society’s assumed norms of physical beauty, there are in fact female avatars that aren’t as hypersexualized, such as the gnome, dwarf and orc females. The dwarf female especially is less overtly sexual – more short, squat and muscular.
In a strange coincidence, very few characters are dwarven females.
Of course, Blizzard, just like almost every other game developer, has female avatars that look like MTV models and wear about as much clothing. But the main thrust of the article seems to be that females are dimorphic – in other words, different.
Avatar expressiveness is a key function of any MMO. In other words, people want to look different. One cheap and easy way to do that is to make men and women look dramatically different. The tauren in WoW are the best expression of this – I don’t think anyone sees tauren female avatars as sexualized (unless you’re, well, not going to go there). They look, basically, like anime cartoon cows, minus the udders. But, as the article correctly notes, but for the wrong reasons, they do look dramatically different. And in a game where there’s not a whole lot of character customization in general, that’s a very cheap and easy way for a character to look different from another. Tauren females are also somewhat rare, although tauren females get picked more than dwarves for gameplay reasons – the druid class requiring the character to be tauren, combined with people who, like myself, feel vaguely uneasy when playing an avatar of the ‘wrong’ gender. Whereas there are few gameplay reasons to pick dwarves, and most (such as racial spells for priests) aren’t commonly known to new players.
Actually, though, women aren’t always the target of unfortunate fashion choices. For any male who’d like to feel some of the women’s pain, I give you Final Fantasy 11’s subligar, as seen in the image to your right. Subligars are common armor for new players, and a better motivation for levelling to a point past where they are used has yet to be found. Possibly interesting if you want to know what it feels like to wear avatar clothing you really, really, don’t want to. Unless, you know, you like wearing hot pants. Which is fine, really.
But is there a crying demand for players to have body types that look like themselves? Of course not. These are fantasy games. Whether or not you agree with society’s standard of physical beauty, expecting a computer game to challenge that is asking a bit too much of what, in the end, is entertainment. And while choices are always good, and more choices are always better, oddly enough, people tend to choose the prettiest choice available. It drove Blizzard to introduce a “pretty” race for the Horde as a form of crude racial balancing.
People want to look pretty. Who knew?