Doing it right: designing characters more indicative of America’s social climate

Feature image borrowed from  Jason Devaun https://www.flickr.com/photos/34316967@N04/

Since the GamerGate controversy of 2014, the objectification of women in video games has been a hot topic among gamers, and developers alike.  Every group appears to have a differing view about how the situation can be handled.

Some developers are speaking up against objectification of women in video games.  People like Brianna Wu are changing the pace of game development by taking their opinions to the developers themselves.  Wu coaches developers in redesigning female characters in order to give them a more realistic appearance that treats them less as objects.

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John Gibson (Thanks to John Gibson for the image)

 

“The objectification of women in video games is one of the dark marks on the industry as a whole,” John Gibson said on the official forum for the game “Killing Floor” in 2014.  Gibson is president of Tripwire Interactive, an independent game developer based in Roswell, which is known for games such as “Killing Floor” and the “Red Orchestra” series.

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Gibson’s Full Response

 

The discussion of representation of women in video games is not new. A study published in 2008 found that long-term exposure to the attitudes and behaviors present in video games makes gamers prone to leniency in the face of sexual violence or harassment.

“Male characters are created with the idea of making an avatar that a male would want to play as, but female characters are created with the idea of what a male would want to look at,” Gibson said in a recent interview. Gibson says that it’s up to developers to improve female representation in the media.

Vlogger Anita Sarkeesian noted on the web show “Feminist Frequency” that women in games such as Grand Theft Auto often occupy minor narrative roles, where they are consumed rather than contributing to the story.

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Sarkeesian at Media Evolutions the Coference 2013 (Photo by Susanne Nilsson)

 

“But more often than not they’re just hollow shells, empty representations with little to no personality or individuality to speak of,” she said.

Despite this, Kennesaw State student Tremayne Johnson, 19, denies that a problem exists.

“I feel like people are blowing it out of proportion,” Johnson said. “Games do not influence youths.”

Opinions similar to Johnson’s pervade internet forums gaming communities, the 2008 study suggests the opposite.  The small section of the Kennesaw State University student center where Johnson and fellow student Gendzino Ahat sat playing “Super Smash Brothers Melee” held nearly 20 male students and only one female.  I noticed a similar proportion every time I visited the area throughout the week.

While Tripwire Interactive plays host to few female employees, John Gibson says he notices the discrepancy and the implications it may have.

“I do feel like the games we make have an impact on the people playing them,” Gibson said. “I mean, if you play a game like GTA you shouldn’t expect to see women treated with respect by the people playing it when the game itself treats women as objects to be used and discarded.”

Johnson says that video games are a mirror of society rather than an actor within it.  He says that games are made for males, and so games are made to appeal to males.

“A game is a cartoon, so not everything about it is supposed to be realistic,” Kennesaw State University student Gendzino Ahat, 18, said.

While video games tend to be stylized, it’s possible to take artistic liberty with a human form in a way that does not show intent to sexualize it.  According to Gibson, many females in video games are designed to be attractive, which shows an unfair imbalance toward appealing to a young, male audience.

Gibson says this imbalance is unfair to female players.

“Would most guys want to play a game where they run around looking like one of those shirtless guys on the cover of cheesy romance novels?” Gibson said. “Of course not.”

A 2015 study shows that Kennesaw State student Tremayne Johnson may be wrong about the majority opinion among people who play games.

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Burch at GDC 2015 (retrieved from Official GDC Flickr)

 

The study, conducted by Rosalind Wiseman and Ashly Burch, shows that while stereotypes among female and male gamers exist, many school-age males would prefer to see more females playing games.  Additionally, both males and female groups presented a majority that said women are too often sexualized in video games.

Gibson says that he doesn’t want his two young daughters to feel that they are objects to be consumed by society. “I don’t want to promote in my games this false ideal that women are only attractive if they are the exact size and shape that all the magazine covers, movies, and video games tell them they have to be.”

According to Gibson, it’s necessary to create games which appeal to both genders.

“I think we’re now seeing a rise in the number of females playing games, Gibson said,” I think smart developers will find better and better ways to serve that market.”  While he says he doesn’t think that game developers should necessarily be forced to create more games which appeal to a female audience, he says it should be encouraged.

Roswell-based video game developer Tripwire is working to ensure that females are represented equally to males.  They designed “Killing Floor” characters that are fun, foremost, without objectifying or marginalizing any particular group.

“We start by asking ‘what do we think we or our fans will want to play as?’” Gibson said, “What do we think players would find interesting? For the most part we’re making female characters for female gamers, so we ask female gamers what they want to play as.”

This philosophy shows in Tripwire’s work.  Killing floor 2 features characters such as Ana Larive, who according to the Killing Floor website is a photographer who isn’t a fan of authority.  While she is designed as attractive, she also is not designed in a manner which sexualizes her or implies she is an object meant to be discarded.  Larive looks like a character who would be fun to play as.

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Larive’s bio, retrieved from killingfloor2.com

 

“If you ask female gamers what they want, they will tell you. I think more developers should do that,” Gibson said.

Sometimes games “get it right,” so to speak.  The “Pokémon” games allow players to choose their avatar’s gender, which in turn changes nothing about the games’ stories.  Female characters could be handled this way, in that a personality-free avatar works the same regardless of its appearance, but that method only really works for roleplaying games.  Writing, and design are more important in story-based games.

“I think Half Life 2 and its episodes do a really good job with their handling of Alyx Vance,” Gibson said. “She’s a well written character that fights alongside Gordon Freeman, and isn’t just there for eye candy. She feels more like a real woman than most games’ representation of women.”

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Alyx Vance (Sreenshot Posted by Duncan C)

 

Unfortunately, with gamers continuing to deny that the objectification of women in video games is an issue, the fight to equalize the playing field for both genders is an uphill battle.  Gibson said that while these views may not represent those of his company, “We’re sold a shallow two dimensional view of women and sexuality and very often we buy into it. Most men move on from there to pornography which even further distorts their view of women, relationships, and healthy sexuality.”

Gibson says that the idea that women are meant to be consumed is pervasive throughout society, which makes it easy to ignore the issue of objectification.

“Without a strong moral grounding I think it’s difficult, if not impossible to fix this problem,” Gibson said.  “The trend of moral relativism that tells us nothing is wrong and whatever feels right to you is at the center of this.”

Until society can burst its comfortable bubble and see that the way women are treated is problematic, the battle will continue to be difficult.

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