Gaming has two big problems, and these ain’t them 44

This weekend I had the pleasure of going out with a few friends for dinner. There were three ladies seated at our table: there was Chelsea, the unstoppable marathon-running yoga instructor whose arms rival Michelle Obama’s in their toned and powerful awesomeness. There was Emma, the almost disturbingly-beautiful raven-haired ingenue with eyes the size of an anime character’s and curves the size of, well, an anime character’s. And there was Lauren (hey, that’s me!), the perennially slender yet deceptively out-of-shape waif whose dormant athletic abilities only roar pathetically to life if pizza and beer is on the line.

“Huh,” I thought to myself as I surveyed the group, “Here we are. An amazon, a sorceress, and an elf. Looks like Kamitani was on to something.”

Dragon’s Crown caused a minor kerfuffle when some criticized its artwork for being sexist. I pulled up a screenshot of the sorceress and my heart sank: such achingly beautiful artwork wasted on big, big, big titties—titties so big they defied the laws of physics, titties so huge they eclipsed the sun! I wrote the game off as a depressing waste of artistic talent.

But then it came out, and I started playing it, and my opinion changed. As usual, context is everything.

The elf, the sorceress, and the amazon.

The elf, the sorceress, and the amazon.

The much-maligned sorceress does indeed have gigantic, gravity-defying knockers on extremely prominent display, but the two other female playable characters provide an illuminating contrast. The elf is a petite rogue clad head-to-foot in practical light armor, her only exposed skin a tiny gap between boot and cuff. The amazon is a nearly-naked superwoman with bouncing mid-sized breasts perched atop rippling pecs and thighs of pure thunder. Although she’s admittedly scantily-clad, the amazon is a revolutionary depiction of a physically strong female. Though strong women have become a mainstay in fantasy, they are almost always of the Buffy variety: their strength is magical, thus editing out the necessity of huge muscles, because gross! The female body-builder type is very rare, and is often depicted as being grotesque, freakish, and terrifying. Instead, Dragon’s Crown‘s amazon has soft features, flowing hair, glowing skin, amble breasts and hips—and the musculature of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. A character like this comes around only once in a great while, and she lingers in the public consciousness for many years afterwards.

The amazon, in all her rippling glory.

The amazon, in all her rippling glory.

I recognize that this argument isn’t good enough for many feminist critics of video games. “Why isn’t the amazon fully clad in practical armor? Shouldn’t her breasts be smaller? Why isn’t she also black and transgender and differently-abled!?” Me, I’m a realist, and I see progress for what it is. Dragon’s Crown is not the definitive game for revolutionary gender presentation, but it’s certainly more progressive than many. Besides offering a wide range of female body types, these three female characters constitute an equitable half of the six total playable characters, a vast improvement compared to many games that don’t even offer a female choice at all.

There’s an important note to be made here as well regarding the type of characters we’re talking about. Gaming is a unique medium, and its characters can’t be measured on the same scales as movie or novel characters. These are not characters, after all, but classes: the personification of fantasy combat styles. They don’t have names, they don’t have individualized identities, they are merely physical manifestations of the game’s willingness to cater to different playing styles. It’s important it consider that this format can incentivise male gamers to play as female characters. The sorceress is the most difficult class to control, but the payoff is so amazing that primarily hardcore gamers are flocking to play as her. The least-played character so far seems to be the fighter, a hulking male character recommended for beginners.

And let’s talk about those boys for a moment, shall we?

Starting from top-left: the fighter, the sorceress, the wizard, the dwarf, the elf, and the amazon. Y'know, just chillin', gettin' their mead on.

Dragon’s Crown’s six playable characters: the fighter, the sorceress, the wizard, the dwarf, the elf, and the amazon.

Our Y-chromosomal cast members are the fighter (a long/fair-haired pretty boy in stylized gigantic armor), the wizard (an also long/fair-haired pretty boy, but with a much more modest silhouette), and the dwarf (a diminutive, bearded, bulging, hard-drinking type armed with mallets and hammers). A common argument amongst the game’s defenders is that the men are portrayed with equal exaggerated physical characteristics; the common counter-argument says that muscular men and bouncing nearly-naked women are not equals, as they are both part of a male power-fantasy where the dudes are awesome and the ladies exist only to excite them. I think this argument would be sound if the men were idealized visions of themselves. But they’re not. They’re women’s idealized visions of men. Let’s look at the fighter and the wizard. Grab a non-gamer and ask them to describe them: “uhhh… wicked girly” was the first thing out of my coworker’s mouth. And yes: they are! They’re kinda girly! The long hair, the thick eyelashes, the large eyes, the fair skin and hair… it’s part of the bishonen (literally: “beautiful boy”) aesthetic, an idealized and somewhat feminized depiction of men that is marketed almost exclusively to Japanese women. I’m leaving out our poor dwarf here because, let’s face it, there’s no sexifying Gimli—but our other males are a Legolas and an Aragorn, and Orlando Bloom was not cast to please “teh str8 menz” of the world.

Exporting gender expectations across cultures doesn't always work out like you'd planned.

Exporting gender expectations across cultures doesn’t always work out like you’d planned.

Japanese games are plagued with sexist tropes, some of which are vastly more disturbing than others. (And I’m not exempting Western games, either—they’ve got their own problems.) Japanese game makers have proved time and time again that they’re totally down to brutally sexualize little girls in ways that are abjectly horrifying. So am I going to pick a fight about large, in-charge bust lines with pedophiliac, pornographic, and rape-happy programmers on the loose? No. No, I am not. I’m going to spend the weekend enjoying a game that lets me play as a tall, ripped glamazon with a huge battle-axe.

Guys, there are bigger problems than the sorceress's knockers.

Guys, there are bigger problems than the sorceress’s knockers.

Big ol’ gazongas are not, inherently, offensive, after all—women are born with the bodies they are born with, and studies show that cup size is growing the world over. It’s a widely-known reality among women that the larger your chest, the sluttier you are judged to be. When I trudge my a-cups to work in a plunging neckline, I get compliments on how adorable I look. If I loaned the exact same shirt to coworker with larger bosoms, she’d be swiftly called into a supervisor’s office for an incredibly uncomfortable discussion about work-appropriate attire. A girlfriend in high school “blessed” with double-Ds couldn’t wait to have a reduction, as she hated the attention they generated. Women with big breasts exist, there are more of them every year, and they are constantly shamed and judged for them by men and women alike. I would posit that some of the outrage directed at the sorceress is misguided big-boob shaming.

I think it’s worth examining the breasts in context with the rest of the artwork as well. Kamitani’s style is incredibly lush and beautiful, clearly inspired by old Dungeons and Dragons and Tolkienesque imagery but reimagined as sexier, more exaggerated, more beautiful and strange. Kamitani clearly delights in the female form, and he doesn’t censor himself for finding them sexy—but his female bodies aren’t censored either. His mermaids may have gorgeous asses and his battle-nuns may be sprawled provocatively, but their elbows are knobby; their legs sinewy with musculature; their breasts aren’t just big round bubbles but lovingly, painstakingly detailed depicted portions of their anatomy. Compare his artwork to that of almost any other mainstream animated game, and you will see an almost reverentially realistic approach to female anatomy. Object to the poses and the sizes and the parts, but taken as a whole, Kamitani’s supple, soft, breathtaking style is in many ways an ode to women’s bodies. Anatomy matters—not just the “fun stuff,” but all of it.

A problematically provocative package besmirches this beautifully brawny bad-ass battle-nun.

A problematically provocative package besmirches this beautifully brawny bad-ass battle-nun.

What are we really wailing and gnashing our teeth about when we talk about women and video games? There are two main problems. The first is a real-world fight to convert the boys-only space of gaming into an open club. Nobody likes having their safe space intruded upon, no matter how open-minded they are. (Ask a gay man in a gay club that’s been invaded by a drunken bachelorette party. Or a college kid when Facebook suddenly opened up to high schoolers. Inviting others into your clubhouse sucks in almost every situation.) So female gamers are being marginalized, disbelieved, mocked, and even threatened for butting in and making them clear a spot for them.

The second problem is with the games themselves. Women are sick of male power fantasies, where all the men are cool and heroic and strong, and all the women are pretty and weak and useless. We’re sick of women’s roles being purely auxiliary in these fantasies—a prop to propel the male hero to action, to motivate him with our pain/death/abduction/suffering/romantic disinterest. We’re sick of the notion that maleness is the default, that women are expected to role-play as men but never the other way around. We’re sick of being sacrificed, being silenced, being side-lined.

Context is everything. Consider the phrase “you have a beautiful body” coming from both a lover and, say, a parking attendant: it’s pretty different. Personally, I don’t mind seeing flirty, sexy, silly images in a silly game. Dragon’s Crown is about running around beating up orcs and krakens; it’s not a gritty real-world drama with a serious tone and complex, true-to-life characters. Yet there are so many games that do aim for high drama, yet see fit to occasionally pause all gameplay to give the gamer (who is male by default, obvs) the opportunity to dominate or sexually humiliate an on-screen woman.

In MGS4, defeated female foes crawl around crying while you take sexy pictures of them. And this is one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved series in gaming!

In MGS4, defeated female foes crawl around crying while you take sexy pictures of them. And this is one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved series in gaming.

Dragon’s Crown’s crime is objectification, and I think it’s a petty misdemeanor. Do bouncing buxom wenches populate the game? Yes. Can you poke their bubbies with your cursor? Yup. Are a lot of them portrayed in sexualized positions and costumes? Check. But let’s look at the big picture here. Do you have the option to play as a woman? A woman who isn’t kidnapped, tortured, or raped? A woman who can save the day completely independent of male assistance? Can you play as a woman who’s stronger and more muscular than the men, where you aren’t penalized with weakness for choosing to play as a woman? The answer to those questions is also “yes,” and I think that’s more important.

Large breasts are not an obscenity, and a large-breasted cast is not a feminist death-sentence. If you want to dismantle conceptions of feminine beauty that exaggerate or emphasize their secondary sex characteristics, you’re going to need a much bigger boat than Dragon’s Crown. I’ll take a big, beautiful, jiggling rack any day, as long as it’s one that I’m in control of.