Archive for October, 2010

Avatar Representation in Games


2010
10.19

For those of you who have heard my talks and read this before, I apologize!

Avatar representation is always a hot-button issue. Whenever I talk about it, some guy always says, “Well, they exaggerate male characters as much as female characters and *I* don’t get offended. Girls are just too sensitive and should just get over it!”

In some ways he’s right, and in some ways he’s wrong.

An avatar is a representation of the user in the virtual environment. When we select something to represent us, we want that person to be a hero. In our culture today “heroes” have certain characteristics. They are young, strong, and virile/fertile.

These traits manifest themselves physically.

In the male physique, the physical traits that indicate youth and virility include:

  • broad shoulders
  • slender waist and hips
  • large legs and arms
  • long, thick hair

For the female figure, those traits that indicate youth and fertility include:

  • large breasts placed high on the chest wall
  • slender waist
  • round derriere
  • long thick hair

So we do exaggerate these things on both the male and female characters, and we do so because these things say, “I am a hero.” They are traits our players expect to see on their avatars. So much so that there have been times when these traits weren’t available, the players asked for them.

This specifically occurred in Star Wars Galaxies. The original character creator did not have the option to increase the breast size on the female characters and several of the playable races had females who did not have breasts at all. The players were not happy with either of these and overwhelming asked for changes. The most interesting thing about this was the majority of the players who requested this were female!

It’s when we get into more than just heroic proportions that we start to get into trouble and where we start to see where the difference in the portrayal of male and female characters.

On the female characters not only do we see the heroic traits, but we also see an exaggeration of those physical signals that indicate sexual arousal and sexual receptivity. In other words, on the female characters, we not only exaggerate those traits that say “I’m a hero” but also those traits that say, “I’m ready for sex RIGHT NOW.”

What are those traits? Any “Introduction to Human Sexuality 101″ course will tell you that the human body has several physical manifestations that indicate when we are sexually aroused.

When the human body is ready for sex, a blood rush to the face makes the lips fuller and redder and the eyelids thicker and heavier. Also breathing will become faster (which in art is represented by open mouth), and the nipples will become erect.

In female characters, not only are the “heroic” traits exaggerated, but these traits which show sexual arousal are also exaggerated. Once exaggerated the female character will also be dressed in a manner to emphasize and draw attention to those traits (chainmail bikinis, etc) and she will be posed in such a way as to indicate she is receptive to sex.

The interesting point is, the male body exhibits the EXACT same traits when ready for sex – the nipples, the lips, the eyes and, of course, one additional indicator – but we NEVER see those exaggerated on our male characters!!

So, the game industry says, “Here, girls, you get to be represented by this character who’s ready for sex all the time” and yet would never THINK of doing that to its male characters.

And why is this different from Cosmo magazine? Because when a woman reads Cosmo and looks at those sexualized women, she thinks “Wow.. if I use that perfume.. I can look just  like that WHEN *I* WANT TO!” In other words, she can look like that at her choice!

We do not give our female players that choice in our games. It’s be a hypersexualized female or be male. That’s it. And, just as guys are uncomfortable looking at hypersexualized male pictures (and if you don’t believe they are uncomfortable, come to one of my talks some day! ;) females are likewise uncomfortable looking at and being asked to identify with a hypersexualized female character. Instead, they simply don’t play the game.

Does this mean make our female avatars unattractive? NO!!!!!! Just the opposite! You want your players to be heros! Make them Heroic! Make them young, strong and fertile… JUST DON’T HYPERSEXUALIZE THEM!

Anyway, I guess the answer is to give our players a choice in their character creation…. but isn’t that usually the answer to most game design questions?? ;)