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Avatar Representation in Games

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?? 😉

Published inRandom Musings


  1. Ian Ian

    What would it mean that my avatars are usually short, green, and non-human?

  2. That you are actually an alien?


  3. Ian Ian

    So my kids would claim.

  4. I agree with this aspect. My fiance and I just got into a discussion about the game Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning last night.
    My fiance’s argument was that artists prefer to create their characters more “sexually inclined” because that’s what they feel they would either sleep with or envision as a “hero.” My rebuttal was that most artists are inclined to create these models due to marketing pushes. I had to create game images, forced by marketing, that were not to my liking. This woman was hardly clothed by any means and was dressed in pink. These colors were to represent the “female bits” as well as the blood that she would shed by performing killings.

    Now this isn’t always the case. I have seen from other artists that they create these images “of beauty” for the sheer fact that this is what their mind perceives. As an artist I see both sides of the story. I believe their should be an option that allows the players to create every aspect of the avatar to their “liking.” Giving limits would be perfectly acceptable but to a point.

    You can take the games Perfect World International and Runes of Magic for example. You can create EVERY aspect of the character in those games. Me, I am a female avatar player, I create a woman with smaller breasts and with a realistic waist line and try to base it on a real world person. My characters normally end up 5′ 7” – 5′ 10” based on a normal females height. This in the virtual world is actually about 1 to 1 1/2 foot smaller than the other characters. I do this because, even though I am a male, I want to a) see how the other players treat me…and its funny to fool people in that aspect. and b) I am tired of playing male characters over the years.

    The reason, that I have seen, male characters are placed in games is because that will allow other IRL males to feel like they are something more important. The female characters are rarely chosen by them because they don’t want to seem to the other players as a feminine guy. Sadly, I actually had a friend of mine tell me that the reason he doesn’t play female characters because they don’t “Stand as much of a chance in the game as the male character.” I asked him this… “You think that even though that its just a simple selection through the character screens UI. Why do you think that just because you choose a different “body type” the game is going to hold it against you.” He said “Because you do realize that game developers do put less points in the girls attributes than they do the guys.” I responded “You do realize that 1. your an idiot for thinking that and 2. I am a game developer and that no matter what the sex that you choose the points will always stay the same…unless you suck at that particular game.”

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