Open Response to a Question About Female Armor

Jul 11, 2013

In a recent online discussion, the thread began with a user appreciating that Skyrim‘s female armor isn’t needlessly revealing or hypersexualized. Another added that Dark Souls is also good about this, and I had this image to add to the conversation, showing that that game’s prequel, Demon’s Souls, is pretty good about it, too:

In reply though, a question came up:

> So has this made more women play the game?

> I’m trying to be smug, but I don’t really believe in the argument that if we represent women and men equally in games, the women will come. I think men and women generally like playing different kinds of games. The difference might even be genetic, since testosterone is linked to spatial recognition and mechanical interest. Men generally play harder games than women.

This post is available in audio form
Music by BoxCat Games, via Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

(…this reply begins 1 min. into the audio…) I think many people are thinking exactly what you’ve asked, but many won’t bring it up because there’s an impression that it’s a taboo thing to discuss.

It’s not that women will necessarily want to play this game merely because it doesn’t portray them as comically sexualized, it’s rather that women might not play a game they otherwise might want to play on the grounds that it portrays them as comically sexualized.

Merely for sake of analogy (not meaning at all to imply that ethnic differences and gender differences operate in exactly the same way, only that culturally I think a comparison like this can be useful for illustration), would a partially hispanic player like myself play a game because it doesn’t needlessly present hispanics in an offensive way? Nah. But if a game does present hispanics in an offensive way, I might be more likely to steer clear of it, if not even out of personal discomfort then just to not risk creating any impression that I endorse that as something I think people in general should be ok with. That would seem senselessly alienating and backwards to me.

Carrying on that analogy and personal example for a moment, if there’s videogame with great gameplay featuring Mickey Mouse, Duck Tales, Bugs Bunny, TMNT, or SpongeBob Squarepants (this one is incredibly difficult and kind of amazing), I’d still be fine playing that either alone or with friends, even though my age group clearly wasn’t the intended demographic. However if the main character is Speedy Gonzales, even without including his catch phrases, his mere presence would make me a bit reflective and self-conscious, or at least annoyed and distracted from the gameplay by feeling like it’s furthering an absurd characterization of my father’s side of my family. I wouldn’t want to play that for long alone, and I doubly wouldn’t care to show it to friends. When I was a kid growing up Speedy Gonzales still came on TV and I didn’t see any issue with it, however now that I’m older I’m no longer ok with it. The same goes for Pepé Le Pew, in that case not only because of the French on the other side of my family, but more so because seriously, who thought a funny joke for kids would be a character that won’t take no for an answer from the opposite sex? Although I’m maybe straying from topic, consider that my transition back to gender as the main issue at hand.

The original post here is about Skyrim. Let’s return to that. I have some female gamer friends that immediately answer “Skyrim!” when asked what their favorite game is. Obviously that is not the case merely because of the female armor. On the other hand, if all the women’s heavy armor looked like Princess Leia slave gear, might that have bothered, turned off, distracted some of them from the gameplay, or at least gotten in the way of feeling ok about openly endorsing the game to others?

> I think men and women generally like playing different kinds of games.

Statistically, or to use their word, generally, yes this is true. There are some game mechanics, genres, and play styles that given a randomly selected member of the adult population, one gender or the other is more likely to prefer to play. This is or could be the case for a myriad of complex reasons, some of which may be connected to affinity with spatial cognition as opposed to social negotiation or other dynamics (even still, it’s difficult to be certain to what extent some of these differences might be substantially perpetuated/exaggerated from an early age by toys, entertainment, adult expectations/reactions, etc.). But practically speaking, yes, if a game designer is tasked with developing a game to appeal to a primarily female audience or a primarily male audience, there are indeed different sets of mechanics that we’ll likely build around at the core.

However aggregate data isn’t the whole picture, as there are no doubt men that like to play the Sims and all the sequels/expansions year after year, and there are women that play Quake III and other spatial/twitch games at a professional level. Or: simply enjoy games like Portal 1 & 2, there’s really no need to play something at pro level for it to be legit, any more than our guys in question probably aren’t trying to be “pro” Sims players. And there are games that players of both genders seem pretty balanced on. Some historical examples that I’m familiar with include: Pac-Man – even before/without the Ms. – Centipede, Tetris, and Myst. These last ones I’m less sure about these other few as they fall outside my usual era of study, but I believe this may also apply to Bejeweled, some Facebook games, and some major MMOs.

It’s also the case that many modern games are complex blends of genres and play styles, in a way that appeals in various ways to play patterns that may in isolation be historically feminine or masculine, or games may support multiple different activities and play styles to make progress in the game. All else being equal, in many cases if a company has a choice to only having one half of the population, the other half, or the whole population interested in buying their product, making a game that appeals to both genders is rewarded by the market. Games that do well across both genders, unsurprisingly, tend to be the landmark best sellers; they’re reaching potentially twice the audience. It’s not nearly as clear cut in many cases as there being sipmly “male games” and “female games” or anything of that sort – that might be counterproductive for businesses anyhow, except perhaps those targeting very specific market niches.

Some additional information on gender and game design, if you’re interested in reading more about the subject:

Research paper on this subject (only 9-10 pages long, but covers a lot)

Book on this subject

An external entry I wrote on gender and games (the Donkey Kong Pauline hack)

Additional link, contributed by Kelly Snyder:
GDC 2013 talk by BioWare’s Dragon Age Lead Writer David Gaider

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