Feminist gaming blog with a heaping dash of science and politics

Depicting Gender: Character design in MMOs – Part 1

With the announcement of Everquest Next this weekend, I have been thinking a lot about how MMOs handle gender presentation in their character designs. Not that I don’t think a lot about this anyways, but I have been thinking about it in the context of how I really want to see a next gen MMO handle character design and customization. Character customization in games has always run the gamut from single player games like God of War with a single protagonist with a defined appearance and personality playing through a predetermined story line to games like SPORE where the player literally creates the character by taking them through the evolutionary path from single celled organisms to inter stellar system civilizations. For MMOs though, it’s all about creating you, or at least an avatar or character you dreamt up, and playing them within the world the game designers have built. That’s their bread and butter. All the raids, gear drops, quests, and class balancing that they’re always going on about are all just in service to that one idea: getting you, or the character you want to play, into their game world.

Everquest Next Concept Art

They said they were going to give you the choice between bikini armor and full coverage armor and maybe they will. But experience from every other game says this will not end well.

But what happens when the game design limits the player on who they’re allowed to be?

What happens when you want to play as this character:

Female Warrior Ready for Battle

She looks pretty awesome to play as doesn’t she?

But this is what you’re given:

Guild Wars 2 Armor

Yes, that is a skeletal hand cupping her bare breast subbing in for an actual platemail breastplate.

Now, there is certainly an argument to be made that that obviously just isn’t the game world you want to be in if the style doesn’t match your own. But then what happens when almost all of the game worlds are not only going down that path, but seem to be racing to see who can go furthest down that rabbit hole?

Terra Armor

I would’ve put some Scarlet Blade images up here, but I wanted this to remain at least somewhat safe for work.

Then of course there’s the glaring discrepancy of how the game worlds design their male characters:

Guild Wars 2 Armor Female v Male

Yes, that is under boob. No we do not get any under pecs to compensate. I wonder why?

Well the obvious thing to do is what I’m going to do with this series of post, which is critiquing the designs and submitting feedback and ideas for future games to use.  And there’s a lot more to the unequal and, yes, sexist gender depictions in MMOs than just differing armor styles. They just happen to be one of the easiest to reference visually. For me, there are four important areas that game designers seem to focus on and subsequently screw up when it comes to depicting gender and gender differences in their games. The first is that they tend to insist on limiting themselves (and their players) to a gender binary. Followed by their inability to break out of the very trope-y sexual dimorphism mold they’ve built themselves. Then there’s the armor problem as quickly outlind above. And finally, the way they handle NPC design and the more ephemeral player character personalities which contributes to a sexist zeitgeist in the game’s community. In my next post I’ll go over the first of these stumbling blocks, exploring the opportunities we’ve missed from sticking to a gender binary, if any games have played around with the idea before, and ideas for the future.


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