Feminist gaming blog with a heaping dash of science and politics

Sexual Dimorphism, Multimorphism, or Omnimorphism? – Character Design in MMOs Part 3

Previously we talked about the not-actually-real gender binary and how it’s represented in MMOs, with a particular interest in gender identity.  Today we’re going to talk more about this false binary but with a concentration on the genre’s insistence on extreme sexual dimorphism between male and female characters of a given race. Some games are notorious for the drastic differences between male and female characters and some games have races that flip the script or avoid it altogether. However, confining ourselves to two body types is, by definition, keeping us stuck in binary thinking. What are our options for breaking out of the boring binary and have any games attempted something like this before?

First, though, we really ought to talk about humans. Good, ol’ average humans with their obvious sexually dimorphic characteristics. Like boobs, and curves, and muscle mass, and hair, and genitals. Except breasts and wide hips aren’t a woman- or female-only body feature. Nor are they necessary for someone to identify as a woman or as female-bodied. The same goes with facial hair and muscle mass for men and male-bodied people. Like we saw with the genderbread person last time, no part of humanity is binaric. We all live on a spectrum of human biological diversity and that includes our anatomy. Yes, right down to our genitalia and chromosomes.

The two 2012 Olmpyia Bodybuilding Champions and two ballet preformers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem

The two 2012 Olmpyia Bodybuilding Champions and two ballet performers from the Dance Theater of Harlem

There is also the fact that we do have some control over how our bodies look. Through dedication and training (and more than a few lucky genetic predispositions) humans can achieve vastly different body types. We can be large and muscular, small and wiry, lithe and sleek, stout, round, willowy, etc. We know this to be true, and yet when we fictionalize our selves in games we seem to only conceptualize ourselves into two distinct and highly dimorphic body types. Unsurprisingly the body types tend to adhere to a very specific, very sexist set of gender stereotypes: men are large, thick, muscular, brutish, hyper masculine and women are small, think, soft, delicate, and hyper feminine.

Even when we try to conceptualize other races, even completely alien and other-worldly races, we stick to the same gender-stereotyped body ideals. And usually, in MMOs, if they deviate from the human norm its to emphasize these gender stereotypes.

Some of the playable races from WoW

Some of the playable races from WoW

There have been at least a few MMOs that have broken from the pack and avoided or subverted the normative sexual dimorphism trope. The best example I can think of is the Everquest MMOs. Their Frogloks have almost no sexual dimorphism between their male and female character models and the Iksar avoid the idea that breasts and wide hips equate to femaleness (especially true since they are reptilian, not mammalian) but still have some other dimorphic traits (such as head crests and size). The typical sexual dimorphism was even flipped a bit with the Sarnak race by making the female character models larger than their male counterparts.

However, that doesn’t really change the idea that there are two, and only two body types available and that those body types are inherently male or female. To challenge that idea, and to expand our options beyond the binary, we need our MMOs to give us new ways of creating our characters. We need multimorphism and, even more preferrably, omnimorphism. We are starting to see a facet of this come into play with the growing implementation of body sliders in MMOs with which players are able to fine tune the size and shape of their characters. These sliders, though, are extremely limited in scope at the moment, and not just because they only tend to give an inch or two of difference in width or girth. If a game designs a race within the binary, saying that men are x tall and x wide and x muscular, while women are y tall and y wide and y muscular, with little overlap, then no amount of sliders are really going to allow for a real chance at attaining a different body type. Some games, like SWTOR or DCUO, give players to select from a few body types and then to play around with body sliders from there, but for some reason (hint: sexism, sizeism) the selection for male body types covers a much wider range of variation than the selection for female body types.

The heaviest body type options for female and male characters in SWTOR

The heaviest body type options for female and male characters in SWTOR

While having multiple body types to choose from is a wonderful step forward (especially when the body types to choose from aren’t severely restricted by gender stereotypes), it does still limit us somewhat. For a better solution, we need to look no further than our lovely gingerbread person. It’s basically got slider design built right in since that is basically how you could move along a spectrum. We could have a race with two ends of the spectrum (for instance with humans, male-typical and female-typical) and we could have one or more slider bars for either the whole body, or areas of the body, to make more male-typical or female-typical. Or like gingerbread person 2.0, instead of a slider bar with male-typical and female-typical on either ends and androgyny in the middle, we could have two bars with androgyny on one end of each and male-typical and female-typical on the other ends. We’ve seen something kind of like this before in the Saints Row 2 character customization.

A character customization system like this could work wonders with a non-binary race, like we’ve discussed previously, as well. Instead of bar sliders, there could be triangle or square or hexahedron graph sliders. The only limit is our imaginations. The technology is there, we can see that it is with the advent of body sliders. The only thing holding our MMOs back is their rigid adherence to the binary idea.




One response to “Sexual Dimorphism, Multimorphism, or Omnimorphism? – Character Design in MMOs Part 3

  1. Roseanna Quinlan August 19, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    I understand what you’re saying. It is rather ridiculous that these programmers come up with these amazing games – the concepts etc but when it comes to the characters they fall short of amazing and land smack in the middle of mediocre. Human person – white, black asian, then they throw in others species but not much more different than apes or Wookies. They are mostly based upon the human form with the female being smaller more fragile than the male counter part. The programmers have mobs that drop loot that the mob couldn’t possibly have carried – heck just this evening I looted a set of plate boots off a griffon in Guild Wars 2. One has to ask, just where did the griffon have those plate boots stored?

    Heck why can’t I be a griffon? Throw some armor on me similar to that of a medieval war horse I could do some serious damage plus flying would sure beat running every where. My point here is that the programmers seem to be limiting their imaginations. Now it could be that the all mighty dollar is doing the limiting. What if the stats show that folks only go for the humanoid characters – they don’t want a reptile or a griffon/bird as a character? One thought on marketing says, “you go where the market is telling you to go”. A better thought is to “Get the market to go where you want them to go”. Have the humanoid characters but give the “other” character types more everything. So that playing a boring human is just that boring.

    I’m just saying!

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