Thursday, March 22, 2012

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How Kingdoms of Amalur Made Me Reconsider My Feelings About Sexy (and Sexist) Armor in Games

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Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world fashion

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a vibrant game with fantastically designed weapons, environments, and characters, but the armor often falls very short -- especially for female gamers. While I expected a degree of realism when I played Skyrim, the involvement of comic artist Todd McFarlane in Reckoning made me expect far more dramatic (some might even say slutty) female fashions. If you've ever seen any of McFarlane's character art, especially Angela, you'll appreciate why. While most armor pieces maintain a good balance between practicality and fantasy, they often made me feel very plain and frumpy compared to what non-player characters (particularly females) wear in the game. I wasn't quite sure why I felt so let-down, until I contrasted it with my experience with the elaborate and imaginative female armor in the MMO TERA. Given its pedigree, I realized I'd been expecting something very different in Reckoning. Something a bit... sexier?

And that realization immediately made me feel like a bad feminist gamer. Sexy female armor is insulting and unrealistic! Sexy female armor is the enemy!

Isn't it? Well, not necessarily:


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The real problem is almost every piece of armor in Reckoning, whether it's heavy, light, or cloth, is incredibly androgynous. The only difference between how each piece looks on a female avatar compared to a male is, at most, some shaping and accenting around the chest and waist. This also means that a lot of the really badass armor that would add the appearance of extra muscle and bulk on a guy avatar adds a very similar amount of bulk to the much smaller female avatar. I want to appreciate and applaud this kind of armor-based gender equality, but I just can't get past how awkward it looks, especially compared to the game's non-player characters.

 

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For example, compare the NPC on the right to my avatar on the left. I'm not exactly saying I'd rather be wearing her useless bikini and belts ensemble, but it makes my own outfit feel incredibly bland and decidedly non-fantastical in comparison... like we're not even part of the same game! 

How can I reconcile my occasional desire for over-feminized armor with the fact that such armor is usually demeaning as hell? Can't I have equality as the main course, but still want some cheesecake for dessert?

In my opinion, what really makes hypersexualized armor demeaning is when it's the only option available for female avatars. And that's the same reason why the very masculine armor in Reckoning has been driving me crazy. As realistic as it is, it isn't empowering because the game is still presenting the same idealized sexual form that we've come to expect. Only now, it's beyond the player's reach. It makes beautiful women a thing to look at, not to become, while the idealized male figure is practically built into the armor. It's still defining what is feminine and what is masculine, and then places you firmly among the masculine whether you like it or not. Making female player characters manlier isn't the solution to this issue.

Take a look at TERA again. It gets a lot of flack from gamers for its ridiculously oversexy gear style, but unlike many other games that sexiness applies to both male and female avatars, and it isn't mandatory. You can pick a sexy race and play a sexy class that wears sexy gear, or you can pick a more modest race with a modest class and modest gear. It's being given the choice that's most important.

Mixed_reality_iris2010 Iris Ophelia (Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.

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Pussycat Catnap

Conan

- Sexy bikini armor started with the males, not the women.

Classic fantasy illustration has always been about this.

The problem only came up when the D&D generation decided to stop talking about heroic barbarians and instead talked about Imperial Romans living in early Middle Ages Europe, wearing late middle ages cavalry armor.

Sexy loincloth armor though - that's where its really at.

80s 'anything sensual is evil' agenda needs to step aside and let people feel -both- empowered -and- sensual at the same time.

Pepys Ponnier

Neither you nor Pussy has played Guild Wars.

C

Honestly, as a female gamer, I never thought twice about the "missing" sexy armor. Mostly because I don't want it. "Sexy" armor is silly and impractical. It symbolizes sex and superficial appeal, nothing more. The female armor available in KoA, however, makes me feel powerful and capable. My role is that of a formidable warrior in a time of war, and the more modest armor makes that feel comfortable and natural. It makes sense. I am able to take my character seriously, and when playing fully immersed, I feel like the NPCs I interact with can take me seriously and identify me as a battle-ready warrior. Alyn Shir, who's outfit you used as a comparison, is scantily clad to accentuate her character background. She's a unique and pivotal character, so the player needs to be able to readily identify both her and her role. Dredging up an argument over something so superficial and rather silly is the reason why there is still a distinction between male and female gamers. It's the reason why males still don't take female gamers seriously. It's not the armor that causes the problem, because I don't think very many people actually care, and I can assure you the guys don't. The problem is the unnecessary complaint. Unhappy if too sexy, unhappy if not sexy enough, that confirms the idea that all females are high maintenance and can never be satisfied, and that's far more frustrating than sexist armor. Of course, I'm sure male gamers would agree with your "not sexy enough" argument, since there are some who like to make female characters just to watch their boobs jiggle as they run around in gold-plated underwear. That's why games like GTA and Saints Row were created (don't get me wrong, I love both of those games as well). My point is, I absolutely love the armor in KoA because it makes me feel powerful and realistic. It's everything I could have ever asked for in an rpg. There are some truly gorgeous sets that look great on both male and female characters, and they make me feel far more empowered than "sexy" armor ever could. I like not feeling like a ditsy bimbo with a sword.

Arcadia Codesmith

"It's being given the choice that's most important."

This.

In too many games, the Senior Art Director decides what everybody is going to look like, and everybody by-God ends up looking like that; a very limited set of end-game options that (to the Art Director) looks like elite gear.... and to the players, usually looks baroque, tacky, and tasteless.

I have a great deal of love for the City of Heroes character creator because it trusts you to build a look that's unique to and right for your character out of millions of possible combinations. The costume lead on CoH was forever soliciting players in the forums to find out what costume pieces THEY wanted to see.

Whatever game I'm playing, whichever gender, race, class or skill set I'm playing, I want that freedom. In real life my style is jeans and t-shirt, but I clean up nice and I like to go out and dazzle sometimes. Why wouldn't I want the same in game?

Dazzling on a battlefield doesn't really ruin my immersion any more than getting my head chopped off and coming back to life five seconds later. In a world where adventurers are immortal, having solid steel over your heart and other vitals is no longer quite as much of a priority.

Give me as many options as you can stuff into the game, and let me decide.

Todd

As a male gamer that recently finished KoA, I found it interesting that I never even noticed the female armor discrepancy until you've pointed it out. I would have thought that with all the other games I've played featuring bikini chainmails, this sudden absence would have been more noticeable.

Maybe this would send a message to the developers that even without impractical female armors, guys won't be gathering pitchforks. You can still have a commercially successful game without it.

Emperor Norton

So yet again we have people demanding "realism" in armor in games were people are waving around sharpened ironing boards as weapons and can shrug off near lethal injuries by just catching their breath.

Pussycat Catnap

I've had an active Guild Wars account since 2005. :)

Always preferred the Nightfall expansion... and was very saddened when logging into it and seeing all the other players make caucasian toons for the African region.
- But that's another topic.

Guild Wars doesn't really relate to the point at hand.

It has sensual armor. Many fantasy games do put the women in such armor.

The point of the topic at hand is how folks feel about this.

My point is that I don't see why this is a problem - the males were in sensual armor first: Conan.

80s 'anti-sensuality-for-women' movements, a particular brand of the feminist movement that I feel was actually de-empowering, has given us the meme in the west that women must make a choice:
1. Be empowered
-OR-
2. Be sensual

I see that as flawed.

Be both.

That's got nothing to do with Guild Wars when looking at it from a 'how does the player feel about this POV'...

BUT, from toon-representation, yes, Guild Wars represents the modern trend.

For the last 2 decades, putting female toons in sensual outfits has not been a way to 'disempower' them. It used to be, back in the 70s, and into the 80s, plus earlier - for the west at least (Asia has never had this problem).

Its the fans that are still reacting in the old meme - that women need to choose one or the other.

And we see that now in Second Life with things like Gor: any sensually kitted out female there, is a slave...
- women with empowerment in Gor, wear burqas...

This choice does not need to be.

There is no reason women cannot be both sensual and empowered.

Pussycat Catnap

Ps: My mention of Conan is -NOT- to the new MMO, but the classic fantasy art and fiction of the pulp-fantasy era. When all the action figures were in bikinis - men and women.

They were barbarians, in a world modeled off of one before 11-1400 A.D. - so heavy armor was not an option. They weren't 12-14th century Crusades era calvary, using 600 AD weapons, running around in societies based on Imperial Roman rights for the citizenry circa 100 AD, but with agriculture and settlement patterns of 700 A.D. England... like the D&D generation goes for...

Pulp era fantasy was consistent. The tech, the savagery, and the armor were all more primeval, barring the occasional lizard aliens in a dome city. :)

If not that, it would be classic Greek, and then you'd be lucky to even have the bikini on. :D

- When I mention Conan, that's what I refer to.

Melponeme_k

No woman on this earth has control over her sexuality. She is objectified and celebrated for her beauty or lack of it. But the world is so misogynistic that both the beautiful and the unbeautiful are hated with equal venom.

Video games just highlight the lack of control. A female avatar is either a pinup or a masculine it. But guess what? If male gamers hear a female voice attached to either of these avatars, they are treated in the same patronizing ways.

So arguments about having control over armor outfits is specious. You have no control. I have no control. Its only what the ruling patriarchy wants whether in RL or VR.

Arcadia Codesmith

The patriarchy is dying, and we can can have as much control as we can tear from its bloated, festering corpse.

Melponeme_k

No it isn't Arcadia.

When the media stops using women's bodies as a go to standard for advertising for anything from breakfast cereal and clothing (even men's clothing) then we will know the patriarchy is dying. When women have the power to do their family planning and access to all treatments without some man shaking a finger is when the patriarchy is dead or dying.

Hasn't happened yet and it won't happen within my lifetime.

Arcadia Codesmith

Melponeme, I'm not going to say how long I've been in this fight, but a lot of what is considered ancient history these days seems like last week to me.

The battle lines surge and retreat, but over the long term, they move in one direction always, towards equality and freedom.

Advertising is a long, complex subject in its own right. I've retyped this paragraph five times so far trying to grapple with it concisely. Essentially I believe sexism in advertising is a symptom of a deeper issue, which is unchecked consumerism. Not to minimize the misogyny, but I don't think we can overcome objectification of women without also being willing to acknowledge and combat objectification of men and children as well.

But there are some really interesting dynamics developing in media markets that might make sudden paradigm shifts a lot more likely.

Stay tuned. We live in a time of flux, and opportunities are as abundant as risks.

Roanne

As a female gamer I want to say THANK YOU to Iris for posting this. It is about choice and I would like to have the option to feel empowered and sensual. If a woman can't feel both of these things or believes it is somehow wrong to feel both of these things, they're missing out.

Sexuality and feeling attractive are a powerful and wonderful part of anyone's life, male or female. Over sexualized images of unobtainable male ideals permeate all forms of media, yet for whatever reason, men tend to react differently to them than their female counter parts. Men love Conan the barbarian and of the Conan fans I know, not one has wanted Canon to put on more cloths. I saw that new Thor movie with a guy friend, and when Thor had his shirt off, with his completely improbable shoulder to waist ratio and washboard abs, do you know what my guy friend said? "That guy looks awesome!" Cuz he did! ...awesome and sexy.

I want my female avatars, whatever video game I play, to look awesome. Sometimes that's Commander Shepard in her throat to toe bulky armor, sometimes that's my latest Red Sonja clone. It's about choice, "awesome," and having the self confidence not to be made insecure by a bunch of pixels and billboards and such.

Tyrone

I am a male gamer but I'm kind of a feminist to a certain extent when it comes to gaming. I can admit that in video games like Dead or Alive and many other action style games women are given an overly sexualized appearance which can certainly be objectifying to women. However, in RPG'S I feel there should always be an option for the player to control this aspect of there gaming experience. I personally enjoy the overly feminine characters in certain games like Heavenly Sword, Mirrors Edge and the newer Tomb Raider games to name a few. I find it empowering to see this sort of fem fatal type character just completely dominate over anyone that gets in her way with grace, agility and beauty. This is not something that can really be as well achieved in some butch, frumpy get up that makes a women look like Hercules. Ultimately, its really all about choice everyone deserves the choice to be whatever makes them happy in game and I feel video-games are the perfect venue to break away from idealized stereotypes and allow for a more open experience.

Dennis

I would like to see a game that implements, purely as a social experiment, 2 aesthetic versions of an armor set, and the option to change between them as one would change their hairstyle. "Modest" or "Revealing." I would be curious to see which one is used more, preferably with a comparison of in-game gender and RL gender to go along with it.

Also, to go along with the standard "bikinis aren't practical armor" bit, when everything's enchanted to buff stats, the appearance makes zero difference in an item's functionality. Also, one could even argue that more revealing clothing offers a greater range of motion and less strength burden, allowing for higher agility and more stamina to use for other tasks.

Jon O

Yeah the impractical argument doesn't apply to mages. They wear robes to free themselves up and to be more in tune with the winds of magic and what have you. Less weight, less material... more powerful.

It might look like you could run up and skewer a nude mage with your giant "practical" great sword... but chances are fantastic he's actually better protected than if he was wearing his robes. The "it's impractical" crowd should heed this warning: "BEWARE THE NUDDY SPELLCASTER!"

Prosper

i like kingdom of amalur for the cool weapons it contains like long sword, erosive long sword, rusty sword, chakamas but most importantly i hate it for if u are are using a girl and u take off her armor she becomes naked only wearind brazee and pant

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