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