Thursday, 27 November 2008

Can women in games ever be more than 'tits and ass in a steel bikini'?

A provocative blog post title? It's inspired from a quote by Tom Farrer, the producer of the recent first person 'parkour' inspired video game, Mirror's Edge. Farrer was responding to an MTV interview which referred to the different designs of the game's central protagonist, Faith.

The initial design, by the Swedish developers D.I.C.E., had the Asian character Faith looking quite distinct and supposedly orientated around Western concepts of beauty - a little bit edgy with facial tattoos and an athletic physique. The end result was a Western conception of Oriental beauty - something which is frequently criticised by gamers from different geographic regions. A few sites have carried series of contrasting pictures dealing with the idealised notion of beauty (see Kotaku, Joystiq, etc).

A different version of Faith appeared on a message board, produced by a Korean gamer, which depicted what he thought was a more appealing depiction of Asian female beauty. As you should be able to see from the images, the amended picture loses the facial tattoo, has a narrower jaw-line, larger eyes, a smaller nose and significantly larger breasts. The story is timely given the recent release of the latest Lara Croft game in the successful Tomb Raider series (despite the review scandal), no stranger to having been edited by fans.


The MTV interview with Farrer was quite revealing. He wasn't exactly overjoyed that the character design his team had worked on in an attempt to make Faith seem 'human ... more real' was rejected in favour of the new version. The following extract is taken from the MTV interview with Farrer:
We really wanted to get away from the typical portrayal of women in games, that they’re all just kind of tits and ass in a steel bikini. We wanted her to look athletic and fit and strong [enough] that she could do the things that she’s doing.

“We wanted her to be attractive, but we didn’t want her to be a supermodel. We wanted her to be approachable and far more real. It was just kind of depressing that someone thinks it would be better if Faith was a 12-year-old with a boob job. That was kind of what that image looked to me.
What is interesting about Farrer's comment is the focus on the increased breast size - it seems to sidestep the more pressing issue about the rights and wrongs of pandering to stereotypical depictions of ethnicity within representational forms. Lots of blog discussions followed the initial posting of the comparisons last month in which questions over which of the images was 'more real'.

We have to ask whether or not this visual preference of one Korean gamer is significant? Does it merely pander to juvenile concerns (inflated breasts) or does it raise more intersecting issues about enforcing ideals of beauty onto ethnic 'others' (part of a process which Edward Said referred to as 'Orientalism')? Can Occidental designers ever transcend their geography?

What does this tell us about the perception of women in games? Is it symptomatic of what Dmitri Williams refers to as the 'consistent pattern of male technocratic privilege' typical of gaming culture? In a conversation I had about the issue with a colleague, Dr Vicky Ball, she noted that the images were interesting in that they pointed to how the inescapable codes of femininity appear regularly in media depictions of the female form. The amended image almost seems to want to bring about a retraditionalisation of gender codes, in terms of the established binary divisions which seem to exist between Eastern and Western conceptions of beauty.

This seems to be precisely the opposite intention of D.I.C.E.'s initial design, however, when one culture attempts to aestheticise another there is always going to be some contentious issues raised about the legitimacy of the output.

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