Talking about the representation of women in video games is usually an exercise in depression. You don't have to search very hard for negative examples; consider The Witcher, in which sleeping with women is treated essentially as some sort of ersatz Pokémon variant. Or take a look at Grand Theft Auto III, hailed as a groundbreaking game, which featured a grand total of three female characters in the story, all of whom were painted as some combination of promiscuous, stupid, or untrustworthy.
Comparatively speaking, MMOs deserve a medal for being remarkably open to both players and characters of both genders. And yet that's damning with faint praise in the worst way. MMOs still leave a lot to be desired when it comes to how they handle women, in ways both subtle and searingly obvious. Female characters are generally expected to be in a state of perpetual undress, more often than not without a significant role in the storyline -- and precisely because the genre is so far ahead of its contemporaries, complaints are often met with eye-rolling and derision.
"Oh, come on, who cares?"
Of course, the usual rallying cry against those who bother to care about these issues involves the accusation that the complainant is a prude, afraid of women, or making a big deal out of nothing. As if it were perfectly normal that even the most important female characters in most games are in a perpetual state of being half-dressed, regardless of context.
TERA is usually high on the list of games that set a stellar example for basic modesty and dignity, with the full-body thongs it dresses some of its characters in. But it's not alone in this case. When Guild Wars 2 was running its human week, the team discussed armor design, which included a real gem of a last paragraph (satirized beautifully and appropriately, if you just want to see the relevant part).
Or just look at the side-by-side comparison of guard NPCs in RIFT, if you need to see more visuals.
You can argue quite convincingly that it doesn't bother you. But it does bother a lot of people, and as always, the chief problem is that there are people who are going to be turned away before even trying a game because they don't like watching women be objectified. Arguing that "well, X is a woman and she isn't bothered" is anecdotal evidence, also known as the sort of evidence that isn't accepted in scientific studies due to general uselessness.
And it's deeply ingrained in our culture. Look at last year's snarky dismissal of a female player at BlizzCon, at which the Blizzard staff essentially laughed off a woman for asking about less exaggerated models. Or look at the comments in response to the story on the City of Heroes panel at PAX East, where at least one fan seemed offended by the idea that players might want a female walk animation that didn't resemble the sway-hipped strut currently in the game. Even as an option.
Is it any wonder that people who play MMOs are still seen by an awfully large part of the population as being basement-dwelling nerds? Even in a genre that's miles ahead of its contemporaries, this is weak sauce.
"She's an important character, so her clothing doesn't matter!"
The one thing that MMOs have managed to get pretty solidly right is that women are not at an actual mechanical disadvantage compared to male characters. If you decide to make a woman, you might watch your bosom heaving in a metal tube top at all times, but at least you're not also going to be crippled in actual combat. (Well, except for the Age of Conan launch bug by which a slow swing animation crippled female PCs... but that's really unfair, since it was a bug that the company moved to address pretty quickly, albeit one that should have been caught earlier.)
Realistically, giving women a sexy appearance seems like a trivial issue to focus on... but it's exacerbated by uneven presence. The defense is sometimes bandied about that it's completely all right for a woman to be half-naked if she's also given a role of major significance, which seems like a cop-out right from the beginning -- since when has modesty been the domain of obscurity?
But it also clashes rather aggressively with what tends to actually happen. Jaina Proudmoore and Sylvanas Windrunner are two major World of Warcraft examples whose moment in the sun was in Icecrown Citadel... wherein they were essentially there to run in, try and fight Arthas, and then completely fail until two men led players on the real assault. Jaina in particular has a habit of having moments where she gets to be cool solely because she doesn't die.
Again, we're still frequently light-years ahead of other games, but that's an excuse. In a genre with a huge number (if not a preponderance) of women playing, MMOs are really behind the curve on giving major storyline characters interesting things to do if they're not men.
I'd like to note that most of these characters in question are also permanently underdressed, as if designers are afraid we won't pay attention to a woman without a soupçon of sexualized clothing. This is in stark contrast to the sort of clothing that, you know, actual important women wear most of the time.
Remember the part I mentioned before about this problem being ingrained in our culture? That's the real root of the issue here: the fact that, as our games keep operating on the maturity level of adolescent boys, a woman with enormous breasts in an outfit that would make Lady Gaga feel self-conscious becomes the norm. Noticing it and getting annoyed by it requires a conscious effort to realize, "This is kind of weird."
It's a subtle effect, a slowly accumulative one by which all of the seemingly trivial elements add up until it seems perfectly normal to see a woman whose "adventuring gear" consists of a metal corset and a pair of hot pants -- not as an option but as the default. In many cases, that's the only choice you have if you want to play a female character. It's a subtle trivializing effect that suggests it's not enough if you can kill a demo -- you'd better be able to flash some thigh while you do it.
Because it's so subtle, it's easy to ignore how marginalizing it really is. There are, to be certain, a lot of games in which a female character can look cool without having to look sexy at the same time... but there are also a depressing number in which that's just not possible. If you want to be competitive in those games, you have to dress yourself in an outfit that's demeaning and marginalizing. It's depressing to watch, and it doesn't speak well of the people behind the game.
And it's not just obnoxious to women who don't like being seen as nothing more than a breast-delivery system. It's obnoxious to men who think that competence is sexier than a plunging neckline. It's harmful to teenaged boys who see this and think it's a normal way to look at a woman, or girls who think that's what's expected of them. It's something that the gaming community long since should have moved past, and the fact that it has to be debated at all is depressing.
In a field that offers so much freedom, it's sad to think that playing a woman denies you the basic freedom of wearing a shirt.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!