Some games are better or worse about this than others. The Secret World allows you to dress up either gender to be as sexy or as casual as you like, and Guild Wars made a point of keeping skimpy armor as skimpy armor for both genders in most cases. (Although not hardly all.) But the question that's actually relevant to this column is how Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV stack up, and the answer is that they acquit themselves remarkably well. So much so that they're among the most even-handed games I've seen, if not at the top of the list.
Judging sexism in MMOs is a tricky thing, partly because pretty much every MMO ever allows you to play as either gender without any penalties. (Disregarding momentary weirdness or accidents). So it comes down heavily on the side of incidentals and clothing. What are outfits like on both genders? What do the female models look like compared to the male models? What sort of role do female NPCs take, and how are they treated in dialogue?
Let's start with the first point -- clothing. Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XIV both have some armor that's clearly sexualized, with Harnesses in particular leaving little to the imagination. But that works both ways, looking equally skimpy on male or female characters. Heavy metal armor is pretty much equivalent for both genders, avoiding the tendency to hug a woman's chest despite being made of metal. Far from TERA's high-heeled plate, the armor that you wear is practical and functional.
The one weakness that FFXI had in this department was giving women trousers instead of varying degrees of hot pants. It's nice that I don't have a low-cut metal corset instead of heavy plate, but the effect is somewhat undercut when my plate armor has a gap to show some thigh. FFXIV does not share this problem.
FFXIV also features a few more options for sexualized armor, but it's also even-handed in its approach there. The summer swimsuits were skimpy on women, but they were just as skimpy on men, and you could earn the same cheesecake character portraits by unlocking them. About the only thing that shows more skin when worn by women are the various coatees, and considering that they turn into form-fitting dapper tuxedos on the men, I think it's more a matter of different kinds of eye candy.
This wouldn't mean a lot if the games featured proportions that would make Barbie dolls look realistic, but the female models in the game are among the best I've seen. Having some motion-capture work here no doubt helps, but even beyond that characters of both genders are proportioned nicely and posed naturally. The posing in particular is nice, with none of the extended sway-backed look-at-how-sexy-I-am animations you find in all too many games.
More points are due to FFXIV for the upcoming Highlander and Roedagyn women, both of whom look excellent as well as being very representative of the other half of the gender. Highlanders and Roedgayn men are clearly large and muscular, and I was worried that the women would be much leaner and closer to an arbitrary ideal. Instead, both look to be just as muscular as their distaff counterparts, which marks one of the rare occasions that players really have an option of playing a large and muscular woman.
So that just leaves us with the stories and NPCs of the game, which really serve to reinforce the obvious theme I'm getting at here. Major NPCs can easily be found of both genders across a wide range of personalities, and about the only role that seems to favor men is that of the villain. (Which, considering my opinion of the online villains, isn't necessarily a bad thing.) Only Curilla seems to have her gender merit a special mention, and none of that takes away from her position.
The games don't even fall into the all-too-common trap of having supposedly competent women constantly unable to achieve their goals; Merlwyb in particular comes across as frighteningly capable, and the only reason she isn't taking over the entirety of Eorzea is because the continent is facing bigger problems.
In truth, the most arbitrarily sexist thing I can find in either game is the fact that female summons always appear in a vaguely humanoid shape, while male summons can look like more or less anything. And considering Phoenix's gender in FFXI, even that's not entirely true. (Although you only deal with Phoenix in a roundabout fashion, but now I'm splitting hairs.) Even that is almost more a matter of tradition than actual bias, since Shiva and Garuda both have an established look from previous games.
You can argue that the game isn't perfect, and I'd agree with that. There are ladies plying the oldest profession in Ul'dah who will proposition either gender, but there are no men doing the same. But out of all the MMOs I've played, FFXI and FFXIV frequently do some of the best jobs of being fair to both genders from creation to level cap. So points to both games for that.
Disagree? Let me know in the comments or mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm flexible like that. Next week, let's talk about alts. Like how they don't exist now and whether or not they will, for instance.
From Eorzea to Vana'diel, there is a constant: the moogles. And for analysis and opinions about the online portions of the Final Fantasy series, there is also a constant: The Mog Log. Longtime series fan Eliot Lefebvre serves up a new installment of the log every Saturday, covering almost anything related to Square-Enix's vibrant online worlds.