The Soapbox: My hypersexualization conundrum

Final Fantasy XIV
Every now and then here at Massively, we receive an email that isn't super nice. I know this may come as a shock to many of you -- the internet is, after all, a place of tolerance and constructive debate -- but sometimes the Massively inbox is no place any sane person would want to be. One reader recently took the opportunity to offer some choice thoughts on Massively staffers. And amidst the jumble of insults and generalizations, the reader levied the ever-powerful "hypocrisy" charge at us for claiming to care about hypersexualized designs of female characters in MMOs while simultaneously playing as those very hypersexualized characters. How could we possibly purport to care about the presentation of women in games if we're all running around in chainmail bikinis?

Generally speaking, I prefer to not have my habits and behavior challenged via ad hominem attacks and false comparisons. But I have to admit that this one particular charge piqued my curiosity. Why is it that the majority of my characters are female? Am I, as a person who looks down on hypersexualized designs in games, committing an act of hypocrisy every time I create a female character?

Let's sort it out. And before we begin, remember that the Soapbox, like most of our editorials, is just one person's opinion and doesn't represent the thoughts of Massively as a whole.

I like boobs

Let's skip the dancing around the topic and get right to the point. I, as a straight dude, like women. And while my attraction to women is informed by myriad factors including sense of humor, intelligence, and dog ownership, aesthetics has a lot to do with it as well. Female video game characters trigger the same visual cues as real-life women, mostly because they're designed to do exactly that. That's really the big confession here: I, as an adult human male, sometimes find pretend female characters physically attractive. I don't think I am unique in this regard. If men didn't find pretend women attractive, we wouldn't be having this conversation in the first place.

I don't always create female characters. My main in World of Warcraft, for example, is a male Troll. But the great majority of the time, if the option is available, I'll pick a female character. When I go through the character customization process, I'll try to make her as attractive (to me) as possible. I prefer that my female characters look at least somewhat realistic, but I'm guilty of building and playing with a character that could be described as hypersexualized. Heck, I have a female Draenei Death Knight, and if the design for female Draenei isn't the peak of hypersexualization, I can't imagine what is.

So the question I must ask myself (in more polite terms than it was posed in our inbox) is this: Does my preference for attractive female characters render my concern over the hypersexualization of women in games invalid? Am I not to be trusted because my Lancer in TERA is currently wearing what amounts to a bra and shield?

The question of choice

The characters to which I have access are largely dictated by the creators of a game. In many MMOs, it is practically impossible to build a character with proportions even remotely close to what humans look like in real life. And while I'll freely admit to building characters I find attractive, I would have absolutely no objection to developers toning down their designs and keeping characters within more realistic parameters. In fact, I would prefer it if MMO developers did just that. I think most MMO players would agree. Female characters don't need breasts the size of watermelons to be attractive. And they don't need to be nearly naked all the time, either.

Blade and Soul
Take my aforementioned TERA Lancer, for example. The only reason she's currently half-naked is that the designers of the game chose to build her armor sets that way. I'm guilty of creating the character, sure. I chose "female" on the creation screen. But everything that comes after that stems from my choosing from options presented to me by the developer. In TERA, the options for new female character range from "half-naked, hypersexualized elf" to "half-naked, hypersexualized human." That's a slight exaggeration, of course; TERA has a couple of non-humanoid races with less sexual designs (and also has the unsettling, hypersexualized child race of Elin that drew censorship in the West). But overall, choosing a female character in a game like TERA (i.e., many modern MMOs) traps you in an inescapable loop of hypersexualized design.

This creates something of a conflict for me and players like me. On the one hand, I enjoy playing female characters that I find attractive. On the other, choosing these characters might send the message that I'm supportive of their hypersexualized design. When games don't provide me with the body options to make my character more realistic but do insist she stays pantsless for most of her leveling life, the only act of defiance available to me is creating a different type of character (male or monster or whatever) than what I actually want to play.

I'm not looking to put the blame entirely on developers here. It's my choice to play a particular game, and it's my choice to create a female character. I'm willing to accept that my playing of a hypersexualized character might mark me as complicit in that design philosophy. After all, if I were truly offended and upset, I'd play a different game or roll a non-humanoid character. I'm sure some commenters who didn't read this entire post have already written basically that below.

However, I do think it's possible to support realistic portrayals of women (and men) in games while simultaneously being attracted to over-the-top designs. I don't think the men and women who play games like Scarlet Blade are all sexist jerks by default. And I'm confident that the bulk of MMO players currently playing as female characters would agree that those designs don't need to be absurdly exaggerated to keep their attractiveness. Hypersexualization of characters feels like one of those things the industry thinks it needs but actually doesn't, just like cutting-edge graphics or voice-acted quests. It's also worth noting that "sexualized" and "sexy" are not synonyms. Characters can be attractive without developers relying on absurd proportions.

Scarlet Blade
As for the original question posed by that reader, I'm not sure whether playing as a hypersexualized character makes me a hypocrite in other people's eyes. I am sure that I like attractive characters and that hypersexualized designs aren't necessary if the end goal is just making such characters. I am also sure men and women can simultaneously be turned on and turned off by exaggerated designs; it's possible to like something on one level and dislike it on another. If you asked me for a solution to the problem, I'd say "sliders." That way all players can play whatever type of character they want. Elder Scrolls Online is actually a really good example of a game providing body variety to players. I didn't much enjoy the beta myself, but the character creator is superb.

In the end, though, I think people can enjoy attractive characters while preferring those characters have realistic armor and breasts that don't weigh more than their shields. It's not hypocritical to play in the world you have while hoping that world can change for the better, whether we're talking about sexualization or any other facet of game design. And simplifying the conversation to the point of personal attacks not only misses the point but impairs our ability to make that very progress.

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 and not necessarily shared across the staff. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
This article was originally published on Massively.