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The Nexus Telegraph: WildStar's great big sexist elephant in the room

The Nexus Telegraph: WildStar's great big sexist elephant in the room
Eliot Lefebvre
Eliot Lefebvre|January 13, 2014 1:00 PM
Let's see.  The two of them are nearly the same height, except she winds up at that height largely because her torso is significantly shorter and her legs are significantly taller.  Her shoulders are barely broader than her lower both while his torso is nearly as wite as her torso is tall.  His standing pose is relaxed, hers is thrusting her chest outward.  His arms are nearly as thick as his legs, while hers are thinner than her artificially elongated and slender neck.  I can keep going.
There's a subtle problem in WildStar that we've all seen lurking around the edges. It's not huge, and it's not glaring, but it's there, and it's pretty obvious. It's the elephant in the room, and much like the traditional elephant, it's something absolutely no one wants to actually point out because it is not fun to point out.

But it's pretty obvious as soon as you look at the races that the male Mechari are built like linebackers and the female Mechari are wasp-waisted blowup dolls in a permanent pair of heels.

I've been a fan of WildStar since its first teaser trailer, and while I'd hoped for detailed character customization, the beta came without any body sliders or any other options for customizing a character's build. And while the Mechari are easy to cite as problematic (mostly because none of the other women has high heels as part of her feet), this sort of subtle and passive sexism weaves its way into the game on a consistent basis.

You cannot convince me that there was a good reason to give robots that might be entering battle a pair of stiletto heels.This is not to say that the game is actively sexist. Male and female Mechari are both consistently portrayed as being cunning, intelligent, manipulative, and capable. You spend a great deal of time helping both male and female explorers. There's an extended sequence in the early Exile areas involving a pregnant woman, which raised my eyebrows once or twice, but it didn't trip anything over into rant mode.

But it's passively there, which means that no one on the team was trying to be sexist. They just weren't trying not to be.

Every single woman in this game is shaped like an hourglass, with all of the exaggerated anatomy that animation can provide. The male models, by contrast, are all built to be the usual mixture of stoic and physically impressive, with some variant on prison body (all of their muscle concentrated in the upper body; think of a triangle on a footstool) and a variety of scowling and angry faces available. It took me a great deal of time to make a human man that actually looked remotely pretty instead of angry or stoic.

In play, a lot of this becomes transparent. It's the Disney Princess problem; while you're watching the movie, it doesn't bother you, but once you leave the theater, you wonder exactly how Elsa managed to keep a perfectly trim figure if she left her room about once a year and spent most of her time crying and hiding.

Let me be fair to WildStar: This is not something that's unique to just this game. Entire books could be written on how uncomfortably sexist World of Warcraft is in both storylines and models (fun trivia question: How many racial jokes for women talk about whether or not their breasts are real, and how many racial jokes for men talk about their junk?), something that Blizzard has done a lot to exacerbate rather than tone down in recent years.

But World of Warcraft is nearly a decade old now. WildStar has done a lot to distance itself from that game while inviting comparisons. Stylized art in both, but WildStar's models are more recent and higher resolution. There's questing in both, but WildStar has (quite nicely) tweaked the questing model and the text model to avoid the classic problem of having walls of quest text vomited at you. It's got combat that feels like an active evolution; it's got lore and environments and... you get the idea.

So why is the game still trotting out the exact same sort of sexist nonsense?

Credit where it's due, Granok ladies are pretty awesome.There's space to do interesting things here. The Chua, for instance, are supposedly genderless, but that mostly seems to mean that the race is male because that's "male" is considered "default" for some reason. (Interestingly, female is the "default" gender for mammals from a biological development standpoint. Look it up.) There's room for interesting commentary with the Mechari, interesting politics with the Aurin and the Granok, and even an examination of what gender means to a decomposing corpse in the form of the Mordesh.

I can also understand if the team doesn't want to dive into that particular pit of dragons. But offering players body sliders and then washing your hands of the mess would work just as well insofar as it would alleviate the current imbalance. Letting us build female characters that are short, tall, bulky, skinny, stacked, flat, or whatever goes a long way toward alleviating the sense in every still shot that this is meant to be dudebro eyecandy.

Heck, if that's too much work, you can go ahead and put in the same body type selector that Star Wars: The Old Republic had. I'm not going to pretend that was great, but in an industry where the character creator frequently gives you a grand total of zero options about what's going on below a character's neck, having a choice of body types is at least a bone. Yes, the game's options came down to "slender, curvy, muscular, curvy-edging-toward-overweight," but it's still more than we've got in the game right now.

There might be some technical limitations. I've heard that bandied about as a potential explanation by people who do not actually work at Carbine Studios. What I have not seen is an explanation from people actually programming the game explaining how implementing this feature would set back development by another three months or so. It's quite possible that some of the models look awkward if pushed/pulled in the wrong directions, but for all we really know, it's something that hasn't even been tried.

I like a lot of things that the game is doing, and I don't think it's intentionally sexist. I think it's unintentionally sexist because it's being designed by a bunch of people who aren't trying to keep their eyes open for this. For that matter, I think that Carbine is composed of a team of people able to step back and say that even if this wasn't intentional, it still happened, and the team as a whole needs to address it rather than hiding behind the age-old deflection of "well, it wasn't meant to be like that, so it's not our fault."

I'd also like to hope for ponies.

Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments or via mail to eliot@massively.com. Please note that "feedback is welcome" does not translate to "be a sexist jerk with impunity and risk the moderators' ire." Next week, I'm going to wrap up talking about racial lore with the Exile humans, and the week after that I want to talk about the game's active combat in an era of active combat.

Here's how it is: The world of Nexus can be a dangerous place for a tourist or a resident. If you're going to venture into WildStar, you want to be prepared. That's why Eliot Lefebvre brings you a shiny new installment of The Nexus Telegraph every week, giving you a good idea of what to expect from both the people and the environment. Keep your eyes peeled, and we'll get you where you need to go.
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The Nexus Telegraph: WildStar's great big sexist elephant in the room