Keeping abreast of the news.

Blade and Soul, the new MMO being worked on by NCSoft, has taken heavy fire for its character designs, done by artist Hyung Tae-Kim. He also designed the PS2 game Magna Carta, and he has a very stylized, sexualized view of women in his games, Like this:

Picture from Magna Carta

On Massively, the release of a teaser video was obscured by a strong debate about sexualization, causing columnist Seraphina Brennan to respond with a defense of boobs in games. Spinks of Welcome to Spinksville also had her own thoughts on the matter. 

Disclaimer #1: I am a guy.

Disclaimer #2: I actually like the style of Blade and Soul and find it *gulp* sexy. I think the angelic quality of the faces with the sexuality of the bodies is attractive. Is it unrealistic? Yes. Do I judge every woman I meet by that standard? No. Do I like it? Yes.

That out of the way, here are my thoughts on the whole issue.

It’s important to realize that fantasy is just that. Fantasy. Unless the game specifically tries to cultivate a realistic appearance in terms of character models and backgrounds, some stylization of character designs are needed. Even then, exaggeration may occur. Conan the Barbarian is set in a fantasy world based more on real history than others, but yet rather than be an average man, he is a brawny, barrel-chested barbarian. He is supposed to be larger than life, and his body shows this.

More after the break…

In almost any form of fantastical story this happens, even if it is a modern fantasy, like a cop show on TV.  In MMOs we see this for a few specific reasons:

  1. Easier to differentiate male and female toons. As I wrote in Spinks’s comments, people don’t realize how hard it can be with stylized forms of art to avoid androgyny. Japanese Anime in particular is vulnerable to this, and they even poke at it with the sub-genre of men dressing up like women. In Anime like Otoboku: Maidens are falling for me, the main character is supposed to be a guy, but you would barely know from the design.
  2. Attractive toons sell games. Men especially are visual creatures. It’s not just sexuality, a well designed female character is aesthetically pleasing. Spinks showed a picture that parodies that, but in a general sense, men enjoying looking at beautiful female characters. In FFXI we called it “Whose ass do you want to stare at for 300 hours anyways?”

There’s more, like the individual training, skills, and preferences of the artists and designers, and the market focused to. But I think those two are the biggest reasons why we have such controversy. Most computer graphics are heavily stylized in terms of art style, because of the Uncanny Valley: the difficulty in making realistic human figures move without unnerving people. That stylization tends to reduce and exaggerate people and their characteristics. It can be in many ways, it doesn’t have to be sexualized. But it is there.

This is my take on why we have it, but that is only half the argument. The other, and more stronger half, is that these portrayals demean women, and to a lesser extent, men. I don’t think this is the case. The problem is not that a woman is attractive or even skimply dressed: after all, going to a beach will have just as many women as undressed and as attractive as you find in an MMO. The problem is that online, men do not translate the same protections we give offline to women.

While in real life we may look, and fantasize and act crude among our buddies, we realize that women do not find that attractive and complementary. It isn’t right, and most men simply will not objectify a woman openly because of that. For those that don’t, social and legal protections are in place to help women from not being predated on. Simply because a woman is attractive, or shows some skin, doesn’t give the right to objectify or demean her, and part of growing up as a man is realizing this, and also realizing that visual beauty is often much more varied, and much more secondary to a woman’s attractiveness than we think.

Online though, we don’t have the moral, social, and legal protections or restraints. Anonyminity makes people more uninhibited, and when the only backlash is being blacklisted, or at serious length being banned from a game, it’s easier for young men to act crude. They will do so even if a woman is showing nothing. In Mabinogi as a female toon I wore a full length robe constantly, not showing anything, and still got as much crudity as on much less clothed toons. The problem is in us, not in the depictions.

My point is the demeaning of women is not so much because of design, because all a scantily clad women in MMOs do is remind us that women are beautiful and attractive. It happens because of the men’s attitudes, and it’s not something that design really causes. By saying it is puts men of the hook and puts the fault of poor conduct on the designer. Of course this is within reason, In something like Second Life, the design may lead to demeaning because it is specifically designed to foster sex, as opposed to beauty.

The strongest argument is that it makes female players uncomfortable, and there is no counter-argument. It is not puritanism to not want to be nearly naked in front of other people, and a good MMO will offer character designs that offer choice, especially if it wishes to attract female players. However it must be said that the choice must be individual. It is a problem when you go from “I want my character to be fully clothed and realistic” to “All female characters must be fully clothed and realistic.” Because even among women, tastes may vary.

As you can see it isn’t a simple issue, and you could write term papers on it. But this is my take on the issue.

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