As the visuals in gaming have improved over the past couple of decades, so too have the representations of the characters. Characters in video games are no longer represented by jagged pixels and are instead designed to appear lifelike and realistic. To a great extent, this has improved gaming as a medium, making it more capable of immersion and creating a kind of alternate reality. However, some arguably negative things have risen due to the progression of these visuals. One of these, which is the one that this article will discuss, is sexualisation in video games. Namely, sexualisation in regards to women, although men also have their fair share in this medium. Many games seem to depict women in a negatively sexual manner, having them wear implausibly revealing attire that, whilst has a cosmetic effect, has no constructive function in the game itself. In this article, we will explore negative sexualisation of female characters versus positive sexualisation of female characters and, as we do so, we will touch on some prominent examples of female sexualisation in gaming.
The Development of Lara Croft
Lara Croft of the successful Tomb Raider franchise is probably one of the most famous examples of over-sexualisation in video games. The character was created by Toby Gard, who wanted Lara to be sexy “only because of her power”. Unfortunately, Gard’s intentions for Lara didn’t quite come to pass, and she ended up becoming a prominent sex symbol in the media, one of the first to come from video games. Lara has been depicted as more sexualised as the games have progressed and especially as technology in gaming has developed. Most of the Tomb Raider titles allow the player the option of changing Lara’s already revealing outfit of a green tank top and shorts into alternate garbs, many of which are just as revealing yet serve no other purpose in-game than a cosmetic change. It’s no secret, therefore, that the character was geared towards a male-dominated fanbase. The character is a clear object of male sexual fantasy, with a perfect, athletic figure and face. In the past, male gamers have been known to reposition the game’s camera angles towards Lara and make her repeat certain phrases via in-game commands to fulfill their fantasies.
Meanwhile, it’s easy to see why many perceive Lara to be an unrealistically-designed male-fantasy-oriented character. This is important because it shows the beginning of a trend in video games to use sexy female protagonists as a source of promotion; Lara was regularly used in this manner by Eidos Interactive’s marketing department during the 32-bit era. It is great, therefore, to see change in the current generation of video game consoles with Square Enix’s Tomb Raider reboot. Here, Lara’s latest character design is far more realistic than her older counterpart, with relatively realistic physical features and more appropriate clothing given the game’s context. Lara’s traditional shorts are traded in for combat trousers and her character is realistically portrayed as an amateur explorer setting off on her first adventure.
The Sexualisation of Lightning
Unfortunately, not all modern video games seem to follow the same direction. In fact, Square Enix has gone in the complete opposite direction with the upcoming Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns. Lightning, the core protagonist of the Final Fantasy XIII storyline, was never depicted as an especially feminine character in the previous two games, and, although she wears slightly revealing clothing, it never showed enough skin to be a big deal. However, in the final chapter of the FFXIII saga, Game Design Director, Yuji Abe, has commented that Lightning will have “different sides and elements to her” and will act “fairly feminine and girly”. This highly contrasts with her personality in the previous two games, where she was depicted as an independent, aloof character whose strength and skill matched or even outmatched the main male characters in the game.
So, what exactly is Square Enix up to with this move? Especially since, to add insult to injury, Lightning’s breasts have increased in size in what seems like another another bid to add a selling point to the game. What’s more, to accompany this, players are given a selection of promiscuous costumes for her. Many of the costumes available are tight and revealing but one that stands out considerably is the Miqo’te costume, which consists of a revealing top and mini-skirt. It doesn’t help that the costumes come with unique poses, and the Miqo’te costume has Lightning perform a sexy victory pose upon winning in battle that “will blow away the player” according to the official website. So, has the once respectable character of Lightning been reduced to a mere sex symbol for male audiences to drool over? It appears so. Such a sudden image and personality change toward being more vulnerable and feminine appears like a crime for a character like Lightning, who was introduced to us initially as a tough badass who wouldn’t have been seen in such revealing attire.
Final Fantasy fans may find Lightning’s new-found variety in costumes similar to the dress-sphere system of FFX-2. It seems like Square Enix has always seen fit to design their female characters in attire that serves more as eye candy but would be entirely implausible for heroines battling monsters and trying to save the world. Fans were understandably surprised when Yuna, formerly dressed in a top and long skirt that concealed most of her body, suddenly went in the opposite direction with clothing untrue to the original character. Basically, history is repeating itself, and it looks like Square Enix has favored attracting the hormones of their male fans as opposed to staying true to who Lightning is.
Positive Examples of Sexualisation
Maybe Square Enix should draw inspiration from more positive approaches to female sexualisation. Samus Aran from the Metroid franchise is definitely one of these. The character is depicted as wearing a suit of armour and is armed with an arsenal of weapons and gadgets that help her in her adventures, such as the ability to transform into a morph ball and an arm cannon that can shoot a variety of beams. She is an empowered female bounty hunter that could also easily be a role model for women.
Similarly, the inclusion of Anya and Samantha Byrne in Gears of War 3 also shows that female characters can be strong, properly clothed, and taken seriously without being only eye-candy for the player. They were met with a positive reaction from female players, although developer Epic Games insists that the game wouldn’t have been sellable had they been the game’s core protagonists. Yet, the fact that these characters wear realistic protection and are capable fighters in themselves shows a far more positive direction in the way developers handle female characters rather than have them designed as mere tools to attract the male gaze.
The debate about sexualisation of female characters in video games has always been an on-going argument and, as we have already discussed, there have been some great examples of positive sexualisation in this medium as well as the negative. It’s just a shame that some developers feel the need to dumb down certain characters to appeal to their audience, but then, that is the way that marketing seems to work. The final point to be made here? Video games don’t need to negatively sexualise strong characters like Lightning by making them more vulnerable and scantily-clad. Rather, games need more characters like the assured, capable warrior Samus Aran—characters that women can look up to and be empowered by.