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Friday, November 22, 2013

[Blizzard] No, you're not running for President, but...

Rock Paper Shotgun held an interview with Dustin BRO-wder regarding Blizzard's upcoming MOBA, Heroes of the Storm. The interview went mostly well and covered mainly their strategy going forward and how they intend to distinguish themselves from competitors...then it took a sudden turn when RPS asked about some of the depictions of female characters. I've reproduced the "uh oh" section below.
RPS: You have some interesting alternate outfits for heroes. Roller Derby Nova, especially, caught my eye. On its own, that’s totally fine – just a silly, goofy thing. A one-off. But it got me thinking about how often MOBAs tend to hyper-sexualize female characters to a generally preposterous degree – that is to say, make it the norm, not a one-off at all – and StarCraft’s own, um, interesting focus choices as of late. How are you planning to approach all of that in Heroes?
Browder: Well, I mean, some of these characters, I would argue, are already hyper-sexualized in a sense. I mean, Kerrigan is wearing heels, right? We’re not sending a message to anybody. We’re just making characters who look cool. Our sensibilities are more comic book than anything else. That’s sort of where we’re at. But I’ll take the feedback. I think it’s very fair feedback.

RPS: I have to add, though, that comics might not be the best point of reference for this sort of thing. I mean, it’s a medium that’s notorious – often in a not-good way – for sexing up female characters and putting them in some fairly gross situations. 

Browder: We’re not running for President. We’re not sending a message. No one should look to our game for that.
Pictured: Blizzard's HoS PR team
Cue the sound of tires screeching...

I'm reasonably sure the sound I overheard was the simultaneous, spontaneous excretion of earthen construction materials from the rectum of the entire Blizzard PR team.

Look...Blizzard; this is an intervention and I say the following because I love you.

You referred to comics, so let me quote Peter Parker's uncle Ben, "With great power, comes great responsibility." Your game is going to be seen by millions, it's going to do well because it has "BLIZZARD(tm)" stamped on it. Video games are a medium struggling to gain recognition as "art" and I am 99% sure your developers agree that they should be, meaning it's sort of hard to turn around and say "We're not sending a message." That's what art DOES, it sends messages, it influences perceptions and culture. Your art direction tells young women and girls that they're supposed to struggle for a body type that is impossible for many and that their value is to become objects of male desire; that nothing else about them is valuable UNLESS they conform to that. It tells young men and boys that there is only one acceptable body type for women, and that without sex appeal their other qualities do not matter. It's as simple as peer pressure; if everyone with a trait is doing something, others with that trait are being implicitly told that they should too. This doesn't mean people are stupid, it means we're social animals and take queues from the group.

Blizzard, you have a megaphone now whether you wanted one or not. You got one when you became one of the best known video game companies in the world. If you endorsed a pair of shoes, they would sell thousands of pairs. You created a digital sparkle horse and sold hundreds of thousands of them. You have your own convention devoted entirely to your products; no one else in the industry has that. You can't expect to be treated as art when it benefits you, and as a product when it doesn't.

Now there's nothing wrong with a character being sexy, there's nothing wrong with showing it and embracing it. There is something wrong when it is the ONLY depiction of women in your game; when "cool" for female characters requires they also be as sexy as possible. There is something wrong when a largely male team decides that all female characters need to conform to male gaze. Lets not delude ourselves, most of the characters were designed originally by men. It is not Kerrigan that chooses to have high heels as part of her alien get-up, it's a lead designer at Blizzard.

No one is specifically looking to your game for a message, but it's contributing to a culture that already deluges us negative expectations and standards women. You CAN be better than that, you can refuse to contribute to a social norm that says the only value of a woman is her body.

You do not need to be running for President to be trying to set a positive example, heck, you don't even need to be running for Senate, or the House (though I _really_ hope you know not to say things like, "The female body has ways of shutting that thing down.") Heck, you don't need to be running for Student Body President or Head Card-Shuffler at your local game store to be a decent and even mildly progressive person.

There are somewhere around 7 billion people on the planet; slightly more than half are women. Of that 3.5 billion, there is a myriad of body types that go entirely unrepresented in games. So crazy thought, try and fix it. You took a tiny baby step in WoW when you made female Pandarens a little rounder than the other races; it's a great start! Now apply it elsewhere.

And seriously, don't give us the "We're not running for president," excuse again. If it was because you have a lack of female characters in different body types, own up to it and try to do better. Make new characters, or throw Snow Blossom in there and let her wreck face.


  1. "Tiny baby step in WoW?" lol
    WoW has diverse body types for its female characters. Dwarfs, Gnomes, Taurens, Gnomes, Undead, Pandaren have different models, I wouldn't describe any of them as overly sexual.

    Yes, there are some female characters have body types that are unobtainable for a lot of women. I do believe that there should be wide representation of women, to cater to many preferences. There are people who prefer to see/play hyper-sexualized female characters. I do not believe that these should be banned. I would find it almost as offensive if they do not have any sexualized female characters as I would if they only used sexualized female characters.

    1. Dwarves and Gnomes came from existing ideas so all Blizzard did there was copy what someone else had done. I'll grant that they aren't as bad as some (Blood Elves, Humans, Draenei). The same for Tauren and Pandaren though the female Tauren errs on the skinny side. The Pandaren is the first to have a waist/hip ratio that isn't .7 or so. Undead are not as keen since they actually have all the traits of the "sexy" body-type but are decaying; plus their update ( gets a rather shapely behind and chest for a corpse. I'll grant though, that WoW did more than baby steps, and Pandaria is the best thus far, but HoS is a step back.

      I want to point out that I do not advocate for their outright removal or ban; just for the expansion of types they include. However sexualization is not a standard that is used equally; would you care if male characters had the same treatment? Maybe this? Sure, have them, but spread the treatment around equally. Games are not meant to be a titillation show for men, or places to be dominated by male gaze, especially when a large portion (~45% and growing) of the market is now women.

    2. I'm not into the WoW lore very much but from what I've read most prominent female Npc's are rather bad as well.. lol I was about to link to the post i recently remembered reading and it's yours

  2. I was really disappointed reading that interview, shocked no as it is pretty damn obvious developers don't consider it at all. Either that or they actively don't develop for the female demographic.

    They have female developers there right? or is the environment that toxic that they feel pressured enough not to be heard

  3. Note: no snark here, this is intended to be straight. Yes, I know it's HoS being discussed in the post and not WoD but I'll probably end up tying them together somehow which may muddle the message somewhat.

    Most video game characters are stylized in various ways, both male and female... and bluntly, comparing the in-game PC models, the female ones more closely approximate RL women I know than male ones do men. I know plenty of slim, somewhat similarly proportioned, attractive women but I don't know a single man who's even half (or quarter) the beefcake of the in-game PCs. If I'm judging based on realism of body images, the female in-game image is at least possible to see within a circle of people you or I actually know. The male one isn't likely to be seen outside of a gym or a beach and even then it'd be gawked at, not in any way typical.

    I suppose the counter-argument to that is that the male one is SO stylized that it isn't likely we'll try to emulate it, while that may not be the case for the female one. That doesn't seem to be the argument generally being made, though, and I still find the concept of emulating video game characters to be off-putting at the very least. Why's that even a thing? Why do video game characters have to look like me? I don't think *I'd* want one, let alone any of you poor folks who wouldn't be able to hit the "next option" button fast enough.

    The "running for president" remark was flippant but the alternative to that (or the "boys club" comment from Blizzcon or any one of a number of other somewhat colourful off-the-cuff comments Blizz have made over the years) is to get nothing but legal corporatespeak from anyone doing PR for them. You either get off-the-cuff with generally frankish honesty with side of occasional mis-step or you get nothing worth talking about. If everyone jumps on every single mis-step they make they'll stop walking entirely. Taken in isolation, his comment that they aren't intending to make a statement can be correct whether anyone chooses to accept it or not. I tend to side with him, I don't expect video games to make any sort of commentary about real world society norms or mores. There's nothing in WoW that I would pattern my own life on. I don't commit genocide on a regular basis, I don't craft, I don't spend half an hour standing at a mailbox, etc. It's a game, not a lifestyle choice.

    Ultimately, the first goal of any public company, including Blizzard, is to maximize profits. If they feel they'll sell more games with stylized sexy females and ridiculously beefy males, as countless gaming companies have over the years, that's the bulk of what we're going to get. That's not politics, that's a business reality. When tasteful pantsuits start selling in the video game space, expect that to change in a hurry.

    1. (continued)

      As a related example, pick the female-demographic magazine of your choice that primarily features women on the cover (say, Vogue) and see when the last time was that they featured a "realistic body image" woman on a cover (you can use the link way below for this if you'd like). While general equality/equilvalency is a necessary goal in the real world, things like video games and magazines have always existed outside of that and always will as long as that's where maximized profits come from. Ultimately, in either case, it's about whether the stories are worth consuming, not what's on the cover; if the stories are good enough, they'll be consumed.

      I've seen repeated references here and elsewhere to the (roughly) "50% and growing" demographic of female gamers... which is great, but also seems to be happening even in an environment that's still leaning toward sexualized female images. If that's such a turn-off to the average female video gamer why are their numbers increasing so quickly? Serious question, if there are any theories I'm interested and it ties into the magazine situation as well...

      Give those a skim. That isn't exactly a staff photo from our last corporate get-together there.

      If women are looking for realism, aren't there more obvious targets than Blizzard for expressing it to like, say, Vogue? One that IS catering to the female demographic and yet seems to run quite counter to these types of concerns? Is there a sub-demographic that Vogue reaches of "women who prefer looking at pretty women?" that excludes them from this type of discussion while Blizzard is somehow supposed to aim higher?

      Would it have seriously made any sort of difference if the Blizzard response, rather than what was given, was "It's true, some comics are notorious for their poor handling of women and we're absolutely not using them for reference but there are many comics that do embody our sensibilities when presenting kick-ass women. We're focused on making a game that all of our fans, male and female, will want to play, both from a gameplay as well as an artistic standpoint?"

      What about the much more simple and similar "We're video game developers trying to reach the widest audience possible, not social commentators?"

      If anything, a small, cynical part of me wonders if this isn't Blizzard just poking the community a bit to keep discussions flowing during the late-expansion slump. If they hadn't presented that "headshots of 10 dudes" slide would any of this discussion even be happening right now? Would the HoS females still be a topic of discussion if WoD actually had visible female representation? If they can plan far enough ahead to plant clues to WoD events in Karazhan loot tables from 7 years ago, I really wonder...