Archive for the ‘Avatars’ Category

Samson’s Underwear

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013
His deity opposes headscarves.

At some point last year I decided to play Champions Online, Cryptic Studio’s spiritual successor to City of Heroes. Although I’ve never been a big fan of the superhero genre, I can appreciate the appeal of pulling on a pair of tights and stopping runaway locomotives. And even though I ultimately found City of Hero’s gameplay too repetitive for any long-term enjoyment, I had gotten a couple of months’ worth of fun out of it and expected something similar for Champions.

In case you are unfamiliar with superhero conventions, it should be noted that there is an unspoken, unwritten rule about how female superhero characters are portrayed in both comic books and video games: They will wear as little as possible, and often strike anatomically impossible poses.

Knowing this reputation for overt sexism – and with tongue firmly in cheek – I created my first Champions Online character: NAKED MAN!

Naked Man in his original incarnation was actually about as naked as a long-haired Ken doll. His backside was bare, but with only a hint of cheek delineation, and his front was asexually devoid of any external genitalia. He was never meant to titillate. His creation was as a joke, intended to poke fun at the ubiquitous hyper-sexualization of female superheroes. To further my subversiveness, I chose a flying ability that caused a rainbow to extrude from his heels (or butt – I was never sure which) whenever he took to the skies. I giggled in gay pride defiance every time I played him.

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a statement against female sexual objectification and homophobia!

Naked Man in his original rainbow glory.

As expected, I quickly lost interest in Champions after a month of play and moved on to other MMOs. And also true to my nature, I returned to Champions Online a year later to pick up where I had left off. Unfortunately, during the interim, Naked Man had been stripped of all his…nakedness.

When I logged back into the game after my year-long hiatus, I was met with a Naked Man who had been reverted back to the game’s default bald, blue unitard model and an in-game message informing me that Naked Man’s nakedness was found to be in violation of Cryptic’s ToS (Terms of Service).

So a FEMALE character with her bits barely covered and her cleavage precariously contained is ToS compliant? But a “naked” male character with no discernible genitalia is in violation?

A Champion's butt.

The first rule for MMO superheroes is NO EXPOSED BUTT CHEEK!
Unless, of course, you’re female.


While redesigning the now not-so-naked Naked Man, I discovered a curious discrepancy between the male and female models in regards to the amount of visible derriere. The game’s character creation process forces a visible covering over the male model’s backside that does not exist on the female model. Tarzan will now be wearing tighty whities?

I don’t have a problem with games enforcing a certain level of modesty on character customization, otherwise you end up with something like this. But the difference in body coverage seen in Champions’ character models is egregiously sexist and is obviously informed by the sexual objectification of female characters that occurs routinely in the comic book/superhero genre.

Ultimately, I don’t object to a little eye candy – beefcake or cheesecake – but make it gender agnostic or don’t do it at all.

A Lot Of Hot Air

Friday, July 20th, 2012
A Lot of Hot Air

Whenever I learn about a new MMO, one of the first things I do is check out its in-game screenshots. A game’s overall art design and aesthetic can greatly influence my opinion of it long before I set a virtual “foot” inside of it. If I like what I see in the screenshots, I’ll then proceed to learn more about the game’s races and classes. For better or worse, I take the designers’ descriptions of the classes and fit them into the usual RPG paradigm: melee, ranged, stealth, magic user, etc. It’s always a pleasant surprise when a game manages to create a variation on this standard mechanic, but I’m not necessarily disappointed if it doesn’t. Finally, I take a look at the races to get a sense of the game’s setting and story.

When I first learned of Mechanist Games’ City of Steam I was confused by its name. I thought it was somehow associated with Valve. “Hmm. A game set in the steam punk genre? This could be interesting,” I thought. When the screenshots looked promising I proceeded to take a look at the classes: Arcanist, Gunner, Warder, Channeler. Also known as magic user, ranged combat, fighter, and healer. OK, not the most original perhaps, but I’ve certainly seen worse.

Finally, I took a look at the game’s various races.

Whereupon I hit a brick wall.

It wasn’t the races themselves – of which there are several (nine) – that offended me. Rather, it was the accompanying pictures. You can see all of the descriptions and portraits here. The comic above was taken directly from these images – I just didn’t have room for all nine of them.

As I clicked through the portrait and description for each race, I became progressively more annoyed…

Heartlanders: “Wow. That’s some cleavage!”

Avens: “Less cleavage. More navel.”

Ostenians: “Armor with form-fitting boob cups? Silly, but tolerable.”

Stoigmari: “Fur hat and barely covered breasts? At least her ears will stay warm, I guess.”

Draug: “Great. Bikini armor for the not win.”

Riven: “Corset dress with lots of exposed skin? How is she supposed to breathe in that outfit, let alone fight?”

Goblins: “Halter top, mini-skirt and a gun. Is she fighting monsters or trying out for the cheer-leading squad?”

Hobbes: “More pushed-up cleavage and bared midriff. I’d look pissed-off too, if I was her.”

Orcs: “Oh, come on! Even the orc has big boobs and an exposed navel? Nothing says ‘intimidating’ like sexy, unprotected internal organs!”

Ugh.

Now mind you, I haven’t even played the game yet, since it’s currently in alpha testing. The gameplay videos that I’ve seen look promising, although they don’t say “steampunk” so much as “generic dungeon crawler”. It appears to have above average production values, so I hold on to some vague hope that the female armor in the game is more practical and less gratuitous that what is being shown in the concept art.

Ultimately I have to wonder how these sexist stereotypes in video games continue to persist. Do the artists really have such a limited concept of what female characters (of any stripe) should look like? I imagine a game’s producer approaching an artist saying, “We need some concept drawings of a female orc warrior by Friday”. And the artist replies, “Large, green-skinned humanoid with big boobs and a bikini halter top. I’ll get right on that, boss!” The alternative is too depressing. I refuse to accept the fact that the entire gaming industry is run by juvenile men with inflated senses of entitlement who believe that women exist for no other reason than to be ogled and pursued.

So listen up game designers! Contrary to what you may have been told, women are human beings. We are not objects. We do not exist solely for the male (heterosexual) gaze. We have internal organs and femoral arteries that need protection. Little girls are not sex objects to be fetishized.

We want to play female characters who look like us. ALL of us.

Forsaken Underwear

Friday, April 13th, 2012
She lost her stocking in the dryer.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever engaged in any of the following activities: Hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, orienteering.

Now raise your hand if you’ve participated in any of these activities while wearing nothing but your underwear.

OK – you in the back, who used to live in a nudist colony: You don’t count.

For the rest of us, proper attire is normally desired whenever we’re not sleeping, or laying on the couch watching an episode of the “Housewives of Orange County”. In fact, there are entire stores devoted to “proper” attire for any G-rated activity that requires a moderate amount of physical exertion. Think REI or Dick’s Sporting Goods.

So why in dog’s name must my female MMO avatar be dressed like a Hooter’s reject?

Yes, I know – we’ve had this conversation before. Let me make sure I have my facts straight:

  1. All video games are intended primarily for young men under the age of 30.
  2. All men under the age of 30 like to look at scantily-clad women.
  3. Boobs sell.
  4. Therefore, ipso facto, video games contain female avatars with large breasts and small clothing.

This leads to another rather bizarre and circuitous argument regarding the making and marketing of video games: Women don’t play video games, so why make content that appeals to them? But since video game content is quite blatantly not made for women, why should they bother playing? Snake, meet tail. The fact that the rampant sexism and objectification of female characters in video games can be alienating to women, discouraging them from becoming players in the first place, seems to have completely escaped the logic of many game makers. I guess the industry believes that the money spent by women has cooties on it?

So, back to my poor Forsaken World assassin, with her plunging neckline, bikini bottom, and missing thigh-high stocking. This is a fantasy role-playing game, and the rules of MMOs dictate that we must appeal to the fantasies of young men, right? The problem with this is that these video games potentially limit their profits when they target only male audiences. Sure, there are women willing to buy these games because they are either oblivious to the sexual objectification, or (like me) they enjoy other aspects of a game enough to hold their noses and tolerate the sexism (I’m looking at you, Guild Wars.) But what many in the industry seem to fail to recognize is that the lack of female cleavage and naked thigh does not automatically correlate to a lack of players. Heck, I’m not sure if those little block people in Minecraft even have gender! I don’t think anyone is going to argue that the lack of pixelated breasts in any way limited Minecraft’s popularity.

Either a game is fun to play, or it isn’t. Trying to serve the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer by reducing female characters to improbable objects is ultimately insulting to all players, regardless of their gender – and even if they are not consciously aware of the insult. Boobs may get their attention, but it’s not guaranteed to keep it. Just ask the folks at Evony.

A Day Late & A Dollar Short

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Realms Online is a good example of an idiom my grandfather used to say when I was a kid: A day late and a dollar short. Too little. Too late. Too… meh.

Created by Argentinian developer NGD Studios, Regnum Online was originally released in South America in 2007. According to its Wikipedia entry, it was one of the first online games ever published in Argentina. Which makes me wonder what on earth the good people of Buenos Aires ever did to deserve such a boring wreck of a game. American publisher GameSamba released it as a free-to-play MMO here in the US earlier this month, under the name “Realms Online”. Because, you know, the American market needs more out-dated, third-rate F2P MMOs? And also, we can’t read Latin?

While most MMOs make some pretense of lore, Regnumalms Online decided that back story was for wussies and dumps you straight into the game with no context or tutorial. I couldn’t even find any information about the game’s mythology on their website, which is a rather surprising omission. These cut-rate F2P MMO’s always have some ponderous, generic, vaguely complicated back story. Maybe you have to pay Sambas for the privilege.

Realsmgnum Online boasts that it has 3 realms, 9 “fully customizable” player races (I could not put pants on any of my female characters, so I’m not sure how they define “fully” or “customizable”), and 6 classes. This might be impressive if it wasn’t for the fact that Dark Age of Camelot did it better – and six years earlier.

One review of this game stated that its RvR aspects were enjoyable, even if the PVE portion were “lackluster”. I never got that far. I spent the first 20 minutes of the game trying to figure out why my interface disappeared whenever I entered combat. (Answer: The tab key was bound to the ‘hide interface’ function by default.) By the time I got my keys remapped, my avatar had already fallen asleep.

Faerie Boots

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Now that I’m no longer working for an MMO developer, I once again have time to play MMOs. Currently in my ever-revolving playlist is a new online game called RIFT.

RIFT plays like an updated version of Warhammer Online and looks like a dirtier version of Guild Wars. Its claim to fame are the titular rifts; temporary inter-planar doorways from which routine invasions occur. In terms of game play, these rifts act as spontaneous public quests. If you’re in an area when a rift opens, associated quest objectives instantly appear in your tracker and the system automatically creates a group or raid, which you are prompted to join. Although these rift events are supposed to be spontaneous, my sense was that the system times them at regular intervals, or they are based upon the player population within a given area. The game tries hard to keep you engaged by constantly bombarding you with rifts, enemy invasions and wandering high level mobs, to the point that it can become chaotic and overwhelming to an old geezer like me.

RIFT's fae character

"These boots are made for... dancing?"

Although RIFT has the standard Cleric, Mage, Warrior and Rogue classes, each class has a set of eight different “souls” from which you can choose a combination of three that forms a “role”. These souls act as class specializations, with each having a unique set of abilities that you gain over time as you level. Supposedly you can mix the souls in any way you choose, but I found that if you didn’t follow the game’s recommended combinations you would end up with a rather goofy (and gimped) character concept. My Rogue soul mixture of Bard, Assassin, and Bladedancer resulted in a character that could turn invisible, sneak up behind a monster and scare it to death by playing the mandolin – LOUDLY. Hilarious as it was, it wasn’t a very effective strategy.

The Druid, a soul choice for the Cleric class, has three Fae companion characters from which to choose. I find the art design for one of these fae companions to be a bit unsettling. It is my sincere hope that this creature is not intended to resemble a prepubescent female child. With its exposed cleavage and derriere, it would be wandering disturbingly close to pedobear territory. Barring this extremely unseemly choice leaves the possibility that this character is meant to resemble an adult female dwarf. In fuzzy knee-high boots and polka-dot underwear? Eh, ok.

I would have found it far more interesting if the artists at Trion Worlds had designed a MALE fae creature – with or without polka-dot undies. But in our deeply homophobic American culture, I’m sure a half-naked male faerie would have garnered the game a harsher ESRB rating. Because we all know that in fantasy, only females have breasts, abdomen and behinds that are impervious to arrows and swords.

Excuse Me, Is That A Poleaxe In Your Back?

Monday, May 24th, 2010

I’m often asked by friends to give my thoughts and recommendations on various MMOs. Usually this isn’t too difficult. Having played so many different online games over the years, it’s easy for me to assess a game’s strengths and weaknesses. What I find more difficult to quantify is the game that has all the right elements, but somehow loses its appeal over time. This is often caused by something that should be completely inconsequential. I call this phenomenon the Niggling Pixel Effect.

Are you naturally blond?
Does your eyebrows EXACTLY match your hair?

I originally wrote about Alganon back in December. Although the developers have since revamped the UI and some of the other art assets to make it look less like a WoW clone, the overall game play remains pretty standard MMO fantasy fare. Which, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Aside from the usual glitches and bugs that plague every new MMO, it is a solid, palatable game.

Since Alganon is free-to-play after its initial purchase, I’ve spent the past 6 months leveling up a cleric. At first I found the game to be a pleasant, snack-like diversion, similar to that bag of Doritos you grab from the vending machine in the middle of the afternoon. It’s the type of game you play when you can’t (or don’t want) to pay for a subscription to the full course meal of a ‘real’ MMO. But as I progressed through the first ten levels, I found that my desire to play the game was steadily decreasing. It was then that I realized that I was suffering from the Niggling Pixel Effect.

First it was my avatar’s face. Apparently designing attractive human faces in video games is no easy feat, because ugly avatars are everywhere in the land of MMOs. Since you spend the majority of your time looking at the back of your avatar, an ugly face can sometimes be ignored. But over time I found myself groaning every time I logged into the game and saw my avatar’s ugly mug staring back at me.

Nothing says 'medieval fantasy' like brown latex pants and sneakers.

Next came my character’s clothing. I realize that it’s standard procedure in fantasy games for your character to begin her journey in rags and eventually become the MMO equivalent of Liberace. But I found the clothing in Alganon to be not only unattractive, but anachronistically distracting. The setting of the game is supposed to be psuedo-medieval, yet my character is wearing a brown latex wetsuit? Strike two.

Finally, there was the poleaxe. Initially my character’s weapon was Velcro’ed across her back in the usual video game fashion. But after a particular patch was installed, my character suddenly found her poleaxe buried into the middle of her back. If this is a glitch, the developers have not been in a hurry to fix it. She’s looked this way for months. Strike three – you’re out.

These are all relatively minor issues that other players may be able to overlook. But the Niggling Pixel Effect is different for each player, and the ugly faced, wetsuit-wearing, inappropriately-placed poleaxe carrying avatar became unplayable for me.

What is your Niggling Pixel?

The Uncanny Silicone Valley

Friday, February 5th, 2010

I’ve always appreciated the amount of character customization that Cryptic provides in their games. There are so many options and choices available that creating a hero in their City is almost a mini game in itself.

Because of this precedent, I eagerly looked forward to the character creation portion of their new MMO, Star Trek Online. And I certainly wasn’t disappointed. If I want to create an 8′ tall blue hermaphrodite alien named Tapioca, with antennae and fake boobs, I can do it.

What? Wait a minute… Why does Tapioca have fake boobs?

Or, a better question might be: Why do developers feel the need to provide an option for breast size in their games?

Ok, let’s for a moment try to pretend that we’re all adults, shall we? Breasts are certainly part of the human female anatomy. And I suppose the argument could be made that allowing for changes in breast size provides a greater degree of individuality for your avatar. But what I don’t understand is why the inevitable video game breast-slider ranges in sizes from ‘above average’ to ‘pontOOns’.

In every MMO that I’ve played, I attempt to create an avatar that looks as much like me as possible. I’m 5’9″ tall, weigh 150 lbs., and according to the friendly staff at Victoria’s Secret, I wear a size 36B bra. (Yes, I know – way more information that you could possible ever want about me, but there’s a point to this.) Rarely am I able to create an avatar that comes even close to resembling my real-life measurements. Surprisingly, Aion provided the widest range of sizes, with a slider that actually allowed for – gasp – small breasts!

The crotch slider.


At its core, I believe that the existence of the breast slider speaks more to the inherent sexism that still exists in gaming today, than to any desire to provide more customization options. You never see a ‘crotch slider’ to change the size of the male avatar’s bulge, do you? And if you really wanted to offer players a wider range of choices, why not provide the breast slider for avatars of either gender? After all, most of these games are about fantasy and fiction, aren’t they? Why should this fantasy potential only cater to adolescent boys?

Maybe someday in the future video games will be an equal opportunity playground, where the female form is not objectified to any greater degree than the male form.

And maybe someday the word ‘noob’ will be considered quaint and old-fashioned.

Communication Barriers

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

I love Lord of the Rings Online. The pastoral quality of the game world makes me want to crawl inside my monitor and have a picnic.

Ok, maybe not in Angmar. But definitely in the Shire. They even have rainbows there.

Unfortunately, one of the game’s biggest assets – a rich and detailed game world that remains true to its source material – is also one of its biggest drawbacks. Transportation in LotRO is a giant pain in a blogmal’s behind. To their credit, Turbine has made improvements to the transportation and fast-travel mechanisms within the game since its launch. But LotRO remains a giant world that’s difficult to traverse. Which as a player lends a sense of isolation to the overall experience.

The game does provide personal mounts when your character reaches level 35. Having a mount certainly makes getting from point A(ngmar) to point B(reeland) a little easier, but there are some weird game mechanic quirks related to communication and transportation that, if not annoying, at least provide some unintentional humor.

One of these quirks is the inability to send more than one item through the mail at a time. I guess the entire mail system of Middle Earth is run by hobbits who have a low carrying capacity. This restriction is particularly expensive for crafters who want to move items around between their characters. Those postal hobbits have made a fortune off of me!

The second quirk worth mentioning is the inability to interact with NPCs – or do anything – while you’re on a mount. If you want to check your mail, turn in a quest, or sell that 20 pounds of sickle-fly filth that’s taking up room in your backpack for no apparent reason, you MUST dismount.

Why? Who knows. My guess is that someone forgot to tell them that the reins are supposed to go in the horse’s mouth – not yours.

The Virtual Glass Ceiling

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009

I’m well known among my friends for being a feminist. I’m quick to point out a gender stereotype or inequality wherever I encounter it. And I champion equal rights with a gusto that borders on fanaticism.

Unfortunately, my chosen hobby/addiction has a LOT of catching-up to do in this particular area, and no place is this more evident than in Mythic Entertainment’s Warhammer Online.

Based upon Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy setting, Warhammer Online contains the usual fantasy races of Dwarf, Human and Elves, along with Greenskins (Orcs & Goblins), Chaos (a demi-human race), and Dark Elves (regular Elves who shop at Hot Topic).

The game has a total of 24 different classes to choose from – which would be groovy, except for the fact that 4 of these classes are gender-specific, with 3 of the 4 being available to male characters only.

Really? Seriously? Even in my fantasy games I can’t have gender-neutrality?

[insert grumbling and fist-shaking]

I’m not the first to complain about this, and there has been much speculation as to why Mythic Entertainment chose to make these class exclusions. My best guess is that Mythic assumed that their audience (primarily male) would not be interested in playing some of the ‘uglier’ classes as a female character and wanted to conserve art resources by excluding them.

Regardless of the reason, in retaliation for this obvious virtual injustice I decided to create the most effeminate, girly Chaos Marauder possible, named Peony. I insisted upon dyeing every piece of Peony’s armor PINK and would tell anyone who asked (and even some who didn’t) that Peony preferred to watch Oprah and arrange flowers, but had agreed to fight in the war because someone had stolen her entire Pink Pony collection.

Take THAT, Mythic Entertainment! Hell hath no fury like a Peony without her pony. (Or a girl gamer without a proper female Chaos Marauder.)

No Sexy For You

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

I feel a little weird complaining about an MMO’s lack of sexy, half-dressed female avatars. I mean, let’s face it; almost every Korean MMO on the market has squeaky-voiced, scantily-clad lingerie models who inevitably wear spikey high-heeled shoes. (Forget fighting dragons. How do you run through grass in those things?)

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a prude, nor am I opposed to adult content, or chain mail bikinis. I do think that female characters are often objectified in fantasy games of any stripe, so I appreciate MMOs that provide female avatars with sensible clothing, like Lord of the Rings Online, or Dark Age of Camelot.

But if there’s one game where I would not expect my female avatar to look like a refugee from an Amish commune, it would be Age of Conan. Sure, you start the game lying on a beach in your underwear, but your very first piece of scavenged armor or clothing is decidedly… conservative. And for the next 20 levels your character will bear an uncanny resemblance to your mom.