Video Games Need to Stop Hypersexualizing Female Characters

They've made notable strides in their representation of women. Why can't some franchises keep up?

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SoulCalibur's Ivy. Because who doesn't rush into battle without first squeezing into a cutout purple bodysuit? (Photo: Bandai Namco Entertainment Inc.)

SoulCalibur VI, a new entry in Bandai Namco’s long-running fighting game series, comes out later this year, and I’ve been following its development with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, it’s great to see the franchise still going strong. Since debuting in 1995, SoulCalibur (then Soul Blade) has been among the most enduring examples of its genre, and it has always stood apart from more martial arts-based fighters like Street Fighter or Tekken with its unique weapons-based combat. The games also have a rich 16th-century setting and a memorable roster of characters, who over the past two decades have developed a surprisingly intricate web of lore and interlocking backstories. Given that the past few installments have been for systems I didn’t own, the new game’s release on PC seemed like it could be an opportunity to check back in with a series I enjoyed years ago.

On the other hand, while the games have evolved, their female character design clearly hasn’t.

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Whatever 23-year reputation it may have for its gameplay, SoulCalibur is also known for the unsubtle ways it panders to its male audience. Several of its female characters sport skimpy, sometimes ridiculous outfits, and a few have absurdly large breasts nearly the size of their heads. It’s not every character, nor is it explicit. None of the games have ever received more than a T rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (for ages 13 and up — about the equivalent of a PG-13 movie). But it does feel juvenile and off-putting. And while the earliest games were comparatively tamer, it seems that over the years the Japanese developers have only gotten more fixated on these womens’ bodies, with the lead director even tweeting a diagram in 2011 of their exact breast sizes. Um, ew.

With a new game on the horizon, after a six-year hiatus, now could’ve been a perfect time for SoulCalibur to grow up and put this casual sexism behind it. Yet from the current trailers, here we are, with usual suspects Taki, Ivy and Sophitia still looking as cartoonishly globular as ever, Ivy barely dressed at all. And I’m not the only one objecting to this. Tom Regan at the UK publication Fandom offered mostly praiseworthy initial reactions of his time with SoulCalibur VI, while also criticizing the “pervy female character design.” And in a recent article from Kotaku, journalist Cecilia D’Anastasio lamented how Bandai Namco had “pigeonholed what could be a stellar fighting game for everyone,” offering real examples of how the games’ portrayal of women has encouraged a boys’ club mentality that ostracizes female players. It’s a perfect example of how art that is dismissive in its representation of a given demographic can sway audiences, however unintentionally, into adopting those same attitudes. Women like SoulCalibur. In fact, at 48%, women make up nearly half of the gaming population in general. And we need games to represent them with the same dignity they show to men.

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SoulCalibur isn’t the only offender. Many developers still take what are otherwise strong games and hurt them with overly sexualized characters. The Bayonetta series is one of the most obvious recent examples. While the action-adventure games starring the titular witch have been universally acclaimed by critics, the games are full of leering camera angles and even have Bayonetta constantly losing her clothing as she performs her magic attacks. NieR: Automata (from Bayonetta‘s publisher, Platinum Games) was widely considered one of the best games of 2017, but the developers also threw in a small reward for players who repeatedly use the camera to look up the heroine’s skirt. Metal Gear Solid 5, among the best reviewed games of the decade, added an update in July expanding the role of the game’s controversial character Quiet, a female sniper who wears little more than a black bikini. And just to show this isn’t only a problem with Japanese games, Mafia III, from California developer Hangar 13, reaches a particular low with issues of Playboy hidden throughout the game. (Mafia III has its share of other issues, too.)

Part of what makes these choices disappointing is that they come at a time when many in the industry are making such a clear effort to improve the representation of women. I can think of plenty of recent, popular games starring female characters who aren’t treated as sex objects — like Transistor, Overwatch, Celeste, Metroid: Samus Returns and Night in the Woods. (Night in the Woods tells such a clever story about America’s struggling working-class communities that it really deserves a CFR article of its own.) And I’m not suggesting that women have to be completely desexualized to be well-designed, either. BioWare’s sprawling Mass Effect games demonstrate this well, including romantic subplots in addition to the main sci-fi story.

There are also companies choosing to remedy past design decisions. Director Yohei Shimbori of Team Ninja’s upcoming Dead or Alive 6, a franchise with such sexualized women that it even spawned several creepy beach volleyball spin-offs, has admitted his past missteps and is removing the “boob jiggle physics” from the next game. And for the coming Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, Nintendo is updating their bounty hunter, Samus Aran (a character they’ve mostly handled well throughout her long history, despite a few fumbles) with a more realistic, athletic body type.

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Not everyone, of course, is happy with these advances, or the even the notion that women need better representation in the first place. While we’re several years out from the ugliness of 2014’s Gamergate movement, an extreme cyberharrassment campaign that targeted female game developers and critics, there’s still plenty of opposition to lifting the industry’s ongoing male gaze. Browse YouTube or online discussions on the subject, and you’ll find the same belabored arguments — that wanting better female character design is somehow threatening to artistic freedom or is anti-sexuality, or else body-shaming to the fictional women involved. The first two are classic straw men — to imply that to critique something is to want to remove it completely. But the last one is disconcerting for other reasons. While some men are clearly just using the body-shaming lingo as a cover for wanting more sexualized games, others truly seem to think the outlandish physiques of certain characters are what women actually look like. (Look at the first comment on D’Anastasio’s article.) These are, of course, not real people having their clothes and bodies evaluated, so it’s hardly the same thing as criticizing a real person. Shimbori of Dead or Alive has even admitted that his characters don’t look “human.” And even if these were real people, wouldn’t it be reasonable to question their decisions to run half-naked into sword and gun fights?

This opposition, naturally, exemplifies why these character designs are such a problem in the first place. Men who think these designs are realistic will have wildly misguided expectations in real life for how women should look and express their sexuality. Men who get angry at the thought of losing these hypersexualized characters are the same men who will get angry when real women are not sexual in the ways they want. Men who hear women’s opinions on video games and either ignore or disparage them are the same men who will ignore or disparage women when they discuss much more consequential subjects. The attitudes are familiar parts of toxic masculinity, and they aren’t specifically the result of video games. But sexist game design still reinforces the age-old cliché that women, no matter how strong, intelligent or compassionate, are on some level still no more than eye candy for men — the central characters of the world.

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Video games are a young but thriving artform, with imagination and storytelling abilities that rival those of other mediums. Over the past few years, the industry has seen notable strides in the visibility of women as players, developers and characters. So it’s a shame that some of the most recent and accomplished games consistently undercut their creative achievement with regressive depictions of women. In recent interviews, the developers of SoulCalibur VI have said they wanted to improve the accessibility of the game, including a new Reversal Edge system that puts players of different skill levels on more equal footing. Accessibility sounds great. But if they really wanted to be welcoming for everyone, they should reverse their casual sexism instead.