Joystick: An uncomfortable column about women in games

Published 10:04 am Thursday, August 15, 2013

As much as I really enjoy “Dragon’s Crown,” the latest 2D beat-’em-up action/RPG from Vanillaware, I realized an uncomfortable truth last weekend: This game is way too male-oriented.

The game’s art style inspired a minor controversy over the past few months as many gamers felt the gamer characters were overly exaggerated and sexualized. The sorceress has unnaturally large breasts while the Amazon has other exaggerated body parts. Vanillaware president George Kamitani, also the game’s director, defended the game’s artistic direction earlier this year and pointed out the equally exaggerated male characters, from the gigantic Fighter to the muscle-bound Dwarf.

At the time, I thought little of the controversy. Game design tends to skew character looks as a rule — see “Gears of War” —but previous Vanillaware games are breathtakingly gorgeous.

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This changed when I started playing the game. There are several overtly sexualized, non-playable characters and the game clearly deserves its T for Teen ESRB rating. Once again, I thought little of it, even if I realized there was a little more to the controversy surrounding “Dragon’s Crown” characters than I first thought.

That changed when I played “Dragon’s Crown” online with a few female friends across the U.S. They immediately found the female character design annoying and stereotypical. Thankfully, they enjoyed the game, but it was clear the game’s female forms were offensive and pandering to guy gamers.

They pointed out things I hadn’t even thought could be demeaning. What’s more, they made me think of all the similar character designs I had seen in previous Vanillaware games and other titles.

It has long been a given that males have dominated the games industry. For better or worse, more games cater to male fantasies at the expense of women, one of the many reasons why more women aren’t interested in games or game design. Games like “Dragon’s Crown” that wink and nod at male fantasy aren’t outright insidious or demeaning, but they don‘t exactly make female gamers comfortable. I’ve all too often seen female gamers make exasperated sighs when playing a game they can’t connect with, because they can’t identify with the female characters. In truth, those characters are in typically obscured or sexualized roles within games, though there are plenty of examples of female protagonists or strong female leads.

There is much to talk about when it comes to including women in gaming, and it’s a necessary conversation to grow video games as an artistic medium. Hopefully great, albeit flawed, games like “Dragon’s Crown” can further spur the conversation about women in gaming.