I Ain’t Your Barbie Girl
Ridiculous Garb for Women In Gaming
The lack of options for female character design can not only frustrate players but can also lead to unrealistic expectations for young people. Sexualization of female characters, impractical armor, and lack of options for avatars can turn off a large section of the gaming population and there is no reason for designers to not do…
I am an avid gamer and completely in love with several different genres from RPG and action to MMO (massively multiplayer online). There is no game I won’t try; no disc I won’t spin. As such, I have seen a lot of ridiculous female armor options when it comes to in-game character depictions. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a large-breasted woman in a chainmail bikini and fuzzy boots. Even my beloved World of Warcraft suffers from the swimwear-as-battle-wear trope [ 1 ].
It gets to the point where I almost don’t want to play some of my favorite games anymore. It’s not empowering to watch your avatar running down the road with 8 yards of butt cleavage hanging out of her pants. And don’t even get me started on “lift and separate” plate armor; it’s a recipe for a broken sternum [ 2 ]. These inappropriate costumes are often paired with equally ridiculous poses in which the character is turned in such a way that I doubt they have a working spine, what with a bizarre, 180-degree turn that ensures their butt and their breasts are in full view while looking at the camera. Boob windows, exposed butts, thongs, high-heeled boots, and other impractical examples of so-called “armor” run amok in even the most otherwise beautifully designed games.
The Only Game in Town
The problem isn’t that these designs are in the game. The problem is that these are the only designs available to the player. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to outfit a female character in logical, practical armor. While running around the fictional world of Azeroth in a bikini can be fun at times, there are other times when you just want to look badass and tough. An exposed midriff on a hunter is less than intimidating and ventures into the realm of annoying.
Booty shorts and thongs are not leg armor. They are pieces of clothing that can be fun and even empowering to wear for some, but when preparing for battle you need to wear something a bit more substantial—and many female gamers would agree [ 3 ]. Wanting your avatar dressed in realistic or even just game-appropriate fantasy armor shouldn’t be some revolutionary, subversive idea. It’s armor, and armor should be protective, not provocative.
This wouldn’t be so terrible if the male equivalents of the same armor were just as impractical. Instead, these designs scream male power fantasy and respect. Instead of skimpy shirts that show off pecs or short shorts that frame the rear, the male characters are dressed in ornate plate armor and shining helms. The other problem is that this kind of armor is often inconsistent with the costuming of the other main characters, NPCs, and background characters. The main female protagonist may be dressed in some ridiculous chainmail bikini while the male protagonist, the background characters, and even NPCs, are dressed more sensibly. This is particularly jarring when you run into a female NPC who is wearing full plate armor with no skin in sight. It becomes obvious that the designers could have easily included practical-looking armor for female characters if they had wanted to but chose not to do so in favor of sexiness.
Rampant Sexualization as Reflected in Costuming
Many times, female gamers simply have to suffer with impractical armor designs for female characters such as boob armor and high-heeled plate boots. Sexualization is at the forefront of design, rather than protective clothing. We see this sexualization in the form of oddly placed openings in clothing, notably above the breasts and around the thighs. While male characters wear leather or cloth pants with their plate or chainmail armor, female characters are often clad only in bikini underwear, leaving the femoral artery open for a good stabbing.
Metroid, a fantastic sci-fi game series, suffers from the degrading quality of protagonist Samus Aran’s power armor [ 4 ]. In the premier NES game, released in 1986, Samus wears a power suit up until after the final battle when she removes her helmet, revealing long, strawberry-blonde hair. This first game featured Samus in a gender-neutral power suit. It blew people’s minds when they learned Samus was a woman. Since that first game, Samus’ armor has devolved over time into having fewer gender-neutral elements and instead adopting design elements that resemble little more than a skin-tight latex body suit. This wouldn’t be a problem if we still had the option of more practical-looking power armor. But, since the first game, her armor has become more form fitting to the point of ridiculousness.
While Metroid is at its core a side-scrolling action game, this phenomenon is most often seen in the fantasy RPG genre. However, as Metroid demonstrates, it’s not just fantasy RPGs that suffer from this. When looking at the Tomb Raider games and their protagonist, Lara Croft, it’s easy to make the argument that her skimpy clothing is “practical” because she is physically active [ 5 ]. However, experience will tell you that hiking through the woods in booty shorts and a skin-tight tank top is less than comfortable. You need range of movement that Lara’s outfit doesn’t provide. It’s also important to wear clothing that is at least somewhat protective. Shorts and a tank top are good for layering, but overall impractical when going on long hikes, not to mention spelunking, fighting, and running away from individuals that are highly motivated to turn you into an ex-archaeologist. A far more logical choice for Lara would be a medium weight pair of convertible pants, a properly fitted tank top, a flannel which she could wear when she got chilly, and possibly a cargo vest. While Lara’s outfit has changed a lot over the years, her pants are still way too tight to climb in comfortably.
Even in games such as Bayonetta, in which the titular character is a player character, she still isn’t dressed properly [ 6 ]. The character of Bayonetta is naked and wrapped in her own hair, which she also uses as her weapon. The 7-inch stiletto heels she somehow totters around on without falling down constantly don’t help her case much, either.
Character creation in action-adventure games isn’t much better, as they tend to promote ultra-feminine features and clothing for women while the male characters are able to enjoy more realistic hairstyles and clothing options. This leads to stereotyped female characters along an all-too-often-seen dichotomy. Complex questions of morality and sexuality get boiled down to simply “good” or “evil” and “chaste” or “slutty.” Women in these games are designed to be sexual objects, regardless of the actual plot of the game. At times the outfits they are in just barely cover them, making them one wardrobe malfunction away from indecent exposure.
Steps in the Right Direction
The curse of battle thongs hasn’t been lifted yet, but there have been improvements. World of Warcraft has introduced a feature called transmogrification, or transmog as it’s known in the community [ 7 ]. Transmog is the process taking certain pieces of armor or weapons and making them look like others. For example, a warlock robe acquired from a high-level quest or dungeon can be made to look like a robe found earlier in the game. This is purely aesthetic and has little to do with actual game play. This was implemented, however, to provide a player with the ability to wear armor that provided them the best statistical bonuses while ensuring that their character can be properly dressed without their cleavage threatening to bust out of their shirt or their ass cheeks dragging on the floor.
Another positive example of costuming in gaming is Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns [ 8 ]. While Lightning’s base outfit isn’t the most practical, it does have practical elements and fits into the world design. While background and NPCs are dressed the same, part of the allure of Lighting is that you can change her outfits and receive differing abilities based on the clothing she is wearing. She also has a wide variety of outfits to choose from; form-fitting leotard, full plate armor, teeny bopper rave wear, and evening gowns. All these outfits have advantages and there are several non-revealing costumes to choose from.
While designs have gotten better, women and girls are still bombarded with images of over-sexualized female characters. This is especially true when the antagonist of the game is a woman or in a feminine body. These women are often depicted wearing tight, revealing clothing, using their sexuality as a weapon to morally corrupt the dashing male protagonist. He can only be saved by the chaste, virginal damsel in distress.
Like a Virgin, Dressed for the Very First Time
These antagonists are often superimposed against a love interest for the male protagonist who is the exact opposite, thus reinforcing the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Good girls are chaste and dress modestly. Bad girls are sexual and dress in revealing clothing. It is a trope we see in almost all media. This is a toxic image to sell to young people, not just to girls and young women, but to boys and young men as well. We are perpetuating the “virgin is good, sex is evil” trope in a way that shames women for embracing their sexuality and provides unrealistic, toxic and arbitrary standards for men to hold their sexual partners to for no reason. And sometimes, we don’t even realize we are doing it.
A good example of the Madonna/whore complex is seen notably in nearly all the Final Fantasy games. In Final Fantasy VIII, for example, the character of Rinoa is dressed in a fashionable ensemble that includes shorts, a tank top, and a long sweater vest. Meanwhile, the villain of the game, Sorceress Ultimecia, is wearing barely-there lingerie with wings [ 9 ]. It’s clear that Rinoa is meant to be seen as a good, pure character that is worthy of love and that Ultimecia, in her revealing outfit, is being associated with both sexual promiscuity as well as evil.
These images in media reinforce negative stereotypes and lead to unrealistic expectations. It is clear that the Madonna/whore complex goes hand in hand with the ridiculous costuming female characters are subjected to. Additionally, it is a disadvantage for all female gamers to constantly see themselves in these narrow tropes. It feels like laziness on the part of game designers and developers to have well-thought-out and armored male characters and scantily clad, one-dimensional female characters in the same world. It’s jarring and disconnecting and ruins the believability of the world.
The System Needs Changing
The problem is systematic. The issue is most likely the fact that game development has been, historically, a man’s world. The video game industry has almost always been skewed heavily in favor of men, from developers in the trenches all the way up to the corporate level. While the number of women in the industry is steadily growing, numbers are still low—in Australia alone, for example, only 15 percent of game developers were female in a 2015-16 study, despite female video gamers numbering at roughly 48 percent [ 10 ]. In other words, the overwhelmingly male development community is creating games for an overwhelmingly male consumer base, even though the audience for video games is roughly split down the middle when it comes to gender. Excluding and alienating nearly half of your audience isn’t just wrong, it’s a bad business decision.
Many will claim that evolving away from the scantily clad female form in video games is an attempt to censor the industry as a whole, as if asking for more respectful and logical representation is somehow stripping the rest of the community of their rights or wresting control away from them in some way. This is, of course, patently ridiculous. While we want to encourage freedom of thought and creativity, there are clear issues in dressing female characters provocatively. A scantily clad Amazon is neither creative nor revolutionary. There is little room for creativity when your main character is wearing a bikini and a cape. True creativity, now, is characters like Brienne of Tarth from HBO’s Game of Thrones [ 11 ] or even Alice from the 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland. Those women wore well fitting, beautiful armor that fit into the fantasy world they inhabit.
To be brief, bikini chain mail is boring. Try harder.
- “Hardly the first instance of such representation, Lara Croft’s popularity went on to make her an archetype unto herself, transcending media, as seen with this French postage stamp.” Catwalker. Shutterstock. FRANCE – CIRCA 2005: a postage stamp printed in France showing an image of Lara Croft a character of Tomb Raider video game, circa 2005. Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/france-circa-2005-postage-stamp-printed-118610197
- “Bikini armor, or ‘Boob Mail’ as it’s colloquially known, seen here on Red Sonja, wildly does not help the cause for realistic representation.” Brendan Hunter. Getty Images. “Vancouver, Canada – October 12, 2015: An action figure of Red Sonya, from the comic book series. The action figure is created by Sideshow Collectibles.” https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/red-gm492642226-76422333
Courtney is a writer, editor and videographer for Steam-Funk Studios. Passionate for fashion design with nerdy flair, her family has always nurtured her love for speculative fiction and creativity. Joining the firm as a writer, Courtney’s distinguished herself as editorial staff and as a production assistant for The Living Multiverse’s photography shoots. She has also participated in and acted as assistant troupe manager for our performers and panelists, at shows like C.O.G.S. Expo and PhilCon.
- Totilo, Stephen. “The Problem With Women’s Armor According to a Man Who Makes Armor.” G/O Media Inc, Kotaku, 16 Dec. 2011, kotaku.com/the-problem-with-womens-armor-according-to-a-man-who-m-5868925.
- Asher-Perrin, Emmet. “It’s Time to Retire ‘Boob Plate’ Armor. Because It Would Kill You.” Tor.com, Tor.com, 4 Sept. 2018, tor.com/2013/05/06/boob-plate-armor-would-kill-you/.
- Nixon, Sarah. “The Chainmail Bikini or the State of Female Armor in Gaming.” NYMG, NYMG, 11 July 2013, nymgamer.com/?p=3007.
- SCWIBA. “High Heels and Hard Light: Sexism, Pandering, and the Fall of Samus Aran.” Digitaleidoscope.com, 31 May 2015, digitaleidoscope.com/2015/05/31/high-heels-and-hard-light-sexism-pandering-and-the-fall-of-samus-aran.
- Medrano, Kastalia. “As Lara Croft Went, So Did Female Video Game Characters.” BDG, Inc., Inverse.com, 19 July 2016, inverse.com/article/18477-sexualization-of-female-video-game-characters-is-decreasing.
- wundergeek. “Bayonetta and the Male Gaze.”Go Make Me A Sandwich, WordPress, 3 June 2011, gomakemeasandwich.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/bayonetta-and-the-male-gaze.
- “Wowhead’s Transmog Guides, Tools, and Database.” Fanbyte, www.wowhead.com, www.wowhead.com/transmog.
- “Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII.” Square Enix Games, Square Enix, square-enix-games.com/en_US/games/lightning-returns-final-fantasy-xiii. Accessed 21 May 2021.
- “Final Fantasy VIII.” Fandom, finalfantasy.fandom.com/wiki/Final_Fantasy_VIII. Accessed 22 May 2021.
- “More Women Are Working in the Games Industry—but Gender Bias Remains a Big Issue.” ABC News, ABC News (Australia), 24 July 2017, abc.net.au/news/2017-07-25/games-industry-more-women-working-but-gender-bias-remains-issue/8741744.
- Atkin, Jessie. “Game of Thrones: 10 Hidden Details About Brienne of Tarth’s Costume You Didn’t Notice.” ScreenRant, Valnet, Inc., 29 Nov. 2019, screenrant.com/game-of-thrones-brienne-costume-hidden-details/.