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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Bad Word, or Why I Love Red Sonja

Last week, I used a Bad Word in my post. I (obviously) didn’t consider it a Bad Word, but then there are very few words that I use that fall under that rubric. I’m not going to tell you the word, although if you read both this and last week’s posts and still can’t figure it out for yourself, then we have some work to do. Plus, it's pretty much the last word in the post.

However, one person who read the blog considered it a Bad Word, or at least one that went beyond what he called a “line of decency.” This was ill-advised, as I’ve never met a line of decency that I didn’t at least stick my big toe over. To be fair, the complainer was not so much worried about the word in and of itself, but was instead concerned that this blog has a certain audience and that said audience could be offended and/or distracted from the blog’s mission by the use of this particular word. Me, I give you all a little more credit than that. And any 12 year olds (or adults for that matter) wading through one of my posts deserve a little titillation for their efforts, no matter how misguided.

When I was confronted about The Bad Word, my first thought was that gaming is full of images of scantily clad women (or elves, or orcs, or pretty much anything human or humanoid), especially in the fantasy milieu. Look at the recent release World of Warcraft. Where a female character is represented, they are with few exception well endowed, dressed for very warm weather with lots of strappy non-functional touches that somehow don’t make it into enough business wear. Their depiction is clearly sexist in the sense that they are drawn this way to garner interest from males entering (or persisting in) puberty. Sure, the male characters, particularly fighters, are physically exceptional, at least much of the time, but with the exception of the occasional barbarian in fur shorts, it's simply a double-standard.

I was raised in the 60’s with a mother and sisters who were determined that I not think of women as baby factories and domestic help. They were, to put it bluntly, successful. There is not a single job in my home that either my wife or I don’t do at some point - no “men’s work” or “women’s work”, although there are certainly jobs that I tend to do more often than my wife, and vice versa. I do not look at women in the workplace and think, “there’s a person whose one pregnancy away from an unfilled vacancy.” For the record, I try to have the same view about race or s*xuality. (See, I’m already thumbing my nose at filter software.)

Nonetheless, I put up with it. Even when male wizards are typically depicted as wizened old men while female wizards are young, nubile, and fully equipped in pretty much every conceivable way, I guess I simply file this dichotomy away as a cost of having a hobby where the primary marketing is aimed at wistful young male teens still working on getting that first date. Strange, as I think the real demographic is probably late-20-something high-tech-employed men, whom you hope would be past this by now. But here’s the thing... we aren’t.

I’ve given it away, haven’t I? Men, at pretty much every age past learning fractions (although there are still a few holdouts), like to look. We like titillation. Quite frankly, the huge success of the internet is largely the result of this quintessential male trait. More than anything, and to be honest this is one of the many reasons why my game collection is out of control, we like something new and different. Pretty much on a daily basis if at all possible. Sure, it's annoying to significant others in every corner of the world, but it's also what we are. Genetic diversity vs security is just another way to look at the battle of the s*xes.

This is not some culture-specific bias, although I’m the first to say that American Puritanism/Victorianism and its simultaneous overt abhorrence and covert encouragement of things sexual certainly exacerbates the situation. Look at the Victorians, who tried very hard to completely mask their humanity in being “proper” and ended up inflicting all of that id energy on the lower classes. Looking for an opportunity to sew an oat or two is hard-wired into men. It’s why there are six billion people on the planet instead of six thousand. Pretending we can be changed in this essential trait (other than through drastic surgery) is flat out denial. Certainly, we can tone it down a bit, but it’s there. Always. And because it’s there, there will always be marketing and products that will appeal to men that the target demographic will declare publicly to be Indecent right up to the point where they pick up a copy of Penthouse at the local convenience store.

All of that said, this is not why I buy games. I don’t sneak out of bed late at night, open up World of Warcraft, and drool over the character cards. If this was true, I’d own copies of every fantasy based RPG on the market, and probably quite a few others as well, and I wouldn’t be coming up on my 20th anniversary. I certainly wouldn’t own any wargames, which will occasionally show a Gaul with a Roman sword sticking out of his neck, but certainly never cheesecake - why violence is so accepted in American culture but s*x isn’t is one of the things I simply will never understand. I’m all about how the mechanisms work together, how well the game evokes a theme, how the story of the game evolves, and most of all how much fun I have playing it with good friends. While I’ll agitate for quality of components every time, Elven booty isn’t really something I spend a lot of time on, although I do have to admit that I was terribly disappointed when the Harvard Lampoon’s parody Bored of the Rings didn’t contain anything involving the teaser passage in the front of the book, although I spent years trying to find it at 13. I know about teens still working on that first date, you see.

What would be terribly interesting, at least in theory, is to see a fantasy game involving female characters that didn’t play up on their, urm, physical assets. Make female wizards old and wizened, it works for the guys. I mean, women are supposed to be smarter than men, but a forty year head start on basic spells? Female fighters aren’t going to get much protection from a steel bikini, although they probably get all their drinks paid for at the local tavern. They should look like female versions of their male counterparts, at least if the goal is a realistic representation (even if they are comic-book versions of real life). I would love to see the marketing data on such a game, assuming it was as good a game as anything else out there in the same niche.

At the same time, until such time as gaming becomes more than a refuge for the geeky and socially inept male in the US, I see it as a relatively harmless, if not strictly necessary, evil. Yes, I’m aware of the various arguments against the objectification of women, yes, in most cases I agree. However, almost all of these arguments stress reinforcement of thought patterns, not creation. Until we accept our humanity and the biological imperative, objectification will continue. Pretending we hate our bodies and how we came into the world has always struck me as particularly hypocritical.

When you think a bit more, you realize that we are all objectified. When I was an undergrad, I was pretty non-descript, and most people would ignore me after they met me. In more than a few cases, though, once people realized that I had more than a little musical skill, there were quite a few people who were much more interested in getting to know me solely because I was a good musician. Sadly, the only “excitement” that this strategy got me was an evening with a groupie in Albany, OR that makes for a pretty entertaining story but was a) ill-advised and b) I really was trying to avoid the situation. Really. Oh God, I hope my mother doesn't read this...

Men do horrible, horrible things to women every day everywhere in the world, and I think that the world would be a much better place if they didn’t. But to say that our culture is worse than other cultures, even with our hyper-sexual advertising industry, is to show one’s ignorance. Repression rarely does anything other than divert energy in a different direction, usually one that is much harder to control. Thinking that banning steel bikinis will do anything useful is wishful at best. As such, so long as the same demographic that purchases super-hero comics buys fantasy-themed games, we’ll continue to see hot orc high priestesses, and frankly I’m cool with that.

This should make for some interesting comments...


  • At 10:29 PM, Blogger Matthew Gagan said…

    I don't have a terribly interesting comment because, to me, you didn't say anything terribly controversial. But then, I am a strange person. I find the common ground that Puritanical types find with radical feminists a source of great amusement and tend to jot it down to ignorance (or denial) of basic evolutionary biology. A part of me is visually simulated by heaving bosums, narrow waists and wide hips. The root of that is visual cues for fertility, not sin, and not arrested male development. To expect that advertisers and designers aren't going to play off that when marketing to a demographic in hobbies that are still male-dominated is a little naive, if not downright utopian.

    But then, I consider myself a utopian along other lines - with all the mysanthropic dangers that worldview contains. Very well I contradict myself. I contain multitudes. ;)

    - owner of several Red Sonja comic books.

  • At 8:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    > A part of me is visually _simulated_ by heaving bosums, narrow waists and wide hips

    LOL! I wonder which part....


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