The problem with crediting “sexing up” the game with increase in sales is that it assumes sex was the only avenue of generating interest – a theory that doesn’t hold up when you consider that some of the biggest selling game types (flight simulators, first person shooters, side scrolling platformers) often don’t include any sexual angle at all.
Back in 1970, Marvel comics experimented with putting Conan the Barbarian in comic format. After the first few issues sales began to decline and the writer, Roy Thomas (who loved Conan), went to Stan Lee (who was indifferent to Conan) for advice. Stan looked at the covers and the sales, and told them to shift away from putting animals on the covers and instead use more humanoid monsters.
They followed Stan’s advice: Sales went up again and the comic continued for twenty-three years. However you don’t see many people campaigning that “Humanoid monsters sell!“ then trying to fit them into all marketing regardless of product or target market. (And sex obviously wasn’t selling Conan, they had bikini damsels after all)
Conan the Barbarian, in his loincloth and flexing his muscles, looked like a poor man’s Tarzan (which had been the popular comic fifty years ago) when battling animals – but when battling humanoid monsters he looked like a more mature fantasy narrative that was new and unique in comics at the time.
The only narrative that sexing/male gazing up a game really provides is “This game is made to cater to the fantasy of straight men.” So if swapping out your old narrative for this one increases interest and sales dramatically – then your old narrative must have been pretty boring.
There have been numerous warrior women in video games over the years. Most of them have been under marketed, relegated to sidelines, ignored or otherwise mishandled due to general fear that they weren’t meeting the “make straight men feel important” factor that modern markets cling to as their sacred idol.
- Cate Archer is essentially a light-hearted, distaff James Bond in the No One Lives Forever franchise dresses in the attire of a fashionable lady in the 60s. Often sexy but out of character for the production. Monolith would later try to replace her with “Contract J.A.C.K.” and have since lost the paperwork so nobody knows who owns the intellectual property.
- Faith Connors from Mirror’s Edge has the fitness and style we’d expect of a free running rebel and certainly looks good on the cover.
- Mona Sax was, until the end sequence of Max Payne 2, a badass assassin who liked her tight tops but also pants and a jacket to side her gun (Mona starred in more or less equal space with Max on the cover of Max Payne 2, but is barely even mentioned in Max Payne 3).
- Aveline de Grandpré dresses in badass leather when assassinating and very becoming gowns when socializing as a noblewoman. It was originally released on a handheld device and if you want to play it on the PC or console that you play the rest of the Assassin’s Creed franchise on you need to buy it online at very specific places that weren’t marketed. (PS3) (X-Box 360) (PC)
- Left 4 Dead has Zoey and Rochelle are both attractive young women who possess the will and the skills to survive the zombie apocalypse.
- Nilin Cartier-Wells from Remember me is an attractive revolutionary – publishers not only freaked out about the idea of a female lead but also at the idea that the female lead might kiss a man. (Too much like men kissing men!)
- Borderlands 2 showcases women off all sorts and each possesses their own style and is equipped for their situation – be it adventuring, working as a mechanic or running a bar. (This game has sold over 10 million copies by the way, and been featured on BABD as a positive example)
- Casandra Pentaghast in Dragon Age certainly does not wear bikini armor or anything exploitative – but there’s no shortage of folks who find her incredibly attractive.
It’s actually not that difficult for creators to make female characters who are sexually attractive without going into bikini armor or other exploitative tropes. I mean, if you give a woman agency, ability and personality – odds are good people will find it sexy.
Essentially the problem is that the gaming industry, and many other mediums, are reluctant to take the risk of incorporating different perspectives and different priorities over “games to reassure straight white men that they’re straight and awesome”.
Bringing this back this Thursday because the most important conversations to have in character design and critique thereof are not “is it sexy” or “what’s wrong with sex” but:
- What is the design really selling?
- Why should the audience be interested?
- How does it fit in with the other designs?
- How does it fit into media as a whole?
Unfortunately David Gaider has since removed his blog, but his rather excellent talk on sex and video games is still available in GDC Vault and still covers important points about perspective and privilege.
Even if you’re a soulless corporation making products purely for profit and only interested in sales – it’s worth it to consider all these points. After all, you do want your audience to like your product and to cut through the noise of what everyone else is doing.