By Stephanie Downes
Note: Before we begin, there is lots of skimpy armour in this article, so this probably counts as NSFW.
Clothes and armour in video games are as much a part of the customisation and personalisation of a character as hair colour or fantasy race; as well as serving the practical functions of simultaneously protecting a character and not getting the game an NC-17/PEGI-18 rating, they are attuned to your play style, allowing the player to get the function they want out of the item whilst simultaneously creating a persona for the character.
Female armour, however, has often been a bone of contention; often, it amounts to no more than a chainmail bikini, specially designed to objectify the female body and make her appeal to the primary target audience of video games, which is heterosexual males. There is a difference between ‘primary target audience’ and ‘actual audience’, nevertheless, and as more female and enby gamers purchase games that objectify the female body, more complaints are being heard. A case in point.
The question is as follows; does a female’s outfit or armour set dictate the personality of that character?
Of course, the fact that female armour in games is hideously impractical and unrealistic is not a topic for debate, because there isn’t one. If there is anybody who thinks that a strip of armour across the 18-rated zones of a lady is going to stop anything other than a bizarrely-specific sword strike (and even then, the strip would need to be strong so that the sword blow would not, say, shatter the pelvis or sternum, especially if it was shaped to the breasts – all of the force of the blow would be directed to the middle of the ribcage), please, never go into armour design.
Some would argue that this does not matter in a fictional universe, where damage points simply come from a vague ‘HP pool’ and being hit in the head with a sword often does the same damage as having your legs set on fire. Some would argue that a character who has the ability to summon energy shields out of the air need not wear armour in the first place, and thus would be able to wear armour that suited her personality rather than needing to fit a specific armour purpose.
But this entire argument takes place in the real world. The character may not be objectified in-game – i.e. she is treated no different by the NPCs – but she may well be being objectified outside of it, by the player base.
But does it even matter if she’s being objectified? Yes, of course it does. The real question is, does it matter what she’s wearing? Sylvanas Windrunner, The Banshee Queen Sylvanas Windrunner is a character from World of Warcraft, the most popular MMORPG with 7 million subscribers as of July 2013. If you have never heard of World of Warcraft, yes you have, and you are lying. A High Elf ranger turned angst-ridden-Undead leader of the Forsaken faction, she is a very powerful woman. She is and always has been a strong, efficient leader of her people, with the intelligence and strength of character to make sacrifices and decisions that others would consider ‘evil’ or bad. She does not let her past agonies and trauma dictate her behaviour, and yet she is no Strong Female Character (i.e. a man’s character played by a female); she is graceful, feminine and intelligent, and prefers to leave the close-up fighting to others.
She’s also wearing what can only be described as an armoured bra and a matching decorative thong, with thigh high boots and a cape. Does that negate all of her worth as a character?
Some would argue that as long as someone is objectifying her, placing her sexual appeal and the male gaze over her inherent worth as a character, then yes, she might as well be a sexy lamp. Others would argue that slut-shaming (the act of claiming that women who dress in sexualised manners and act sexually-aggressively are deviant – often a patriarchal view connected to feminine purity – or unfeminist – a feminist view relating to playing up to male expectations or desires) eliminates the right for a woman to choose her clothing and behaviour, which should – you would hope – be the core tenet of feminism.
Your character is forced into certain types of armour depending on your class – mail and plate for more classically ‘warrior’ style classes, leather for the ranged and sneaky characters, and cloth for magic users. The sexual dimorphism of the Warcraft races is an article for another time, but the clothing it would seem is influenced by this; often armour on female characters is revealing and skimpy, whereas on males it covers the body. Armour in World of Warcraft is not by its nature realistic – it is stylised, designed to use with the ‘transmog’ system – the system that allows you to make armour look like any armour set in the game, and thus to show off.
Pictured here: Lawbringer Spaulders, aka. ‘banana shoulders’. Not pictured: realism, sensibility, or subtlety. However, this doesn’t have any impact on who your character is – characters in the game are canonically objectified often based on their race, with the elves receiving special attention in that regard, especially Blood Elves – Johnny ‘Jenny’ Awesome, anybody? However, the game community has objectified them; for example, if you are older than 18 and have a large quantity of mind bleach, feel free to go to deviantArt and search for… well, any of the races. Apart from possibly the Worgen, the Pandaren and the Tauren, who are all more animalistic than humanoid, you will find pornography within a few clicks.
Lydia of Skyrim, housecarl to the Dragonborn. Let’s go to the other end of the scale, where we have Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, a game that sold 7 million copies within the first week and was announced ‘Game of the Year’ by multiple video-game magazines, blogs and websites. Lydia, an NPC, is your faithful housecarl. Her armour is probably more realistic than the facial expression of your average Warcraft NPC. She wears whatever you choose to equip her with, normally a steel breastplate that is shaped to the female body shape without being sexualised, and a shield, sword – in fact, a lot of the time the male armour is more revealing than the female armour, although this is because breasts would get the game a higher rating – an issue for an entirely different article. However, she is a throw-away character, basically a pack-mule for everything you want to carry with less characterisation than the planet you play on. Nirn itself has more character development than Lydia.
You are more than able to play as a female yourself, and your armour can range from barely-existent to entire-body coverage. Female characters who wear little armour often have a reason – Nocturnal is a daedric prince who wears revealing clothes as she is the Mistress of Night. Aela the Huntress wears minimal body armour as she is secretly a werewolf, and if Discworld has taught us nothing else it’s that armour is hard to undo with paws.
The armour of the game is realistic, even in a world of fantasy; armour is traceable from the components you make it from and the culture of the fantasy races that make it, rather than being for show.
Note: This picture is from a mod called ‘Prettier Lydia‘. I’m just going to let us all reflect on this.
In game, there is little objectification of women – in fact, there are many tales of women taking the upper hand on lecherous men, such as Astrid of the Dark Brotherhood murdering her uncle who abused her. Again, though, you leave the game and you find the objectification occurring on websites such as deviantArt or Tumblr, as well as the mods people have invented to create ‘sexier’ characters – most of them designed around removing female clothes and adding makeup.
Clearly, the amount of armour a female character wears or does not wear does not affect either the quality of her character and development, or the amount of objectification that she receives on the internet. So is this a deeper issue within the gaming community and gamer mentality? Should we demand that characters cover up a little flesh in order to demand agency and respect, or should we accept that women can wear anything they want and that objectification is not a problem on their end, but on the objectifier’s?
Stephanie Downes is a blogger who is interested in investigating social issues such as feminism and how they affect modern media, in particular video games. She also enjoys writing, specifically steampunk and horror. She is available on twitter at @SocialSoliloquy, and WordPress at asocialsoliloquy.wordpress.com.