Recently the subject of gratuitous nudity (or semi-nudity) in gaming has come up, both on my company's discussion forums and in the comments of my earlier blogs. The majority of gamers and developers have noticed that there is a double standard in the approach toward the human body in gaming: women show a lot more skin.
While going through a stack of old Computer Gaming World magazines recently, I stumbled across a cover from 1993 which illustrated the double standard for male and female characters perfectly...and hilariously. Here's the image:
The game in question was called "Arena". Just a quick aside here: contrary to what the title and the illustration might lead one to expect, it was not actually a game about gladiatorial combat in a high fantasy world. Although the Wikipedia entry on the game says that gladiatorial combat was the original concept for the game, early in its development cycle, this title actually turned out to be the first high fantasy epic in the Elder Scrolls franchise. It was a quest-based adventure rpg.
The content of the game isn't the issue here, however: the issue is that this cover shot crystallizes perfectly the absurd dichotomy of depictions of men and women in gaming art. This is especially true of games with a high fantasy setting. The woman is front and center, carrying a sword, and literally dressed in strips of leather and black body tape. The men are all wearing a burka made of cloth or iron.
The standard breakdown of audience response to images like this is somewhat unfortunate, mainly because comments are exclusively focused on the female character. The feminist W.i.G.'s and their supporters react with scorn to any depiction of a woman which features weapon + skin. In particular, they object to the premise that a woman entering combat would wear so little armor; they argue that it is "unrealistic".
This puts the people who like the image on the defensive, of course. But the only real counterpoint they can make to this barrage of disapproval is to cross their arms stubbornly and grumble, "Boobies are good. I like boobies. Why are you hatin' on the boobies?"
There are a number of reasons that this is unfortunate. In this blog, I'm only going to address two of them. The first is the issue of "realism". Generally speaking, when people use this word, they mean "the relationship between art and practical or historical reality".
Keeping in mind that the title of this game was "Arena", we can assume that the image we're seeing was meant to evoke the amphitheaters of the ancient world. These were places where men, women and animals fought for the entertainment of cheering crowds. If this woman and these men are meant to represent combatants in such a theater, then I'm afraid that my training in the Classics is going to kick in. Basically...my fellow feminists need to stop complaining that the female figure here is "unrealistic".
There are actually hundreds of surviving mosaics from the ancient world which depict gladiators in combat very clearly. The majority of them reveal that the unrealistic figures in this work of art are not women dressed in minimal clothing--it's actually the men in heavy armor. The majority of gladiators who fought in the arena were showing a great deal of skin. The face, arms, legs and chest were almost always bare.
The one known depiction of the gladiatrix in the ancient world is a stone monument from Halicarnassus, which was erected by two women whose stage names were "Achillia" and "Amazone". The two of them fought so bravely on the sands that they won their freedom. And for the record, on that monument they are both depicted carrying sword and shield in combat--and they both appear bare breasted.
The mosaic of female athletes receiving their victory awards at Villa del Casale in Sicily is a little more modest, and shows the women dressed in a "bikini" which looks like a pair of tap-pants and a narrow strip of cloth bound under the arms. Still, no matter how we slice it, the lady in the image above is wearing far more in the way of clothing than any real female gladiator or athlete from the arenas of antiquity ever did--according to the evidence we have, at any rate. So in general, for both women and men, the combination of bare skin and combat, or bare skin and athleticism, is not in fact "unrealistic". It's historical.
This is a relatively minor point, but it leads to another issue which I think is actually more interesting. Frankly, when I look at the images of men and women in high fantasy gaming--including that cover image of Arena above--what surprises and dismays me is not the exploitation of the female body. It's the level of shame and taboo associated with the male body.
I am already very clear on why the women in high fantasy gaming are wearing so few clothes. It's because modern computer games, like the ancient gladiatorial arena, are a medium for entertainment. Flesh is entertaining.
I am far more curious about the reasons behind all these images of men with their bodies and faces so heavily screened. What's the deal with these iron burkas? What are people so ashamed and afraid to see? And why are these attitudes toward the male body assumed to be natural and correct--to such a degree that my readers automatically assume that because I am a creator in the computer gaming industry, I share their shame and embarrassment about naked men?
Two different readers of my last blog told me in no uncertain terms that I was sexist for having written a script in which a female military commander appeared semi-nude. They assumed without question that I would never dare to write or even think of such a scene for a male character. They made it very clear that the mere concept of a male character appearing in a t-shirt and underwear was ridiculous and unthinkable--and they automatically projected the same attitude onto me.
This brings out my inner Bugs Bunny, of course. I can only turn to the rest of the audience and say "He don't know me very well, do he?"
The truth is that I would whip the clothes off a male character without blinking an eye. I have seen a whole lot of men a whole lot of naked in my 40 years on this planet, and I've enjoyed it 99.9% of the time. Certainly I have no fear of the Nood whatsoever. Certainly I do not consider the male body at all shameful or ridiculous. And like the people of the ancient world, I consider men to be perfectly legitimate Eye Candy. I often go to the movie theater for the same reason that women once went to the Coliseum--to see the male body in action. Classic "Guy Movies" are great for this, actually. A movie like The 300 is an All-You-Can-Eat Buffet for the female eye.
I have never been particularly offended by the female avatars in fantasy gaming who run around wearing steel corsets or a thong. I am just pleased to see that at least one or two modern games are starting to drop the burka off the men from time to time. When it comes right down to it, the minimal clothing that Kratos is wearing in the God of War franchise may be the most "realistic" gear worn by a character in gaming today. If the goal was to capture the kind of gear that an ancient gladiator might actually wear in the arena, Kratos bare-chested in his kilt and boots has it right. All the guys (and gals) behind their steel curtains have it wrong.
If you're offended by the sight of the human body in general, fine. Just don't assume that everyone shares your point of view, or that we have all agreed that the best way of achieving equality in this world is for all the women to join all the men behind an Iron Burka.