Lara Croft is perhaps the most well-known female videogame character of all time. Created by lead graphic artist Toby Gard for the original 1996 game Tomb Raider, Croft marked a significant departure from the depiction of female characters at the time. Kaiser Hwang of PlayStation Magazine, for example, wrote that Croft “brought girl power” to video games, and this so-called “Lara Phenomenon” served as an inspiration for a whole line of counter-stereotypical female characters in the years to come. Not without controversy, the character was originally portrayed wearing her distinctive sports bra and shorts, an outfit that many pointed out seemed inappropriate for the harsh jungle environments she was meant to be traversing. It seemed curious that a character purportedly designed to counter video game conventions would be so overtly hypersexualised and wear such hideously impractical clothing.
Sadly, Lara Croft is not alone in her wardrobe of meticulously impractical attire. The world of video gaming is so chock-full of hypersexualised clothing that most people barely notice it anymore. It has simply become an industry staple. I intend in this article to discuss one particularly noxious example of sexist design – the use of sex and sexuality in video gaming and, of course, my favourite type of armour, one that makes absolutely no sense, and very rarely has a convincing, diegetic reason for existing. Yes, you guessed it, it’s the “lingerie as armour” trope, the idea that somehow a bikini top and some shorts would offer any kind of protection against a gigantic medieval mace. It’s ridiculous, it’s confusing if you stop to think about it, and it’s present to varying degrees in almost every game with a female character.
So why did Lara Croft don a sports bra in the original Tomb Raider game? Why, for example, did the creative design team decide not to roll back the change when Gard accidentally increased her breasts’ dimensions by 150 per cent? Why are so, so many female characters designed with the sole objective seemingly being to turn them into walking, talking sexual robots? The answer, in part, can be found within the commercial for Nintendo 64’s Perfect Dark. “Welcome to 2023,” a deep male voice announces, a rumbling baritone that was made for movie trailers, “it’s your job to save the world.” The camera sweeps to the floor as the actress pulls up her leggings, puts on her sports bra and applies her dark red lipstick. “So you’ve to an important decision to make… What are you going to wear?” It’s comical in a sort of peculiarly depressing way, but the idea that a female agent’s most important decision is what clothing to wear to work is laughable. The chief appeal of the game lay in the female protagonist, Joanna Dark. In order to equip Joanna with the credible threat necessary to complete her mission, and in order to noticeably differentiate her from the conventional male secret agent, publishers Rare decided essentially to weaponise her sexuality.
Consider the female lead from the 2010 game Bayonetta. Her hypersexualised appearance is used to suggest character power and self-confidence, but, in some ways, a more subtle and insidious design decision, all of her combat conspicuously draws upon this blatant sexuality, all of her attacks ooze sexiness. Often female attacks in video games seem to be partly based on, or take their root from, some aspect of their sexuality. This utilisation of female sexuality as a sort of weapon is damaging because it implies that female power, or identity, must be drawn from their sexuality, their sexiness, and their sexual availability to men. And yes, I said “men,” because the target demographic for the vast majority of video games is still presumed to be straight men, and evidence of this presumption can be found in the design decision of games worldwide, every day. Some of the defences of this trope are, quite frankly, utterly ludicrous. The character Quiet from Metal Gear Solid V, for example, must wear revealing clothing because, and I quote, “she breathes through her skin”. Yes, that’s right, if she wears much clothing more than a bra, she suffocates and dies. In the build-up to the game, and as a response to the immediate criticism the character’s appearance received before the game was fully released, lead designer Hideo Kojima wrote that “once you recognise the secret reason for her exposure, you will feel ashamed of your words and deeds.” No Kojima, we’re not ashamed, this is just farcical.
Rather than tackle the more ridiculous excuses, I thought I’d tackle one of the most common and one of the most effective defences of female hypersexuality – best phrased as something along the lines of, “perhaps she wants to dress like this?” or “maybe wearing this gives her strength and self-confidence” or even, my personal favourite, “don’t be silly, she’s just owning her sexuality.” It actually sounds vaguely convincing, that hypersexualisation can be a form of empowerment, but the decision to hypersexualise female characters cannot be seen as that character owning their sexuality for one simple reason: they do not exist, they are created, usually, by men, and they have no agenda or philosophy of their own without being given it by the game’s creators. Ironically, given the medium’s core mechanic, any sexuality that female character exudes is being, quite literally, controlled by the player to achieve his or her desired ends.
Of course, it’s not just sexuality that’s weaponised in video games, or seen as a means to entertain and engage a presumed straight male player base, it’s also literal sex. Have a think back to the last sex scene you saw in a game. Ask yourself a question – did that sex scene function as a sort of reward? Was it at the end of a difficult section, or towards the end of the game as you finally vanquish your enemy? In The Witcher III, for example, the witch Keira Metz is introduced to you via Geralt walking up on her bathing in the middle of the woods. As she slowly rises to greet you, bantering flirtatiously, it becomes clear that the game is implying that by completing this questline, you’ll be rewarded by sex with her.
Sex as a reward system is almost as old as gaming itself. Even in the original Metroid game, when Samus took off her helmet, and it was finally revealed to the player that the character was female, she would appear stripped of more and more clothing and gear depending on how quickly you completed the game, up until she wore only a bikini. This concept is a slight iteration upon the “damsel in distress” trope that you might recognise from franchises such as Mario and Zelda. While Peach may not be the reward for completing the game per se, freeing her is the objective of the majority of Mario games, and you are oftentimes rewarded with a kiss on the cheek, in some ways a PG sexual reward, and similarly problematic in many respects.
I’m not trying to say that overtly sexual female characters shouldn’t exist. There aren’t many examples of well-handled female characters for whom their “owning” of their sexuality is actually credible, but it’s conceptually possible without being problematic. Female characters these days seem to fall into the category of either having their sexuality utterly define their character or having their emphasised sexuality being completely at odds with the other aspects of their core identity. Consider the champion Caitlyn from League of Legends, an online MOBA with a monthly playerbase of over 100 million – she’s a resilient town sheriff and deadly accurate sniper. It makes absolutely no sense for her to wear precious little clothing and have voice lines such as “sorry boys, I left the fuzzy cuffs at home.” This kind of vaguely themed flirting and impractical clothing belongs more in pornography than it does in a videogame, but, funnily enough, similarly to many examples in pornography, it exists to satisfy a male fantasy.
Having said all this, there is still some hope. Many video game designers are becoming aware of the demand for better representation of female characters and are acting accordingly. Overwatch, for example, have a number of female characters that display other body-types than the conventionally attractive “hourglass” figure of most games. They have released a non-white, significantly older female sniper character, and even a gay female character. We live in an exciting world. Even Riot, the game company responsible for Caitlyn’s self-conflicting design, have identified the problem and moved, quite convincingly, to remedy it in future. It’s not earth-shattering, it won’t instantly redefine the entire world of video gaming, and it won’t end sexist design choices overnight, but revolutions in small steps are nonetheless revolutions. Game producers do tend to care about audience reception, and in a modern world of internet feedback and viral news stories, I genuinely believe that expressing your dissatisfaction with a sexist design choice, in any capacity, can act as a genuine catalyst for change.