Boys Get Naked Better than Girls

[23 June 2011]

By G. Christopher Williams

PopMatters Multimedia Editor

Clothing damage in video games is nothing new per se.  Indeed, in 1985’s arcade classic Ghosts ‘n Goblins, it was both a feature and a sight gag.  After being struck once by an enemy, hapless knight, Sir Arthur would find his armor destroyed and was left running around a zombie infested graveyard in his boxer shorts.  It was amusing, and it served a useful function—it was a visual cue to the player that he was now literally more vulnerable.

I recently read an article by Wundergeek over at The Border House that considers and critiques the influence of clothing damage (especially damage taken by female characters) in Asian games.  The article leads off by discussing an example of clothing damage used as a game mechanic in a Korean MMORPG called Kabod Online.  In the game, both player characters and enemies have three levels of damage that is marked by their apparel (or lack thereof).  First, the player is fully suited in armor, then following moderate damage, the player becomes partially unclothed.  Finally, the character is left partially nude (in the case of female characters, topless) when having suffered severe damage. 

While this loss of clothing does serve some similar function to that of Ghosts and Goblins, in that it is an obvious visual cue to let the player know how much trouble she is in, equally obvious is the notion that it is different in that this is not being played for laughs.  Here vulnerability becomes titillating, rather than funny.  As Wundergeek notes, “It’s pretty common to play a rogue (one of the least clothed classes) and let her get down to mostly naked just so you can ogle her while you play” (“Clothing damage being exported to North America?”, The Border House, 25 February 2011).

Wundergeek’s complaints about Kabod Online, though, got me thinking a bit about clothing damage in recent games and how it is used for strictly narrative purposes and in ways that I have admired—however, I realized that it was largely in the case of games dealing with male characters, which additionally got me thinking about how “vulnerability” is sexualized very differently in male and female characters.

Specifically, the game that came to mind was Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009), a game that excels at storytelling through the environment itself and the bodies of its characters.  Not only does developer Rocksteady manage to add depth to the plot by providing visual details throughout the Asylum that suggest ideas about what has been going on throughout Batman’s dangerous evening spent in its halls, but Batman’s body and clothing in particular manages to convey a sense of time and helps to demonstrate the Dark Knight’s character in the game.

Stubble grows on Batman’s chin as the game progresses, but more significantly, tears appear on his chest and his cape becomes a tattered rag as he makes more and more progress.

In this sense, Batman: Arkham Asylum manages to convey time better than many games do by seeing the wear of combat on Batman himself.  Batman: Arkham Asylum takes place in a single night, and as a player, I was fully aware of that (again, moreso than I have been in the past when playing a game) because I could observe these obvious physical changes in Batman’s own body.

The other element that this alteration exposes, though, is Batman’s body itself and how that body speaks to his character, his ability to endure, to take punishment, and to persevere.  I have noted the prevalence of scarring on male characters in video games before and its significance in demonstrating masculine qualities that are traditionally considered desirable.  As I said then, we believe that “men in video games are masculine because they have often enough been beaten into the shape that they need to be” (“The Mythology of the Male Body in Video Games”, PopMatters, 17 August 2010). 

This idea is also nothing new, and you can certainly see evidence of men suffering physically as a proof of their masculinity in films like Die Hard (1998), in which Bruce Willis’s character John McClane is featured walking over broken glass in bare feet for the sake of “saving the day”.  We, as the audience, grimace as he does so, while at the same time admire him for having the “balls” to do it.  It’s a pretty damned manly thing to do.

While not as obviously titillating as the exposure of secondary sexual characteristics in Kabod Online, nevertheless, both Batman and John McClane are sexualized by their exposure of themselves to an audience.  It’s a traditionally masculine performance of ballsy-ness and machismo that each are engaged in, however, that exposure is the opposite of “vulnerability”, such “vulnerability” makes them look stronger, more powerful, and more manly.

Indeed, while partial exposure of the female body is viewed as mysogynistic, partial exposure of the male body is not something that is often complained about.  No one complains that Kratos, the god of war, runs around in what amounts to a loincloth for the whole of the God of War trilogy.  Indeed, this near nudity makes him less than vulnerable.  His physique communicates power and masculinity.  The appearance of a desirable masculine trait, perfect musculature, makes him clearly stronger, not weaker.

Feminine exposure fails to communicate in the same way.  In part, because femininity and female sexuality, perhaps, has been so traditionally associated with vulnerability and vulnerability is a trait that has very often been sexualized in women.  But also, in part, this seems related to the context in which “clothing damage” and the exposure that it suggests is contextualized.

Interestingly, the Art Director for the relaunch of the Tomb Raider franchise, Brian Horton, recently discussed clothing damage and the new version of Lara Croft as testament to a person with grit.  He also suggested that this endurance is connected to sexuality, as well:

“If for any reason we wanted to put her in a situation that would be alluring, it isn’t to be alluring. It would be because the situation called for it. . . Ultimately, what I think is going to be compelling about this—and what our version of sexy is—is the toughness through adverse conditions, seeing her survive through these moments . . . Her skin is still bare on the arms and there are going to be rips and tears on her clothes, but it won’t be about being revealing. It’s a way of saying that through these tough situations, there is a beauty and vulnerability coming through . . . I think that is sexy in its own way.” (Meagan Marie, “A Survivor Is Born: The New Lara Croft”, Game Informer, 9 December 2010)

Horton seems to recognize here that there is something troubling about seeing a woman exposed, beaten, and bruised, and he attempts to explain a different way of viewing the sexual implications of a woman suffering.  Nevertheless, the tradition that exists around the image of the woman “who has been through something” is that she has been victimized, whereas the tradition around men “who have been through something” suggests its opposite.  It generally empowers men and makes them more potent, not less, and more desirable, not less. 

The more troubling aspect of this explanation of Lara’s “sexy vulnerability,” though, concerns the additional context surrounding her proving her “toughness.”  As Meagan Marie (who was also responsible for the aforementioned interview with Horton) describes, it isn’t the case that Lara will merely “grimace and bear it,” as male characters usually do:

“While she echoes the intelligence, strength, and beauty of… [the previous versions of] Lara, she is a woman all her own.  This Lara won’t be invincible.  She bleeds and bruises, trembles and cries, but ultimately pushes forward.” (Meagan Marie, “Tomb Raider”, Game Informer, January 2011, pg. 44)

It’s the “trembling and crying” business that becomes problematic here and that plays back into the notion of victimized vulnerability, rather than empowering exposure.  John McClane picks glass out of his feet in Die Hard, and he doesn’t cry.  Likewise, Batman takes a beating throughout Arkham Asylum, and he doesn’t tremble.  In fact, it’s hard to imagine the iconic Batman ever crying.  Well, barring his tears as a child at his parent’s death—but that is as a boy, not as a man, which seems exactly the point when it comes to attempting to place Lara into this model of “sexy vulnerability” that is more often associated with masculinity.  It has the potential to infantilize, rather than to empower, as women’s victimhood (crying and trembling) so often has resulted in.

Indeed, this is a concern that some of the the folks who commented on Wundergeek’s essay on clothing damage raised themselves, as they also began to consider what the developers of The Tomb Raider relaunch may or may not be suggesting with their decision to present Lara in this way.  One commenter, named Deviija, raised such a concern:

“They have mentioned in interviews that Lara is going to sustain clothing damage (‘tearing’). So between that and their line about ‘Lara’s sexiness comes in the form of her surviving her dangerous trials and being vulnerable,’ it all makes me worry that it may veer toward some kind of slasher movie’s sexualized violence.” (Wundergeek, “Clothing damage being exported to North America?”, The Border House, 25 February 2011)

Horton and his cohorts do seem to have to walk a dangerous line by veering into ground that has been less than subtly trod by exploitation cinema and games.  Players will be left to decide when the final product emerges, but in the meantime, I doubt that we will be seeing a God of War reboot any time soon that features Kratos crying into his loincloth.


You can follow the Moving Pixels blog on Twitter.

Published at: