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Games

Big Breasts and Badasses: The Dividing Line of Gender Representation in Gaming

Lara Croft from Tomb Raider (Square Enix, 2013)

In which the author suggests that the new Lara Croft might be the best example of androgyny in gaming.

Last weekend, I played the board game Bora Bora, designed by Stefan Feld, whose game Castles of Burgundy is one of my favorite board games of recent years. Bora Bora is a Eurogame, which for those that run in board game circles know usually indicates a carefully balanced game with a low running time and probably no dice (though this game actually does use dice). Eurogames are also frequently economic development games that ask players to collect resources and develop an engine to drive an economy. They are also known for their wooden pieces, which often represent resources and people.

People themselves often serve as a kind of resource in Eurogames, since frequently the limited size of a population in such a game determines what jobs can be assigned and what then can be produced on a given turn. As far as people go in Eurogames, like many things in the genre, they are mostly abstracted concepts. They represent the ability to implement an action or to produce a particular good. They represent “work” itself and have little to no personal identity in general. Indeed one of the more general identity markers assigned to human beings, their gender identity, is rarely a concern in Eurogames.

In the game Agricola, for instance, you begin the game with two flat disks that represent “workers” on a farm. That these workers can eventually spawn a third, fourth, and fifth worker may vaguely indicate that the original two workers likely represent a husband and wife, growing a family alongside their farm, producing children as new workers. However, gender identity matters not at all beyond this assumption. Either disk can be assigned to any job throughout the game. There are no distinct jobs that a husband can do that a wife cannot or vice versa. After all, the two disks are merely disks, an abstract couple, but not individuals with distinct gender identities or gender roles.

Bora Bora is the only Eurogame that I can recall playing that does not merely ask you to grow a population for the purpose of getting that population to act as agents of production, but specifically designates that the people that you collect are men or women. Men and women in the game each have two things that they can accomplish, which is indicated on the tokens that represent them. The things that they can do that are marked on the right hand side of the token are things like produce prestige for the tribe, recruit more men and women to the tribe, and expand into new territories over land or by water. These kinds of jobs are not especially unique to the sexes, as both some men and some women can recruit other men and women to the tribe for instance. However, on the left hand side of each token is one thing that each can “produce,” one of which is produced by men only (tattoos) and one of which is collected by women only (seashells).

Bora Bora (Ravensburger, 2013)

The interesting nature to me of the game's design is how these two resources (tattoos and seashells) both correlate to the appearance of both men and women. Tattoos are, of course, a marking worn permanently on the flesh and traditionally in the real Bora Bora were common among both men and women. However, the most tattooed members of that culture were typically warriors and chiefs (men). Tattoos on Bora Bora signified a number of things and were, of course, also status markers. They indicated the individual's connection to their own tribal history and ancestors and also served as protections against evil and danger. Warriors, of course, would need the most protections in the tribe, given their role. Tattoos, then, are markers of power and intimidation.

In the game Bora Bora, seashells are the only currency available to purchase jewelry, which in turn produces points for the player. Jewelry, of course, is also a status marker (especially traditionally among women), which serves as a marker of wealth and beauty.

Thus, in both cases, Bora Bora marks gender by male and female adornment along traditional gender lines. Men represent power and the ability to intimidate. Women represent acquisition and the ability to impress with their beauty. In both instances, this adornment equates to points for the player to win the game. As noted, seashells are used to purchase jewelry, a source of points. Tattoos give your tribe more prestige, which also gives points (though less than jewelry does). However, prestige also determines turn order in the game, which represents an important ability to control the outcome of each turn. Thus, beauty is valuable as an end game goal (points), while intimidation is valuable as both an end game goal (less points) and as a means to acquire more control of the action of the game (hopefully, eventually leading to more points).

In most modern video games, gender is rarely abstracted the way that it is in most Eurogames, as players usually take on the role of a clearly male or clearly female avatar, like John Marston of Red Dead Redemption or Lara Croft of Tomb Raider. Marston and Croft do not actually differ much in what they can actually do in a game, both can jump, fight with a variety of weapons, and explore a world through various means (on horseback or by climbing, for instance). It is the markers of the two, the manner in which they are adorned, that is different.

John Marston from Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar Games, 2010)

Marston, like the men of Bora Bora has intimidation inscribed in his flesh. While not tattooed, he is scarred. If he is scarred, the player can recognize his history. He has been through some things and survived them, producing an intimidating appearance for a gunslinger and a killer. Croft, through most of the Tomb Raider series, has largely been seen unscarred (more on the more recent iteration of Tomb Raider in a moment, though). Instead, Croft is known for other elements of her appearance, her large breasts and her short shorts. Croft is valued as a woman traditionally has been in many cultures, for her beauty and, I suppose, ultimately for her ability to acquire as a tomb raider.

Croft's body and clothing is, of course, a fairly universal type in video games for female avatars. Marston's pure badass appearance is, perhaps, less obviously universal (though I think there is likely still a through line of sorts for male avatar design, though a more subtle one because the male body in video games has been allowed more variation in its form). When looking at a game, like League of Legends, which has over 100 avatars to choose from (about roughly over half of which are male and just under half of which are female), one notes that barring a very few aberrations (a female monster that is unmarked by gender that I wrote about last week and a little girl) that nearly all of the female League of Legends characters are young, beautiful, curvaceous women. Male character models vary more with many monsters whose gender is less obviously initially clear, an old man, a fat guy, a scarecrow, a man with a skull for a head, a blob-like creature, etc., etc. However, if League of Legends female characters are marked by recognizable markers of beauty for the most part and often share similar ages and body types, male bodies in League of Legends share with the male tokens of Bora Bora a certain type of adornment, be it scars, armor, musculature, or a hulking body type, that indicate in some way a generally threatening form, something that signals intimidation.

While male and female champions in League of Legends, again, much like the men and women of Bora Bora or like Marston and Croft, mostly “do” the same kinds of things (they can all buy equipment, fight, and siege towers). In terms of their adornment and the presentation of their bodies, they are marked for their beauty if they are female and for their threatening or intimidating presence if they are male.

Lara Croft from Tomb Raider (Square Enix, 2013)

As noted, I did want to return for a moment to the most recent iteration of Lara Croft in the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider series, as she is a character who in that game is eventually surprisingly marked as both, beautiful and ultimately scarred and intimidating. Now, calling Lara Croft a symbol of androgyny on the face of it might seem absurd, given her famously hypersexualized body. However, Croft's chest has received a reduction in the most recent game and her clothing is slightly more demure, but additionally, the game takes Croft down a road of experience that alters her identity, making her come to represent something more valued in images of the masculine, an experienced and ultimately more physically imposing presence. In some sense, she is still beautiful, but more clearly “scarred” like a badass. One of the more significant examples of the clarity of this transition is how the game represents this shift in focus through her body.

An opening scene of the game has Croft look at herself in a mirror, a young, pretty student who has yet to experience much at all. Midway through the game when Croft returns to the wreck of that ship, she will again glimpse herself in the mirror in her room. It's the same face, smeared with dirt, with a split lip, and hair all askew. She looks haggard at this point, but by the game's end, the wounds and dirtying up of the face make for a more competent and intimidating warrior. She is still beautiful, but ultimately something else as well. Indeed, Croft's new appearance and design may represent a blending of the values of the specific gender markers that I observed in Bora Bora, making both action and adornment reflect one another, and also the idea that traditionally masculine and feminine traits might blend into a single, less specified identity in a video game.

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