Regression to the Mean

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Have you ever been embarrassed while sitting in a room by yourself?

A few years ago, I had just finished downloading a game called Skullgirls. I’ve been a fan of fighting videogames and the community (the fighting game community, abbreviated as the FGC)  for a long time, and the idea of a game created by community member Mike Zamont (aka MikeZ) was one that I wanted to support. I slapped down my $15, powered up my PS3 and began playing the game, which featured an all-female cast. There were characters like Valentine:

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Cerebella:

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and Parasoul, among others:

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After the tenth or eleventh panty shot in the game, I became so embarrassed that I turned the game off. Videogames have never been a bastion of progressive gender roles or healthy sexuality, but those were from older developers living out repressed fantasies. Surely, as the genre matured, new people entered the industry, and society became more compassionate in general, videogames, specifically fighting videogames, would begin to express a new vision of women as something other than bouncing breasts to be ogled, right?

Wrong. Completely and totally wrong.

In fact, as videogame technology has improved, new games have used the increased graphical power and HD resolutions to render increasingly impossible women. Take the recently released Street Fighter V as an example. Street Fighter has been in existence since the first game in the series was released in 1987. As the series has progressed, what we’ve seen isn’t a reevaluation of the presentation of women characters, but instead the consistent growth of character’s proportions and the fidelity with which they are rendered. We’ve gone from Street Fighter II Chun Li to Street Fighter V Chun Li; same ridiculous dress, but now in glorious HD. The same holds true for Cammy then and now. Perhaps most egregious though is the rebirth of R. Mika, a character who made her debut in Street Fighter Alpha 3 in 1998.Her design wasn’t particularly modest:

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Almost twenty years later, would a new generation of game developers think to redesign her in a way that wasn’t such obvious pandering? Nah.

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“But Jamil,” you might say. “Karin came from Street Fighter Alpha 3 as well, and she’s in Street Fighter V too, and her design is exactly the same now as it was then! They’re just doing it for consistency!” Fine. It’s a ridiculous argument which ignores that other male characters have been redesigned, but fine. What about new characters then? R. Mika and Chun Li come from decades ago, and maybe we’ve learned something about women, their bodies and how to actually include women in gaming without making them twisted visions of male fantasy.

Or not. Here’s Laura, one of the new fighters in Street Fighter V:

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Not enough T&A for you? Well, you could always use her alternate costume:

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Needless to say, fighting games have not improved their depictions of women over the years. From the Dead or Alive franchise (or its more crass spinoff, which does away with any pretentions and gets straight to the sexual exploitation of its characters) to Tekken, from The King of Fighters  to BlazBlue, the new “golden era” of fighting games are riddled with women designed to titillate and gratify male gamers. Even as gaming companies claim that they wish to “grow the community” and reach a mainstream audience which has eluded them, they continue to alienate the majority of gamers by catering to a minority which defines itself in narrow, misogynistic ways.

The one refuge from apparently-13-year-old game developers was the Super Smash Bros. series. The original game featured twelve characters, including Samus Aran:

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Many gamers didn’t even know that Samus was a woman. The trend of treating women characters as actual people instead of oversexed objects continued in Super Smash Bros. Melee, which introduced several new female characters to the cast: Peach, Zelda, Sheik, and the female Ice Climber. Melee continues to be one of the most popular fighting games in the world, consistently drawing hundreds of people to major tournaments.

But all good things must come to an end, and the same is true for positive gender representation in the Smash Bros. series. It began with the third game in the series, Super Smash Bros. Brawl. Samus shed her armor for that game, becoming a different character known as Zero Suit Samus:

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Gone was the gender-neutral armor of the Chozo which she used to hunt bounties across the galaxy, replaced with a svelte catsuit. This character design is based on Samus’ appearance in the ending of Metroid: Zero Mission, where she is presented armorless as a reward for completing certain gameplay conditions.

Next she appeared again as Zero Suit Samus in Super Smash Bros. for 3DS/WiiU. She also received an alternate costume which is much more revealing than her standard Zero Suit (also derived from a Metroid: Zero Mission ending image):

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Smash Bros. had joined its other fighting game brethren in the race to the bottom. But it would not reach the bottom until one more character was added: Bayonetta.

Bayonetta comes from her self-titled game, well-known for its over the top sexuality. When she was added to the cast for Super Smash Bros., this ridiculousness was left intact. The image at the top of the page (here in case you forgot) is Bayonetta’s win pose, her rear VERY suggestively raised in the air. Her other win pose also places the emphasis sqaurely on her ass. Compare her crouching animation to other characters.

King Dedede:

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Rosalina and Luigi:

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Wii Fit Trainer and Pikachu:

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And finally, Bayonetta:

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As I hope I’ve demonstrated, the depiction of women in fighting games has not improved at all over the years. To the contrary, it has actually regressed, with Super Smash Bros. perhaps being the clearest example of problematic character design appearing in places we otherwise might not expect it.

“But Jamil,” you might say again, “Bayonetta is sexualized in her source game! Doesn’t Smash Bros. have to remain faithful to that source material?”

NO. 

No, it does not. Videogame design is a series of choices and decisions. None of the women in these games were born; they were designed, drawn and animated in specific ways to appeal to specific people. Oversexualizing Bayonetta in her own game was a choice, and so was carrying over the sexuality, but not the violence which also characterizes her game. That’s a decision, and that decision needs to be examined. There are consequences when we portray women as sex objects, whether we do so in games, movies, television or advertisement. Unlike those other passive forms of entertainment, gaming actively reinforces associations with action- press this button, and watch this buxom character bounce around and pose specifically for you.

Different decisions can be, and must be, made. Otherwise, someone else may be writing this same essay again in twenty year’s time.

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