Sexualizing Avatars
By: Beth Bucanan

In the nineties, culture critic Susan Faludi finally declared The Undeclared War Against American Women, arguing, among other things, that popular representations of women were telling girls what they were supposed to be and look like. Then, she claimed that men had been Stiffed—that they were also the victims of ideal masculine representations in the media. Faludi didn’t have much to say about video games, but with all the Lara Croft bodies, many male gamers are certainly getting stiffed and female gamers are simply getting overlooked.

It isn’t only the representations of women, however, that indulge our idealistic fantasies. Male images, such as Dante, are becoming more perfected, pretty, and debonair. Many games are popular partly because of the main character’s sexual attractiveness. Perhaps The Chronicles of Riddick would have still been popular had it not starred Vin Diesel, but Vin’s raspy voice and sex icon quality didn’t hurt the cause. Prowling through the corridors of Butcher Bay, though I couldn’t see him, I knew he was there and I had no problems being one with Vin. Playing a male character that’s as powerful and seductive as Vin Diesel almost certainly attracts more male players than female. It’s so much fun being sexy.

While guys enjoy playing attractive male characters, guy and girl gamers alike are just as seduced by the sex appeal of a 36, 20, 36 elf chick that dances like Carmen Electra in Aerobic Striptease. That’s why there are so many of them in World of Warcraft, and when they dance they are always stripped down to their skivvies, celebrating what the designers gave them. Whether these elven exhibitionists are male or female players, they clearly recognize the power of the well-shaped ass.

WoW isn’t the only MMORPG that compels public displays of sexuality. Guild Wars’ female elementalists dance similarly and also always seem to be naked when strutting their pixelated stuff. Often, a player might hear others yell “take it off baby” and they aren’t talking to the river-dancing mesmer. But, even without a sexy dance, most avatars—male or female--are nicely built.

There is little diversity, however. There was a time when a culture’s notion of beauty wasn’t unanimous. Ruben made the voluptuous body popular, while John William Waterhouse celebrated a fleshy, glowing, sprightly-breasted beauty. Even in the 20th century, one could see a nice variety in the sizes and shapes of women and men in the media and on the covers of magazines. But, like many other modern media outlets, the video game industry is streamlining beauty into two categories: the petite and graceful or the sexy and bulbous.

While games like EverQuest II flaunt the first type, other games revel in the second. Lineage II is infamous for its sadist, leather avatar costumes that would impress the Marquis de Sade, while others frequent the world in white outfits with matching panties, echoing the landmark pop culture statement, “I’m not that innocent.” These polar opposites are both attractive, big breasted and popular. Beauty in video games is exemplifying the Madonna/Whore complex and us gamers fall for it. Back when games actually made some unattractive player characters, very few gamers attempted to redefine our aesthetic prejudices as a green troll or a fat ogre.

Video game personalities are sexual ideals and no game illustrates this more than Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude. Larry isn’t much. He’s not too attractive or bright, and the stains on his bed are indicative of how unsuccessful he is with women. His female classmates, however, are why we play the game. This is made even more apparent when each loading screen introduces us to a real woman dressed like her virtual counterpart. In Magna Cum Laude, the player isn’t the sex symbol; he/she is trying to have sex with the sex symbol. Either way, sex sells.

Devil May Cry’s Dante provides us with a metrosexual machismo with an opened shirt that reveals a hairless chest and a king-sized sword strapped to his back. Riddick gives us sexuality in all its grungy glory and all the MMORPGs flaunt girls gone wild. The Sims 2, in hopes of culling the masses’ demands, added the WooHoo option and romance sims often have a fear of getting fat, and any game with vampires advocates the ideal male and female bodies. These avatars and characters do more than sell video games. They sell people. They sell ideal masculine and feminine images, the same images we see in magazines, commercials, films, comics and scribbled in the margins of prepubescent boys’ notebooks.

Perpetuating the ideal aesthetic in a game can help to create a world of escapism for those who don’t have perfect bodies (and no one does), but it also has another, more sinister purpose that some developers might not realize. Instead of providing a form of escape, they are reshaping reality. The constant barrage of perfect bodies, breathy voices, and designer clothing and footwear that is becoming cliché in the gaming industry leaves no room for heroes that are less-than-perfect. As a result, an entire generation of teenage boys daydreams of a slightly larger breasted version of Angelina Jolie, and gamer girls think wearing combat boots with fishnets will somehow transform them into what their male counterparts have grown accustomed to. Barbie and G.I. Joe have been replaced with Blood Rayne and Duke Nukem.

From Playboy: The Mansion, to The Guy Game, and Singles: Flirt up your Life, video game characters are getting nekkid, and they’re doing it, not only to sell the game, but to sell beauty. Most players would prefer to be an unrealistic Freedom Force superhero rather than a real life Larry Lovelace. So, will a character with hernia-inducing breasts always be a staple of video games? Do video games reinforce gender roles and breed new forms of misogyny and unhealthy gender idealizations, or do they offer a simple and cathartic form of entertainment in which we get to drive around in bodies much faster and less destructible than our own? Can thousands of porno queen elves shaking their mystically-endowed moneymakers to the tune of whistling dwarves and orcs possibly be wrong? After I spend four hours fiddling with sliders to create my own immaculately beautiful elven harlot warrior, I’ll let you know.