In our World of Warcraft Reader (it’s in copyediting now, MIT Press says it should be published Spring 2008) Hilde Corneliussen’s chapter discusses the way gender is used in the game. Among other things, she shows how different races and cities are very clearly gendered in different ways – it’s really an interesting piece. Anyway, in the chapter she mentions how some armour looks rather different on female characters than on men – although it’ll offer the same protection no matter what your character’s gender is. At Linn‘s sister Christin’s blog, Strumpet’s Life I found this amusing comic strip that shows the situation beautifully:
comic strip about gendered clothes in WoW

7 thoughts on “gendered armour

  1. mark bernstein

    I think this makes the designer’s job intolerable. If the costumes are gendered, that invites rude comments from the 14-year-old boys. If the costumes are NOT clearly gendered, it makes women invisible in the game world (or, alternatively, makes the game world a closed girly precinct with purply moons and ponies). All the game designer’s choices are wrong.

    (FWIW, I’ve never heard much sexual bantering in City of Heroes, not beyond the tamest party chatter. So this might be WoW-specific. I’m not sure why this should be the case; any theories?)

    I’m reading Ruskin this week, and he walks his readers through the same problem as Giotto faced it. How do you paint St. Francis? If he is handsome and strong and confident as he walks over the coals, well, what kind of faith does that take? But if he’s a slight and unattractive fellow, what respect are you showing to the Great Man much less the Blessed Saint?

  2. Jill Walker Rettberg

    Why should “gendering” characters mean making armour look like unbelievably skimpy bikinis with huge tits and lots of leg though? Are tits and arse the most salient qualities of women?

  3. mark bernstein

    No, and that’s a good argument. But that’s not the argument you made — or that a reader without your private access to Corneliussenís chapter would think you had made. Your objection was to the fact of gendering of classes or races, rather than to the particular execution of the gendering.

    To repeat for the umpteenth time: exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics in games are not necessarily unreconstructed 1950’s era fetishes. They are far more easily explained as an effort to differentiate “characters” that would otherwise be nearly indistinguishable, because games seem unexpectedly poor at expressing character nuance. “We have a name for what appears be be human, but isn’t, quite: Monster.”

    With respect to gendered armor and tits/ass, the obvious questions is, how have artists addressed the problem of depicting an armored woman so as to make he clearly distinguishable from armored men. (We don’t want women to be invisible, right?) This is a question that can easily be answered: just study the iconography of Jeanne d’Arc, with special attention to the 19th century (when Joan was a popular subject and when her femininity was of particular interest).

    And, if you REALLY want to indict the game designers, demonstrate that the artists knew, or should have known, of better solutions than those they chose. I’m way out of my field: remind us of the great masters who addressed the problem. There must be plenty of precedents in pictures of various saints. (For the record: I have no idea who did the art direction for WoW, or whether they are irgnorant boors or not; I’m saying ‘play fair’, not asserting that the artist shoudn’t have found a different solution.)

    FWIW, Hollander has a fine discussion of breasts in archaic Greek sculptur, the iconographic distinction between two bared breasts (erotic) and one bared breast (exertion), and the distortion of the figure to which classical Greek sculptors resorted in order (a) to clarify the gender of the subject, and (b) to get the clothes to drape properly, because Greek tailors *knew* how they wanted a peplos to drape even though contemporary textiles, regrettably, would not drape as they wished around a human body.

    Of course, this all requires research and scholarship…..

  4. Jill Walker Rettberg

    Mark, look at the first image in the cartoon. Lots of the armour in WoW looks like that on female characters, and I’ve never heard any women complain about that. In the last panel of the comic you see what some of the armour looks like on female characters. That’s the kind of hypersexualised representation that tends to get women players mad.

    I like your analogy to the ways Joan of Arc and other female warriors have been portrayed through the ages – that would be a really interesting study for some art historian to delve into, I’d certainly read their conclusions!

  5. P Sears

    Mark says: “If the costumes are NOT clearly gendered, it makes women invisible in the game world (or, alternatively, makes the game world a closed girly precinct with purply moons and ponies).”

    I think this is a faulty presumption. Some outfits on female WoW characters do not expose an inordinate amount of skin and there is no problem distinguishing genders. I think it’s problematical to claim that, unless women characters are dressed to expose their secondary sexual features, they are invisible. Why do you suppose you think that way?

    What is the meaning of your comment about “purply moons and ponies”? Are you saying that if costumes are not clearly gendered, the world will become a stereotype of childish femininity?

    Also, why would it be a problem if there -was- uncertainty about what gender a character is? I don’t think it would make women ‘invisible.’ If real-life humans were wearing heavy body armor and helmets, it would be hard to tell what gender they were. I don’t see what is wrong with that.

  6. mark bernstein

    P. Sears inquires why I have stopped beating my wife:

    > I think itís problematical to claim that, unless women characters are dressed to expose their secondary sexual features,
    > they are invisible. Why do you suppose you think that way?

    Because I’m a scientist, and because I’m old enough that my approach to criticism is tinged by New Critical Empiricism, I expect to discover meaning in the text. If gender is indistinguishable in the text, it’s not there — or, at any rate, it’s less present.

    For elementary lead references on costume and gender, please see (for example) Anne Hollander’s _Seeing Through Clothes_ and _Feeding The Eyes_ — especially her appreciation of Coco Chanel in the latter anthology.

    You’ll find an abundance of literature on costume, gender, and art history in the books cited in these volumes. I’m sure there are even better lead references: I’m a computer scientists and a chemist, not a historian of costume.

    The comment on ìpurply moons and poniesî should be recognizable to people familiar with the study of games (to whom this comment was addressed) as an allusion to Brenda Laurel’s late company. Purple Moon was dedicated explicitly to games for and about younger girls.

    Laurel’s effort was deliberately cast as constructing a hortus conclusus; this makes some sense for games addressed to young people who — as kids of a certain age seem to do — prefer the exclusive company of persons of their own age and gender. (Freud called this latency; I don’t know what the current terminology may be.) The phrase “and ponies” alludes, of course, to the contemporary progressive critique of U.S. Republican policy in Iraq, which perpetually promises that Progress in The Central Front Of War Against Terror is always just a few months away, and it alludes to the child’s hope that THIS year Santa Claus will leave me a pony under the Christmas tree.

    What’s wrong with rendering women invisible, or less visible, in game worlds? Simply this: it’s a patently political statement that females are welcome to participate provided that their femaleness is sufficiently hidden.

    – – – – –

    A broader note about comments in weblogs and why they are a bad idea: I don’t know how to write this post because I have no idea who P Sears is or what she knows. If Jill had written this, I would be confident that she knew Laurel (and Sontag, Greer, Mulvey, Sontag), and also that she knew my work (and my politics) well enough that she meant what she said. If I *knew* that P.Sears was an earnest undergraduate working in a backwater school, I’d read her comments differently. If I *knew* that P. Sears was a senior graduate student who was working for (say) Espen or Susana or Jesper or Torill, I’d have been perplexed because then I would say to myself, “this writer cannot mean what he or she says, or intend to be as offensive as he or she appears to be. Is there an Imperius Curse at work, or a translation problem, or have I misunderstood a sophisticated satire?” And if I knew P.Sears to be a troll, I’d have said, “Poor, Jill! Alas! There’s nothing I can do.”

  7. torill

    Mark, the note at the end there was somewhat over the top, but let’s leave that out of the further discussion.

    Your problem appears to be the claim that gendered has to be hypersexualised. Now you don’t have to go to Hilde’s not-yet-published article in the upcoming WoW reader to see this argument being traced before by her, you can have a look at the easily available article by Hilde Corneliussen and me on Neverwinter Nights. This article mentions the gendering of armour, and cite several references that connect gendering armour in games with hypersexualisation, and should offer you an idea about which direction Hilde is following in the not-yet-published article. She does a much more thorough work with WoW, and you can look forwards to it because it’s a really well put together piece, but if you want to argue against something, at least the Neverwinter Nights article can give your argument something more than your own assumptions to bite into.

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