The following is a guest post from Max Seidman:
Max Seidman is a game designer at Tiltfactor, a game design and research lab located at Dartmouth College dedicated to developing games for meaningful social change. He posts design philosophy and game concepts on his blog. Max lives in New Hampshire with Clementine, the Crystal Maiden to his Lycanthrope.
I love DotA. I’ve been playing for over eight years at this point, and over that time I’ve sunk an absurd and unspeakable number of hours on the game. I played it as a custom map for the original Warcraft III, then in the expansion Frozen Throne, then on the Garena client, and now in Valve’s standalone Dota 2. And while I love the game, there’s one think I don’t love about it: its representation of women. These are my thoughts on the things Dota 2 is doing poorly on this front.
Lack of Representation
A dearth of female characters is endemic to video games. In games with a protagonist the argument is often made, “We’re marketing our game to men, so we’re going to make our main character male.” While this is bullshit, I at least understand the argument. However, not even this is a shield that games in the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre, games like DotA, can hide behind, as these games often have dozens of characters to choose from.
Dota 2 itself currently boasts over 100 heroes that players can play. As you can see below, exactly 16 of them are female, identified either by their backstories, names or voices. This is rather pathetic, and seems to imply that male players would be offended and turned off to the game by the mere presence of female characters, which I find fairly insulting.
Dota 2 heroes are split into three categories of proficiency which determine their roles in the game. Strength heroes are primarily defensive, wear armor and wield melee weapons, and are often extremely muscular. Agility heroes are mostly offensive, look slimmer than strength heroes, and can wield either melee or ranged weapons. Intelligence heroes support the other types by casting spells, and are usually ranged. Of the 16 female heroes, 9 are agility, 7 are intelligence, and none are strength. In addition, only 4 are melee. This limits the types of roles that players see female characters in. The game sends the message that women can be intelligent or agile, but never strong. They can be in combat, but only at a safe distance. Furthermore, because of these limitations, it is extremely rare to see a female hero carry a team to victory in the same way that certain male heroes often do. Finally, the heroes are divided into a team of good and a team of evil heroes. Two-thirds of the female heroes are on the good side. By relegating what few female characters there are to either fragile ranged support roles, or fragile ranged offense roles, Dota 2 is sending an extremely gendered message.
Lack of Diversity
Of the 16 female heroes, 12 share one body type; they have light skin, are small, thin and busty, with conventionally attractive facial features. They wear clothing (only occasionally armor) that reveals a fair amount of skin. And they are never muscular. This stands in stark contrast to the male heroes in the game, who have a tremendous amount of diversity. Male heroes range from short and stocky, to tall and lanky, to portly and not conventionally attractive. They range from fit to body-builder in their musculature, with the occasional pudgy!
Around half of the male heroes are distinctly monsters, with many more a mix between monster and humanoid. A similar spectrum between humanoid and monstrous does not exist for female heroes. The 12 slim female heroes are all distinctly humanoid, even if a few are animals from the waist down and another is riding a tiger. The remaining 4 female heroes are complete monsters (one is a giant spider, another is a butterfly-like dragon, the third is shadowy blob, and the last is a gorgon).
There is a clear message being sent here: while there are all types of male creatures, from ugly to beautiful and human to inhuman, females are only allowed to be pretty humanoids or hideous but technically-female monsters, with no in between.
While a lot has been said about sexualization of women in video games, and much could be said about Dota 2, I want to highlight a specific instance of blatant pandering. Several months back Valve released a patch to the game, as they have fairly frequently since it’s still in beta. In addition to many mechanical hero changes and bug fixes, there was a change unlisted in the patch notes: all of the hero portraits used for hero selection changed resolution. But more than just resolution… in order to add height to the images, more of most heroes’ bodies were shown. While you can see the portrait expansion didn’t really have much of an effect on male heroes (on the right), the changes were striking for female heroes. Windrunner (on the left) is a great example of a reasonable and representative portrait that was turned into just cleavage. Other portraits had boobs featured before, but were edited to ensure they were in the players’ faces.
I think the differences are striking.
Staunch Dota defenders are probably itching to come to Valve’s defense with the argument, “They’re just copying what was done in the original DotA, and don’t have say in character creation.” This is obviously not an excuse for sexualization, but nor is it for representation issues. For example, Valve has already rebranded the previously sexless Puck (a faerie dragon) as female. This is a step in the right direction, and I would like to see it carried further. Many such sexless heroes exist: the shapeshifting morphling who is somehow male, and Enigma, of whom nothing is supposedly known (except apparently his sex) are prime examples of heroes who had genders arbitrarily imposed, and could have been made female. In addition, however, women who fill the spectrum between gorgeous human and hideous monster must be added. Muscular melee armor-plated female strength heroes are a necessity, preferably wielding wicked weaponry (a place where League of Legends is superior to Dota 2). Overweight and twisted women should exist in the game to parallel the same types of male heroes. The evil team (called The Dire) should not lack for female participation, since in a world where evil for its own sake exists, women should not be above enacting it. Finally, it would be nice to see a few male human heroes with the same body types as 75% of the women in the game.