Heroines in Dota 2

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.

Women: 51% of the U.S. population, 16% of the Dota 2 population. (Hero selection screen alternating all heroes, and just female ones.)

Women: 51% of the U.S. population, 16% of the Dota 2 population.
(Hero selection screen alternating all heroes, and just female ones.)

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!

Despite one of them having a deer's bottom half, their builds are pretty similar. (Row of male heroes with diverse body types; row of  female heroes with generic, 'thinwashed' body types.)

Despite one of them having a deer’s bottom half, their builds are pretty similar.
(Row of male heroes with diverse body types; row of
female heroes with generic, ‘thinwashed’ body types.)

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).

(Spectrum of male heroes: human, tree-person, fish-monster with legs, humanoid shadowbeast, and giant scorpion.  Spectrum of female heroes: human, human with wings, shadow monster, dragon, spider.)

(Spectrum of male heroes: human, tree-person, fish-monster with legs, humanoid shadowbeast, and giant scorpion. Spectrum of female heroes: human, human with wings, shadow monster, dragon, spider.)

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.

"The portrait is pretty good, but there are two things it's missing.."--Valve (Hero portraits before and after the update.)

“The portrait is pretty good, but there are two things it’s missing..”–Valve
(Hero portraits before and after the update.)

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.

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8 Responses to Heroines in Dota 2

  1. addie says:

    I’d like to see some of this looked at in League of Legends. I think there’s better variety there but I don’t know that it’s stellar.

  2. JTSpender says:

    @addie: There have been a few posts here and elsewhere about these issues in League of Legends. If you use the search box over on the right (I didn’t realize there was one until just now!) and search for “League of Legends” you should be able to find them.

    I wouldn’t say the representations in LoL are great overall, but they seem to be better than Dota 2, at least some of the folks on staff get that its an issue, and there seems to be a general upward trajectory. I suspect that you’ll still see new hyper-sexualized female characters, and that there still will probably be a skew in body types, but there has been a lot more variety overall, and they’ve been toning down the things that are just plain stupid. I very much appreciated the visual rework of Sejuani that put her default skin in actual clothes (and voted with my pocketbook by buying her with cash the day they released the rework). And while her build might be pretty standard without the giant power gloves, if you’re looking for a female melee brawler style character Vi is one of the most utterly kick-ass characters I’ve seen in a long time.

  3. Batz says:

    Cool article. I’ve been thinking about this topic for some time now; since I became in Dota2. Sometimes I wish I liked LoL better than Dota2, because I think Riot has really been listening to the community feedback on this sort of thing. Also Poppy is awesome.

  4. Ashera says:

    Some stats for LoL:

    Female champions:
    34 / 114 total = 34%

    Female Roles:
    Support: 8
    Glass cannon: 21
    Tanky/ brawler: 9

    “Glass Cannon” includes both “mages” (spell-casters with burst damage) and “AD carries” (strong auto-attacks and sustained damage). Some mages and tanks also get played as supports, which is why the total adds up to more than 34.

    Melee: 11, +3 with melee and ranged forms

    Body types:

    I haven’t done a thorough count, but there are several obviously monstrous male heroes. This includes the creatures from The Void that you would think can’t be classified with earthly sexes. Kog’maw and Kha’zix are both referred to as “he” in both backstory and ability descriptions. Cho’Gath is referred to as “it” in the backstory, but the ability descriptions say “he,” and there’s a “Gentleman Cho’Gath” skin.

    The only completely non-humanoid female character is Anivia, the cryophoenix. There are a couple of half-human-half-animal characters (mermaid, half-snake), a couple who can change into a non-human form, some yordles (they’re kind of a cross between halflings and dwarves, with blue skin), and one little girl. The rest are generally attractive humans or humans-with-slight-modifications.

  5. Jennifer Curnutte says:

    There are actually 17 female characters, I’m not sure how you missed Vengeful Spirit.

    You bring up a lot of valid points, but you are wrong about some of them as well. Agility carries are actually more powerful than Strength carries and some of the female carries are very good. There also isn’t a single role within Dota 2 that no female character can fill extremely well. Some of them being considered to be the very best in those roles.

    I do wish there were more female characters though, and definitely some different and less sexualized models.

  6. Tzu says:

    As a long time player of DoTA and LoL, my theory on the matter is that the sexualization of female characters in both of these games has to do with the characters themselves being eye candy. When playing an FPS, what character model you choose isn’t shoved in your face all the time, in RTS’s soldiers are basically fodder, and in single player RPGs the players eyes often wander to abilities, status effects, and level up screens. However, in the RPG/RTS hybrid that is AoS (or “moba” for you younguns), the you only manage four basic skills that are very easy to memorize on a character by character basis. So, your eyes are often locked on your character and the characters you are fighting with/against. This leads to a strong incentive to make champions visually pleasing and striking. For male characters, this means a variety of interesting concepts with a healthy does of power fantasy. For female characters, “pleasing and striking” means hourglass figure, busty, and wearing revealing armor that often has a convenient breast window (a la Powergirl).

    As for mention of the developers of LoL working to change their champions’ aesthetics…well, I don’t have much faith in them. On the one hand, they rework Sejuani’s horrible launch model, but on the other they consistently release female champions that look almost exactly alike and often wear very sexualized clothing.

    As for DoTA-Icefrog (the main developer) is a perpetual enigma, last I checked. Hopefully, Valve can help fix the issue, but at the moment it feels like they’re just trying to get the port to Source engine out ASAP.

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