Rift: Meet the new MMO, same as the old MMOs

The following is a guest post from Zaewen:

Zaewen is a white, straight, cis woman and avid feminist gamer, with MMOs being her favorite genre. She has a degree in psychology, a Texas accent, and spends most of her free time playing games, reading blogs, and very occasionally doing some blogging herself. Zaewen hopes to one day get a PhD in awesomeness (or sociology) and do her best to help change the culture we live in.

Trion’s Rift, the newest competitor in the MMORPG market, is fresh out of its launch month and has just released its first major content update. The game has become widely known for taking the best parts of previous MMOs, mashing them together in new ways, and polishing it all to a high shine. However, as the players gain access to more of the game’s content and as the developers patch in more, we’re beginning to see that they’ve also decided to incorporate some of the same old and tired tropes about representing women and female characters into the game. In particular, the idea that women are mainly there to be sexy with their heroism coming secondary to that.

A divine and winged Messenger of the Vigil is one of the first people an Ascended Guardian meets upon entering the game. Her face is obscured by her helm and her armor consists of a plate bikini top, a plate mini skirt, and thigh high plate greaves.

 

One of the most obvious ways this shows up in the game is in differently rendered armors for male and female characters, with the female character armor sets being much more revealing and sexualized than the sets for male characters. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having sexy and revealing armor in a game as they can be a great source of fun and enjoyment for a lot of people. It does becomes problematic, though, when the sexy and revealing armors are restricted to female characters only and when they are the majority of what female characters are given to wear. This dynamic is, unfortunately, very prevalent in Rift’s armor sets. While there are a handful of armor models that leave their chests partially bare, male characters spend the majority of their time fully covered from head to toe. Meanwhile, there is an even smaller handful of armor sets that give female characters that same full coverage protection. Instead, most of their armors have at the very least some form of cleavage or low neckline. Many sets also leave the midriff and back exposed or have ‘pants’ that only consist of bikini bottoms that may or may not be paired with stockings, greaves, or a chest piece long enough to keep their bums and crotches covered. Some of the differences in the armor sets seem innocuous individually, just a lowered neckline here or a small bit of cleavage there, but when looking at all of the armors together, a very insidious message is revealed. The message being that even though these female characters are the Ascended heroes of Telara, they are rarely, if ever, allowed to forget or forgo their status as sexual objects.

The picture below is a prime example of these dichotomous armors in Rift and the message sent. On the right is an Ethian man wearing the crafted Thick Hide armor set. His chest piece is a long vest-like leather tunic with a baggy, long sleeved shirt underneath the vest and a shawl wrapped around his shoulders. His leggings consist of a pair of baggy pants worn underneath leather pads strapped to the front of his thighs. On the left, is an Ethian woman wearing the exact same set, but it is drastically different. The leather tunic-vest is now a halter top with a plunging neckline that goes down to her waist. Her back is left bare except for some stringed beads and the long, baggy shirt has transformed into strips of cloth loosely wrapped around her forearms. The shawl is nowhere to be seen. Her leg ‘armor’ consists of a pair of bikini bottoms (which are barely hidden beneath the lower portion of the tunic) and leather pads that are strapped onto the outer portions of her bare thighs. The overall impression is that the man is dressed ready for battle and that the woman is dressed ready for a LARP themed dance party. The message, intended or not by Trion, is loud and clear here: he is a hero, full stop, but she is there to be a sex object first and foremost, and a hero only after her sexiness has been fully established.

An Ethian woman and man modeling the Thick Hide leather armor set for rogues. The man’s armor covers every inch of him below the neck while the woman’s set leaves all of her back, most of her front half, and a lot of her legs exposed.

 

That message is also reflected back to us in the way the NPCs are armored. Below are screenshots of guard pairs from the two main faction zones and cities. In one pair, the Defiant Centurions, the male guard is literally covered from head to toe in a set of full plate armor without a speck of skin showing, not even on his face. The female equivalent, however, is wearing an actual bikini-mail set that shows way more skin than it covers. They are of the same rank and position, and supposedly wearing the same uniform, but only one of them looks heroic or like they could actually guard something without getting a sword through the belly. Hint: its not the one using swimwear as battle gear.

From left to right, the Defiant Centurions, the Guardian Sentries, and Ardent Glade Guards. These are the guards from the main zones of each faction and for each set the male guards’ full set of armor is dramatically contrasted with the bikini armors and ‘sexy school girl’ outfits of the female guards.

 

We see this armoring schema again in the storyline NPCs, the people that are the faction leaders and major personalities within the game world. Orphiel Farwind, the head techno-mage for the Defiant, is in full robes and is wearing more (and more protective looking) armor than Asha Catari, the high general of the Defiant forces. Asha, a very powerful arcane warrior, is clad in only a golden plate bra and tights that look like they have been painted on. It’s the same on the Guardian side as well. Cyril Kalmar, leader of the Guardians and stand-in king for the Mathosians, is in a full heavy and ornate plate suit. Standing next to him on the royal dais, is Shyla Starhearth, the leader of the High Elves, in a very intricate and small battle-kini. These are the leaders of the game’s major factions and are all powerful Ascended heroes, and while that’s readily readable from Cyril’s and Orphiel’s armor, Shyla’s and Asha’s armor mostly just broadcasts that they are hot babes.

Faction leaders of Rift, from left to right: Cyril Kalmar the Guardian leader in a full set of onrate plate armor, Shyla Starhearth the leader of the High Elves in an intricate plate bikini top and bottom, Asha Catari the high general of the Defiant in a gold plate bra and skin tight cloth pants, and Orphiel Farwind the head scientist of the Defiant in a set of layered, open robes over a tunic and pants outfit.

 

Thankfully, there are some storyline NPCs that don’t fit into this mold of women wearing super skimpy armor and men being covered head to toe. There were two in particular, Anthousa Mona and Kaspar Massi, that actually broke this mold quite nicely. Anthousa was fully covered and mysterious looking while Kaspar was burly and bare chested. Then they received character model updates (which, granted, were needed as their models were just default NPC models) and everything changed. Now Anthousa Mona, High Priestess of the Kelari, is sporting a new and greatly enhanced bust size and a strappy, cleavagey mage robe. The fact that Anthousa’s breast size was drastically increased to be much larger than other Kelari character models significantly impacts the overall sexualization of her new character model. Meanwhile, Kaspar’s new model has been decked out in a set of layered leather armor that covers all but his head and forearms. With these updated models, Trion literally took one of the very few fully clothed and non-sexuzalized female storyline NPCs and dressed her down and sexed her up. At the same time they took one of the even fewer sexualized and skin-baring male storyline NPCs and put him in full armor. The message from this and all the NPCs is, again, that men aren’t here to be sexy, they’re here to be heroic, and women can be heroic, but they must be sexy first.

On the left is Anthousa Mona’s before and after picture. Before she was in a long, green robe with the hood pulled over her head and a veil covering the lower half of her face. Now she is in a blue and gold robe with a strappy top that leavers her cleavage and midriff exposed and a split in the skirt that lets you see her partially bare legs. On the right is Kaspar Massi’s before and after picture. Before he was bare chested, wearing only golden gauntlets and baggy brown pants. Now he is in a set of leather armor that covers everything but part of his forearms and has a new mechanical peg leg.

 

Now, these differently rendered armors, and the messages they send out, are all old hat for those familiar with MMOs, but what’s not so run of the mill is some of the easter eggs that the devs at Trion have put in the game. Remember the Defiant Centurions from earlier? Well, apparently those chain mail bikinis were crotchless until it got some negative publicity on the beta forums (following the link in that post is very NSFW and there’s a trigger warning for general sexism and talk of upskirting). On top of that, all of the Asha Catari NPCs you see in the game, even the hologram that protects the Defiant ward stones, moan and breathe heavily when you stand close enough to clip through her. As far as I can tell, no other NPCs do this (and, yes, I checked for y’all, it was very discomforting research), just Asha, who is the (sexy) face of the game. The thing about these easter eggs is that someone had to go out of their way to put them in the game. There was voice acting recorded and programming done to make Asha’s model moan when you’re invading her personal space. The pantyless guard models may have been snuck in under the radar, but that still means at least one developer or modeler on the team thought it would be a fun ‘treat’ for gamers to find. That’s the worst part of it all, really, that these easter eggs are meant to be fun and funny rewards for upskirting the guards and getting way too close and personal with Asha. It sends out that message again, with extra emphasis this time, that the women and female characters in the game are here mainly for the sexual pleasure of others, all their heroism is secondary to that.

Now, all this is not to say that the game is all bad, as the game does have some bright spots in it. The lore manages to steer clear of a lot of the standard tropes and stereotypes of manly men doing manly kingdom-saving things or women doing the waiting-to-be-rescued thing. There are also many strong women within the game (and not just in the stereotypical roles) and the growing friendship between two women is central to the plot line for the Defiant’s epic saga quests.  Despite the large amount of revealing and sexualized armors in the game, there are also some armors for both players and NPC female characters that are just as covering and realistic as the ones the male characters get to wear. Rift has also become fairly well known for having female character models that don’t have overly-sexualized bodies. They’re still very much idealized bodies, but they don’t have the exaggerated proportions that are so common in other games. While many good decisions were made by the development team, its disheartening and disappointing that they also made the decisions to add in those easter eggs, the lopsidedly sexualized armors for female characters, and the messages they send out to the players.

It didn’t need to be this way. Rift is a great game and can be a lot of fun, but the inclusion of these regressive ideas about women and female characters saps a lot of the enjoyment out of the game. Lord of the Rings Online, Everquest 2, and others have shown that an MMO can be very successful without having to rely on gender-specific and sexualized armors or sexist easter eggs to draw an audience in. Having those things in the game really does send out the message that the women and female characters in the game are primarily there to be sexy or for the sexual pleasure of others, while the men are just there to be heroic. It also sends the message to the women playing the game that they are still not the intended or preferred audience, and that they’re only allowed into the boy’s club if they’re willing to go along with or ignore the sexism. Both of these messages are alienating to a large, and ever growing, portion of the player base and perpetuates the sexism within gamer culture as a whole.

Rift initially seemed to offer a lot of potential to be truly ground breaking and next gen when it came to representing women and female characters in MMOs. The great lore and refreshingly non-oversexualized character models advertised a game that would be a breath of fresh air in a market gone stale with tired stereotypes and tropes about women in games. Sadly, from the first moment the player steps into the world all of that potential is overshadowed by the constant sexual objectification present in the game. Let’s hope they don’t continue to squander the good foundation this game is built on, that they find a way to counteract and negate these harmful messages, and they can get this game to live up to its full potential.

23 thoughts on “Rift: Meet the new MMO, same as the old MMOs”

  1. This post makes me feel better about my decision to play FFXIV instead of Rift. I was turned off by Rift looking too much like WoW when I was deciding which MMO to play. I’ll see if I can collect screenshots of the same armor on male and female avatars in Final Fantasy to write a comparison. The predecessor Final Fantasy XI was known for male toons bearing all in the subligar armor!

  2. I gave up on this game and cancelled my subscription.

    There was a lot of arguing on beta forums about the female armor models. It was never addressed by the company. In fact, like Blizzard, the company went out of it’s way to do jackass things in response. Which is no surprise, 99% of the gaming industry are filled with little boys who hate women. I can’t come to any other conclusion than that especially with after all I’ve seen and read.

    I also hate the tiny head on big body look of the characters. The person who designed that crap should never get a job again in any mmo.

    1. I avoided the beta forums as much as possible, though I heard that one of (if not the) longest threads was arguing over whether guard NPCs should have bigger breasts or not.

      1. There was a thread over 110 pages long entitled something like “Are the characters supposed to be flat chested?”. It started out as a ‘moar boobies’ thread, but eventually shifted to a more body customization thread as a whole. ‘Course every few pages or so someone would post in there with some highly inflaming post about how the female character models weren’t feminine enough, ‘flat chested’, and ugly because they didn’t fit the stereotypical proportions of MMO characters. I’ve also seen the male character models called all manner of horrible things because they’re not big and beefy like the character models from WoW.

        The character models do have small heads tho… it’s really hard to get not see it once you notice it and it can make them look reeealy weird.

  3. I’ve mentioned it in other threads, but I wince in anticipation every time I put on a new piece of leg or torso armor in Rift. It seems to me especially bad with chain and plate armor, the latter which seems to default to a midriff-baring tee and miniskirt arrangement that invites disembowelment.

    The most baffling thing to me are the female NPCs scattered around the capitals wearing jersey-cow patterned chaps and bikini bottoms. While they’re hardly as ridiculous as Shayla wiggling around in that battle-kini during the game’s opening cutscene, they have a bizarrely anachronistic quality to them that begs a ‘WTF’.

    I can’t believe they changed Kaspar Massi like that, especially since his click-reaction dialogue very strongly suggested that those gauntlets were actually prosthetic arms built by Orphiel. Besides that, the new model honestly looks terrible.

    Talk of upskirts and Kaspar remind me that there’s another NPC nearby, a Kelari who runs through a scripted drinking contest and argument with a Bahmi man. I don’t know how his reaction changes based on sex and race, but if you click on him while playing a female Kelari character he makes a highly condescending and suggestive comment about ‘defending your rift’ from encroaching monsters. Classy.

    1. The plate and chain armor are definitely some off the worst (though rogues do get in some of the action, as shown in the pic in the post) about non-sensical cut-outs and huge amounts of cleavage. As a (nearly) lvl 50 warrior, I’ve only had the pleasure of being fully covered twice. Right now I’m in a lovely shiny breastplate that has a deep v-neck to it but otherwise looks totally awesome… if only there was some way for me to cover up that lil bit of cleavage hehe. Clerics get a lot of the same kinda of chest pieces (totally awesome looking if it just weren’t showing so much skin) but they also have the lovely distinction of being the one calling that always seems to have forgotten their pants somewhere. Not a day goes by that I don’t see a handful of clerics of all levels running by that look like they’re pantsless.

      I had a picture of that NPC I was going to use along with some pics of other NPCs similarly dressed. The most baffling ones for me are the woman in a teeny tiny leather bikini and the woman whose character model just really stands out when compared to every other female character in the game.

      And o.O I never hung around in that tent long enough to hear that exchange.

      1. Cleric pants are really amazingly awful. I spent most of Scarwood Reach in a pair of leather-looking panties that were jokingly named trousers, and a short chain tunic.

        Oh, and here’s a screenshot I cropped of the two drinking buddies. He only offers that ever-so-tasteful pass if you click on him, but it’s still about as welcome as Centurion upskirt screenshots. http://i51.tinypic.com/5yavq0.jpg

        1. Wow… that’s… wow. *shakes head* Looks like Telaran pick up artists are just as bad as the ones here on Earth.

  4. “It also sends the message to the women playing the game that they are still not the intended or preferred audience, and that they’re only allowed into the boy’s club if they’re willing to go along with or ignore the sexism.”

    That probably would’ve taken me a whole blog post to describe, not one sentence… ;-)

    Great post, thank you!

  5. Why do so many developers behave like 14 year old boys with a bad case of testosterone poisoning? I mean, speaking as a 44 year old white cis straight male [i.e probably the same demographic as them]..even I find that annoying as all hell!

    I mean, it’s not like there’s a lack of porn on the net elsewhere, do they have to add it to our games too? Do they really think people are that shallow that if they add some smutty content it’ll sell more games? [I guess the answer is yes they do think that.]

    Heck with it, I’m going to go play scrabble instead.

  6. I love playing Rift, but yes it is horrible that each piece of armor I put on is a new uncomfortable show on my character. It is a huge relief that at least the mage I haven’t doesn’t have to show everyone skin as they save the world.

    Will I stop playing over it? No, but it is disappointing for sure to see this play out in game after game.

  7. Thank you for discussing this. As we ask the questions about what we want from the next generation of online worlds, we definitely need to examine not just how they play, but how welcoming the spaces are.

  8. I remember when beta keys and people were getting all happy and excited over this rape-culture infested misogynistic pile of shit game (that people are STILL paying subscriptions for) I said that I wasn’t going to play because the BETA shots had sexulized armor in them and that it would be another WoW.
    It just makes me angry that people would continue to give money to these companies that aren’t doing ANYTHING to clean up their act (and getting worse by the looks of the model swap). That money you give them sends the message that it’s OK to do these things. *frustrated!*

    That’s why I went and played Final Fantasy XIV, while there are problems with some clothing, there’s a A LOT that it gets more right than this. I should do a write up on the game and how “Hey it’s not hard to make a fun game without sexualizing women.” or even Final Fantasy XI (Which is more successful.)

  9. I’d be interested to see that write up for FFXIV and see a similar comparison to male and female. I’ve played WoW for 6 years, and while I despise the lower levels with the battle-kinis the higher levels do tend to be more heavily covered. I play WoW for the friends I have in it, and for the amusement, but we’ve talked about giving RIFT a try. I’ve played a lot of MMOs over the years and just end up back in WoW. It would be nice to maybe find an alternative where I’m not constantly browbeaten for my choice to play a female character. I think I remember Dark Age of Camelot being pretty good (for not sexualizing women), but the graphics on it when I played weren’t that spectacular.

    The more I read about RIFT and the more screenshots I see, it’s more and more convincing me I don’t really want to play it. I gave up on Lineage II because of all the panty shots when my bishop was casting.

    1. Here is a little tease–a screenshot I found of the skimpiest FFXIV armor: http://img.villagephotos.com/p/2003-8/331978/FFXIV_1285568269.jpg on a male and female character standing beside each other (possibly NSFW?). As you can see… equally revealing!

      It’s funny and sad how there is a tradition of players griping since FFXI about how ridiculous and sexualized the male characters look in the subligar armor (Latin for underwear). It makes a lot of players uncomfortable without much reflection on similar armor being typical clothing for female videogame characters and action heroes.

      1. Yes, I hate that kind of stuff too LD. Ugh, it’s such a tiring double standard. I’ve seen people complain about other men in the Final Fantasy series who could be said to be clothed in a sexualized way too (and how they’ve gone so far as to say they’re ‘creepy’ and that they dislike them solely for that) but for some reason many of those voices tend to vanish when you point out the women in the (probably even more) revealing outfits. Why is it more acceptable to strip women down and how is this kind of approach fair at all?

        1. It really is an annoying double standard. Like I said in my article there are a handful (like 5 or out of the 50 or so armor models) that show the upper chest on men or have a lowered neck line. And its ‘OMG THIS IS HORRIBLE’ when guys get those armors. ‘Course when we point out that the female characters are running around in less armor most of the time, that’s when the real fun stuff comes out. ‘I want ladies to look sexy and cute and I want my guy to look badass’ or ‘well if I have to show my man-nips then you should have to show yours too /patselfonback’ (both actual quotes from the forums btw… well maybe not the /patselfonback, but you can totally see them doing that for their ‘clever’ wit).

          It’s always been my thought that if the armor in question is a full suit of plate on a male character it logically should be a full suit of plate on a female character. And if its a teeny tiny polka dot bikinimail on a female character then logically it should be the same on a male character. For some reason not too many people on the forums seem to agree with that :(

        2. Why is it more acceptable to strip women down and how is this kind of approach fair at all?

          There’s a whole horde of reasons, none of them particularly good. The most obvious one is fan entitlement, of course (which goes way beyond gender issues, though that’s the most heinous example). Then there’s the issue of familiarity — people generally don’t tend to think about things when they’re familiar with them, so they’ll give familiar things a pass that unfamiliar things wouldn’t get. And, on top of that, there’s this absurd and irrational line of thinking (some) guys have that says that enjoying things that women also enjoy would make them less of a man.

          (Interestingly enough, within the right community, it’s totally possible to get ostensibly straight guys to admit that the sexualized male Square-Enix characters have great bodies)

  10. This is really grotesque. There is nothing that could make me want to play a game that sends out this constant, omnipresent message that women are whores and faptoys. To the deepest pits of hell with story, world-building, questing and characterization if my character is forced to be a hetboy’s wanking aid, and if every other female character I see is likewise a walking public toilet. Is it me, or does that “Glade Guard” look almost exactly like the “babe” from the Duke Nukem article?

    Sorry if this language offends anyone, but I am so utterly and literally SICK of this aspect of our hobby.

  11. See when I said this people didn’t see if it was the same thing as before with new seasonings. That is why I’m in love with Fallen Earth and games like it. I love innovation! (Not to mention the team is primarily female)

  12. To be fair, the high level armor is mostly full coverage on the female toons. The guys, however, generally have far less coverage at their top level.

    Is it fair? No. But it does amuse me to imagine 13-year-old boys who have been running around with half-naked female avatars the entire game hitting 50 and having their eye candy covered up if they want the good gear.

    1. Going to have to disagree with you there. The revealing armors are still quite prevalent in the high level armors for all callings. There are a few that are nice and full coverage (like the T1 dungeon gear for mage, warrior, and cleric), but most of them still have at the very least those low necklines or cleavage windows. A lot go further… like the mage robe that is just a red straps wrapped around her torso and a full length skirt, the mage robe that is little more than lingrie, the warrior bp that has a thousand lil peepholes in it and bikini bottoms, or the rogue gear that is a small tube top, open faced skirt, and bikini bottoms +greaves.

      The only gear that is revealing on male characters is also revealing on the female characters. Those armors that show off their pecs are the same on female characters, they just wear bikini tops instead. There are no armors in the game that show significantly more skin on male characters than female characters.

      But you are right, even if they were in the pec-baring armors while that same model completely covered the female characters that would a) not make up for the countless other times the situations was reversed or b) really be any better than the reverse situation

  13. Gah, where’s that edit button? Change that second “fair,” to, “does a surprising number of ‘Bwaha, my manly pectorial muscles need no armor!’ shirtlessness make up for 49 levels of under-armored female characters?”

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