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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.