Riot Games confronts their problematic female character design

The logo for League of Legends with a variety of male champions standing behind it.

League of Legends is just about everywhere nowadays and the e-sports phenomenon is becoming bigger and more legitimate with every tournament.  We’ve been critical of the game in the past, but only because we’ve had some pretty devoted League of Legends players who really would love to see their game become more inclusive.  I’ve played more hours of LoL than I would like to admit, though I’ve taken a long hiatus because I grew too frustrated with the way I was treated as a player.  It’s clear to me that in order for e-sports to grow more mainstream, it’s going to have to take a step back and look at not only the toxic environment the players experience (which is being addressed) but also the sexualized female character design.

Another player felt the same way as I do, and started a thread pleading for Riot Games to pay more attention to how characters are designed.

If Riot seriously wants to attract more girls to their games, then I suggest they listen to what the few girls who do play League of Legends have to say. Have a real conversation with them. Entertain the idea that there really is a problem with how women are treated by the players, and how female champions are treated by Riot. I’d find it refreshing if a Riot employee could actually admit that there is a problem, or that I at least raise some valid points. My friend knew Pentakill Olaf was going to be used as a counterpoint to “male champions aren’t sexualized” the second she saw him. But Olaf is not aesthetically pleasing to most women. His physique still caters to the same people that Miss Fortune does. I see the argument that “This is a game. Who cares if a champion is sexy?” That’s not the issue. The problem isn’t that there is no mancandy for women to oggle over. The problem is that champions are treated differently based on whether it is male or female. Riot is completely comfortable sexifying female champion, even in cases where it isn’t actually appropriate for the character.

And Riot have responded in a big way.  There are 59 responses in this thread alone from a Riot employee addressing the player’s feedback.  Not once did I read a dismissal of the concerns.  Instead it seems like there are some real ambassadors inside the Riot studio who are fighting for a more diverse character design across the board.  From softer male characters like Varus and Vladamir, to strong female characters like Kayle.

Varus, a pale purple skinned male character with an anime-inspired look to him. He stands shirtless with his defined abs showing and has long silver hair.

Make no mistake, this is something we have our eye on. I had a discussion with our Art Director about this issue just the other day. We want that barbarian woman who can smash any guy she might encounter, we want us to get the spindly tank-girl type who’s far less exposed, we want utilitarian, we want majestic, we want creepy, we want it all. We also do want sexy, in all it’s variations.

Riot’s Art Director, IronStylus

It’s also mentioned that in many cases, the character art features varied proportions such as Diana who has smaller breasts and thicker thighs than the other female models.  However, when actually displayed in game in the overhead view, those variations are lost and the female characters begin to feel more uniform.  This is something that IronStylus plans to focus on more and accentuate the differences between female avatars so that it doesn’t feel as if they’re all built from the same sexy mold.

Sejuani, a champion from League of Legends. She features a horned helmet, a small shirt that shows much of her cleavage, and a shield. She is shown riding a pig and carrying a flail as a weapon. IronStylus references her as a champion he doesn’t think makes sense, since she’s from the tundra and is barely wearing any clothes.

It’s clear from most of the responses that Riot feels that it’s perfectly fine to have sexy female characters designed to appeal to the male gaze and long as it’s properly balanced and varied.  I’d agree with that statement, but I’d want to see true balance that features more adult female characters that aren’t sexualized.  Right now, the majority of the non-sexualized female champions in League of Legends are of the Yordle race, which look/feel like children.  It seems that they’re aware there is a backlog of being biased toward sexy female characters and that they’re playing catch-up now:

What I think our main thing right now is that our backlog has been filled with pretty sexualized ladies. That will eventually peter out a bit and things will readjust. There will be movement but it probably won’t be seen publicly for a bit. Internally we see a shift in the types of women we produce, and skins. THIS HOWEVER DOES NOT MEAN there will not be a healthy dose of sexualization where due, in either female or male form. I DO NOT MEAN sexualization in a derogatory sense, I mean sexualization in that it is sometimes fun to inject our desires into content. That taps into an emotion. Emotions are.. ya know.. important. They elicit responses. That goes for anything that elicits a reaction be it monstrous, evil, good, beautiful, etc.

(Source)

I work in the game industry and I’ve tweeted about how difficult it is to change things from the inside.

A tweet from @cuppy saying “For anyone who thinks that a feminist in the game industry has any real power to change things from the inside out = you are not accurate.”

It’s frustrating and exhausting, and so I do empathize with IronStylus on his crusade to convince his team that inclusive character design should be a priority.  I can also understand the difficulty that artists might have in conceptualizing something that is visually appealing and pleasing to look at without pandering to sexist stereotypes.  Creating new champions and selling them is a primary way that League of Legends makes its income, and they are selling to a primarly male demographic in a worldwide market.  It would be so easy for them to focus on sex appeal to drive revenue, and it would probably be an effective and successful business as a result.  It feels good to see artists who can invoke change at Riot who understand that yet still push toward inclusiveness as a priority.

Kayle, my personal favorite League of Legends champion. She wears gold/red armor that completely covers her body. She has a strong facial expression that portrays strength, carries a large sword, and has angel wings.

So I won’t be defensive, I’ll be appropriately combative.. Just out of curiosity, do you have any idea how involved I’ve been in this conversation? A while. What have I done when I hear this feedback? I make a champion that incorporates all that feedback and I make it A REALLY BIG DEAL. Search “Embrace the Heresy” on google and see that hullabaloo. What do I do when I feel we’ve gone a bit astray? I talk to my producers, our art director, and my fellow concept artists. I take action. Not in a way that is imposing, rude, or invasive, but in a way that I hope challenges us to think a bit different and encourage our artists to keep crushing, to keep making amazing artwork.

Do I feel we are experiencing the same systemic issues with female champion representation as we have in the past? Absolutely. I find it problematic in that I always feel we can be more clever. We have not worked out all the kinks. We have champions and skins in the pipeline that still apply to particular pre-established trends. I’d like to change that and I’m actively working internally to seek balance where I can. What more would you like from me? What response would satiate you? Want me to do a seminar on this? Gladly.

Never have I EVER heard at Riot that we are motivated by *** to sell content. Do I think we on occasion reduce the solution to our challenges via the easy route of stripping down a character? Yes. As I said, I want us to be more clever. We can always remove, we can’t always add.

True story: There’s a champion in the pipeline which I saw a prime example to make into a strong, non-sexualized, and heroic female because it was fertile ground. It was initially supposed to be a guy. So what did I do? I made it. When are you going to see it? Probably not until next year. In the meantime you will indeed see some “sexy” here and there. That’s that whole variety thing, and maybe some cases (which might irk players who want a bit more skin coverage) are situations that I couldn’t come in on my grand steed of prudence to say, “hey! cover up that boob window!”, because I HATE undermining an artists’ confidence in their ability or creativity. I am not the lone voice on what is appealing. I should never dictate my views unless I take substantial issue with the content being created.

There are a thousand ways to solve a visual problem, it’s a shame we get to choose only one. The artists deserve credit for the execution of their craft and honestly deserve better than to have someone like me harassing them every time someone shows a bit of skin in their design. We’re going to make some champions who show skin. Not because of profit, not because of demand, not because we’re all 14-year old boys who managed to get a hold of a video game company, but because in the right context it works. In the instances where it doesn’t, my view is that holistically the champion is falling short. The solution is more lead time on development to really take advantage of how best we can make that champion and not have to resort to what’s easy, which in my opinion is less clothing.

That said, there will always be Miss Fortunes and they will always be in your face with their giant.. ideas.. There will also always be Dianas who if you looked at even a portion of thier exposed neck they’d cut you down. As I’ve said, diversity and variety are key. We need more of it. Period.

(Source)

I look forward to seeing the new characters that come out over the next year, and I hope to see that diversity and variety that IronStylus references in many of his replies.  This is a conversation that could easily have been shut down.  While all of his points might not be statements that feminists jump for joy over, it’s refreshing that the company is engaging in this conversation and showing some vulnerability here.

(Thank you to Obzidian for the link and story idea!)

About Tami Baribeau

Lead Editor and co-founder of The Border House, feminist, gamer, lover of social media, technology, and virtual worlds. Pansexual, equestrian, dog lover, social game studio director and producer. Email me here and follow me on Twitter!
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16 Responses to Riot Games confronts their problematic female character design

  1. Pai says:

    Couldn’t they also make new skins for existing ‘sexualized’ characters with more appropriate armor, etc? Why do they say people have to wait for entirely new characters to be released before more diversity is possible?

    • Cuppycake says:

      Very good point. I can’t remember if it was addressed. I think his point is that he feels that for some characters, the sexual nature of their costumes is warranted because that’s the kind of character they are and it suits them. I don’t think I agree there. I wouldn’t mind playing a version of Miss Fortune where her boobs weren’t almost entirely exposed.

      I suspect it has something to do with the amount of time it takes to develop skins and the amount of money they make from skins that aren’t sexual. Which is sad, but that’s just conjecture.

    • Gahlo says:

      It follow the same manner that people had with Diana. She was lauded for her nonsexualised design until they saw Dark Valkyrie. In the same way a skin “ruined” Diana’s image, in the eyes of people that are seriously perturbed about this, a skin won’t “fix” a champions ire drawing qualities.

      On top of that people would have to pay for it if it could, in their eyes, “fix” the champion.

    • Obzidian says:

      They actually have come up with new skins that better cloth existing characters. Part of the problem though is the default art models, which constrain skins. You can’t fix the skin without fixing the base model. Example: Soraka. Soraka used to have all kinds of sideboob on her model. A huge portion of this was because of her old model.
      They redid her model and while I don’t think its perfect, she actually is significantly more covered up than she used to be and it opens up the door for better skins for her.
      It actually means she’s more covered up in her skins now.
      http://i.imgur.com/qwfu7.png
      http://riot-web-static.s3.amazonaws.com/images/news/September_2012/2012_09_25_Soraka_Spotlight/Soraka_release_comic.jpg
      It was a way for them to update the original art, maintain its iconic look, and make her a little less scantily clad. That’s a step in the right direction, IMO.

  2. rho says:

    Part of what he seems to be saying here is that sexualised women are what the artists are best at drawing or used to drawing or some such. This is a little sad, but not entirely unsurprising.

    While I don’t know for sure, I’d guess that most of the artists involved are fans of video games or the fantasy genre, or both. Which would mean they’ve likely grown up with that, cut their artistic teeth based on that style, or been inspired by other things that they see in fantasy video games.

    If boob windows, cleavage, and exposed skin is what they’ve always seen in art they admire or art within the genre or within their industry, then I hardly think it’s surprising that that’s the style that they’ve gravitated to.

    This isn’t the studio’s fault, and it isn’t really the artists’ fault either. It’s just another cog in the self-perpetuating machine of institutionalised misogyny.

    This is why I think even relatively minor victories like increased dev involvement are worth celebrating. They aren’t just improving things here and now, but they’re sowing the seeds for a better future.

    • Cuppycake says:

      Good points rho. I could have picked apart everything that was said by the developers in the thread and found a lot wrong with it. However, the fact that the conversation is happening and in a positive manner is so comforting to me that I don’t think it’s necessary.

  3. Canisa says:

    “I couldn’t come in on my grand steed of prudence to say, “hey! cover up that boob window!”, because I HATE undermining an artists’ confidence in their ability or creativity.”

    Isn’t it kind of his job as art manager to let artists know when their art isn’t up to scratch? If you’re really committed to solving a problem with your art direction, then you kind of need to actually be willing to point out those problems to the people who create them.

    Also, that whole extract after the picture of Kayle reads as one enormous dismissal to me. It’s basically six paragraphs of “There’s no problem with our behaviour. Deal with it.”

    • Maverynthia says:

      I agree with this. The art DIRECTOR is the one who DIRECTS the art. The artists are there to draw whatever the DIRECTOR wants drawn, which has been discussed by the producers and other directors. To say they can’t do it because “artists fragile egos” is to say they WON’T do it. You are an artist, not a director, you draw whatever you are told to draw and get paid for it. It’s like working a commission only it’s steady work and for only one “person”.

      Also saying the way they are going to fix it is to pepper more male characters in there is just.. ugh.. missing the whole freaking point.

      • Obzidian says:

        I’d just like to point out that IronStylus isn’t the art director. He’s a Senior Concept Artist who does champion design. He has made some of the better champion designs out there (Diana, Leona)

        The thread as a whole did get the attention of the new art director, but the art director didn’t directly comment on it.
        Here is IronStylus’ final post on the forums

        “Well, this thread is a bit hard for me to track as of now. It’s going to get harder and harder to wade through the posts and find nuggets I can pick apart and explain. I think I’ve pretty much said what I’ve needed to say but as always I could go further. I’m going to see if I can find a venue to get some of our philosophy out into the world. This is something that might take a little time as departments sometimes need to come to alignment first. I know action speaks louder than words however, and that we will and should be judged by the content we release.

        One of the cool things about this discussion as a whole, and this thread in particular, is that it allowed me to provide enough visibility inside the art department that our art director was able to check it out. He hasn’t been around for too long. He’s new and extremely awesome. He’s open to a world of ideas but simultaneously knows what works and what doesn’t in many different scenarios. He is very much about the variety thing. He is tasking us with exploring all sorts of avenues and challenge our approach to making female champions, and all champions really, and how we vary shape, age, coverage, cadence, etc.

        All in all this has been extremely productive, and amazingly enough it was done with a lot of positivity. This topic wasn’t drowned in a sea of downvotes. Indeed, there are a few people who put up the complaint of feminist saboteurs trying to undermine the art department, but what this really is, is about varied, fresh and lasting content.

        In summation:

        If we as content producers hope to keep producing content we must evolve and diversify. I will still maintain that we have a LOT of diversity in League of Legends. Could we have more? Absolutely. We’re going to make plenty more champions, and we’re going to push our limits. Yes, we may now and again float back to a place where things standardize for a while, but the hope is that even when we produce something archetypal is that it’s fresh in it’s own way and released in a cadence with possibly more experimental or unconventional characters.

        We will be producing characters which push our silhouettes, not just costumes. We will be exploring characters that appeal to our female audience, we will visit the subject of diversity in shape, color, size, etc. My belief is that we do have a good handle on things. We have produced characters that last. We will take another look at characters we feel could use some updating. This will take time to work through the backlog an into release however, please be patient. This won’t come in a torrent either, it will come in the form of hopefully a steady cadence which is refreshing each time. Will every character cater to everyone? No, nor should they. The job of our game is to create a world where everyone can identify with one or many characters, not a world where each character is appealing across the board. Some designs will enamor certain people, other designs might turn some people off. That’s the nature of producing a rich world. Eliciting an emotion either way.

        Any character content however is not produced to cater to a specific group. It is never the intention to appease or be reactionary. The motivation for any choice when developing a character is simply to do what’s best for the character, to create a living fantasy which someone will latch onto. The creation of that fantasy alone dictates where we go from there. Luckily, fantasy comes in so many varied and wonderful forms. We are only limited to how much we may constrain ourselves.

        We have so much to draw from and to create. A great start is always what comes from our community, what comes from threads like these. You should know that you do indeed have the power to shape what we release. We want to be clever just like you.”

        Personally, yeah, its just talk. But seriously, how often do we actually see game developers come out there and say, “Hey, you’re right, this is an issue, we need more diversity and we’re working on it and I’m championing the cause with the team”?

        More than anything, you know what was remarkable about it? Our voices were heard. We didn’t let ourselves get silenced by the din of others out there and people at the company responded in a really positive way. That’s impressive, even more so when you consider when it was heard.

    • Korva says:

      Agreed on call counts. Dismissal, justifications and insisting that of course there will be more “sexy” are the gist of his words for me too, not any real indication of wanting to change things. Also:

      Never have I EVER heard at Riot that we are motivated by *** to sell content.

      Just because no one said it doesn’t mean they’re not doing it — and it’s pretty damn obvious that they are doing it, so I’m not impressed with this denial. Women = sex class is so embedded in our society, and even more in gaming, that it “conveniently” goes without saying.

    • Matt says:

      In addition to Obzidian’s post above I’d like point out re: backlog, that I would assume that they finally started looking into the issue long after the artists’ contracts were signed and a substantial amount of work done without the artists being given any direction or suggestion whatsoever re: please stop brokeback sexbot clone army. Substantial redesigns would probably lead to doubling the work in a way that might well be beyond budget.

  4. Nefa says:

    Well, based on some of the splash images I’ve seen of their existing female characters – they can’t even draw them with human proportions. So this whole discussion just has me laugh and laugh some more.

    “The artists deserve credit for the execution of their craft and honestly deserve better than to have someone like me harassing them every time someone shows a bit of skin in their design.”

    If they’re not drawing the human form correctly – Tell. Them. So. How you can dismiss the art as not pandering to males, then have game splash art which, from anatomy standards is broken. Are they too focused on the actual design to care that the woman looks like her leg isn’t connected to her hip?

    I read a response from one of Riot’s staff in regards to defending Sejuani’s design. They claimed that the character had to be designed such that, given the smaller scale of the avatars, other players could identify that the hero was female. At the time, this was the only hero riding a giant boar, but that as far as I know wasn’t mentioned by Riot, just that they wanted to avoid the female hero being mistaken as a male. Being that this was their reasoning for the design – they should work on it and get themselves more flexible artists who can actually take feedback on their designs, as right now they’re in the league of Rob Liefeld in how they’re being portrayed.

  5. Llamaentity says:

    Ditto what Nefa said.

    This conversation would be much more refreshing to read if they didn’t just recently come out with a whole bunch of artwork to try and make some of the champions more “sexy” (I can only guess that’s what they’re trying to do). In recent memory (within the last few months), they’ve come out with new splash art for Janna, Lux, Morgana, Miss Fortune, and Soraka (Soraka got a new in-game character model, as well).

    Janna’s, Morgana’s and Miss Fortune’s splash art weren’t good to begin with, and now they’re worse. Lux thankfully still wears clothes and armor, but her new pose in the splash art is just laughable (her neck and/or spine must be broken). Soraka’s new art of course makes her look more like most of the other women in the game. And Syndra, one of the most recent champions, has a similar body type with cleavage showing (no surprises there).

    For reference, here are some of the recent examples of art that I’m referring to:

    http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Janna_OriginalSkin.jpg
    http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Lux_OriginalSkin.jpg
    http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Morgana_OriginalSkin.jpg
    http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Miss_Fortune_OriginalSkin.jpg
    http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Soraka_OriginalSkin.jpg
    http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Syndra_OriginalSkin.jpg
    And hey, Zyra was released just over two months ago: http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Zyra_OriginalSkin.jpg
    And Diana’s extra skin, which debuted simultaneously with her release… just in case anyone was dissatisfied with her lack of skin showing: http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Diana_DarkValkyrieSkin.jpg
    The next two most recent women champions:
    Lulu’s a cool and fun champion, at least (a support champion, and her species is Yordle): http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Lulu_OriginalSkin.jpg
    Fiora is a fun champion… but what’s with her ridiculous pose in the splash art?: http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Fiora_OriginalSkin.jpg

    Syndra, Diana, and Zyra are the three most recent women champions released. Compare this to the most recent champions that are men (though some might prefer to say they are male as opposed to men because two of them aren’t human):
    Kha’zix: http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Kha%27Zix_OriginalSkin.jpg
    Rengar: http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Rengar_OriginalSkin.jpg
    Jayce: http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Jayce_OriginalSkin.jpg
    Two next recent human men:
    Draven: http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Draven_OriginalSkin.jpg
    Darius: http://leagueoflegends.wikia.com/wiki/File:Darius_OriginalSkin.jpg

    It’s no coincidence that every single time (except for once, long ago: Anivia… or maybe Cassiopeia counts as a second exception? She’s half-serpent and wears a bikini top…) a character isn’t specifically a human and looks considerably different from one, they are gendered male. To name some of them…: Kha’zix, Rengar, Hecarim, Volibear, Fizz, Skarner, Maokai, Renekton, Urgot, Blitzcrank, Kog’maw, Alistar, Galio, Cho’gath, Rammus.

    Of course, if they’d “need to be sexualized” if they weren’t going to be male, right? And since they’re not humans, that wouldn’t fit their ideas of sexy, I suppose. Unless there’s some reason other than institutionalized misogyny and/or lack of creativity that the non-humans happen to be male almost invariably.

    Well hey, I’m just glad that Anivia exists, even if she’s one of the first champions created for the game. And at least Varus and Ryze exist. Doesn’t make everything else that frustrates me about a lot of the art and champion design insignificant, though. :c

    But here’s hoping they improve on this matter and don’t continue with even these extremely recent trends. Not going to hold my breath, but I’ll try to be somewhat optimistic. I do play this game quite a bit with friends and family, after all, and I want things to improve.

  6. 01d55 says:

    What really drives me up the wall about Sejuani is how tiny she is, especially in comparison to every other element of her design – the boar, the mace, and even her hat!
    If her build signified strength, the oversize weapon would play into that (cf. Tryndamere). With her build signifying weakness, as it does, the oversized weapon is comical.

    I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen a woman’s bicep in even one piece of Riot splash art. The men, by contrast, are generally chiseled physiques, even the mages and ranged AD. (Notable exception: Ezreal, subject of endless “is actually a girl” ‘jokes.’)

  7. Chris Smith says:

    The whole thing just reads like someone frantically trying to get it, and failing horribly. “We hear you! Less sexy! But more sexy! And artists! And characterisation?”

  8. Jonathan says:

    Great article, and particularly timely as I’ve just been downvoted and insulted at Eurogamer for expressing concern that over 90% of the game’s audience is male.

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