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On Game Art and Objectification, Part II

Jason Beck
United States
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Felix alearum famis! Et posse impares sumus erimus en tui semper favoris.
Proprietor of The Bored Gaymer, BGG's most popular blog with the words "Bored" and "Gaymer" in the title!
Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love chainmail bikinis

This is the second post in the imaginatively-titled "Game Art and Objectification" series that is intended, somewhat unsurprisingly, to deal with art in games and sexualized objectification as it pertains to such. The first post dealt with whether or not this was even a queer issue and, though some of my commenters appeared to disagree, I do think it is. This post will be dealing with whether or not this kind of objectification spills over into our hobby (that is, the playing of games).

Whether or not sexualized objectification spills over into gaming is, I think, a question with a fairly obvious answer: Yes, of course it does. Sex is pervasive and, really, there isn’t any reason to think that it wouldn’t spill over into gaming. Video games provide startlingly obvious examples of this (Tomb Raider, Dragon Age, Soul Caliber, the list of video games with attractive female characters in various states of undress is fairly lengthy), but board games aren’t immune to this, either.

Many of the games that feature artwork with attractive, clearly-sexualized women seem to have been influenced at least a little by the fantasy genre. The genre itself is actually an excellent example of this kind of sexualized objectification: women in fantasy tend to fall into fairly specific tropes (powerful sorceress, bewitching temptress, damsel in distress, &c.), tropes that frequently sexualize women, often in unrealistic ways. The armor that women wear in these tropes, for example, is often ridiculous: no one is going to run into battle wearing a chainmail bikini.

Female figures themselves are often voluptuous or otherwise extremely "feminine", even if they are martial characters, carrying sword and shield into battle. More "masculine" looking women are rarely presented in these works (and this is very applicable to RPGs, too, not just to literary representations or video games), despite the fact that female warriors would require the kind of training and musculature to go into battle that might render them less classically "feminine" and therefore attractive. (A notable exception to this being the character of Brienne of Tarth in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, though he goes out of his way to describe how truly, truly ugly she is.)

This spill-over is readily apparent in even a cursory examination of board games (and, as I noted, is stunningly obvious in both video and role-playing games). Munchkin may be an interesting example of this trope insofar as it attempts to poke fun at it (and therefore acknowledges its existence), though Red Dragon Inn is, I think, a better one. In the base game, there are two male and two female characters: a priestess and a warrior/tank.

The priestess herself has enormous breasts and is, insofar as these things are possible, attractive. The warrior is attractive, too, and one of her cards even makes reference to chainmail bikini jokes. You may reasonably assert that this game is a send-up of the genre as well (and not be unreasonable in doing so), but, again, making fun of a topic requires the topic’s existence.

There are, of course, plenty of other examples of this, so let’s move on to a different genre. Last Night on Earth (yes, I’m returning to it again, but I usually only pick on games that I like) has a style of art that is deliberately evocative of B-level zombie movies and the women in it are photographed in a manner fitting said style. Interestingly, you can actually buy pin-ups of the women (though not of the men). And yes, of course, this is deliberate, but it is spill-over into the hobby.

This trend of sexualized objectification is not just limited to these specific instances. Twilight Imperium features a race of, uh, snake women, I guess (the Naalu) who, somewhat inexplicably, have breasts. Is there a reason for this aside from objectification? I’m not really sure that there is.

The point, though, is that this kind of objectification can spill over because of genre, because of well-worn tropes, because of imitation, or for other reasons.

Behind this spill-over is, I suspect (that is, aside from the usual "sex sells" argument), the ongoing (or at least lingering) notion that these things (games, fantasy, and so on) are mostly for heterosexual males. And, indeed, there is some truth to this stereotype (at least to an extent, though an ever-diminishing truth, I should think), so it remains unsurprising that sexualized imagery should be inserted into the hobby in such a fashion.

The art for men can, of course, be sexualized too, but it often seems to be sexualized in a different manner. That is, the picture of a strong, virile male/knight rescuing the beautiful (but ultimately helpless) lady/princess isn’t one that necessarily evokes a vibe of, "This man is being sexualized so that people will be attracted to him" so much as a vibe of, "This man is being sexualized so that people will want to be him." Who, after all, wants to be a beautiful (but helpless) damsel? But, then, who wouldn’t want to be the effortlessly-muscular hero who saves the world, gets the girl, and probably subverts some troublesome social norms (he is probably a Commoner Who Gets to Become Royalty) in the process?

So the short answer is this: Yes, sexualized objectification spills over into "our" hobby. It does this for a variety of reasons, and is, to an extent, so "normal" or "acceptable" that most people probably don’t even give it a second thought. There’s a sorceress in the game? Check. And she has large breasts? Check. Our work here is done? Check.
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