So, I was thinking about this game I'm writing. I mostly only have vague ideas at this point, but it's going to be one of those games where you control a human and explore the world and fight various enemies. And maybe you'll find various equipment – different weapons and armor that you can switch around.
I'm a mathematician, so I love generalizing things. So I looked at the switching-around system and said “How much can I generalize this?” And so I immediately thought of allowing you, the player, to switch off your arms and legs and replace them with robot arms and legs, or use cool bio-technology to give yourself tentacles instead. And you can't really have a “switch one thing for another” system unless you can switch one thing for nothing. Maybe you could take off your arms and sell them in a shop? Sounds ridiculous, but I've definitely played games where you can do things like that!
But anyway, the real thing I want to talk about isn't taking off your arms, it's just taking off your clothing, which has a lot of different social implications, for some damn reason.
So I've got a choice. Do I allow the player to have zir character take off all zir clothes,1 or don't I?
Suppose I do. Then I take a nice walk into the wonderful world of sexual exploitation! According to the stereotype, the people who will use this feature are mostly horny teenage male people who are sexually attracted to female people.2 Most people from the real world would be creeped out by the idea of a super-powerful being from another reality staring at them when they're naked, so it would be reasonable to assume that the character doesn't like it either.3 Which means that the player who does that is taking advantage of zir character; it's simulated voyeurism, and voyeurism is pretty icky.
Okay, that sounds bad. Suppose I don't do it. Then I enter the wonderful world of prudishness! I live in a society where nudity is a taboo; that social norm applies to most of the developed world, so statistically, since you're using the Internet, it's probably true where you are too. And it's really bad. Suppressing nudity, and suppressing depictions of nudity, makes people uncomfortable with their bodies. The fact that I am writing this post in the first place is because we think it's a big deal when someone isn't wearing any clothes. If people didn't think that being naked was inherently sexual, then the “sexual exploitation” thing wouldn't even be an issue. So if I design a game that could easily have the characters be naked, but doesn't, then I'm actively contributing to our taboos, and making the problem even worse – including the very problem that I described in the last paragraph!
Okay, time to settle down a bit.
The two opinions I just wrote are pretty standard opinions that apply to a lot of things. Look at advertisements on TV and the Internet. A lot of them have sexually suggestive pictures of female people who aren't wearing very much clothing. It's pretty terrible, because of the way it makes female bodies into something that's for sale, which makes some people look at female people more as objects than people, and so on. So there's a strong temptation to look at it, say “This is pretty terrible; let's fix it by doing the exact opposite!”, and then try to fix it by going on a crusade to eliminate all female nudity. Which is equally terrible, because when you do that, you're suppressing the sexuality of a lot of female people, and making them just as self-conscious about their bodies as they were when they were exposed to the mass of supposedly-perfect-looking images of their gender on TV and the Internet!4 Oh, and it makes people who think they're perceived as male be totally uncomfortable about expressing their sexual attraction, too.
There's a lot of issues that have similar temptations. Here's another example: Suppose I'm writing a story with a powerful, evil, controlling character. Suppose the character is male, cis, and generally gender-comforming. That's annoying because it's the cultural default – big surprise, it's another male person in control. I'm representing male people as being in control and female people (assuming there are female characters ze's manipulating) as being weak or powerless. So, suppose I decide I'll make the evil character be female instead. Then it gets worse! Because there are also stereotypes about female people being evil and controlling. Instead of being an “Oh jeez a man is in charge” story, it's a “You'd better watch out – don't put a woman in charge!” story. And if I make the character be androgynous, or a robot, or whatever, then it becomes an anti-androgyne or anti-robot story.
That's not a unique example. That kind of thing happens basically whenever you write a story that has people with genders in it. This sounds like a job for...5
Yeah, you can have the same story, except put a lot of other characters in it that contradict the same stereotypes. Like I could have the evil male dominator, and also have an evil female dominator. Or I could have just the evil female dominator and have a secondary female character who has a lot of authority and uses it well. Or I could make there be a lot going on in the character's life that makes you sympathize with zem and not think of zem as a stereotype, even if you still don't like the way ze's all evil and stuff.
On the other hand, that doesn't solve my original problem from this post.
On the third hand, my original problem is easy to solve. If I write the game in a way where it fits,6 then I'll have the nudity in it. Problem solved!
All we need is a slightly different perspective on the objectification issue. A game is just a way for you to imagine stuff, and it's ridiculous to say that a person can't imagine all the naked, sexually available people ze wants to, within the privacy of zir own head. A game isn't responsible for people's sexual objectification of female people, unless the game is designed in a way that especially encourages it. In fact, by having the characters in my game appear with a variety of different human body types, I could be improving the overall social justice of their sexual fantasies!
Plus, there are lots of good reasons to allow naked characters. Like, because it's totally awesome to go around kicking ass without wearing anything, regardless of your gender or sex, and games are a vehicle for imagining that you are the character in the game. And because it's a challenge, if the clothing in the game is actually useful for anything. In the game Nethack, one of the fun ways to restrict your play is the “naked” challenge – try to win the game without ever wearing any clothing or equipment.7
That's one difficult question answered, I guess. I like having answers to difficult questions!
- Assuming ze was wearing any in the first place. I think it's pretty cool to give the player complete freedom of choice by not sending them into the game with clothes already chosen for them, but that's a different issue. back
- Well, that wouldn't happen if the character never looks female. But if the character is always male, that's just the same old male-as-default sexism that's been around for ages; I'm not going to do it. I suppose I could make the character always be androgynous, but recently, I've been deciding that it's a better idea to show diversity than to gloss over it. back
- Well, not really. There's plenty of people in real life who are totally okay with other people looking at them in a sexual way, so it wouldn't be reasonable to assume that everybody isn't. But saying “Maybe the character is okay with it!” is a pedantic excuse. back
- I'm being a bit careless about the exact boundaries of gender here. For instance, these things can also hurt people who are not female but are assumed to be female by others. I regret that I haven't found a way to describe it better. A previous version of this post tried to be more inclusive by making distinctions between people's gender, their bodies, and their gender presentation, but I have since realized that I was making the wrong distinctions. back
- “Sounds like a job for” is a cultural reference to the line “This sounds like a job for... Superman!”. I said I'd avoid unnecessary cultural references, but in this case, the line has the same meaning regardless of whether you get the reference. On the other hand, most people will probably read this footnote, which wastes lots of extra time, and maybe therefore means that making the reference had a bad effect after all! back
- Which I probably won't, because I don't have nearly enough time to write the whole game before my tablet arrives and I start doing the graphics stuff instead. back
- Of course, Nethack doesn't have a graphical display, just text, so it avoids the issue of whether to display nudity. back