You'll catch your death in that

Hugely successful gaming giant World of Warcraft has introduced a new package that allows even more customisation of player's avatars: including choosing skimpier outfits for female characters. Teri Shelly wonders what it means if she wants her avatar to wear a plate bikini

Terri Shelly, 2 February 2012

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World of Warcraft is probably the most successful computer game of all time. There can't be many people who don't know about it, even if they have no interest in gaming. And with 10.3 million subscribers world-wide, there's clearly a great deal of people that not only do know about its existence but also play it ...a lot.

Of course, whether these people enjoy the game is another matter. For a game as popular as WoW there's a great deal of negativity about it on the internet. After each WoW expansion (the fourth one - Mists of Pandaria - is due out next year), a solid core of players rise up in a furore about how the game has finally jumped the shark and announce that they are to leave the game forever (until they return after a few months time having realised how cold and lonely the non-Azeroth world really is).

No accusations of jumping the shark from me. I still love the game. I've been playing for a number of years (just after the Burning Crusade expansion launched). I play Bravetank - a level 84 character (soon to be level 85 - I can feel it) and I write about it all on my Bravetank blog. So far so good.

But some aspects of the game concern me - or at least my own attitudes to them concern me - and one of these aspects is the issue of in-game female attire.

Nearly 99% of a female character wearing plate bikini is uncovered - and don't forget they are likely playing a tank and so are expected to stand toe-to-toe with the enemy and take all the blows

I play most types of character in WoW (since I'm an indecisive "alt-holic" for whom the grass is always greener on the other side) but my current character of choice is Paladin and my current role of choice is Tank. This means I'm a hard-ass "come and hit me if you dare" character.

I can take the blows along with the best of them (not the face though, please not the face), but I do require a healer to heal me - at least now and again. Despite the fact I am a hard-ass tank repeated blows to the head from a mace do tend to have a somewhat detrimental affect on my well being.

To be a tank you usually need to wear plate (unless you're a Druid in which case you've got soft yet somehow sword-resistant fur to protect you ....what?...yes I know...). You also need a shield and something to hit people with. Just standing there and taking all the blows is generally frowned upon - although I've been known to make Bravetank do that while I go and get a cup of coffee.

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Here's an example of the kind of plate armour my character, Bravetank, gets to wear.

It's interesting in so many ways.

1. Stunning colours - I really do love the glowing pinky/red but not sure that an auburn headed woman like Bravetank can quite carry it off.

2. While there are definitely hairdressers in WoW (you can go to the barbershop and change your hair style) there is clearly also a waxing service of some kind.

3. While it is made of plate, there's not exactly a lot of it (putting it mildly). I mean, yes, her knees and shins are pretty well covered but generally speaking I think any enemy worth his/her salt would know at one glance the best place to aim their sword and they'd be looking a little higher than the knees.

4. The outfit looks very different on a male character - see it modelled on my husband's paladin below.


Anadinblood copy.jpg

Admittedly there is still a bit of midriff going on here - but very little, and the legs seem to have some extra coverage not found on the female set.

Now these are not the most extreme examples of the skimpy female clothing ever to grace WoW. There are other examples of what's called the 'plate bikini' - which looks exactly as it sounds.

Nearly 99% of a female character wearing plate bikini is uncovered - and don't forget they are likely playing a tank and so are expected to stand toe-to-toe with the enemy and take all the blows.

However, as WoW has developed, the worst excesses of the plate bikini style female costumes had been consigned to the game's history. Or they were.

Because, although Blizzard, the company that makes WoW did have even skimpier clothes for female characters at the start of WoW, most of the newer armour sets look pretty much the same on both male and female characters and cover most vulnerable areas.

Even the back of the ankle- an area I have perceived as particularly vulnerable ever since I saw Hostel.

But that was all before Patch 4.3, and the implementation of transmogrification. Transmogrification allows players more choice over their outfits. Where previously the clothes a character wore were closely linked to their level (how far they had progressed in the game), now they can wear older outfits transmogrified to have the same higher stats of their higher level outfits without it affecting their performance. Giving players a lot more choice over how they look in the game.

I like conveying the idea she can be sexual and feminine and powerful and capable all at once without sacrificing any part of this. Is that wrong?

Before transmogrification if you looted a skimpy top, and it was an upgrade, you probably had no choice but to wear it because you needed the stats. But if anyone commented you could explain that you had no choice and even act all affronted by the developers who created the armour set. But now that's no longer necessary, if you wear it, presumably, it is because you've chosen to wear it. And if you've chosen it that would suggest you like it. Some people feel very uncomfortable about revealing this.

I am conflicted. Part of me wants Bravetank to wear the outfit above - I really do like the colour! - but I feel guilty about it because of its skimpiness. Do I want Bravetank to be ogled and propositioned? No - not at all. Am I reinforcing ideas of women as sex objects by wearing such an outfit? I would hope not, but I don't know. I like the outfit. I do. I like her femininity being accentuated in a tanking role, which requires strength and stamina. I like conveying the idea she can be sexual and feminine and powerful and capable all at once without sacrificing any part of this. Is that wrong?

I feel this same tension women feel in real life when considering whether it is wrong to want to look good at work? Is that a form of capitulation to outmoded ideas of women and reinforcing an eye candy versus leadership role in the work place?

I don't know if I have a healthy attitude to my appearance or whether I'm shallow as hell. I don't know what I should/shouldn't think about my body any longer and I suspect I'm not alone.

There is definitely a part of me that thinks if my WoW character wears this gear she'll look like a slut and be regarded as such by others. People in the game will think I'm promiscuous - both virtually and perhaps in reality. Yes - my character's in-game appearance might lead people to draw conclusions about my character and behaviour in real life. This disturbs me hugely.

To paraphrase Darth Vadar, "The temptation to cover herself in sackcloth is strong in this one."

Is it wrong to want to be both strong and sexy? I don't think so - sexuality is an important part of our lives however much some of us might try to deny it. I think the real issue is perhaps the rather limited way in which sexiness is portrayed - usually an "in your face" exposure of female anatomy with no subtly, thought or creativity, and critically no clear link or connection to the strength and ability of the woman.

Appearance and skills are disconnected and polarised. Yet one's moral, sexual, intellectual and physical being should be united - and each should play off, reveal and reinforce the other. It is that which we are lacking in the online gaming world. The skimpy gear is, in the main, limited and one dimensional. And even if one ascribes meaning and value to it (as I have with Bravetank's look), those looking on only see skimpiness. Nothing else.

Can we expect the depth of character and sexuality described above to be conveyed in the armour sets in game and the looks given to male and female characters? These are merely games after all. Probably there are limits to what we can expect developers to do. But I think it needs to be looked at and explored, given the huge player base of these games and the powerful role games can play in shaping our perceptions of beauty, sexual attractiveness and female power.

We need to shift from one-dimensional, narrow and limiting portrayals of sexuality and attractiveness in game. We need to find a way to show that (for both male and female) sexuality and attractiveness is more than just skimpy gear and can in fact be something rooted in the strength, richness, complexity and wonder of our very selves - even our online pixellated selves.

Main image from Blizzard Entertainment.

Comments From You

Alice Stamataki // Posted 02 February 2012 at 13:40

Oh wow, I'm so glad someone else wrote about the transmog feature! I was half-assedly considering a blog post about it myself, but you've put my concerns into words quite as well as I could :) my main's a pally tank, like yours, and in particular I'm not happy with the latest tier set, which is a full-length set of white plate on males and a crop bikini top on female characters. If your tank is an 85 and likes to flatter herself as the best of the best, then you will need this armour. Yes, you can transmog it to look like something else - but part of the instant recognition of having tier gear is very useful, espc in pugs and the new raid finder feature. You're likely to have less 'OMG NOOB TANK' comments if something goes wrong, as they will instantly recognise your gear as the ultimate for your class (espc. this set's helmet is so instantly recognisable and just screams PALADIN with its pretty little wings). So there are negatives for trasmoging this away. As soon as I got the new tier chest, I remarked to my boyfriend - 'Wow - I feel cold'. This is easily covered up by a tabard, of course. But your point about whether this is objectifying women or empowering them is extremely relavent.

The fact is, this is a fantasy MMO. There are cow people, wolf people, and soon panda people. Realism isn't exactly high on the list of Blizzard's priorities. So quite feasibly, female characters should be able to tank in nothing resembling heavy armour and get away with it. HOWEVER. This should ALSO apply to male characters. I've been searching far and wide for a skimpy male set to give to my boyfriend's (male) character - just because I'm awesome like that, and if my character's going to be half naked, his sure as hell is too - but have failed so far to find anything. That's because Blizzard are operating under the misogynistic attitude that many players fall under, that All Gamers are (straight) Men. And (straight) men don't want to look at men, do they? Because men are icky. And stuff.

This is an attitude I find extremely annoying - in dungeons, I am constantly adressed as 'bro', 'dude' and 'mate' even when I am playing a variety of female characters - and when I correct them with a nice "sorry, but actually I'm a she :) " they react defensively to the point of ridicule "Omg fine, whatever" being a standard response. I've met many girls and women through wow who no longer challenge this default assumption of maleness, just because it's easier to let people assume you're male - you don't then run the risk of having your play style maligned on terms of gender (because, you know, girls don't play videogames) or sexually harassed. I don't know whether it is the same on Alliance - I'm a hordie to the death - but the more 'geeky' nature of Horde might have something to do with that. Perhaps there are more girls on alliance characters - perhaps there are more well-balanced people to whom WoW is just another fun thing to do in a series of fun things during the day - but Hordies in my experience tend to be very bad for this kind of behaviour. My guild has quite a few women, and we've discussed this at length - all of us seem to have had similar experiences.

To my mind, this kind of behaviour is more problematic than skimpy outfits. It's all part of a general puzzle that Blizzard needs to work on. I have no problem with sexy looking characters all over the place, but I would definitely like it if they were of both genders! (Unless you're a Tauren. God, you Allies are lucky you don't have female Tauren pallies running around the place in the latest Tier stuff...some things are best left unseen!)

Arioch // Posted 02 February 2012 at 22:03

"People in the game will think I'm promiscuous - both virtually and perhaps in reality." The funny part about this is that roughly 55% of all female characters are played by men. Now if only we knew if it was the men or women that were selecting the scanty armor more often... but assuming a 50/50 split, no one thinks any less of the men that choose to dress their toons this way. It shouldn't matter either way, the armor set is cute, if it makes you happy, wear it. Do you *really* care what all those strangers that don't know you as anything other than a pixelated tank think?

@Alice I think part of the issue with people getting a tad defensive in regards to being corrected for use of 'bro,' 'mate,' or 'dude' is that they are often employed in a gender neutral fashion (my father calls me 'dude' and I am most certainly not male, it's just his casual style) or they simply don't care that there are breasts on the other side of the computer screen.

I generally don't point out my gender unless it's pertinent to the conversation. Talking about relationships or fashion in guild chat might require a bit more background than assigning CC in a dungeon.

There are a couple PvP sets (at least on the horde side) that appear a bit on the skimpy side for the male models. The name escapes me at the moment, but I'm sure one of the available transmog tools could help you.

Katrina // Posted 04 February 2012 at 11:27

Hey all, another gamer (who happens to be female here).

Thank you for this article, you touch on several points that I've been trying to work my head around as well. The conclusions that I've managed to come to so far run something a little like this:

I believe that a woman shouldn't be judged on what she chooses to wear, if she is wearing skimpy clothing does not mean that she "wants it" etc etc. I believe that the same is true in a game as well, where in some ways you can have a greater degree of control over what your character/avatar looks like than you might do in real life, for example picking a certain build and having crazy hair cuts without having to spend all that time and money maintaining it and so on. I say wear your skimpy outfit if you like, it doesn't mean that others have a right to treat you any differently. Yes, there is a problem that some people you come across will treat you differently depending on what your avatar looks like, but I think it's good to challenge them and any assumptions they might have.

For what it's worth, the transmog gear I have for my main shows considerably more flesh than anyone who intends to go fight a fire-breathing, cataclysm-casting dragon might be really comfortable with, but, like you, I like the look. And I've not actually had any hassle as a result of it. The only comments I have had about the look is that it's "very roguey", "nice and understated" and words to that effect. Admittedly I've only really had any comments from my own guildies and other online friends, but if you just go out there and have confidence, I think you'll find that there's far less judgement than you might fear.

To be entirely honest, I think that I have actually had the most problems on my female orc alt. When hanging around Orgrimmar, there are certain people who seem to think it's okay to run up and tell her how "ugly" she is. Personally, I think she looks awesome, with her broad shoulders, muscular arms, chain mail, warhammer, spiky hair and a bad attitude. I get that not everyone will agree with me, and that's fine, we all have our own aesthetic values, but the community as a whole seems far better at accepting conventionally pretty and "sexy" characters.

On a sort of side note, I do think that there is a slow culture change going on in WoW as it becomes more mainstream and the gender balance becomes, well, a little less imbalanced. Historically in mmporgs a "real girl" was a rare thing, and more or less any female presenting character could get showered with gifts and attention. It still happens, but to a lesser degree, and I do think that there is an issue around some female players expecting, demanding and even competing with each other for this attention. There's an amusing example that I think captures the kind of thing that I mean here:

http://thenoobcomic.com/index.php?pos=209

The reason I think that this is relevant is that a lot of people online have now come across this sort of behaviour and so there is a danger that announcing that you are "a girl irl" will make them think that you are then expecting special treatment, extra loot etc. Obviously I don't think that this is what you are doing, but it means that letting people know that you are female is potentially going into some tricky territory. Also, I have a couple of friends online who deliberately don't let people know that they are female to avoid harassment.

I'm really not sure what is the right way forward here, should we be trying to subvert terms like "guys" and "dude" to make them gender neutral? Personally I have it kind of easy, being an officer in a reasonably successful raiding guild I have perhaps greater influence on the other players directly around me. I've asked the guild leader and other officers to remember that there are other female players, they might not all have announced themselves and when speaking to the guild (or raid) to use inclusive terms. They now do it more or less automatically, which means I think there's more of a culture of not assuming one way or another. Yeah, there's still some behaviour among guildies that I have to challenge on a semi-regular basis (not just from a feminist perspective either, there's all sorts of "isms" that rear their ugly heads from time to time), but I'm not the only one doing the challenging, and by and large people listen and will respect me when I explain why that's not appropriate language etc. Worst case, if someone continues to be abusive and unpleasant, they can be kicked out of the guild. It may not make a big difference in the greater scheme of things, but I think it makes a better and more welcoming culture, which I certainly hope is appearing more and more around the internet.


Anyway, good luck, and I hope you get the transmog gear that *you* want ;)

Shelly // Posted 05 February 2012 at 16:17

Thank you for reading and commenting. :) You are all right of course - my tank should wear what she wants to wear and I should care a lot less about people's perceptions of me and assumptions they might make. Will try it & see. I agree - the skimpier stuff should be available to both male & female. That's the key. Probably all sorts of assumptions would be made about a guy in the skimpier stuff too?

I've come across that "dude" thing as well - not just in game. My former boss used to call me it all the time. It was really odd. He didn't do it to anyone else. He also used to shorten my name. In the beginning I thought it was just friendliness - but later things happened to suggest a fundamental lack of respect and a view of me as some little thing that needed protecting (& he was completely not up to that even if I had needed it - which I didn't). So I have an aversion to that term anyway!!

Nikki // Posted 12 February 2012 at 16:23

"There is definitely a part of me that thinks if my WoW character wears this gear she'll look like a slut and be regarded as such by others. People in the game will think I'm promiscuous - both virtually and perhaps in reality.

A "slut"?! Do you mean she will look like a woman who enjoys sex and has a lot of partners? What's wrong with that? You may not be like that Terri. Fair enough, you might want to project an accuarte picture of yourself to others in the gaming world, but you strongly imply that a woman who does have that sort of sexuality should be ashamed of herself.

Shelly // Posted 16 March 2012 at 22:50

Apologies for only now responding. Couldn't sign back in! Thanks for the comment Nikki. I didn't mean to imply that a woman with that sort of sexuality should be ashamed of herself - not at all- but I did mean that I know some people do judge women with that sort of sexuality (hence the word "slut") and they could judge me in that way and that makes me uncomfortable (it shouldn't but it does). The fact that such negative conclusions could be drawn from the clothes itself was the main point - a side point not explored is why such sexuality is regarded in such a negative way.

Nikki // Posted 04 April 2012 at 06:50

"The fact that such negative conclusions could be drawn from the clothes itself was the main point - a side point not explored is why such sexuality is regarded in such a negative way." Indeed, but maybe the two are inextricably linked. Here's my tuppence worth. I think men have always sought to control women's sexual behaviour. The biological imperative dictates that a man must do everything he can to pass on his genes and so if he is having a sexual relationship with a woman he wants to ensure she is not having sex with other men as this could mean it may not be his genes which get passed on. There was a time when men basically did this by keeping women locked away in something like a harem. Some very powerful men fathered thousands of children this way. Of course most men weren't at all powerful, hence, the need for the development of the idea of monogamy and religious marriage with fidelity at its heart, as something to aspire to - basically the poor man's version of the harem; controlling a woman's sexual behaviour by a kind of brainwashing backed up by rigid female roles which ensured the woman would not come into much contact with men other than her spouse (Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and many other places today; Britain not that long ago). An important part of that brainwashing, particularly in societies where women's roles have become less strictly enforced (e.g. the west), has been the demonization of women with a healthy sexual appetite who sleep with a lot of men. Not long ago such women were burned at the stake as witches or ostracised for being harlots who led decent men astray. Men of course were never really responsible for their philandering, being powerless under the spell of wicked temptresses etc. With the waning of religion, this "evil women" spiel began to lack credibility. So instead, and up until very recently, such women were deemed mentally unstable and often locked away, or viewed as in need of therapy or drugs or even ECT. But this hostility has not gone away and, sadly, I think it is almost as prevalent among women as it is among men. Slut, tart, hussy, slapper. When men and women use these terms to refer to a woman I think it reflects that the woman's chosen sexual behaviour threatens them, and there was a time when, biologically/reproductively speaking, that would have made some sense. But this ancient prejudice no longer makes any sense as women - at least in some places - have taken control of their reproductive processes and can decide if or when they wish to conceive. Women who have a lot of sex with a lot of partners have no more or no less intrinsic worth than any other woman. Once this has been fully recognised by society, the idea that how a woman dresses could justify assertions about her moral worth will be seen as the nonsense it is.

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About the author

Terri Shelly

Teri Shelly lives in Wales but this does not mean that she is an expert in all things Dylan Thomas. However, she did once play tennis in his famous Cwmdonkin Park. She spends most of her time trying to play a tank in World of Warcraft and then writing about it in her Bravetank blog. She reads alot and runs a fair bit, sometimes impatiently trying both at the same time. It never ends well.

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