Why is the game industry still fixated on breasts?

15th Mar 2013 | 15:17

From Lara Croft to Madison Paige, gaming has long had an uncomfortable, and often distorted, obsession with the female form.

Gaming’s obsession with breasts is part of a juvenile medium’s awkward process of floundering towards mature themes. We saw the same thing happen in comic books. Anyone over 30 who grew up reading Marvel superheroes vividly remembers the moment in the late ’80s when suddenly breasts got very big and costumes very small, as though comics themselves had violently hit puberty. By the early ’90s, women heroes were grotesquely thin, bulbous, swaybacked creatures.

Videogames, arriving much later but evolving much faster, were dying to get in on the action even before the technology got up to speed. As early as 1982, people ploughed through the abysmal Atari 2600 title Custer’s Revenge for the ‘reward’ of glimpsing a few pink pixels in the rough outline of a breast. In 1992, the rumour of nude breasts was enough to propel FMV slasher Night Trap to notoriety, and it wasn’t even true. In 1994’s Killer Instinct, one glimpse of Black Orchid’s malformed plastic nubs struck opponents dead with horror.

This line between objectification and violence remains thin today. To their credit, many expressed outrage upon learning that the collector’s edition of Dead Island Riptide would come with a statue of a dismembered torso in a region-appropriate bikini, every trace of identity torn away, with horrible wounds all over bar for the large, round breasts.

From the concubines of God Of War and the strippers of Duke Nukem to the topless NPCs of Elder Scrolls and the steamy showers of Heavy Rain, bared breasts are now an important but invisible bullet point on the back of many a game box, no longer the sole province of cult niches such as the Leisure Suit Larry series. Playboy publishes a semi-annual Girls Of Gaming feature, with characters such as Rayne from BloodRayne rendered topless.

Even when women in games manage to stay clothed, their breasts often remain a point of fixation. Rosemary from Metal Gear Solid 4 speaks seriously while you use the Sixaxis pad to quiver each of her breasts, just for kicks. It’s an Easter egg that veers perilously close to being a humiliating fondling simulator. Only rarely are breasts emphasised in a strong or maternal light, as in the case of Princess Gwynevere from Dark Souls, whose imposingly copious frame transcends sexualisation like an ancient fertility icon.

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Muscle-bound male avatars set equally unattainable body standards for men, who generally look no more like Kratos than most women do Bayonetta. But unlike muscles, gigantic breasts are not necessarily signs of health and capability. If they were real, the female fighters in everything from Darkstalkers to Dead Or Alive would be crippled by back pain. Samus Aran, an oft-cited female role model, would get terribly chafed for the questionable choice of wearing a flirty bikini top under her armour in Metroid. Lulu from Final Fantasy X could hardly get off a fire spell for hiking up her décolletage. Queen Odette from Odin Sphere would simply snap in half.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming of idealised versions of ourselves. But when male fantasies are projected onto both sexes, female players who want empowered characters to identify with are left out. Oversized busts may be an aspect of body image bias rather than a flaw unique to videogames, but they reaffirm the stereotype, contrary to all data on skyrocketing female participation, that gaming is a boys’ club. It’s a stereotype that looks like fact when you consider the tiny percentage of females working in this industry.

Having more women in this fraternity-like culture could help diversify the measurements of our top-heavy heroines, but a hurdle would remain: public calls for realistic proportions are sometimes at odds with consumer demands. It’s long been suspected that Dead Or Alive – the fighting series that branched out into beach volleyball and became famed for its bosom physics – is popular mainly for its mammaries. Consider, for instance, that when developer Team Ninja tried reducing the cup sizes in the Dead Or Alive 5 demo, it had to quickly double them back after core fans protested.

There are signs of progress, though. The most famous breasts in games belong to Lara Croft, and were created at the slip of a mouse. Lead designer Toby Gard accidentally increased her breast size to 150 per cent, creating an iconic pair of sharp-tipped cones. They became more rounded and realistic as the series progressed, but stayed huge, leaving Croft stranded between sex doll for boys and role model for girls. That tension is finally resolved in the Tomb Raider reboot, which features a more athletically built Croft. But executive producer Ron Rosenberg tainted its female-friendly pedigree when he said players didn’t identify with Croft so much as they wanted to protect her, especially when scavengers were trying to rape her. Yes, progress is always staggered, but are we moving two steps forwards and one back, or vice versa?

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