The overdue, broad-strokes conversation about sexism in gaming over the past year has been painful, important, and absolutely necessary. It has also been so general, in part because of the ubiquity of unacknowledged gender and sex problems in every domain of gaming and game culture, that it has ignored the contours of specific forms of sexism. That is, it has been a truism for years to anyone with a brain that games are sexist, and for us the analysis of sexism in games has not gone far past this fact, into the complex interactions of culture and behavior that create individual instances of sexism and sexist representation. The question has been "Yes or no?" not "Why?"
In April, the writer Jason Schreier posted a brief conniption on the enthusiast website Kotaku, entitled "Game Developers Really Need to Stop Letting Teenage Boys Design Their Characters." The piece concerned the appearance of some of the female characters in Dragon's Crown, an action game by the Japanese studio Vanillaware. You can find weirdly slobbering descriptions of these characters elsewhere, but suffice it to say that some of their parts are much, much bigger than they should be, and others, much smaller.
Dragon's Crown is not a AAA title, and Schreier's swipe probably would have come and gone unheeded, except the game's art director, George Kamitani, responded to Schreier by posting on Facebook a picture of three of the game's musclebound and hirsute dwarves in some kind of shirtless congress and suggesting in the caption that perhaps Schreier preferred this to the alternative. Though Kamitani immediately apologized to anyone he offended through his post, which he claims was turned into a gay joke by a nefarious Japanese-to-English translation program, the damage had been done. Enthusiast sites and forums exploded. Dragon's Crown became the latest battleground in what has been an extraordinarily vituperative debate over the past year concerning the role of women characters in games.
Vanillaware's game comes out for Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita tomorrow, and early reviews of Dragon's Crown have revived the bad feelings. The anger this time centers around Danielle Riendeau's thoughtful review for Polygon, which gave the game a 6.5 on a 10-point scale, docking it for those character designs. Wrote Riendeau:
Dragon's Crown's serious liberties with female anatomy are distracting. Two player characters — the Amazon and the Sorceress — are explicitly sexualized, with breasts literally bigger than their heads with rear ends to match, and plenty of the screen real estate is dedicated to their respective jiggles and sashays. But at least these characters are powerful women, with agency and a penchant for destroying rooms full of bad guys.
The same can't be said for the female NPCs that fill Dragon's Crown's dungeons and other environments. Most of the women in the game are barely clothed, with heaving chests, backs twisted into suggestive positions, some with their legs spread almost as wide as the screen. They're presented as helpless objects, usually in need of rescue. It's obvious, one-sided and gross.
The last sentence here echoes the central point of the critic Anita Sarkeesian's exhaustive web series Tropes vs. Women in Gaming — itself a source of massive controversy — essentially, that male characters in gaming have all the agency, and that women characters are there to be rescued. Riendeau and Sarkeesian are both obviously correct, and in many ways the "controversy" over their positions strikes me as a kind of non-debate: Their opponents rely on absurd false equivalence positions such as "men in video games are also cartoonish" and "having a woman review Dragon's Crown is like having a World War II vet review a Call of Duty game", which, no, I'm not making up, people like that do exist on the internet.
But there's something else going on in the debate over Dragon's Crown, and I don't want to let it go unnoticed. Dragon's Crown is an extremely unlikely flashpoint for a major debate about representations of sexuality and gender in gaming. Vanillaware makes minor games for a niche audience; this isn't a game with the audience to move the cultural needle. And George Kamitari's characteristic aesthetic has much more in common with a certain kind of manga — Japanese comic — than it does with most game art in 2013. Anyone who has seen a handful of anime films or flipped through a manga in a Nijiya Market will be familiar with the discomfiting mix of the childlike and the absurdly sexualized that marks this style. The undistilled variation in Dragon's Crown is clearly intended for an American audience that is already quite familiar with the visual and narrative tropes of Japanese games and pop culture. That might explain's Schreier's visceral reaction to it; he's an outspoken lover of Japanese games and he frequently expresses dismay over their diminishing importance. The art style of Dragon's Crown is obviously at odds with a broader American game culture that is coming to terms with its disastrous treatment of women.
The truth is that many of the finest Japanese series of the past two decades — Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, Ninja Gaiden, Resident Evil, and so on — some of which are set in worlds that are meant to be taken far more seriously than George Kamitari's, also contain laughably sexualized female characters. Of the many ways in which Japanese games seem to us to be lagging, this is a tragic one, because as anyone who plays these games knows, their visual style is often one of the best things about them. Indeed, it's not politic to say, but Dragon's Crown, despite its highly distasteful female character designs, is also a staggeringly beautiful game. It's a reminder that foreign games, like foreign films and books in translation, can be wonderful vessels of culture. For a medium that has come to be visually dominated by the grays and greens of lookalike science fictions, and the tiresome quest for photorealistic open worlds, the watercolor delights of Dragon's Crown are a tonic.
I don't read Japanese, and I'm not an expert in manga or Japanese pop art. But I know enough about cultural differences to realize that a blanket judgment of the art style of Dragon's Crown that uses as its ethical and moral standard Western progressive gender politics is probably going to miss something. And I fear that these judgments might reveal a prejudice in our own culture, one that paints the East as an oversexed foil. And that would be a shame.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.