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  • The Aesthetics of Unique Video Game Characters

    [05.20.10]
    - Shaylyn Hamm
  •  Chapter 1: Introduction

    Throughout the diaspora of modern games, female characters are not rare. There are many games with females as main playable characters as well as supporting roles, yet it is not uncommon for female audiences to find these characters unlikable and difficult to relate to. They are often hyper-sexualized, with generic, young faces and outfits that are more revealing of their bodies than a personality. These female characters are stark contrasts to the aesthetic goals of the male characters which encompass a much larger range of body types, costumes, and facial features.

    The video game industry is comprised largely of male developers, as well as is its largest target audience. The desires of this demographic are clearly understood by those who create the games, and both male and female characters reflect this. However, the game industry is always expanding and changing, and more diverse groups of people are becoming interested in video games. Girls may find video games very boy-centric and become alienated from them as a result. This field review explores the aesthetics of female game characters and different ways that they can be designed. If it is possible to create female characters that are more universally attractive, unique, and likeable, the video game industry would be tremendously helped with its efforts to reach out to a broader range of audiences.

    Chapter 2: Field Review

    Video games span a wide range of genres, and the characters that fill their worlds come in all shapes, styles and levels of abstraction, from cartoonish to hyper-realistic. Because of the variation in possible visual styles, artists are able to use their creativity in countless ways to create appealing and unique characters for their games.

    Valve Corporation's first person shooter, Team Fortress 2, is a strong example of character variety in a video game. Each one of the nine classes was designed to be instantly recognizable by their silhouette, and to appear visually clear, even when seen from a distance. "The body proportions, weapons and silhouette lines as determined by footwear, hats and clothing folds were explicitly designed to give each character a unique silhouette. In the shaded interior areas of a character, the clothing folds were explicitly designed to echo silhouette shapes in order to emphasize silhouettes, as observed in the commercial illustrations which inspired our designs" (Dhabih, Franke, Mitchel, 2007). As a result, the game appears lively and diverse, and a distinct sense of personality emerges from each of the characters.

    For example, the Medic class of TF2 is portrayed as a German doctor. His outfit is an original design, but it suggests connections to the Nazi uniforms of World War II through elements such as his dress boots, trousers, even his hairstyle. His posture is rigid and militaristic as well, and these features go a long way in defining the personality of a character that has extremely little official background.


    Figure 1 - The Medic class of Team Fortress 2. Valve Corporation, 2007.

    Another example from TF2 is the design of the Heavy Weapons Guy (Heavy) class. The minigun he carries is immense, and his huge frame seems completely suitable for carrying such a weapon. His top-heavy frame suggests great upper-arm strength, while his tiny legs don't get in the way of the bulk of the gun while he carries it. He is extremely large and overweight, rather than overtly muscular. His character is tastefully designed, expanding on the stereotype of fat characters, rather than mocking it.


    Figure 2 - The Heavy Weapons Guy class of Team Fortress 2.


    Figure 3 - The nine classes of Team Fortress 2


    Figure 4 - Team Fortress 2 silhouettes

    Although female characters are abundantly found in video games, the way their designs are typically approached is in stark contrast to the characters of Team Fortress 2.

    The majority of game developers and the target audience for many popular and successful games are male. Therefore, it makes sense from a profit-oriented standpoint to create female characters that are, above all else, overtly sexual by design. The idea that "sex sells" is very common, and is applied to nearly every facet of the entertainment industry. Video games are well known for reflecting and following the trends of pop culture, especially action movies. For decades, movies have cast women in roles that are based solely on the characters' sex appeal. While many male actors continue to perform lead roles into their 60's and 70's, women lose their lead roles at much earlier ages, and are no longer considered sexy or ideal. This way of thinking is very prevalent in the entertainment and marketing world, and has strongly influenced the way video game development is viewed. Despite this fact, many girls and women who enjoy playing video games, even the ones with very male-oriented themes.

    As well-crafted and standard-setting as the TF2 cast is, there is something missing: female characters. While the game industry is filled with famous fictional women, they tend to lack what the TF2 guys, and a lot of other groups of male characters, have: variety. Even in games with a well-rounded male cast, the ladies tend to look like dress-up dolls with a few different sets of clothing and wigs. (Pickens, 9)

    If female video game characters were designed with more subtlety, variety, and gender-neutral appeal, perhaps more girls would be interested in trying out and enjoying genres of games that normally only accommodate the male gender. Just as many female gamers find the TF2 characters unique and charming, diverse and compelling. Additionally, female characters need not turn off or alienate male gamers.

    The issue this project will address is the homogeny of female game characters. The kind of deficit of uniqueness in question refers to the character's visual design, how it relates to the game world and how the character's visual design supports personality and adds depth and overall appeal. While the character's in-game personality is influenced strongly by non-visual factors such as her voice, attitude, actions, etc., her appearance plays an over-arching primary role in how she is received.

    For example, the male characters in the game Gears of War (Epic Games, 2006) reflect the dismal, harsh post-apocalyptic world they fight in. The art style of the game is highly dramatic, and accentuates the damage inflicted on a once-normal society. The masculinity of the characters is exaggerated by their huge, battle-scarred forms, and they seem almost as intimidating as the monsters they are fighting. On the other hand, Lieutenant Anya Stroud is the only female character in the game. She is young, presumably in her early 20's, with a flawless appearance. While not overly-sexual by design, she shows no scars, age, or other features that relate to the world that the men are so physically tied into. Her personality is calm, her background is undeveloped and she seems very detached from the game, as if she were included only to represent a pretty face. The bombed-out buildings and cars have more of a sense of history than Anya Stroud. Could a female character, perhaps older, with a few battle scars, or some gritty humor added to her appearance, be suitable for Gears of War? If such a character were designed, could she possibly appeal to potential female gamers and males as well? If she were portrayed with the same respect and visual interest as the rest of the cast, females may be more inclined to give a game like Gears of War a chance.


    Figure 5 - Battle-hardened main characters of Gears of War. Their figures are exaggerated and stylized to fit the dismal post-apocalyptic setting of the game. Epic Games, 2006.


    Figure 6 - Anya Stroud, Gears of War. Epic Games, 2006.

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