Monday, October 24, 2011

Beyond the Girl Gamer 3.1: Box it Up

Beyond the Girl Gamer: Introduction | 1.1 | 1.2 | 1.3 | 1.4 | 2.1 | 2.2
[This post is very image-heavy and so much of it is behind a jump.]

The discussion so far, over the last six months or so, has focused on what we see inside games: how the characters, both player and non-player, are designed; how the characters comport themselves; how the scenery of the narrative world is arranged for the male gaze; that the scenery of the world is, in fact, arranged; and how so many of the game worlds we visit use the same tropes to tell the same stories with the same kind of gender problems built into them.

The umbrella of "games, gaming, and gamer culture," though, goes well beyond the in-game, narrative, digital worlds.  Arguably, the biggest and most persistent problems we face aren't in the text, but rather, are wrapped around it.  And so we reach the third bucket of this series: marketing.

We've looked at the existence of the Chainmail Bikini trope before (1.2), but the problems of female characters in game marketing are bigger than, well, boobs.  Broken down, we're presented with two major areas of concern: the invisibility of non-sexualized female characters in marketing art, and the over-visibility of minor female characters just for the sex appeal.

A huge number of games do this.  After thinking of some on my own, I put the question to Twitter and received another few dozen suggestions in the first hour.  Sadly, there's no shortage of examples.

The most talked-about in recent months surely must be Mass Effect.  Here are the Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 cover art:

That's not a bad looking man in the N7 armor.  Commander Shepard is flanked by Garrus and Ashley on the first cover, and enjoys the company of Miranda and Thane on the second.  Only here's the Commander Shepard rather a lot of us played:

The first half-dozen usable returns I got for a "FemShep" search on Google.
Now, granted, in the context of the Mass Effect franchise this particular marketing omission has already been the topic of very much discussion, and going into Mass Effect 3, BioWare are indeed taking a different tactic.  One wonders, then, if they will be persuaded to consider the presence of women in Ferelden for marketing the third installment of their other (parallel) epic franchise, Dragon Age.  Here's the cover to Dragon Age II:
And yet, once again, rather a lot of players saw a different Hawke entirely:

Again, the first half-dozen images I found on a GIS for "female Hawke."
Really, we could do this all day.  There's Fable III (Fable and Fable II had very similar covers):

And though Fable III doesn't offer nearly the level of character customization that goes into, say, Commander Shepard, the would-be monarch does indeed come in both male and female versions.

A small sample of the many looks my Princess/Monarch tried over the course of her adventures.

Examples abound, and always have; these are just three current iterations of the same old problem.  It's a good thing, a great thing even, when a game gives as much character customization as possible, and allows the player to choose a male or female visual appearance for their avatar.  In fact that's my favorite arrangement in most games.  And yet over and over, we see marketing featuring a "canonical" or "default" avatar who is, of course, a white dude*.  Other suggested examples included Guitar Hero, Dragon Quest IX, a dozen different fighting-type games, a slew of Ultima titles, and this whole post at The Border House (featuring some of the same titles shown here).

Then there's the other half of the problem, perhaps best exemplified by the U.S. cover to Heavy Rain:

A casual shopper could easily be forgiven for assuming that Madison Paige is the main character of the story.  She's the one artfully placed in the front, there, with the game's title directly over her plunging cleavage and with the framing of elements minimizing her waist and drawing the viewer's eye roughly to her left breast.  Although some of Madison's screen time is indeed among the most memorable and problematic of the game**, she is not the focal character of the game.  She and Norman (the man to her left, in the suit) are tied for "least important" of the four player characters.  Whose story is it, actually?

Ethan Mars; Scott Shelby
These guys.  The two men featured here are the most important characters; Heavy Rain is a game about them.  But let's say you didn't want to reveal that in your marketing.  Let's say that you want the uninitiated player to move fluidly among the four player characters, as scripted, and you wanted that player to come to his or her own conclusions about who was most important to the story.  It's essentially a murder mystery, after all, a thriller about capturing a serial killer before he kills again.  Perhaps you want to misdirect the potential player.  You could therefore put the woman and her secondary sex characteristics front and center for a distraction tactic... or you could do this:

Heavy Rain, European edition

And in fact there are a tremendous number of solutions already out there in that vein.  You can feature a symbol...

...or you can feature a memorable antagonist...

...get artistic perhaps, and showcase the setting...

...put a human on the box, but with ambiguous physical features...

...or of course, you could even decide that the featured character among your ensemble might actually be a woman.

I won't hold my breath waiting for that last option to become more commonplace anytime soon, JRPGs notwithstanding.

Though these issues do exist, they might not matter.  The relevance of cover art may, after all, be on a permanent decline.  It's hard to judge the Kindle edition of a book by its cover, and harder still to judge a digitally delivered game by one.  As disc-based distribution drops off, and brick-and-mortar game retail slows with it, both the problematic and the perfect examples will matter less.

But while the packaging itself may eventually cease to be of concern, other advertising (commercials, print ads, net/social media presence, etc) is an enormous expenditure for every AAA studio.  Where do those succeed or fail, and what can change going forward?  We'll look at that in the following chapters.

*Having not played Dragon Age 2, I don't know what skin color options are available in the character creator.  I did find other non-white variations on Commander Shepard but most of the images were too small or low-quality to use.  Fable III offers only a white player character.

**Okay, I admit that the most memorable scene of the game is probably if you reach and choose to complete the Lizard trial.  I have to leave the room for that one. *shudders*  And the memorable parts of that don't have Madison.  Still, point stands. 


  1. A full range of skin color options are available for DA2, and the rest of your family changes skin color so they basically match yours.

  2. Ah, so it's like Fallout 3 that way.  Interesting, then, that via Google I found less variation in (female) Hawke types than in (female) Shepard types.  I wonder if it was just the vagaries of image search, or if it's something different about the way people approach sci-fi vs. high fantasy.  *files that idea away for later*

    Thanks for the clarification!

  3. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is another up-coming example of this marketing trend. Despite being able to play a female character, the game's cover art and 99% of its marketing shows only male player characters. It took quite a bit of research when I first heard about the game to even find out that you could select your gender, which is a major flaw to this marketing trend.

    For an interesting reversal of the trend, the old PS2 games Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance (1 and 2) had only female characters on their cover art despite the majority of playable characters in the game being male. it's actually what got me interested in the games and a fan of that genre/series. I haven't seen any recent games that have done this tho, so that marketing technique seems to have fallen by the wayside.

  4. I think the low-point in Bioware marketing was back in their NWN days:

  5. That is so awful as to be hilarious.  I think it's the best / worst example of gratuitous boobs in ads yet, heh.  Thanks for that -- I may actually use it in one of the next chapters!

  6. hah! i can't believe that's actually a nwn ad.

  7. blizzard's other gender marketing problems notwithstanding, i have to say that i always found their box covers to be sensational. it's the same note, again and again--the face of the enemy or hero, staring out at you--but its a damn good note. i'm pretty sure diablo's iconic image still occasionally shows up in my nightmares.

    and that european heavy rain box cover is so, so much better than the american version. it's staggering how much creepier and more affecting it is.

  8. When we got home from work, my husband read this post then called me over to his computer and said he wanted to show me something.  He'd lined up a whole crapton of Final Fantasy covers in both their North American and their Japanese versions.  Over and over, the US version was covered in characters, especially women, where the Japanese covers were minimalist, with logos and white space.  Frankly I think on a US store shelf, the white space stands out more -- nearly every other cover has taken the ensemble cast approach that we've had since the film posters of the 70s.

    Blizzard's an interesting case, with box art vs. advertising.  In particular, how the Diablo, Starcraft, and even Warcraft franchises overall have a certain look, but then World of Warcraft was sold with an alluring feminine face on the cover.

  9. hm. i didn't remember that about wow. i was late to the party so all i remembered was the face from the lich king and cataclysm expansions. but i'm not sure "alluring" is the adjective i'd use to describe it. that night elf doesn't really look very happy to have people staring at her.

    on the other hand, we are staring at her, and she is basically the only beautiful character on any warcraft box ever (trust me--i own them all), and the other marketing images seem to confirm that blizzard does delve into fanservice.

    so, basically, i knew there was a reason i never liked wow all that much.

  10. Come play, my lord...

  11. The SNES US-released Final Fantasies were good about this: FF2 had the logo on a red field, FF3 was the logo on a black/purple field with Mog leaning against it. Minimalist, although not as much as the Japanese releases. I think the Game Boy FF-branded side series games (Adventure, Legends 1-3) released at the same time had similar covers.

    They've gotten busier more recently, but in some cases that can be forgiven. FF12 is basically Star Wars so an ensemble cover seems appropriate. The FF13 US cover is, as far as these thing go, restrained.

  12. Or you could go, in the RPG route where you can choose your character's gender, you could show both options like Jade Empire.