When Will My Reflection Show Who I Am Inside?

Do you remember the time Jessica Chobot licked a PSP?

That hot and spicy picture swept the internet as one of the earliest game memes that went viral around the web.  A picture so iconic that it was copied and recopied to the point where it was eventually featured in Sony’s own marketing schemes.

Launching her career, it net Chobot a very real job at IGN, features on G4 and Tech TV, and exposure to the effect that nearly a decade later, she still maintains over 100,000 followers on Twitter. And since then, Chobot has managed to uphold a serious and contributory career in the industry.

What does this say about the gaming industry, though? What it says about every industry: sex sells.

Before the licking, there were already conversations about sex and video game culture. Chobot was hardly perpetuating anything that was not already happening. But before her, there were few real girls in this boyish culture with an ounce of cultural capital or celebrity. Instead, we would frequently see hot-or-not listings of the sexiest video game characters in the biz. You might see Cammy or Chun-Li, maybe the girls from Dead or Alive, and sometimes, as odd as it sounds, Peach from Super Mario Bros. A little strange to me, but people like what they like—don’t judge.

It seems to me that there is, and has been for some time, a sexualization of video game culture. But why?

Supposedly, the average social (online) gamer is a 43 year old woman. The average age of a gamer in general is around 30. And the percentage of those who regularly purchase games is pretty evenly divided between male and female by 52-48% respectively. If that’s really true, then why does it seem that there is a strong dominance in the marketing and positioning towards boys?

C.R.E.A.M. is an obvious answer. Cream gets the money. Boys must be the most profitable market (or maybe, they’re the only profitable market). But is that really true? Just Dance 3 was the second best selling game of 2011, a game commonly appealing to “everyone” (women and children included!). Games that actually are played by everyone, like The Sims or World of Warcraft, are some of the best selling of all time. So does cash rule everything around me?

I’m unconvinced.

Imagery is important. In one of the most recent manifestations of such a list, Complex Magazine ranks “The 50 Hottest Video Game Characters” and the girls who grace the top ten should be no surprise, really. Among the hottest include DoA girls, Cammy and Chun-Li, Morrigan from Darkstalkers, Mileena from Mortal Kombat, and of course Tifa Lockhart from Final Fantasy VII.

But is hotness all we really see in these characters?

Tifa Lockhart is an iconic character for a lot of reasons. She was the anti-corporate rebel who was our hero Cloud Strife’s childhood romance. Cloud moves away to join SOLDIER, the private paramilitary of Shin-Ra Co. After his service is over, he finds himself taking jobs privateers and pirates tend to take—whatever pays. The job at hand brings Cloud back into Tifa’s midst.

Lockhart joins AVALANCHE, a rogue political organization bent on protecting the planet from Shin-Ra’s devastating ecological practices for company profits and social power. Cloud ends up joining too. After their first job in Midgar’s Sector 7 Slums, both characters are branded terrorists. An ideological young woman willing to go through hell and high-water to save the planet from impending doom, Tifa is indeed one of the most interesting characters in gaming, male or female. So what is it exactly that makes us remember Tifa?

Is it the power of her belief and strong commitment to Midgar’s struggle? Nope. Is it her pouty lips, protruding chest, pale skin, and long flowing dark hair? Yep. Tifa is #2 on the Hot list.

Complex tells us, “from her martial arts to a frame that’s bonkers, she’s got the whole package.”

In Final Fantasy VII, Tifa does, as Complex says, have a frame that’s bonkers (read: unrealistic; untrue; bonkers), but this caricature of Tifa in the list does not even look human or begin to account for what makes her “hot”.

Do you agree?

Recently, I saw a TEDTalk called “How Movies Teach Manhood” given by Colin Stokes. Maybe you saw it, too. Did you? It talked in detail about the Bechdel test, which is basically a litmus for how women are portrayed (rather, how they’re not portrayed) in movies. The test is:

1) The movie has to have at least two women; 2) who talk to each other; 3) about something besides a man.

Stokes makes the interesting comparison between The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. He tells us how Oz shows us a new world in which Dorothy of Kansas saves the day by helping folk overcome trials and tribulations through leadership, education, and loving-kindness. Star Wars, on the other hand, is a “world of dudes fighting.” While I don’t agree that’s what Star Wars actually is, I think what he is bringing to light is illuminating in its own way.

He laments further. Even films like The Hunger Games, which pass the Bechdel test with flying colors, are still very much informed by a violent narrative type and culture. It tells girls to grab their swords, defend the dopey boys, and prepare for war. That’s an interesting point. I think he’s on to something. You watch and decide.

Katniss Everdeen, like Tifa Lockhart, has something in common with #1 on the list: Girl Power.

Tifa’s original model from which this cartoon model springs from has a lot in common with the woman who is champion of the Hot list. #1 is, unsurprisingly, Lara Croft.

Image provided by Associated Press

Lara Croft is the icon of icons. Not only is she a gaming icon, she is a pop-culture icon. She is one of the few game characters to have transcended the medium into wider public consciousness. She is recognizable in the way Mario or Pac Man are recognizable. Much help in that comes from her frequent appearances in a score of titles, a movie series starring Angelina Jolie, and the culture of cosplay around her.

Lara is perhaps most known, however, as a sex symbol… As the sex symbol of video game culture. But it also comes from something else perhaps less appreciated: Girl Power.

The most recent game featuring Lara Croft, a reboot simply called Tomb Raider, is a new classic and a strong example of Girl Power (a technical term popularized by the Spice Girls; it will surely be recognized by academics and scientists everywhere…someday). The game maintains the same essential structure of the Tomb Raider universe, and the same essential character, but it is a totally new form. A form which, while still preserving the same image and likeness of the original, is de-sexualized (at least to a degree).

The Tomb Raider games of the past can’t be held solely responsible for over-sexualizing Lara. While what Complex describes as the “frame” that may have been “bonkers” (again: unrealistic; untrue; bonkers), the actual games were tried and true formulas of the actual raiding of tombs, adventuring in crypts, and discovery of ancient secrets with stylish hard action. They were by and large quite good. It was always the broader culture that perpetuated a certain kind of sexualization.

For example, you might see photoshopped pictures of Lara’s 3D model in the buff in a search engine. Maybe you’d even see some real girls dressed up as her for cosplay. Or, like in August of 1999, you might see Nell McAndrew pose for Playboy Magazine as “Tomb Raider, aka Lara Croft, NUDE” (alongside Shannon Elizabeth, American Pie’s “Hot New Sex Star”). This happened just in time for the Angelina blockbuster.

Are you tempted to look? You can google it. It’s worth a google.

One thing I think the broader culture combining sex and video games does teach us is that the industry is still dominated by a boyish culture.

Sex still has a big role in the selling of video games. And it is not limited to the games themselves. Jessica Chobot and Morgan Webb are early examples of how sexualization occurs alongside many serious careers, much like it does for any actress or musician (or, really, any female under public scrutiny). But since then, we’ve also seen how that can be packaged and sold. While Webb and Chobot were organic favorites in the boyish gaming culture, characters like Sara Jean Underwood (a Playboy Playmate turned video game journalist) were programmed specifically for that effect.

Beyond this, E3’s “booth babes” have been a staple of the industry for well over a decade now, supposedly a favorite attraction of gaming culture. They are always in the pictures we see from the reporting of the event, pervading the image the rest of the world sees from behind its closed doors.

But do you want to know something interesting? It isn’t working anymore.

Image provided by Associated Press

According to a recent test posted on TechCrunch: “The booth that was staffed with the booth babes generated a third of the foot traffic (as measured by conversations or demos with our reps) and less than half the leads (as measured by a badge swipe or a completed contact form) while the other team had a consistently packed booth that ultimately generated over 550 leads.”

So what is this really teaching us? Mostly, that things need to change. That people want change. And that things are changing.

Complex actually posted another article on a similar topic: “The 50 Greatest Heroines in Video Game History“. No surprise, Tifa and Lara grace this list at #13 and #12 respectively. On this, they say: “Lara Croft may be the most iconic female character in gaming, but let’s not forget that she was designed from the get-go to be little more than a male fantasy of a woman. A dual pistol-wielding, tiger-kicking male fantasy, but a jiggly male fantasy nonetheless. Whether Crystal Dynamics’ new reboot of the character can alter that remains to be seen.”

Interestingly, you might notice the pictures they used for Tifa and Lara this time; they are far less sexualized, promoting their Girl Power. So, did they alter her image successfully?

The new Tomb Raider dispels this sexual imagery and instead raises up a new icon.

In the new Tomb Raider, Lara is an aspiring archaeologist who is working on discovering a lost kingdom called Yamatai of the Japanese Yayoi period (look it up). Although the burgeoning academic is confident in her knowledge, we are faced with an insecure girl in the beginning of the story. It is through Lara’s adventures that she is able to navigate through the chaos and ultimately becomes a more courageous, confident,  and powerful young woman. Her struggle has her battling Oni, or demons. She even goes up against the Solarii, a cult which occupies the mysterious locale, as they practice a fire ritual which attempts to recall the ascendant Sun Queen. Through this, we see her rise and become the Tomb Raider.

Lara Croft gets to claim her rightful title as an icon of Girl Power. Pure Heroine.

So is Complex Magazine wrong calling Lara Croft the “Most Hot” video game character? Not necessarily. In fact, Lara could easily be considered the most hot. Especially if you purge her of the sexual symbolism and look at her as she is: a Girl on Fire.

Like Katniss Everdeen, Lara is thrown into a situation out of her control. Also like Katniss, she rises like fire. Katniss is the girl on fire in The Hunger Games. Likewise, Lara Croft is to her craft.

Stokes’ TEDTalk is a very interesting one because it asks us to consciously reflect on what our media is not only telling “the children,” but ourselves as well. We are the customers, after all. Historically Lara Croft may have been sold as a sex symbol, but like a phoenix, things transform and can be made new.

This is precisely why the new Tomb Raider is the Definitive Edition it claims to be. It took the old ways of the industry and flipped them on their head. It still maintains the essence, but has a new form. If Lara Croft really is an everlasting icon, she had to adapt and evolve.

Ultimately, this is what we need to encourage the industry towards. We can do this through our purchases, but we can also do this just by representing and raising up what’s good. Girl Power is still very much needed in the world today, so unlike Stokes, it seems impossible to discourage it for violence alone. This is indeed a “world of dudes fighting,” so Katniss, Lara, and even Tifa Lockhart are still powerful and positive icons. Girl Power is good.

My dream is that someday the video game industry will open up to the girls who are already playing them. While it currently excludes them by presenting a facade of dolled up sex-kittens, someday it won’t need to.

In the coming year and the years beyond, this will be our central controversy. It will be a debate about our identity as gamers and who gets to, in fact, call themselves a gamer. Whether it is between cultural marxists, libertarians, feminists, or their adversaries, this controversy is going to hit us hard and bring our medium international attention.

We need to be open to the coming changes and try our best to define ourselves positively. Gaming is now a mainstream medium and there is no reason to limit ourselves. The divergence in the presentation from old Lara to new Lara is indicative of this shift. Buckle up gamers, we’re in for a bumpy ride.

So if you have a PS4 or an Xbox One, do yourself a favor: pick up Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition.

Or even if you have yet to play last generation’s version, just do it. What else are you playing? Probably metaphorical shovelware. Show your support for the Guardian of Light.

While first-gen boyish gaming culture may have preferred Her to be a “bonkers” nerdgasm, Gamer 2.0 likes her better as the icon she is: Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.

Behold… she is on the rise.

Don’t call it a comeback, she’s been here for years.

Have an opinion?  Shout out.