So Bryce Mainville wrote a short piece last week about suggestions for overhauling the design of Street Fighter 4‘s main cast. It’s a quick read, and not all that controversial; most of the suggestions are relatively mild changes, but I found the entire post thought-provoking and wanted to elaborate on my thoughts on the subject in general, despite Recent Events™, because regardless of what people think of me, my work, or my book, I actually enjoy fighting games a lot and I’d like to see them do better, much as I’d like to see MOBAs — another genre I enjoy — do better too.
From this post’s subject you probably expect this post to be about sexualized designs, but to be honest, I don’t necessarily think that’s the problem here. Certainly, the sexualization of some SF characters and their outfits — Cammy’s ridiculous bikini/camo leg paint and Viper’s “hot businesswoman stripper” top — gets on my nerves, but character designs in fighting games in general (SF nor Capcom aren’t especially guilty compared to anyone else) tend to invoke very specific ethnic and gender stereotypes in their designs that sometimes also get on my nerves. And not always for reasons of ZOMG RACISM/MISOGYNY, as I’ll discuss after the cut, but it’s still a thing we need to consider.
So Bryce asked me on Twitter for my thoughts, and I think this tweet of mine I’m about to quote sums up my feelings pretty well:
@Khazar222 I think it often comes down to "well what are the alternatives here? Is this the same one-note we see EVERYWHERE?"
— Todd Harper (@laevantine) December 30, 2013
Like, think back to the original SF2‘s cast from back in the day:
I mean, part of SF2‘s schtick (and even SF1 to some extent) was that these were martial artists from around the globe, and so each fighter represents something about their home nation, as we can tell:
- Japan counts double because sumo
- Representing China and Themyscira is an acrobat
- Representing Russia, a bear in a wrestler costume
- Representing the entire Amazon basin is a guy who learned to fight from eels, because eels; also he is green, also because eels I guess
- Americans either have ginormous eyebrows and know karate or they’re thuggish Black parodies/stereotypes
- Und so weiter
Okay, so I’m not being totally fair (or entirely serious) here. But I will say this, coming from a design POV: because these characters all play differently, a player needs to get a feel for the character, their playstyle, and their narrative hook all at a glance, since fighting games tend to be pretty light on exposition unless we’re talking Persona 4: Arena. There’s a reason that Ryu and Ken look like Generic Karate Guy: because they are Generic Karate Guy (see also Fei Long who just straight up IS Bruce Lee). Chun-li’s acrobat costume is likely intended to evoke agility and aerial technique (some of her mechanical assets). Dhalsim’s off-puttingly unusual design suggests an unorthodox and “mystical” style, etc. And really, on that level, this doesn’t bother me too much. These are Japanese games and the anime-esque character design reflects that level of high stylization, of exaggeration to enable easy identification.
In that sort of scenario, the borrowing of easy stereotypes from various public images of various nations isn’t unexpected. Part of what stereotypes do is let us make at-a-glance, low-investment, little-analysis-required judgments about things. When something partially fits a stereotype, and we find a good match for it in our heads, we automatically fill in the rest and go “Oh! Right, those.” In and of itself this is not necessarily an endemically “good” or “evil” act. These sorts of mental shortcuts are how we make sense of a world full of simultaneous processing of the ten zillion things we’re dealing with at any given moment. So in a space where you need to convey a lot about what are, admittedly, pretty shallow characters (in the fiction sense) in a compressed way, stereotypes as go-to is pretty normal.
What I want to go back to, though, is that tweet from before. Let’s take Zangief. He’s a Cossack stereotype in many ways, the big beefy Communist superman of Cold War-era pop culture. Big, hulking, fiercely nationalistic. And then there’s Guile, the American soldier, laconic and patriotic, the action hero lone wolf. Again, another late 80s/early 90s pop culture stereotype. In and of itself that doesn’t bug me. You know why? Because there’s alternative visions of these nations and peoples in the media. Maybe less so for Russians/Soviets than American soldiers — I feel like a legacy of Cold War-era US media are working against a diverse portrayal of Russians here — but they do exist. Definitely for men compared to women.
But for many other characters in this realm, there are no alternatives. I cannot think of a single “non-sexy” fighting game lady that isn’t portrayed as a de-sexualized young child (and sometimes even then somewhat sexualized, as unsettling as that is). And while I’m talking about fighting games as the context here this is far and away not an issue limited to that genre. Nor is it limited to women. Street Fighter‘s Thunder Hawk (T. Hawk) is probably the best example, and Mainville calls that character out in the blog post I linked up front.
So yeah. We know he’s Native American because he’s wearing fringed leather and he has a feathered headdress of some kind. Hawk is from Mexico (remember that SF‘s conceit of “World Warrior” means that every character is “from” a nation, which often serves as their personal stage background; in Super Street Fighter 2, Hawk’s stage was a crowded market in a small Mexican village), and I admit to not knowing a lot about the current relationship between Mexico’s culture and government and their native population, so I can’t comment on that. But I will say that this design is absolutely the stereotyped vision of native peoples that elides distinctions between various tribes/groups/cultures and collapses them all into a set of particular visual and cultural markers.
Consider this 2011 Screw Attack post (and, while you’re at it, this Giant Bomb list). Now, I dunno if this is “official” or someone’s blog, and a lot of its image links are broken, but enough remains to make the point. Look at all that fringed leather, facepaint, and those feathers. All over the place! There’s also a number of hatchets/axes/”tomahawks” (see also: Connor from Assassin’s Creed 3). A lot of the characters in that list feature characters who are “spiritual,” often invoking some sort of animal totem/spirit or similar mystic situation, even in a high-tech scenario (the main character of Prey). I mean, when the most common hits for native characters in games are Turok and Vulcan Raven from Metal Gear Solid, this is a pretty big problem.
I am not even going to discuss Custer’s Revenge, also don’t google that at work if you don’t recognize it. If you can help it, don’t google that at all.
Probably my “favorite” mention is the game Whomp ‘Em for the NES, which was — in its original Japanese incarnation — a Journey to the West story where you played as Sun Wukong: hence things like the spear weapon (which was Wukong’s extendable staff in the original), etc. When Jaleco brought it to the US, for reasons I don’t actually KNOW (but suspect: “US kids won’t get Journey to the West“) they changed the story to be about a young Native American warrior (GameFAQs tells me his name is “Brave Soaring Eagle”) who needs to collect a series of magical totems to prove himself as a warrior to his tribe. And of course the name is this ridiculous pun on “wampum,” the sort of term that seemed to come up a lot when dealing with “Injuns” in westerns.
So like, check this out. It’s a Mega Man-alike, and it’s actually a pretty fun and challenging game that I didn’t question as a kid but as an adult looked at and went UGH REALLY. But seriously, skip to 1:23 and check out that map screen and the various names of the locations — they totally invoke this “Native peoples are just so spiritual!” trope that is just groan-worthy. I actually have a similar problem with Elena, the Kenyan fighter I mentioned earlier — she evokes a highly stereotyped image of mystical African tribalism. Elena is “innocent” and happy and free, and loves animals, and she has the ability to heal herself by tapping into her mystical connection with the Earth.
And there is not necessarily anything terribly wrong with that on the face of it, but the problem is when these images are our only go-tos for characters from these backgrounds. I am happy to be proven wrong in comments, but I suspect if you sit down and really think, “Are there native peoples in games that don’t conform to the feathers/fringe/tomahawks/totems schema?” the answer to your question is going to be “no.” That’s the problem. Using stereotypes is not necessarily bad in and of itself but you have to use them carefully, and you have to consider if your use of them is going to contribute to a deeper saturation of them in a marketplace of ideas with no alternatives. So yes, I get that fighting game characters — and really, characters in many games where there’s neither the time nor the interest to do a lot of narrative setup — have to give a lot “at a glance.” But there are ways to do that which don’t just send the characters you’re trying to describe into a stereotype gutter.
I actually like, for example, Crimson Viper in Street Fighter 4 a lot. She’s a “work smarter, not harder” type, a single mom. She’s portrayed as highly savvy, intelligent and capable, professional. I really like that. And I do enjoy that her design is supposed to reflect that: she’s basically wearing the bog-standard “men in black” government agent outfit that we see all the time in movies, so it works in the “at-a-glance” framework we’ve been discussing. I think if you look at her art and design, Viper does bring across this “secret agent lady who doesn’t have time for your bullshit” aura that I really enjoy.
But man: the boob window? The belly shirt tux-alike? All they serve to do is scream SEX BOMB and that grates. Because if I went to a character designer and said “Draw me a no-nonsense government agent” I think what I’d get is a man wearing this outfit (though probably with no boob window or belly shirt). Does that make sense? If that’s what you want to evoke, that outfit is all you really need. The sexifying window dressing isn’t even necessary for the “at-a-glance” invocation of anything other than Viper being a sexy lady fighter who here is to fight you sexily (as a lady). I think this is also my issue with Cammy’s nonsense unitard/body paint combo. I feel like they wanted an “agile military fighter” thing for her, hence the camo colors, the beret, and maybe even the unitard, but like… when I’m thinking “How about what Kylie Minogue wore playing Cammy in that awful SF live action movie?” as a better alternative, we are living in a sad world indeed. Would pants or a jacket have been such an awful thing?
And again, the problem here is not necessarily unitards (I actually think what Juli and Juni wear in SF Alpha 3 is weird but not awful) but rather that “sexy special agent” is already crowded territory. Current goings-on re: Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V are pretty similar: we have lots of sexy snipers. Why is Quiet yet another sexy sniper? It’s important that we have alternatives as well as stereotypes. And I think emphasizing this shifts the argument usefully away from “is sexiness good or bad?” and toward “how can we make using sexiness in character design less problematic/damaging?” instead.
Because I think there’s this massively erroneous assumption that those of us who talk about representations of sexy women want “sexy” to go away forever, and that’s just not true. I like sexy women designs, sometimes! That’s certainly intersectional with my identifying with a certain expression of gay male identity — liking drag, adopting certain mannerisms/word choices/etc. — but like, I don’t have a problem with sexy. If you’ve read this blog ever you know how much I love Bayonetta. But like, I’m also a cisgendered male. There’s lots of representations of men for me to choose from to latch on to.
Flip side, I’m gay and I’m fat. My options for that are so hilariously limited as to be non-existent (look for future blog post about my feelings on Rufus and Bob from SF and Tekken, in a related note). And that’s a slightly intersectional thing. Can you imagine being a woman of color looking for non-stereotyped representational alternatives in the gaming world? Good luck. You’ll get about a zillion tweets telling you about Jade from Beyond Good and Evil or Faith from Mirror’s Edge if you’re lucky, and that’s about it. (Sidebar: I once asked a room of students to name non-white, non-male video game characters. One mentioned Fire Emblem: Awakening‘s Flavia, who I do like as a character, but she is sadly a bit part in that game and there’s some annoying push/pull incidental dialogue from her in the “I’m really girly this is just a butch front” vein). There are more out there, I’m sure, but our difficulty in naming them says all that needs to be said.
So there you go. Long story short, I can see genre and contextual reasons that lead designers in some areas (like fighting games) to make broad-brush design choices that engage ethnic, gender, and sexual stereotypes. And that is not always-already a bad thing. But I think if you’re going to do that, you need to look at the field of available designs and go, “Am I just making it worse doing this?” And while you’re at it, stop for a second and go: “What says [x] to me?” If the answer is “big boobs” or “mysteriously revealing clothes” or “fringed leather with feathers” then I implore you: reconsider.