When Blizzard Entertainment’s game director of Heroes of the Storm, Dustin Browder, took an interview with PC gaming site Rock, Paper, Shotgun, it was intended to be the standard promotional discussion about their upcoming game and what the new team brawler would be bringing to the table.
If you’ve not heard about Heroes of the Storm, it allows you to build units tapped from across the Blizzard universe. So, you could combine Kerrigan, Raynor, Thrall or a myriad of well-known creatures and warriors from Starcraft, Warcraft and the Diablo series. Then, you put your team into battle.
However, after answering questions about target audience, level design and game economics, this query was posed:
RPS: “…it got me thinking about how often MOBAs tend to hyper-sexualize female characters to a generally preposterous degree – that is to say, make it the norm, not a one-off at all – and StarCraft’s own, um, interesting choices as of late. How are you planning to approach all of that in Heroes?”
Browder: “Well, I mean, some of these characters, I would argue, are already hyper-sexualized in a sense. I mean, Kerrigan is wearing heels, right? We’re not sending a message to anybody. We’re just making characters who look cool. Our sensibilities are more comic book than anything else. That’s sort of where we’re at. But I’ll take the feedback. I think it’s very fair feedback.”
Interviewer Nathan Grayon pushed further, asking –
RPS: I have to add, though, that comics might not be the best point of reference for this sort of thing. I mean, it’s a medium that’s notorious – often in a not-good way – for sexing up female characters and putting them in some fairly gross situations.
Browder: We’re not running for President. We’re not sending a message. No one should look to our game for that.
RPS: But it’s not even about a message. The goal is to let people have fun in an environment where they can feel awesome without being weirded out or even objectified. This is a genre about empowerment. Why shouldn’t everyone feel empowered? That’s what it’s about at the end of the day: letting everyone have a fair chance to feel awesome.
Browder: Uh-huh. Cool. Totally.
No Time for Tropes
Unfortunately, Browder had to cut off due to time constraints. Press Relation tours often mean limited interview time and Browder had to move on, leaving the sore topic open. Grayson has promised to write more on the topic in the coming days.
Browder’s final comment unfortunately may have come across as dismissive. Either way, the topic rekindled a debate over female images in gaming and an industry that may be inadvertently disrespecting the growing number of female gamers at their peril.
Reader reaction at Rock, Paper, Shotgun seemed to mirror previous discussions. Many commented that games and game companies need to take a harder look at their handling of female characters. Others dismissed the comments as overly sensitive, considering that video games are realms of fantasy and that any sexualization of male characters is more often ignored, let alone the treatment of violence in gaming.
The primary focus of the debate on tropes come from the question, does our treatment or stereotyping of people in media reflect society or actually have an affect? Does seeing under-dressed female characters as helpless victims diminish women’s place in society or have a negative impact on their self-esteem? Does body image of perfectly fit characters affect how we perceive ourselves? Or is media merely an escapism and should be granted some artistic license for the creator’s and player’s fantasies?
It might also be said, even if such images don’t have real effects, they can affect perceptions – especially when it comes to a gamer deciding what purchases to make or what products to reject.
Quelling the Trope-ical Storm
To that end, it behooves designers and publishers to not be seen as someone who disrespects or stereotypes their potential customers.
Browder posted on Heroes of the Storm’s site a statement addressing the interview and the reaction it spawned.
“In a recent interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I responded poorly to a statement the interviewer made about over-sexualized character designs in games, and I want to apologize for that. This is a serious topic and I don’t want anyone to think that I, or anyone else at Blizzard, is insensitive about how we portray our characters.”
The statement did not delve into the specifics, but rather smartly continued the point that Blizzard is about the game and the player’s enjoyment of it.
“…it’s important to take a step back to ensure that we’re not alienating our players. We have an amazing roster of heroes and we will always strive to make sure that everyone can have a hero that they identify with and feel powerful using…”
Other games have definitely fallen under stronger criticism over the past couple of years for the representation of female characters and their treatment in the most popular titles, especially fantasy titles.
Weathering the Storm
But, the fact that this topic is being debated and taken into consideration by developers and publishers should be seen as a positive step forward.
Yes, examples of balanced and complex female characters are represented in many game titles as there still are the more one-dimensional types being portrayed.
For the most part, gamers are just asking for more choices.
In that, Heroes of the Storm is taking steps by offering various skins for many characters. The customization options are part of allowing players to not only customize the make up of their battle teams, but their appearance as well.
“You’ll choose from an array of unique masteries, heroic abilities, and combat styles that can fundamentally change the way each hero does battle. Skins round out the appearance of your hero, while mounts get you around the battleground in speed and in style.?” – Heroes of the Storm website