Every week, the stormy seas of the Internet bring forth something new that gets a certain area of the gaming press up in arms. Last week’s point of contention was the peculiar art style of Vanillaware’s Dragon Crown, which will be released on PS3 and PS Vita on July 25th in Japan, and on August 6th in the United States.
What’s the big deal? If you’ve given even a passing glance to the artwork above, you probably already know: the rather outrageous curves of a couple of the playable characters — to be precise the Sorceress and the Amazon — that sent our resident pundits spiraling into a berserker rage.
Everything started a couple weeks earlier with Jason Schreier of Kotaku calling the artist that designed the sorceress a 14-year-old boy. George Kamitani — who happens to be that designer, and also Vanillaware’s president — wasn’t exactly happy about it and retaliated by posting on his Facebook account a picture with three burly and bare-chested dwarfs (that you can see below) accompanied by a message stating that those could fit Schreier’s taste better.
Of course Schreier immediately went up in flames arguing that the sinful image was the focus of a “gay joke” against him, and while he spent a couple lines somehow “apologizing” for the 14-year-old boy comment, he went on a long-winded tirade on how he was actually right and why Kamitani’s art would be “embarrassing,” “uncomfortable,” and would be “symbolic of a much bigger problem” of sexism in the video game industry. To be completely honest, an apology followed by a philippic like that sounds rather backhanded and insincere, but let’s move on. Kamitani himself apologized explaining that his was just a lighthearted joke.
Other journalists joined Kamitani’s public flogging. For instance, Ben Kuchera of the Penny Arcade Report perpetuated the idea that Kamitani’s retort was a “gay joke” and continued by calling his art “disappointing,” “done, old, creaky, and a relic from another time” and “obvious and bland.” He also very conveniently never made a single mention of the fact that Schreier was the first to attack Kamitani on a very personal level.
Other journalists and writers, of course, responded to the usual “Circle the wagons!” call and started firing on Kamitani as well, because heaven forbid a developer dare fire back (albeit with a joke that can be interpreted as distasteful) when he’s fired upon.
On Friday Schreier came out of the woodwork again posting a long letter received from Kamitani, in which the designer explained the meaning behind the joke (that actually makes quite a lot of sense and most probably wasn’t intended to be a “gay joke” at all), apologized profusely for it and even for having made people uncomfortable with his artwork. Of course, Schreier didn’t miss the chance to display the apology like a “I was right!” medal on his puffed chest and reiterate his point that Kamitani’s art is to be condemned as a symbol of sexism.
Now that the history lesson is done, let’s get to the first point: it’s entirely normal and warranted for Kamitani to apologize for his joke that, while light-hearted (and even funny and on point once you actually read the explanation), could arguably be interpreted as a jab at Schreier’s sexuality, especially considering his position as the president of a company that needs to care for the well being of his employees and the image his publisher.
That said, when an artist feels compelled to apologize for his art style it’s a clear sign that video game journalism has reached a new low.
It’s already bad enough that veterans of the game press resorted to the rather cheap and low-handed tactic of immediately interpreting Kamitani’s arguably distasteful retort as a “gay joke” to make him look like the villain of the story, trying as much as possible to sweep the fact that he was insulted first under the rug; but what’s really problematic is the rather savage attacks on his artwork, trying to sell his personal art style as a “problem.”
First of all, let’s address quickly the idea that Dragon’s Crown art would be overdone, obvious, bland and old. It’s not, and if it was it wouldn’t have pulled so much attention and we wouldn’t be here talking about about it. If it was so insignificant our resident pundits would have ignored it like they ignore the tens of games featuring ladies with generous curves coming out every year, instead of writing pages upon pages of hate against it.
What may arguably be considered old and overdone is the style of those games that feature ladies with large breasts and generally very soft and audacious forms, but Kamitani’s art has only one thing in common with those: the breast size of two characters.
His style is obviously not defined just by that. Not all his female characters feature large breasts, as the elf definitely doesn’t display ample cleavage (she’s most strikingly flat as a surfboard despite retaining the recognizable style in the muscular thighs). Moreover, anyone with the slightest artistic expertise will tell you that there are many other defining elements like the painterly strokes, the caricature anatomy, and the exaggerated muscle masses. Those elements set Dragon’s Crown‘s art apart from the overdone, old and bland very radically. Pleasant or unpleasant? That’s just a matter of taste.
Then we have the argument that Kamitani’s art is made exclusively for the male eye, making female gamers (and not only them) feel uncomfortable and excluded, implying that ladies don’t care for playing characters with exaggerated curves.
Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with artwork making the onlooker feel uncomfortable. The history of art is dotted of several styles that have the whole purpose of conveying a feeling of discomfort. That said, I always find it interesting when male journalists preach on what female gamers like to play or dislike to see. It almost seems to imply that ladies share some form of hive mind that imposes a unified sense of aesthetics and bans generous bosoms from their set of character design preferences.
That’s actually a rather funny notion, considering that I’ve seen (and I’m sure most of you have as well) quite a lot of very proud female gamers crank that breast slider all the way up in their favorite MMORPG that allows it. And yes, contrary to the extremely outdated popular belief, ladies do play MMORPGs and enjoy a wide variety of representations of the female form in them.
TERA, with its’s radical overexposure of female skin, is probably the MMO in which I met the most ladies in my gaming career. Most of them didn’t really seem too bothered to me. Mind you, many of them were also anxiously waiting for Blade & Soul and its outrageously sensual (and definitely fetching) art style by Hyung-tae Kim.
If there’s one place on the wide Internet that allows people of all genders and sexual orientations to express their fantasies and taste in shaping their virtual form, that’s Second Life. While it isn’t properly a game in the strictest meaning of the term, it allows its users a virtually infinite range of options and almost complete freedom in looking exactly how they like to look. Second Life is also extremely popular between the ladies (demonstrably so, as it features a very popular built-in voice chat support that makes hiding one’s gender quite difficult).
One of the most popular avatar accessories (attachments that are used to decorate one’s virtual alter ego) is a set of extremely oversized breasts named Lola Tango. You can see an avatar “wearing” them just above and it’s interesting how similar they look to those proudly displayed by Dragon Crown’s sorcerers.
Guess what? They sell like hotcakes between the ladies and they are made by a lady. So much for the notion that women don’t like to play characters with outrageously large breasts and feel “excluded” by their display.
What’s even funnier is that Schreier thinks that Dragon Crown’s semi-naked and enormously muscular dwarf is not a comparable element with the game’s arguably saucy ladies, as he would be a representation of a “straight male power fantasy.” I don’t know about you, and I most certainly can’t speak for Mr. Schreier, but I’m a straight male, and looking like an oversized, amorphous, short chunk of shapeless meat does not figure between my fantasies, power or otherwise.
In eight years observing the diverse and delightfully colorful crowd of Second Life, I saw many ladies with forms comparable to Dragon Crown’s sorceress. Dudes looking like the dwarf? Not even one.
Let’s even go as far as assuming for a moment that Dragon’s Crown might indeed be specifically targeted to a male audience. What exactly is wrong with that? Every single game out there has its own target. Some have a more specific one, some are aimed to a broader audience, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with software houses pursuing specific audiences.
Not all games can be or should be designed to address the desires and tastes of every single gamer on Earth, and most simply can’t afford to cater even to the majority. If designers had to sit at a table every single time to study ways to cater to everyone, we’d find ourselves with horribly diluted and thinned down games full of banal “token” characters aimed to satisfy every single group or audience segment sitting on the face of the planet. I can’t even start to imagine how boring such games would be.
The fun part of this all is that game journalists have waltzed around for years trying to persuade everyone of the (sacrosanct) fact that video games are a form of art, but now in the name of being “inclusive,” some of them aren’t willing to allow designers some much needed artistic freedom in designing their characters however they feel like, and in including the elements they feel nearest to their philosophy and ideas.
Something I find quite telling is that the pundits are ever eager to launch themselves in overblown rants against games that arguably objectify the female form, but I don’t think I ever seen any of them aim their complaints at productions like the Hakuoki series, despite the fact that two of its titles have already been released in the US, and a third — Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi for the 3DS — has just been announced.
Otome Games like Hakuoki are aimed at a very specific female audience, and their design is inspired by the style of Shojo Manga, which is one of the most evident forms of objectification of the male body (contrary to popular belief you don’t need to show much skin to objectify a body) you can find in the Japanese media. Yet it seems to be completely okay in the eyes of our valiant journalists.
Mind you, I have absolutely nothing against Otome Games and their art style. As a matter of fact, I’ve always been a staunch proponent of Shojo Manga since my earliest years as a reader and enthusiast. I’m just showing a rather evident double standard.
I definitely don’t care for looking like an extra-thin twig that desperately needs a sandwich, but I’m still able to enjoy this kind of female-targeted manga, anime and games, and their stories. They most definitely don’t make me feel excluded, despite the objectification and the fact that the art style doesn’t really correspond to any aspiration of mine, fantasy or otherwise.
Ultimately, the human form — male and female — has been an object of admiration, desire, adoration and even worship since prehistory. It’s a little late to come up with the idea that such displays are bad. As a matter of fact, the moments when the objectified human form has been most censored can easily be identified as the most culturally depressing periods of obscurantism in the history of humanity.
Let’s move on to the concept that Dragon’s Crown‘s art would somehow be a symbol of sexism in the game industry. Let me preface that sexism is a very relevant and real problem in the industry, and as a writer that doesn’t speak English as his first language, I’m especially sensitive to the issues faced by those that find obstacles in their professional career due to elements they have little or no control on. Ladies that have trouble expressing their voice and being appreciated for their work in our industry have my whole support (while I don’t necessarily think that most of them need or want the help of the little army of male journalists ever ready to don the silver armor to defend them).
That said, arguing that this kind of art is part of the problem is absolutely ridiculous.
Many women working in the industry or elsewhere have absolutely no problem drawing and enjoying very shapely female curves. A ten-minute trip on Deviantart will show that fact quite clearly.
Many of the passionate cosplayers that spend hours creating their costumes are proud of their femininity and find absolutely no issue on the idea of displaying it with vertiginous cleavages or generous displays of skin. Are they part of the problem too?
Picture courtesy of Ariel
Can the cosplayers that so often get harassed or otherwise molested during several events be pointed at as a symbol of the problem they’re made victims of? Of course not, and art is no different. The female body is represented in our industry in a myriad of different ways because our industry is the result of a myriad of different tastes and caters to even more different tastes. A (undeniably large) percentage of those people, whether they are creators or users of either sexes like their breasts large, and there’s simply nothing wrong with that.
The real problem is that there aren’t yet enough women that seek employment in our industry, and that those ladies still aren’t treated like they deserve. Do you really think that showing a hostile environment when artistic freedom isn’t granted and protected will encourage them to join the fray?
The real problem is that some female cosplayers (some males too, mind you) are treated like meat because some of the onlookers are pigs and think that sexiness is an explicit invitation to sex (rings a bell?), not because artists enjoy designing ladies with alluring shapes. To represent the very real problem of sexism with a simple and very personal artistic choice means trivializing the issue, and this isn’t a problem that should be trivialized.
What’s paradoxical is that those that attack George Kamitani’s art don’t even realize that they may easily be lashing at someone sitting on their same side of the fence. His art is normally very soft and tasteful, but with Dragon’s Crown he went out of this way to be outrageous. So outrageous that he broke every single rule of anatomy and classical aesthetics. This can be logically interpreted as a satirical view on the sexualized displays of bodies that some seem to hate so much, and a much more tasteful way to criticize them from the inside.
Ultimately, I find absolutely ludicrous that we’ve spent years upon years fighting the censors and defending our hobby from the pundits on Fox News, but now we’re turning into the censors ourselves. We’re becoming the Fox News-style pundits that ride on controversy. It’s ludicrous and extremely depressing.
Criticism is sacrosanct, but it should be aimed towards quality (and the lack of thereof) and towards the real core of the problem. When an artist is painted as a villain and feels forced to apologize for his art style we have failed.
We’re not exercising criticism, we’re not doing journalism. We have become the bullies we so fiercely fought against for half of our lives.