Breasts, Gaming, and Fantasy
The recent furor over the accidental breast reduction given to female characters in the online game universe of Age of Conan calls our attention to the importance that amply-endowed women play in fantasy texts of all types.
Complaints have long been lodged against a number of art forms that target adolescent or pre-adolescent boys. In the 30s, there were pulp stories that lured in readers with a mixture of high-concept, weird, and erotic imagery. Comic books largely replaced the pulps during and following the 1950s SF boom by their reliance on visual enticement. Despite the fact that “Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities” according to the 1954 Code of the Comics Magazine Association of America, the majority of heroines tend markedly toward the sonsie. This tradition was carried over into cartoons in the movies and on television, sometimes with explicit attention, as in Tex Avery cartoons, but other times merely incidentally, as in the case of Natasha from the Bullwinkle cartoons, or any number of action heroines. Curvaceous, idealized feminine bodies became an accepted part of the background.
And now video games have been pursuing the same angle ever since they became graphically capable of producing distinguishable cleavage in pixels. Princess Peach from Super Mario Brothers and Zelda are fairly modest, but it didn’t take long for them to be replaced by Samus, Chun-Li, and Lara Croft. The big difference, however, is that video games are interactive, and feminist critiques of the games as giving adolescent men power over their fantasy women quickly appeared.
It is important to ask the question whether these texts contribute to the unrealistic expectations men maintain about the way women look, as well as the prevalence of body dismorphic disorder among women. However, there is also another possibility to consider here.
The assumption about video games (and, indeed, about comic books, fantasy, and science fiction) is that the audience is predominantly male, but this has long ceased to be true. Nowadays, women comprise a large segment of the gaming population, especially in some of the massively multiplayer online (MMO) gaming environments.
To say that women have a uniform response to the buxom women portrayed in the games would be facile.The response is probably very mixed, and not being a MMO gamer myself, I have to go back to my old paper & pencil role-playing experience for a paradigm. In those days, one of the people in my gaming group was a young woman, a Jehovah’s Witness who played secretly for fear of her parents, who was not especially interested in killing monsters and gaining levels. Instead, her primary interest was in describing her character, and in giving her all the things that she herself was denied:jewelry, makeup, perfume, and, above all, freedom.
For some women, it is probably equally important that in the Age of Conan, they can put on a bosomy persona in a kind of virtual breast augmentation that allows them to be someone they cannot be in real life. Most of them are probably not the same women who seek breast augmentation in real life, preferring instead the ability to play the character, then put it away.