If there’s one thing I hate about what is being called the “Videogame Culture War”, it would have to be the excessive amount of negativity. It’s claimed that videogames just ARE the single most sexist and mysoginistic thing on the planet and they need to COMPLETELY CHANGE in order to get with the times; anyone who disagrees? They’re a big sexist part of the problem, “proving” just how systemic it all is! Problems, problems everywhere! There’s no acknowledgement of the good games, the positive games, and the ways that videogames can help!
The recent announcement of Skylanders Trap Team got me playing around with Swap Force again. The first two games really weren’t that good, but Swap Force completely changed that and was a blast. As I played through a quick Arena Challenge with Punk Shock, the electric eel-folk Princess with a crossbow, I took a moment to marvel at just how unique the women of Skylanders were.
All the ladies in the game are colorful and interestingly designed, arguably without being sexualized, and able to fight right along side any of the male characters. Heck, a few of them aren’t even humanoid! I say “arguably” though because the term “sexualization” is kind of vaguely defined. Its definition is “to take something that isn’t sexual and make it sexual”. That of course raises numerous questions about what is and isn’t sexual and what it takes to make something sexual. Generally speaking though, most folks would classify that as sultry poses, come-hither bedroom eyes, exaggerated breasts, and slinky body language. However some might include lipstick, eyelashes, and any noticeable breasts at all. Either way, all jokes about Smoulderdash aside, Punk Shock is about as “sexualized” as Skylanders gets. (Well, her and Ninjini’s 3DS walk animation)
Yeah, not exactly the walking definition of sex. I mean of course it isn’t, it’s Skylanders! It’s a videogame that uses toys sold at Toys R Us for ages 5 and up! Sexualized women are the last thing you’d expect to see in such a game! Heck, women in general are the last thing you’d expect to see!
Which is what impresses me about Skylanders. I mean sure, the more characters you have in a game, the higher the probability of a female character showing up. Considering Skylanders started with 32 characters and now has about 80, yeah there should be some ladies in there! But exactly how many female characters are there in other classic Boy’s Toys lines like He-Man and Transformers? They were very few and far between. Probably because folks weren’t exactly comfortable with their little boys playing with girl figures.
But that’s the catch isn’t it? Skylanders is not a “Boy’s Toy” series! It’s honestly rather gender neutral! I’m not sure if this was intentional or if they were too busy hyping the whole toy-to-game inter-connectivity to engender the ads in any meaningful way, but the series has caught on with girls too! Thus we have toys of action girls that aren’t in “the pink aisle”.
More than that, the figures are designed to just plain be awesome. Not to be super pretty fashionistas or to be gruff battlebros. They’re just supposed to be appealing to whoever the heck likes them. They aren’t separated into some offshoot group, like the SkyLadies or something either. They are a part of the Skylanders just like everyone else! As such, you’d find many boys who would gravitate towards characters like Sprocket, Stealth Elf, or Scratch and be utterly unashamed of having a girl character. This is especially true when you factor in the collection element and the fact that the games sometimes come with a female character.
While we’re on the topic, you might have noticed that the female Skylanders also lack typical girly names. Stealth Elf, Smoulderdash, Star Strike, Whirlwind, Punk Shock, and Sonic Boom are not names I would assume belong to women. Hex, Cynder, and Ninjini are the most feminine names of any of them and they’re still surprisingly gender neutral.
The game itself also has a sizeable number of female characters in supporting roles. Enough to really prevent the world from feeling engendered in any way. Yes there is a point in Swap Force where one of the ladies is kidnapped (by a female villain, but still), but it’s hard to get mad at that when the character did so much before and there are so many other capable women in the game.
Now, yes, there aren’t that many female Skylanders. Out of the now 80 Skylanders, only 14 are female. However, 14 isn’t that small of a number and a choice of 14 female heroes does mean a lot. Especially because they’ve been here since the beginning!
The very first game in the series, Spyro’s Adventure (you almost forgot this was a Spyro game, didn’t you?), introduced five female characters.
Immediately you’ve probably noticed that these are not your typical female characters. I mean, three of them aren’t even humanoid and one of them is so utterly devoid of gender signifiers that being told she’s female surprises people in spite of the fact that her main means of attack is laying eggs and sending baby griffons after you.
Yes, an utterly gender neutral designed female character who is also a mother. If we were judging characters based on strict checklists instead of who they are as characters, then Sonic Boom would undoubtedly come out on top!
Skylanders Giants, disappointingly, only added 4 new females rather than the 5 the previous game had. In many ways it felt like they were just covering bases, being sure to get a female in all 8 elements and making sure there was a token female in the game’s title gimmick line of giants.
However, for whatever it’s worth, this game did introduce special editions of characters. Series 2 re-releases of old characters in new poses with new moves, the light up Lightcore figures, and store exclusive alternate colors. I bring this up as it seems as though female Skylanders are highly prone to getting special editions. All five female Skylanders from the previous game saw Series 2 re-releases and three of them even made it to Series 3 (meaning they got re-released once for each game). Stealth Elf and Chill got Toys R Us exclusive Legendary versions, Flashwing got a Jade variant, and of course there’s Scarlet Ninjini and Lightcore Chill.
Again, I’m not exactly sure what “We only have 14 female characters, but we re-release them a whole lot” is worth, but they certainly aren’t ignored.
This brings me to Swap Force. Disappointingly there were no female Swappable characters, though there is probably a good reason. Namely people didn’t want questions to be raised about putting a female top on a male bottom. This is a kid’s game afterall and could you imagine how awkward that would be for parents to talk about? They could have restricted swapping to only figures of the same gender but that would take a lot of work to introduce an arbitrary limitation that would further engender the game and restrict players.
Interestingly the Swap Force team was asked about this in an interview and they insisted that the Swap Force characters were designed to be “gender neutral”. While this claim is questionable, their response does show that they are aware of the issue and do recognize the number of female players they have.
Honestly, it seemed like they had put in more female core Skylanders to make up for it but in reality it’s another 5. Same as the first game. However, one shouldn’t complain when said ladies are this awesome.
Laying them all out like this, you do begin to notice trends. Namely that they add one non-humanoid in each new line and that a striking majority of these women have glowing pupiless eyes. Thus far Punk Shock is the only humanoid female with normal eyes. Just some odd observations.
I get that it seems like I’m making a big deal out of a bunch of minor observations. So what if the female characters lack engendered names? Why does it matter that they aren’t separated into a separate group of SkyLadies? What is the point of recognizing these things?
However, these very points are usually the kind of things folks complain about. These are the little stumbling points other products often have that cause some people to wag their finger in dismay. They’re minor on their own but it does add up. Here we have a group of 14 women that are a part of the same team as the guys. Them being female has little to no effect on their abilities, backstories, or their place in the team. Much of this stuff seems so normal that we take it for granted and often make the same mistakes over and over again. The fact that Skylanders avoided so many of these pitfalls, I feel, is praiseworthy. That is no easy task.
What’s more, this isn’t from some socially conscious arte haus indie game that is trying to hamfistedly “make a point”. This is from Skylanders, a multi million dollar game series that is THE name in toys right now. A game aimed at kids of all ages with gameplay designed to be fun. I think that has a far more significant impact, whether it’s intentional or not.
Now, yes, only 14 out of 80 Skylanders are female. I won’t say the series is devoid of issues, but it is important to note everything it does right. It’s important to recognize the good those 14 female Skylanders do and say “Yes, we would like some more!”.
Of course, it doesn’t stop there. Skylanders is quickly becoming a yearly thing. With the announcement of the next game, Trap Team, comes another handful of new ladies joining the fight. Keep in mind they have barely announced anyone at this point (as this article is written pre-E3) and there are already 3 identifiably female Skylanders expected to be coming in Trap Team!
(the Bat Girl on the right is part of a Frito Lay contest to pick and name the next Skylander so she may or may not make it in)
I would expect at least one, if not two more (a Trap Master and a non-humanoid). Hopefully, though, we’ll see a whole lot more. Let’s take those pictures and put ’em all together one more time to see all the female Skylanders together!
Now THAT is one unique set of female characters!
So, there you go! Skylanders, intentionally or not, is doing a whole lot of good and shows how videogames aren’t a den of vile evil! Why I’d have a hard time imagining anyone complaining about this!
That is…until I started using Google Image Search to get the pictures for this article wherin I stumbled accross an image of most of the female Skylanders together. Surely this was part of an article about how awesome the female Skylanders are! So I looked and found the article “Why Boys Need Female Heroes Too”. This is off to a good start!
“I love [Skylanders] for what it is teaching my son. Like with any game, my son is learning hand-eye coordination and improving his reaction time; his brain is learning to process information and learning to do it quickly. In addition, my son is learning what would be considered more tangible school-taught skills like reading and problem solving.”
Good! We’re off to a great start! Look how awesome videogames are! Hooray!
“But there’s one important thing that Skylanders is teaching him that I hate: that heroes are male.”
Yeah! Skylanders is gr-wait what?!
Hold on…what?! But…you have a picture of a bunch of female Skylanders in your article! The header for the article has Stealth Elf front and center! How can you say it is teaching your son that heroes are male when you are clearly displaying the number of female heroes in the game?!
“I’m sure none of the artists or developers sat down and specifically decided that only 15% of playable characters will be female (at least I hope not), but what this subconsciously suggests to players is that you need to be male to be a hero.”
…how does it suggest that when 15% of the playable characters are female? Just because there are less of them doesn’t mean they don’t exist!
“If you look at the list of the total of 80 playable characters in Skylanders, only 12 are female. Even worse, the number of female characters is decreasing with every new release”
…umm…no? No it isn’t. I can only assume this mistake is because the article was written before Punk Shock and Scratch came out as it keeps mentioning only 12 female characters instead of 14 and the picture on the page lacks both of the aformentioned Skylanders. As such it is an honest mistake as it would thus seem that there were 5 new females in the first game, 4 in the second, and 3 in the third. An honest mistake, but it undoubtedly adds to the negativity of the article.
“When my son is choosing a character, I want him to be able to pick from an equal number of male and female character because this tells him that both sexes (and I say sexes because I am making a biological argument and not a gender one, which is another story altogether) are equally likely to become heroes. That they are equally likely to want to protect that which is theirs.”
This is of course where someone would talk about the number of male teachers versus female teachers or crap like that, but this is fantasy so that’s a stupid argument. Having an equal number of male and female characters is definitely a nice thought and it would be cool if it happened. However, while there are a sizeable number of female players chances are the largest playerbase is male. More than that, Skylanders is all about weird creatures that would often be considered genderless. But since genderlessness is a weird concept we often default to male. These gender neutral characters often appeal to both genders anyway so they are an extra safe bet. I agree the way we default to male is an odd social hiccup and it would be cool if Skylanders made a larger effort to change that. However it is a difficult hurdle to overcome.
“What makes it worse is that the few female characters in Skylanders are very much female. The dragons are pastel in colour and the human-looking characters have longer hair and tighter fitting clothes. It’s not surprising that the human-like characters would be associated with human sexual stereotypes (lithe bodies, greater hip-to-waist ratios, enlarged mammary glands), because we are drawing from our own species’ differences. That’s not really the problem.”
I…disagree with this statement. Cynder is deep purple and not particularly overly feminine. When I think “girl dragon” I don’t think of bladed tails and chrome head spikes.
This also ignores the aformentioned Sonic Boom who does appear in the picture of “all” the female Skylanders so clearly the writer recognizes this character.
However, on the human characters, I continue to disagree. Only Ninjini, Stealth Elf, and Roller Brawl have long hair (in a braid). Sprocket has shoulder length hair and Chill has short hair hidden by a helmet. Hex is wearing a hood, Star Strike is a black void with eyes, Smoulderdash is made entirely of fire, and Punk Shock is a fish with a mowhawk-esque fin instead of hair. As for the tight fitting clothes? That’s questionable if, outside of Smoulderdash, the clothes really fit any tighter than they do on the male characters. I will give them Stealth Elf’s bare midriff for whatever that is worth as well. However I do not see anything indicating that Hex’s dress is tigher than Free Ranger’s armor.
Also, how does female characters looking female “make it worse”? Doesn’t that just highlight that women can be heroes too?
But “that’s not the problem”, so what is?
“The problem is that some of the human characters (left column) could easily have been females. Chop Chop and Ghost Roaster are literally skeletons, couldn’t either of them be voiced by a female? Why is a witch doctor assumed to be male?”
I would like to point out that there are very few really human-esque male characters. The majority of those are female in Skylanders which does indeed shine a light on this exact same issue. However it does explain why Fright Rider is male.
“Every single animal-based character (examples in the centre column) could easily have been female.”
Warnado and Hot Dog, yes. However, Dino-Rang and Scorp aren’t animals but humanoid animals and actually do have a relatively masculine physique.
“Finally, with many of the imaginary creatures (right column), you can’t even tell their sex until they speak and use a male voice.
The main point here is that many characters could be female and they wouldn’t need to be designed any differently. Given that the sex of the characters doesn’t matter, we should ask why the developers and designers thought most of the characters should be male.”
Alright, this is a good point for the most part and it loops back to what I said above: When something is genderless we default to calling it male. If I stuck googly eyes on a stop sign, chances are you’d call it Mr.Stop Sign and not Ms.Stop Sign unless I put a bow on it or eyelashes or some other gender signifier. It is strange that we consider the default to be male and the exception to be female. Even the words male and female are like this when, biologically speaking, one could argue that the opposite is true.
However, I want you to re-read that: the words male and female are engendered in this same way. Male or Male plus Fe. This is a concept so deeply rooted into our very culture that expecting someone to break the mould takes a conscious effort.
Again, most of these characters are genderless and appeal to both genders. However it is difficult to discuss sentient characters without gender and thus they default to male because human culture sees male as the default.
I do not see this as a reason to ignore the positive aspects of Skylanders.
“Wouldn’t girls also want to play Skylanders and prefer to use female characters? Or god forbid, wouldn’t boys want to use a female character too? The reality is that all gamers need more female characters.”
Umm…they do and they do? What does this have to do with genderless character designs not being female? The fact that the number of female characters is so low and all they’d have to do is choose female voices and use the word “she” instead of “he”? A fair point. However these designs are genderless and often appeal to girls anyway regardless of the gender of the characters and if they wanted to play a girl character chances are they would want one that looks like a girl. What’s wrong with female characters looking female? I think your message is getting muddled.
“Eradicating sexist perspectives is easiest in if we can demonstrate that both sexes can fight to protect what they love and that sex (and gender) has nothing to do with becoming a hero. Skylanders seems like the perfect opportunity in which to demonstrate equality because all the characters are imaginary.
Although you may not realize it, Acitivision, you have an amazing opportunity to do something incredible with what you have created. Along with teaching my son all these wonderful life skills, you could teach them that all people are equal and that his mom can (and wants to) protect him just like his dad.”
HOW DOES THE GAME NOT ALREADY DO THIS?!
Skylanders has female characters who can fight. Why does the fact that there are less of them and that they actually look female invalidate this? Wouldn’t having an identifiably female character on the battlefield have a greater impact on teaching that both genders can fight rather than a genderless design with a feminine voice?
The message this article sends is baffling to me.The first time I read the article it honestly came off as though female characters looking female makes them not count as female characters; a statement so utterly baffling (and honestly incredibly sexist) I could not wrap my head around it. I understand this is not what the writer was trying to say, but it was the message I received.
However, even after I re-read it, the message is still a mess:
Because there are less female characters than male, it acts as though the female characters don’t exist. Rather than supporting what is there and encouraging more of it, it chooses to completely ignore it and complain about it.
This article right here is basically a microcosm of the “Videogame Culture War”. Ignore the positive, scour every pixel of a game for negatives, then emphasize the crap out of it and complain. Anyone who disagrees is a part of the problem, right? However, this accomplishes nothing.
When push comes to shove, me and the guy who wrote this article honestly agree: more female Skylanders would be a good thing. I just feel that we should praise what we have and ask for more, rather than tossing it aside like a spoiled child and yelling “It’s not good enough!”.
Also, this doesn’t answer the burning question on my mind: What about Sonic Boom?! Is she still not good enough or do you want more characters like her? Your article suggests that Sonic Boom is the kind of thing you’d like to see more of, but completely ignoring her raises the question of if she is good enough.
This is the problem with doing nothing but complaining: You don’t give anyone a clear idea of what you want.
What makes it all worse is that the guy who wrote this article is not the typical angry ranting loon. The article is actually quite nice, written is a calm voice and not particularly accusing either. It sees the positive in videogames in a significant manner. However it feels as though it got caught up in the zeitgeist behind this “war” and thus fell in line. Everyone says videogames are awful and sexist so it must be true! Anything that could be considered otherwise just isn’t noteworthy enough! Much like how we default to male on the gender of genderless things, folks often default to sexism when discussing videogames; an act which can often backfire.
If you ask me, Skylanders is good, but yes it can do better and I encourage that and if you ask me, that’s what gaming needs: encouragement.