Wizards Addresses Sexism in Fantasy Games
Wow, what a loaded topic. There’s no doubt about it, fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons have, in the past and present, been notorious for portraying women with vast amounts of skin showing and over-sized cleavage and chain-mail bikinis. But where to begin with this obviously touchy subject?
First of all, let me say, if you haven’t already read previous discussions on fantasy game sexism, I suggest you do so now before reading the rest of this blog entry. The first article that should be read is “Sexism in Fantasy” by Jon Schindehette, senior creative director for Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons and Dragons game, which more or less touched off this entire subject. After that, you should read the impassioned response from Sarah Darkmagic at “A Look at ‘Sexism in Fantasy.’”
Next, I suggest you read Schindehette’s second article on this subject entitled, “D&D Art Philosophy,” and then Sarah’s response in “Championing the Imperfect.”
Then, finally, for another interesting perspective on this, I suggest you read an article entitled, “Should D&D be Sexist?” by Greywulf’s Lair, another great blog writer.
Then it’s time to get down to business.
So, without further ado, here is what I wrote to Sarah:
Great article, Sarah. I want it clear that I sympathize with your opinion and your cause, and that I fall deeply into your camp when it comes to improving imagery of women in fantasy art. However, I am glad to see that you are less worked up about this topic this time around than you appeared to be in your last post on the subject. I think constructive back-and-forth discussions are needed as a way to help to iron out acceptable solutions for everyone involved, and they are a much more constructive way to go than to draw a line in the sand.
In Jon's first post on the subject I did not get the feel he is attempting to champion chain-mail bikinis, by any means, or sexism, or that sort of thing. I just think he was trying to demonstrate how difficult it is to censor art. At what point do you draw the lines? Is one-third of a woman's breasts showing okay? Should all women portrayed always be flat-chested? etc. It read to me like he was trying to put up a trial balloon to the public to get the discussion rolling so a concrete criteria can be set forth for the future. At least that is the vibe I got from it.
Regarding Jon's most recent article, I like it even more than his last one because now I can tell where he is headed and what changes appear to be coming down the pike, policy wise, for images. It's not going to be an easy, smooth process, by any means, and issues like these ALWAYS have gray areas, so they are difficult to work out. I'd just like to say to everyone that they should keep a level head when discussing this and to remember that just because someone is bringing up a conflicting point of view that doesn't mean they are closed to other opinions, or that they are even advocating an opposed view point. In many cases, they are just looking to put an issue out there for everyone to discuss.
So, now, to expand from there: I think it is time to get the ball rolling on this discussion some more, and here is the million-dollar question.
Given the context of what has been written before, what kind of guidelines, if any, should Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games have on how they portray women, and for that matter ethnic groups, in fantasy?
As for me, I find myself falling somewhere in the middle ground of this controversy. I think Wizards of the Coast should simply try to encourage their artists to think outside of the box, informally and not in a heavy handed manner, so they are more creative with their images and more diverse in their character portrayals. That is, they should ask their illustrators to start mixing in more story elements into their portrayals as Schindehette suggested in his last article. In fact, I agree with most of what Schindehette set out in that last article. I think his list of key philosophies, more or less, is a pretty good place to start regarding this controversy.
If an image doesn’t tell an interesting story, then don’t bother to illustrate it. Likewise, as he said, artists should attempt to make every image have some sort of impact or drama; their portrayals should contain great characters. I, too, believe they should strive for realism: well, sort of. Rather, I'd like to believe they strive for some sort of believable consistency instead, not something cartoonish or outlandish just for outlandish sake. Like him, I think there should also be a cultural clarity to the images, and I think looking to the past for what has already worked in this regard is okay, too, as long as changes are made when necessary and appropriate.
On top of that, though, I would add one more thing: Wizards of the Coast should encourage illustrators to bring more diversity to their portrayals. This sort of falls under the “great characters” category, of course, but I still believe it is a worthwhile distinction to make.
I don't think it is unreasonable to have artwork portray all ages, sexes, ethnicity, and body shapes. I also don't think artists for D&D should completely eliminate beautiful people from their drawings. To have every image in D&D catering to a specific body type, though, seems sort of one-dimensional to me and, yes, sexist. Why not throw in some other types of women portrayals (and men for that matter), such as older women, overweight men, fully armored women, scarred women, and so forth? What's wrong with that? For one thing, it adds more interest to the game. And a truly good artist should be able to stretch boundaries and make scenes come alive with character personalities, not just by relying strictly on physical attraction as their shtick.
How about you. What do you think?