Part of a miscellany of serious thoughts, animal gifs, and anecdotage from the realm of MOBAs/hero brawlers/lane-pushers/ARTS/tactical wizard-em-ups. One day Pip might even tell you the story of how she bumped into Na’Vi’s Dendi at a dessert buffet cart.
For about as long as I've been playing MOBAs I've been aware of how monsters are portrayed in their game art. I love a good monster, just as I really like playing characters which fit different moods so when games seem to be holding back or skewing one particular direction I try to work out why and how I would change that. Here's one of my ideas, plus some context.
A Discworld MOBA would be a great idea, especially in terms of introducing more varied body types under the pronoun "she". The point is not about losing busty ladies, but adding more diversity.
I spent the weekend at the Smite World Championship. It was a fantastic event, the scale and atmosphere of which reminded me of The International 3 – probably my favourite .
But one thing which was mentioned several times, both in article comments and by people attending was the prominence of busty ladies in the pool of playable gods. With Smite this then leads to another conversation about representations of gender in mythology and religion and how that plays out over the history of art – that's something I'll try to do properly at another time. But none of that nullifies the general adherence to the MOBA model which offers a reduced variety of body types when it comes to characters referred to as "she".
At this juncture I'd like to point out that I tend to notice any emphasis when it comes to the artwork and animations you get in between games or as marketing assets but not when I'm playing. At that point the god or hero or champion sort of fades from my conscious view and becomes a vessel through which abilities and actions are dealt or felt.
There was a blog post in 2012 on Obligatory Spider Queen about how the female characters in League of Legends shake out. At that point 33 of the 103 champions were female with 25 of those being humanoid, 4 as cutesy critters and 4 as monsters (monstrous in this instance meant anything with marked animal characteristics or which was entirely machine). Riot has added 20 heroes since and I think it alters the split to 42 female out of 123. 4 are cute critters, 7 are monsters and the remaining 31 humanoid.
Obviously one person's definition of monstrous or revealing might be different from another but I'm going to use the definitions from that blog post just to make the results broadly comparable and to get the basic shape of the situation across.
Looking at how the humanoid male and female characters were dressed, the survey then checked whose costumes were revealing (revealing was defined as skin exposure on the torso between the top of the bust and the top of the thighs). 64% of the female humanoid characters are in revealing outfits as compared with 37% of the male humanoid characters (the numbers are 58% and 39% now).
There are several other charts which look at the options provided by character skins but they shore up the general thesis that the majority of League's female characters are humanoid women with revealing outfits or revealing outfit options, "And all that imbalance is before we get into the general uniformity of the women’s similarly beautiful, youthful faces contrasted against a mix of men that run a gamut of age and coarseness."
I'd also add that, at this point, 46 LoL characters would be defined as monsters by the Obligatory Spider Queen criteria but only 7 of those monsters are female. To put that another way, 47% of LoL's male roster is made up of monsters, its female roster offers 14%.
Of Smite's 61 gods 17 are female (28%) which is similar to League's breakdown (33% female). Of that 17, using the monster categorisation from before, I'd say 5 are monsters although to clarify: that includes characters like Bastet and Serqet just because they have animal tails.
Actually, 16 of the 17 conform to a very similar busty, svelte body type. The one which doesn't is Scylla, Horror of the Deep who takes the form of a little girl in a long dress from which dog headed tentacles can zoom out and murder you. Characters such as Kali, Arachne and Serqet offer some points of difference, but not many. Kali's many arms, Serqet's venomous tail, Arachne's spidery bottom half – they're all interesting but the base model is definitely a busty, svelte lady. In terms of male characters, I think the traditional frequently humanoid depictions of the various gods keep the male monster ratio relatively low at a little over 30%.
Dota is the lowest of the three games in terms of basic gender breakdown with 17 female heroes out of a current roster of 109. That's about 16%. As with Smite, 5 are monsters – although the spider lady in Dota is just a big spider rather than a sort of booby spider mermaid. Medusa is more mermaidy in that she has a typical body shape fading into a snake tail but it pairs with a wizened monster face and snakes. Of the remaining 12, 8 have revealing basic outfits. Having gone through the male Dota heroes, I think the classification breaks down as about 70% being monstrous.
You get the idea. "She" ends up predominantly referring to a svelte, busty, humanoid body.
Considering why this happens I'd say there's definitely a business case for it. Valve, Riot and Hi-Rez are all developers who need to stay in business and make money. My own experience of working at big businesses is that they'll tend to stick with strategies which have been proven to be successful or which they feel are common sense. From that, I'd say that if the current gender division and level of monstrosity is making money then it would be seen as a business risk to change that so they don't.
Current and desired audience plays a huge part in how companies market their game. I'm looking at that infographic Riot distributed in 2012 and it puts the game's playerbase at over 90% male with 85% of players aged 16-30. There's nothing in that graphic about sexual orientation but it's tempting to look at the preponderance of a particular female body type as at also being driven by or a response to that audience. Possibly both. Obviously Riot could change their approach but the success of their game while using the current strategy, I suspect, makes that change unpalatable.]
There would also be an argument for some body types being more logical when you're creating characters who run and punch and dash but it becomes hard to make that argument when you look at some of the corpulent or elderly male options.
I was also thinking about that NPR news segment where Geena Davis mentions a study which looked at gender ratios in groups: "And they found that if there's 17 percent women, the men in the group think it's 50-50. And if there's 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men."
I don't actually know which study she's referring to. I can't seem to find anything online, so if you know more can you email me? But if you take that stat in good faith then Dota 2's gender breakdown is almost exactly at the point at which gender representation is considered equal while Smite and League hover just under the "more women" threshold. It's an interesting idea (if that initial research point is accurate) – that developers looking at their rosters might not see a disparity or an inequality of number.
In terms of variety of age and size in these humanoid female characters, that's also likely tied up in a number of prejudices and preferences coming in from wider society. Aging comes with a number of negative stereotypes, as does being particularly large, skeletally thin or unusually proportioned in some other way. Perhaps these female characters are thrown out at the ideas stage as less aspirational, less able to fulfil the remit of a champion or a hero because that's not generally how we view those forms outside the games.
Then within that we have the monsters. Reiterating the basic numbers, they comprise almost half the male roster in LoL and more than two thirds in Dota 2 (give or take a few). When you look at the female rosters in both games, they're less than a third monstrous. With Smite the ratios at about 30% on each side. I'd say that's likely because of how the source material functions in relation to the game but I'd also add that there are degrees of monstrousness there which make the percentages a little deceptive. The male pool has a beefy ice giant, a ferocious monkey and a dude made out of big lumps of rock. On the ladies side the closest you'll get to non-human is the mermaidy spider.
It often feels like MOBA characters take that Mean Girls Hallowe'en costume approach to female monstrousness. "The hardcore girls just wear lingerie and some form of animal ears."
I'm a spider, DUH.
"Pip, you've been talking for a while now. When is Discworld going to be relevant?"
Ah yes, Discworld.
In pondering the lack of monsters and the ratio of revealing outfits to functional armour I started wondering whether starting with source material outside a game and the MOBA industry's attendant traditions and business precedents/assumptions would provide a more diverse cast in terms of bodies. I don't want to lose busty ladies, I want to rebalance so there's more visual diversity.
Discworld is my suggestion because there are female characters of all ages and body types who are fantastic. Here are the ones which sprang to my mind along with a few of their personality and physical characteristics which could be useful in MOBA character creation.
Granny Weatherwax: a personal favourite – confident, powerful, elderly, hard as balls
Nanny Ogg: hard drinking, much-married, personable, overweight, fantastic healer
Magrat: into new-age witchery, flat-chested, practical, great with potions
Mrs Cake: short, able to communicate with the dead
Angua von Uberwald: a werewolf, hugely capable, strong
Cheery Littlebottom: one of the first openly female dwarves, bearded, smart
Eskarina Smith: born a wizard, old and young at the same time, capable of time travel,
Lady T'Malia: assassin, heavily made up and corseted, capable of poisoning whole towns
Agnes Nitt: two personalities, overweight, great hair, talent for magic
Lady Felmet: power hungry, cunning, skilled at inflicting pain
I stopped reading the books a while ago so I'm not sure which characters have cropped up in the meantime. There are some problems with this idea as in there are still fewer main female characters than male ones and that at times the portrayals aren't perfect, but the ones I've mentioned above would already provide far more diversity than exists in any of the three games I've been poking at.