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An about-face on women’s dress code in ‘Warface’

Crytek

If you happen to have played “Warface” — the free-to-play online military shoot-’em-up by Crytek that is currently in beta testing — in the last few weeks, you may have noticed a big difference between the male and female characters. Namely, the men are fully dressed for war, while the women aren’t.

This became clear when the female characters were recently added. One has fatigues styled in a way that reveals a skimpy, busty top. Another has a low-scooped shirt and a bare neck, and is quite well-endowed. The men, of course, are covered head-to-toe, save for their faces, and are wearing thick body armor, since that’s how people actually dress in combat situations.

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The female characters were designed after Crytek solicited feedback from its players as to how they should look, as “Warface” executive producer Joshua Howard explained in a recent interview with Wired. “They were very comfortable with the fact we have these very realistic-looking men,” he said of the game’s players, “but they wanted the women to be not what we would think of as realistic at all. Up to and including running round in high heels which is just silly, right?” Crytek nixed the idea of high heels but went ahead with the revealing models.

Of course, provocatively dressed female characters are common in many games set in rollicking fantasy or adventure settings. But “Warface” takes place in a gritty, worn-down near-future world, a bullet-ravaged place where, as the game’s website puts it, a “ruthless military force, known as Blackwood, controls the world’s resources and turns cities and countries into desolate battlefields.” It’s always strange to see female characters doing heroic things while dressed skimpily, but here it’s positively jarring.

Think about this from the point of view of a female gamer: What would it tell you that the female characters in “Warface” are running around in skimpy outfits that would offer very little protection in real life from bullets or explosive flak, but plenty of eye candy for the men fighting around them? What would it suggest about who the game is created by and for?

Overall, not a very inclusive message. Even though the different outfits don’t reflect any in-game differences in survivability, it’s been hard not to be reminded of the feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian’s complaints that female characters are often little more than hyper-sexualized cannon-fodder.

Crytek must have understood the message it was sending; big video game companies aren’t stupid. The company probably figured its fan base was so male-heavy that the ridiculous female characters would be welcomed and drooled over. Instead, news of the skimpily dressed characters — and the fact that Crytek explicitly reached out to its players for help in designing them — raced around the gaming media, drawing headlines like the one on Eurogamer that read “Female soldiers in Warface are unrealistic and sexualised because community wanted it.”

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It appears that this wasn’t the reaction Crytek hoped for. On Wednesday a spokeswoman from the company sent me an e-mail saying that it would be changing the female characters to non-scantily clad versions in the North American, European, and Turkish versions of the game, but not in Russia, China, and Korea.

This about-face — well, half-about-face — is an interesting moment in the ongoing effort to dislodge misogyny from gaming.

It’s a good sign that there was enough of a backlash to cause the company to put some clothes on the soldiers. But it’s also telling that the provocatively dressed characters are still running around if you log on from Seoul, Beijing, or Moscow. I asked the Crytek spokeswoman if that was because the character models had generated less controversy in those parts of the world. “More or less,” she replied.

There’s a clear, albeit somewhat obvious, lesson here for activists: Companies respond to pressure. Crytek first responded to pressure to dress its female soldiers like they were headed out for a night at a club instead of a battlefield. Then it did a 180 because it experienced sufficient pressure in the opposite direction. In those markets where Crytek didn’t detect the pressure? Still skimpy outfits.

Misogyny in gaming is a complicated, pervasive thing. It’s unlikely we’ll ever stamp out abusive YouTube comments or angry message-board rants about how feminists are “ruining” gaming with their “political correctness.” But companies are quite vulnerable to certain forms of pressure, simply because of the profit motive. When they sense a controversy could sap them of public standing — and therefore money — they’re likely to shuffle a step or two away from that controversy.

So for those unsure whether to criticize Crytek for introducing the provocative outfits in the first place, praise it for the partial rollback, or criticize it for not doing a full rollback, at least one thing’s clear: The company listened.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.

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