Game art can enrich a roleplaying game. While browsing your friendly local game store, games will often draw you in with their cover. That said, too many times, covers look like this:
In the comic-book community, there's a lot of discussion surrounding the portrayal of women in comic art, and we're having a lot of similar debates with regard to roleplaying games. Impossible poses, side boob—or in some cases, side and back boob—and an underdressed female character are just some of the problems in this Wayne Reynolds cover for The Inner Sea World Guide. But it is far from the only problematic cover I can bring up.
Disclosure: I was a proofreader for Shadowrun: Attitude. I was also incredibly disappointed when the book came out, and it was because of the cover. I'm a fan of Echo Chernik, who did the art: I'd happily own most of her artwork produced to date. This cover was painful for me to see, as it shows very little of Chernik's talent or vision. In the enlarged version, you can see more of the background, in which characters are posed naturally, involved in tasks and conversation. That version would have made a stronger cover, don't you think?
Full or abridged, the problem I have is with the woman in the foreground. Her attire, her pose, her everything is aimed at the viewer. She's a sexualized object, and sadly a compelling example of something we see over and over in game art. There is a fixation on "strong female characters," and that's become shorthand for art featuring thin, white women in provocative clothing, sometimes armed, and rarely holding their weapons with any degree of familiarity.
So what's the one cover I hear shouted, by women and men, as an example of overly sexualized art?
The cover for Exalted: Savant and Sorcerer, by the artist Hyung Tae Kim. This isn't a recent release by any means, but Exalted is a game people still play. When the third edition of Exalted comes out, is the art still going to look like this?
Women of color are rare, women in reasonable armor or the game equivalent to everyday clothing are unusual, and mixed body types are practically unheard of. Art tells us a lot about game worlds—and art like this tells us that these game worlds contain highly sexualized women present for the heterosexual consumption of men. The defense that these images are for women attracted to other women is bogus. The cheesecake we're treated to on a regular basis in game art is geared for the male gaze.
Indeed, tabletop games often ignore the presence of sexual orientations beyond the garden-variety heterosexual, which makes game art a double special of sexism and heterosexist assumptions. This is unfortunately a mirror to our everyday lives.
When we play games, we often sit down at the table to have fun. To enjoy ourselves. To escape from the day to day experience of street harassment, othering and sexist daily grind. Game art that deprives us of choices, of characters who look like us, that presents women the same way we are served up for consumption, domination and control? We don't need a game to experience that. The sampling I've presented in a small slice of a widespread problem.
We need games—or at least their art—to be places where we can, to some degree, find escape. Fiction can be empowering, and inspiring. So can games. To push for a more diverse portrayal of women is not making mountains of molehills, or being "unhappy bitches who hate/are jealous of other women." Nor is it "a negative application of my energies." These are all things that have been said to my face and online, usually by men. The subtext is that asking for a diverse portrayal of women, and asking to be seen as more than an object of consumption, is abhorrent.
I'm not asking for a ban on sexy characters or skimpy clothes. I'm asking for a more varied portrayal. I am not asking for an exclusion of men, merely an inclusion of women. I am asking as a participant, and as a creator, to be heard. For my hobby to stop telling me to shut up.