Post-GDC 2014 Week: Final speech notes for “Fewer Tifas, or More Sephiroths? Male Sexualization in Games”

Welcome back to my week-long retrospective on my GDC Narrative Summit talk on male sexualization (or lack thereof) in video games. Today I’ll be sharing the actual notes for the speech so everyone can follow along with the argument. This includes the last section, How to Write Sexy Male Characters, which was supposed to be the main focus of the talk but unfortunately ran short on time because I apparently am prone to time-space distortions when I’m on stage… I swear it was 25 minutes in rehearsal!

You can download the notes from Google Drive as a separate doc file, or just keep reading!


–          My name is Michelle Clough

–          I’m a closed caption editor, anime localization editor, QA tester, freelance writer, editor, and narrative designer… and I’m a fangirl

–          In that capacity I’m here today, because not just a fangirl for consoles, franchises, or genres

  • fangirl for this guy, this guy, this guy, etc

–          Here to talk about sexy, sexualized, and attractive male characters in games

  • get used to seeing the same characters up here because most male characters are not sexualized at all
  • some exceptions like dating sims, but core games? Not so much.

–          Missed opportunity

  • greater diversity of male characters
  • create a more sex-positive atmosphere
  • reach out to other audiences like straight women and gay men by acknowledging, celebrating, and fulfilling their desires

–          Good news! We can help

  • Sex appeal not only about looks, so not just on the art department
  • By making small but meaningful changes to the way we write male characters, can heighten their attractiveness and sexual appeal

–          Talk overview

  • Why it’s important to do this
  • Why we’re not doing this
  • Examples of how it’s done well
  • How to write sexy male characters

Why is it important?

–          Well, uh, those previous points seem like a good start?

–          aren’t we supposed to be moving away from sexualization?

  • Bit more complicated
    • for this talk, sexualization = character is intentionally designed to evoke a sexual or romantic response – attraction, lust, arousal, whatever
    • objectification = when that’s all there is to a character, only a hot body to ogle
      • this, I think we can agree, is bad regardless of gender
        • It conveys very negative, problematic ideas about people as objects rather than individuals
        • Bad writing!
  • But sexualization, even titillation, has its place when done well
    • Sex and sexual desire is an important part of the human condition
    • we’re writers, why wouldn’t we want to explore, evoke, and satisfy them?
    • Kinda stuck on just one kind of desire
      • Before we toss out the Tifas with the bathwater, why not diversify?

–          Some statistics to think about:

  • According to the ESA, 45% of gamers are women
  • Studies show college age women think of sex ten times a day
  • When exposed to erotic imagery, the neurons in women’s brains fire 20% faster than any other kind of imagery

–          Votes are in: women like sex

  • Not all women are interested in men, but significant number are
  • Add gay men, bisexuals, and other genders and sexualities who dig men…
  • There’s a market out there that’s interested in this stuff!

–          By appealing to that market, very powerful message

  • “We know you play games. We LIKE that you play games. We acknowledge your desires. Here’s something to appeal to those desires.”
  • Know it’s powerful because I heard this message as teenager
    • noticed all my gamer peers were male, marketing was designed for men – began to think that gaming was for men and that I was a freak despite playing games all my life
    • Then I played this game, and saw this guy, and got to this scene, and, well…
    • Took away two things:
      • “That man is the hottest thing on two legs!”
      • “They made him that way on purpose,” – his design, backstory, behavior, all enhanced the mood and attractiveness
        • why would they have done that if they didn’t expect there to be an audience for it?
        • Knowing that people like me were welcome at the table and encouraged to squee gave me confidence – part of the reason I’m here today!

Why are we failing?

–          Two words: MALE GAZE

  • roughly summarized, we assume the perspective of a straight male audience and write/design accordingly
    • female characters become objects of the audience’s lust and desire – what straight men want to BONE
    • male characters are role models, points of identification, active agents – what straight men want to BE
  • It’s that part that we want to talk about, because it is harshing our Sexy Men buzz

–          Consciously or unconsciously, making a male character FOR men will affect our writing in many ways

  • First: we emphasize and idealize traits that are “what men want,” or what society says they should want
    • this includes toughness, ruggednes, lack of vulnerability, giant musculature, , violent anger,  the ability to grow hair on one’s chin
    • Some find this attractive – awesome, but also accidental. These traits aren’t added to make hearts (or other bits) go pitter patter
  • Partly because next point: we avoid eroticizing men
    • male gaze theory suggests men are not comfortable seeing themselves through the eyes of desire
      • at best, disinterest; at worst, homophobic panic
      • We don’t have many naked men in games, and when we do, it’s either awkward or comedic rather than sensual or earthy
  • Third, unique to games: concept of agency/player agency, particularly with male PCs
    • under male gaze, man’s role in the story is to do and act
      • even moreso for games: the male character literally IS the male player’s representative –have it hammered into us as writers that the PC by design must always do and act and drive story
      • in sex, this means male PC is the active luster rather than experiencing the more passive role of being lusted over
        • this can be true even if woman initiates because it’s less about HER desire or HIS desirability – just extension of the PC/player’s lust
        • But to be desired and lusted after is a more passive experience – and narrative designers are often told to avoid passiveness in favor of player agency

–          So male gaze has many problems, particularly if you’re not male, not straight, or just not interested in the model it offers. How to fix?

  • Great steps made on the “identification” and “agency” front, making female characters identifiable agents in their own right, acknowledging female and minority players, etc
    • Time to start incorporating desire as well
    • that means rethinking our approach to male characters and consciously using sexual allure as part of our writing toolbox.

Who’s doing it right (or at least differently)?

–          Critique focused on Western developed games

–          Asian developed games approach differently, particularly in Japan but Korean and Chinese games as well

  • one popular type: Leaner, refined features, elegant, sensual posing, and certain amount of androgyny
  • Japan has term for this: bishonen
    • Translation: “beautiful boy,” but often used for beautiful men
    • Wikipedia describes as, “a young man whose beauty and sexual appeal transcends the boundaries of gender and sexual orientation.”
      • identify as male but display certain traits traditionally coded as feminine such as long hair and affinity with flowers, grace, elegant costumes, etc
      • have elegant, refined personalities and often intensely emotional narratives and relationships with both men and women
      • Aside from JRPGs, bishonen appear frequently in anime and manga
        • NOT just in titles marketed to women, but in all genres, even those traditionally “coded” for boys like giant mechs and robots
          • artists and writers encourage and expect a straight female or gay male audience
          • These character do NOT alienate the straight male fanbase!
          • Origin of the bishounen archetype is complicated and constitutes a separate talk on its own, but one major thread is the popularity of stories and legends of courtly life in Japan, Korea, and China – e.g. Tale of Genji
            • in the world of the court, beauty, refinement, and sensual appeal were highly prized traits for men as well as women
            • Heroes like Genji are described in terms of their “peerless beauty,” their deep emotions, and their courtly elegance – all making them devastatingly attractive to men AND women
            • these narratives inform the larger culture in these countries, and bishonen are a modern interpretation and evolution of the archetype
            • Worth noting that there is also a tradition of courtly narrative in Europe
              • sure enough, there is a similar thread of elegant, refined gentlemen who are explicitly attractive role models – this continues to this day.
              • In contrast, North America elevates the frontier narrative
                • Our history is about harsh landscapes being slowly tamed by natives, explorers, colonists, etc.
                • Our heroes are cowboys, frontiersmen, lumberjacks leaping from tree to tree in the forests of British Colum- you get the idea
                • In this environment, “manliness” was a positive – being strong, burly, and taciturn helps when you’re building a cabin and surviving winter
                  • Environment has changed, but these traits are still prized as artifacts

–          So if one culture prizes rugged manliness, and another prizes elegance and beauty, does that mean there’s no crossover? That there’s no place for bishonen in our gaming culture?

  • Let’s ask Square Enix! They seem to be making a go of it
    • Square Enix have made a career out of cramming in as many beautiful men as they can into their games
    • Western success: Latest iteration of FFVII, Crisis Core,  sold almost as many units in North America as Japan
      • And its male cast were all on different levels of the bishonen spectrum; not maybe a selling point, but not a turnoff
      • Speaking of Final Fantasy – Final Fantasy VII
        • arguably one of the best examples of “fanservice for all”
        • a variety of characters, body types, personalities, genders
        • physically attractive, but the writing enhanced and informed it – looks only one part of the package
          • Tifa was way more than just boobs and short skirt
          • Sephiroth was more than bare chest and bondage leather
          • While their sexualized appearance gained initial attention, it’s their personalities that have got people talking over ten years later

–          But surely some Western developers are getting it right?

  • Surprise surprise… Bioware
    • Built a reputation for making core games that appeal to all genders and sexualities – on a sexy level as well
    • Won’t go into too much detail – been covered at length, often by the writers themselves – but a few key points:
      • again, wide variety of male characters designed for a variety of tastes
        • several specifically designed to be attractive in a romantic/sexual sense… others weren’t but managed anyway
        • in most sex scenes, the male body is presented as sensual and attractive as the female body – nudity and skin are sexy, not jokes or glossed over
        • use the desirable nature of male characters to show us more of straight female characters!
          • for example, during Jacob’s love scene in ME2, Jacob takes off his shirt and shows off some Olympian level abs
            • Shepard’s expression is this lovely little smirk of desire, playful and a little predatory
            • both cases show her sexual agency, her playfulness, and her relationship with these men
  • So there are a few examples of some companies, cultures, and games that do it right
    • I have some other recommendations; come see me after the talk

How to write hot and sexy male characters

–          Bad news: as much as I wish there was some universal recipe for how to write the Most Attractive Man in the Universe, not that simple

  • tastes are different, and one person might like two entirely different characters

–          To be honest, the best advice I can give is the Golden Rule: Write Good Characters First

–          But there are still some traits that are attractive to many people if not all

  • moreover, it does involve a certain mindset and approach to writing

–          So to start, I’ll give some advice about getting into that mindset, looking at more of the conceptual ideas behind writing sexualized or even just attractive guys

  • then move into more specifics like character traits, scenarios, etc that are sexy or just plain attractive for a lot of straight women, gay men, and so on.

–          General

  •  First, ask question: is it appropriate for your game?
    • No one wants Call of Duty: Beefcake Stripper Edition
      • …okay, I would TOTALLY play that game, but not the point!
      • Not every man should be an idealized Adonis – in fact, desperately need more non-idealized bodies and characters of all genders
      • BUT! If you decide against sexualizing male characters, be honest with yourself about sexualizing female characters
        • don’t make it the “default” or shrug it off, honestly confront and think about it
        • and yes, sometimes it’s the art team, but we’ll get to that
  • Second, consult your audience
    • If you are wanting to make desirable men, you need the perspective of those who desire men
    • Now, if you already desire men, Good News! You’re already in a perfect position to consult your own preferences and interests
      • that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get second opinions – tastes differ after all – but own your appetites and use them as creative fuel
      • If men don’t interest you sexually, will help to talk to those that ARE interested
        • cultivate a circle of straight female, gay male friends etc and discuss with them – ask what they like, what turns them on, what turns them OFF
        • better yet, HIRE some of those people! Make sure your writing team (or dev team) has a diverse approach to sexuality and attraction
  • Third, look at media that already has men in a sexual, attractive context
    • already provided some game suggestions
    • Look at dating sims, both from North America and Japan
    • Definitely watch some anime and read some manga if you want to analyze the bishonen archetype more
    • Geek movies. These have actually been KILLING it as of late; this should be the model we are aiming for
      • the Marvel movie franchise and the Lord of the Rings franchise have both embraced the sexual appeal of their male characters while still making them AWESOME for people that aren’t attracted to men.
      • Geek TV shows are also a good source
        • Some may argue they provided the original geek girl heartthrob back in 1966… Spock.
          • Fanart, fanfiction, cosplay, roleplay, fan communities, Tumblr… there’s tons of stuff out there celebrating the hotness of male characters.
          • these are master classes in identifying what appeals to your audience because it’s WRITTEN AND CREATED by your audience!
          • DO NOT RESTRAIN YOURSELF TO GEEKY MEDIA; look further afield, particularly to media designed for straight women and gay men
            • For example, advertising–two recent examples that offer good comedic explorations of sexy personalities as well
            • Read some romance novels, particularly the more sensual ones
            • Look at romantic movies
            • And… yeah… Twilight and 50 Shades
              • Not saying that these (or any of them) are good and that you have to like them
              • but they resonate with their audience
              • Analyze the work, find out what it is that resonates, then DO IT BETTER
  • This leads in nicely to my next point: Restrain your inner eye roll
    • a lot of the louder elements of the gamer community devalue these things, and heck, some of you might be internally groaning! We should be more careful about these kneejerk reactions
      • worst one: “Oh, it’s some stupid teen girl crap” as if for teen girl = objectively horrible, and moreover, as if teen girls themselves are stupid
      • other common reactions with loaded implications:
        • “Ugh, anime is dumb and people who like it are dumb!”
        • “Ugh, emo pretty boys!”
        • “Ugh, fanfic!” particularly, “Ugh, people are turning my characters gay and writing smut!” – I take this as a GREAT sign because it means your male characters are appealing to an audience!
        • Again, the point is NOT that you must like any of this
          • but must move away from the idea of, “This is stupid, and people who like it are stupid too.”
          • Respect the tastes of others. Judging a work is fine, but at least acknowledge what it’s offering and what people are getting out of it
            • also encourage your fanbase to show same respect if they complain
  • If male characters are desired, who are the desiring?
    • Characters – either PC or NPCs
      • use this as an opportunity to explore both characters, their dynamic, the nature of the “luster” and their feelings
      • also be willing to explore what it’s like for men to experience the gaze and desire of others, to BE desired
        •  does NOT mean a passive unresponsive doll – sexual agency and consent is still important – but you can explore what it is like to be the one who receives that lust
        • Take that experience seriously, and don’t just default to a joke if they’re being desired by gay men, fat women, transgender women, etc… the whole “EW GROSS” thing is marginalizing and uncool.
        • And what about the (straight female/gay male etc) player’s desire and gaze?
          • In an ideal world where we wanted to use the medium of games to its fullest, we would give players agency over the gaze, over how desirable their character is presented and how much of an eyeful they want
            • How do we as writers do that?
            • Honestly? I have absolutely NO idea.
              • this is really an area we haven’t really explored or considered yet
              • May not even be writing as much as other disciplines
              • It’s a huge topic, and worth its own talk, but it’s something we should be thinking about
              • In the meantime, there are smaller things we can do to at least guide the player’s gaze and give them opportunities to desire men
                • For example, optional and interactive romances allow the players the choice of whether to explore a male character in a sexual way
                • Also, there’s camera work in cutscenes. By working with your cinematic director, can use the camera to frame the male body in a sensual, attractive way
                  • remember there’s a contextual difference between using the camera to say, “Shepard is checking out Kaidan’s butt,” and using it to say, “Hey, players! Check out Miranda’s butt!”
  • Make your hot men diverse
    • The more different kinds of men you have, the chances are higher that your audience will find at least one of them that tickles their fancy
    • Also, be diverse in representation.  your hot men
      • don’t have to be white
      • don’t have to be cisgender
      • DEFINITELY don’t have to be straight
      • don’t have to be able bodied or have conventionally attractive proportions
      • Let’s not just trade one set of white dudes for another
  • Don’t be straight-jacketed with ideas of “what is manly”
    • success of bishonen shows there’s interest in male characters who move away from rigid gender norms , so feel free to play across the spectrum
  • Never underestimate the power of a good voice
    • a textured, interesting voice can bump a character from interesting to fascinating, particularly if there’s a husky, sexual quality to it
    • so get involved with the casting
  • very important: you NEED NEED NEED NEED NEED to have your art team on side
    • You can write the most elegant bishonen-inspired character in the world, but if your art team just makes him another scruffy white dude…
      • still be interesting
      • but effect will be diluted
      • If you are deliberately playing up sexual appeal of your male characters, must work with the artists and other team members to make sure this is expressed correctly
        • with clothing, posing, body type, etc
        • Show your art team this presentation – heck, show it to your whole dev team – so they understand why it’s important and what you’re going for

–          Specific

  • So, going to do a really quick overview of character traits and scenarios for male characters you may want to consider
    • Some of these are widely popular, some are a little more subjective or reflect my tastes a bit, but they’re all meant just as a starting point to get you thinking
  • Very common and useful phrase that comes up often: a (BLANK) in the eye
    • a twinkle, a tenderness a sadness, a predatory gleam, so on
    • At first glance, this is a visual thing for the artists to worry about, but it’s very useful to keep in mind when conceiving a character’s personality – think of it in terms of the character expressing themselves through eye contact
  • Charisma
    • absolute must have for a sexy male character, more important than appearance.
    • Don’t believe me? Ask the Garrus and Varric fangirls.
  • Confidence
    • both the swaggering sexy I own the room kind
    • and the “I am out of my depth but not ashamed to admit it” kind
  • Emotional vulnerability
    • more than one way for a character to be naked
    • Sometimes less is more, and conflict between keeping cool and showing their pain can be sexy as heck
  • Intrigue and mystery
    • keep the audience wanting to know more of who he is, not just what his backstory is
  • A bit of an “edge”
    • again, less can be more – don’t have to be all darkness and snarling, can be gentle and sweet but also a badass at combat
  • Sense of humor
    • think we’re all familiar with the notion that a sense of humor can be sexy
  • Intelligence and eloquence
    • let the meme speak for itself
  • Brooding
    • Nope, not that… too male gazey.
    • There we go.
  • beauty
    • we don’t usually use that word to refer to men, so gives new spin on how to think of a character
    • opens up new adjectives and traits to explore – refined, elegant, delicate, graceful, etc
  • sensuality
    • expressed through body language, pose, clothing choice, etc
  • Nudity
    • treat male body with as much respect and sexual interest as female body
  • Shirtless scenes!
    • sometimes is just another male power fantasy, sometimes highlights the erotic appeal of the male body… and sometimes can do both!
  • This is just a small handful of ideas to get you started
    • if you want a more indepth study, check out Heidi MacDonald’s presentation from GDC Austin in 2012
    • exploring attractive personality traits in video game love interests, but a
      • fantastic resource for people interested in writing sexy men


–          issue of sexy, attractive, sexualized men in games may seem to be a small one at first glance, especially compared to the treatment of women and other minorities

  • But maybe the answer to making our medium more inclusive isn’t to have fewer Tifas, but more Sephiroths, and more Kaidans, and more Zevrans.
  • This is an aspect of human sexuality that is relatively unexplored in our medium, which means we can be pioneers, just with less tromping the wilderness and more cute butts
  • We have the opportunity to broaden our appeal and offer new perspectives on desire and on men
  • By making small steps and being more thoughtful in the way we write male characters, we as writers can make our games just a little more enticing to straight women, gay men, and other minority audiences, as well as explore different kinds of male characters in our games

–          So go forth and write more hot men!

  • because THIS fangirl is looking for a little bit more.

Thank you.



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