2015 has proven itself to be a landmark year in regards to the representation of minority groups. Whether it be in television (Jessica Jones), film (Mad Max: Fury Road), or reality itself, efforts have been made to appeal to the incredibly diverse audience that is the 21st century; but how successful has it really been?
2015 has proven itself to be a landmark year in regards to the representation of minority groups. Whether it be in television (Jessica Jones), film (Mad Max: Fury Road), or reality itself, efforts have been made to appeal to the incredibly diverse audience that is the 21st century; but how successful has it really been? Examining a niche market such as the video game industry provides a lens for understanding this question…
In the documentary film, Game Over: Gender, Race, & Violence in Video Games, an interviewee discloses “Video games have the quality of being so explicit and so blatant in their representations of men, women, power, and control”: elaborating said claim by showing how men are portrayed in hyper-masculine fashion, while females are often scantily clad and over-sexualized; illustrating the fervent dichotomy where men are all-powerful, and the females are submissive and nothing more than male fantasy. In a time when the industry was producing palette swapped shooter games with this embedded dichotomy, Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games attempted to resuscitate the genre with their 2013 first-person shooter, Bioshock Infinite. In said game, players are introduced to Elizabeth: a character considered unique for the amount of detail that was provided for her character; something uncommon for female characters in games. In the narrative, she is given a complex character arc, which is mirrored by her visual transition: starting with an innocent appearance that progressively becomes more mature. The game’s production toward the release date was heavily chronicled with developer diaries, demos, trailers, and advertisements disclosed to show how Elizabeth would be unlike anything seen before in a game. Post-release, her adoration was made evident not just through reviews, but also in how consumers cosplayed her, the internet opinions that were published, and the fan-fiction showing how audiences decoded her. All of these aforementioned aspects, representation, production, and consumption, work in unison, via the Circuit of Culture Model, to establish a character who provides a contradictory standard regarding the representation of women in video game culture today: on one hand, she is empowered and well-rounded; on the other, her appearance and reason for existence cater to the male fantasy. This media representation fools audiences into believing that the Elizabeth character is a progressive step towards egalitarianism in gaming, yet the underlying reasons for her design, as well as the various fashions in which she was decoded, deem her as nothing more than a smarter sex toy.
The BioShock franchise is a series of first-person shooter games that premiered with its first installment in 2007. Emerging under the lead of Ken Levine, his aim with BioShock was to reflect on the moral quandaries revolving around stem cell research. Utilizing inspiration from Ayn Rand, George Orwell, and the novel, Logan’s Run, Levine sought to tell the story of a 1960s underwater society called Rapture that was ruined “by the fact that we’re people.” The story’s combination of first-person shooter mechanics with role-playing strategy, and its themes exploring Objectivism, morality, and free will lead the game to be critically acclaimed; one critic from the Los Angeles Times reported, “it does something no other game has done to date: it makes you feel” (“BioShock Review”). The successes lead to sequels being developed, among them, BioShock Infinite; which was labeled as a “spiritual successor” by Levine. This time, they opted to work on something with a new setting, characters, and themes. While BioShock focused on a society unbridled by the ethics of science, Infinite emphasized American exceptionalism through religious fervor, societies ruled by theocratic police states, and aimed to be a reflection of the Occupy Movement in 2011. Other influences arose in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Art Nouveau, and the main setting, the flying city of Columbia, payed homage to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Because the previous story’s setting and themes were blatantly dark, Levine found that the themes of exceptionalism and nationalism allowed for the setting to be a stark contrast to the original with its bright colors; which furthered the reflection of darkness being hidden in the political climate at the time. Unlike the first installment, which featured a mute protagonist and a heavy emphasis on discovering the story, Infinite’s narrative occurs as the player experiences it, with protagonists having established identities. Also, Levine and Irrational made an effort to encourage emotional connectivity, and did so by creating Elizabeth. While not created to outright address any issues with female representation in the gaming industry, she was designed to further the advancement of artificial intelligence within games themselves.
While she isn’t the only female represented in BioShock Infinite, as there are three other major female characters, Elizabeth is the one most emphasized and developed. In the game, Elizabeth is portrayed as a Caucasian, 19-year old girl. She is petite, thin, curvy, has big Blue eyes, long eye lashes, thin eye brows, long Brunette hair stylistically tied up, and is dressed in a long Blue skirt with a White blouse. Because she has been locked in a tower her whole life with nothing but books, artistic devices, and the Songbird, a giant mechanical creature that is both her protector and captor, she has developed into a person who is curious, artistic, intelligent, and childlike in her reactions to the world around her. Throughout the game, her character arc’s completion is symbolized through her character design: she goes from having an innocent, Belle-like appearance from Disney’s Beauty & the Beast to adopting a revealing dress and shorter hair style; to accentuate her maturity into a woman. On November 13th, 2013, Levine and Irrational released the first of their two-part downloadable content that served as a sequel to Infinite; entitled, BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea. In the game’s narrative, which takes place not long after the conclusion of its predecessor, players find themselves no longer in Columbia, but in 1959 Rapture, where the main characters have now been re-imagined for the city’s Noir environment. Elizabeth, in this iteration, has long abandoned her initial, innocent appearance, and has now become a femme-fatale version of herself: now wearing more make-up, having her hair grown out in Veronica Lake fashion, wearing fishnet stockings, having her nails painted red, smokes cigarettes, and her breasts, while fully covered, are now more pronounced.
While credit is deserved to how much detail and care was invested into the character’s handling, especially considering her gender, problems arise nonetheless: what Elizabeth represents is as much two steps back, as it is one step forward. To elaborate, Elizabeth is an example of “enlightened sexism”, a term utilized by Susan P. Douglas to demonstrate the perception that because feminism has championed so many successes for women already, thus helping establish a new gender regime, “it’s okay… to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women” (“Enlightened Feminism”, 9). One manner in which Elizabeth is defined is through the power she accumulates throughout the games; this is showcased through the appearances she chooses to adopt: one highlights her breast size, while another accentuates her maturity via heightened sexuality. Douglas laments that “through women’s calculated deployment of their faces, bodies, attire, and sexuality… they gain and enjoy true power” (“Enlightened Feminism”, 10). Other elements characteristic to enlightened feminism are “a renewed emphasis on women’s breasts (and a massive surge in the promotion of breast augmentation)” (Douglas, “Enlightened Feminism”, 11), media defining women by their bodies first and foremost, and establishing that the only way women can overcome adversity is through showcasing hyper-feminine qualities; akin to being “superwomen”, whether that is mentally, physically, or both (Douglas, “Enlightened Feminism”, 17).
As mentioned above, Levine and his team were considering two major elements when Elizabeth was in production: for one, to develop a non-playable character with an artificial intelligence useful to the player; and two, to create someone the player could form an emotional connection with. Since the previous games were considered “solitary experiences” by Levine, as all characters featured were either dead or far away, the decision to implement a new element would allow the newest installment to avoid “treading water” from prior games.
On the topic of AI, it was the creative team’s objective to not only make her useful as a gameplay mechanic, but also feel like a living person with a defined personality and presence. Amanda Jeffrey, the level designer, commented in the development diary, Creating Elizabeth: “Liz [will] follow you around the world, and if you decide that you don’t want to go where she thought you were heading, she can handle that really, really cleverly. She will stop if you stop, she will keep running if you decide that you’re not interested in what you’re doing here. She will be by your side no matter what you end up doing.” Regarding emotions, Jeffrey mentions they tried many things to signify it, such as “showing comfort through having her lean against walls with her arms crossed” (Creating Elizabeth); also having her back turned slightly towards the player to indicate that she was upset with the player protagonist, or things she has experienced.
While designing her, Elizabeth went through much iteration: she first started as a mute person who would communicate via gestures and facial emotions, while resembling a “Gibson Girl”: a 1890s concept by Charles Dana Gibson of what ideal feminine attractiveness should be. The design was scrapped when the team decided they wanted the character to have more of an identity; something achieved through adding dialogue and being redesigned. On August 2010, 2K released the first teaser trailer, which introduced Elizabeth with a design now including her trademark eyes, dress, and corset; also prominent in the first reveal was her cleavage as she reached out to the player character via first-person. Just a month later, a 10-minute gameplay demo showed Elizabeth with a more Goth-like appearance: her makeup and clothing now having a darker palette. It wasn’t until the E3 2011 expo that Elizabeth was shown far more resembling her final design; nonetheless, the prominence of her breast size deemed revision. The male gaze is shown on full display as a scripted moment between the player character and Elizabeth showcases her exaggerated cleavage. On March 26th, 2013, the game was wide-released with the final design having a reduced breast size, and a more youthful appearance. In regards to her designs post-Gibson Girl, Shawn Robertson, the animation director, cited in the development diary The Revolutionary AI Behind Elizabeth that a major influence for the character’s designs were from the female leads of Disney animated films. According to the Art of Bioshock Infinite book, other inspiration for the character design came from comic books, animated films, and the way classic animator’s handled emotion; one method used in particular was the exaggeration of eyes in order to provide more emotion.
As for Elizabeth’s voice and motion capture, two elements meant to portray the character in-game, Courtnee Draper and Heather Gordon were hired to provide both, respectively. Draper, known more for her live-acting found the experience to be akin to actual acting since the role brought forth “all of the complexities of human nature that impact us” (Creating Elizabeth); and also because it demanded that she “had put [her] entire body” (Creating Elizabeth) into the voice work since it required revealing an entire character. When asked about her thoughts on Elizabeth’s physical controversies while on an episode of the IGN news show, Up at Noon, Draper commented:
I mean look, I think that aesthetically…we wanted people to fall in love with her, so I think that her being aesthetically good looking, it’s not going to hurt the game. I think that a lot of people had different opinions, but if we had made her completely not as attractive as she would’ve been, people would have had opinions about that so, I don’t care, I think that she’s hot, I think she’s a badass. So I’m excited… I think she’s great the way she is.
In regards to the marketing of the game, Elizabeth was, essentially, the entire marketing altogether. Levine notes in the Creating Elizabeth developer diary, “You’re going to see her all over the place. You’re going to see her on giant billboards in New York and LA, and you’re going to see her on TV ads.” When deciding who would portray Elizabeth for these marketing procedures, Levine and his team looked to Anna Moleva, a Russian cosplayer, whose resemblance to the character was deemed uncanny; thus, her face was scanned and implemented in every promotional image prominently featuring the character. In addition to the realistic ads that were on view for the public, the character was featured in numerous ads to coincide with the holidays, as well as faux-propaganda tied into the game’s narrative where she was shown as an angelic figure. Another promotional tactic used was having her turned into a toy by the company, NECA.
Throughout the production stages of Elizabeth, Levine and his entire creative team created a character that was encoded with the characteristics of the “ideal” girlfriend: on top of being attractive and non-intimidating, she would always be by your side, never get in your way, and always help in times of need. While meant to inspire innovation in design, she was created in a form most appealing to the male demographic of gamers. While encoding messages of what the ideal female partner should be, simultaneously, agenda-setting was constructed as to what type of companion male gamers should seek after. While her intelligence and morality are a step in the right direction, her increasingly provocative appearance suggests content through superficiality, as well as blinders to the notion of beauty being found through the actions and personality within others; not just based on external appearances. While agenda-setting has a moderate effect on consumers, it nonetheless presses for ideals to be consumed by the masses; unfortunately, since Elizabeth was designed to essentially be “perfect”, it becomes difficult to consider others beyond her representation.
Following the game’s release, Elizabeth was highly acclaimed and decoded in varying fashions by users: from reviews to pornography. One review, highlighting praise of the character, came from Lance Sullivan of GamesRadar, who called Elizabeth’s implementation as an AI companion “downright ingenious”; in addition, YouTube reviewers like Angry Joe and Pro Jared, labeled Elizabeth as being “the real heart of the game” (“BioShock Infinite Review”), and “the character [of Elizabeth] is one of the most incredible, technical and creative achievements this industry has. She is one of the most likeable and believable video game characters you’ll ever see” (“BioShock Infinite Review”), respectively; and the BAFTAs’ nominated Courtnee Draper for the video game performer of the year award in 2014. Meanwhile, the character was prone to being cosplayed: all one has to do is type “BioShock Infinite Elizabeth cosplay” into Google search to see the massive amount of people who have attempted to recreate her visage. Elizabeth was also decoded via being the subject of blogs, Reddit threads, wiki pages, DeviantArt illustrations, and fan-fiction. Blogging website, Artistry in Games, published a write-up on June 13th, 2014 entitled, “THE WOMEN THAT GAMING GOT RIGHT: BIOSHOCK INFINITE’S ELIZABETH”, where author, Dominic Preston, breaks down all aspects of Elizabeth to sum up that while the character has her flaws in design, i.e. the cleavage, she is overall a “as much a technical achievement as a creative one, as the developers have finally managed to create a sidekick that simply didn’t get in the player’s way throughout the game.” Reddit threads discussed her as well: In 2013, a picture posted by user “papaburgos”, entitled the “Evolution of Elizabeth”, showcased all of the design changes to the character. The image prompted one commenter to disclose: “I really hope the thing where feminists want her boob size reduced is not true. Cause fuck if it is” (TranceAddicto). In order to compile and share all of the franchise’s mythology and history, fans created a wiki; Elizabeth among the many pages constructed. Consumers also decoded her through making pornography of her: one piece of fan-fiction entitled “The False Shepard and the Lamb” illustrates the main characters, Booker and Elizabeth, engaging in sexual discourse; despite the fact that Elizabeth is the long lost daughter of Booker. Another more explicit reveal came in the Irrational Games forums page, where users created romantic images with the Booker and Elizabeth in-game models; as well as acts of sexual deviance.
Among the various decodings by consumers, it becomes clear that the character falls into the model of uses and gratifications: her design and existence satisfies their needs to some extent. Because the character plays a prominent role in a sci-fi, action game, is designed to be conventionally beautiful, stylish, and with a complex personality, Elizabeth is targeted for various forms of appropriation by users. Consumers who bought and played the game, or simply saw a picture of her, found her to fulfill either a need, impulse, or desire; this is most prominent in the cosplay of her, as well as the user-created media that found her in either a romantic relationship, or as some explicit sexual conquest.
Since her inception, Ken Levine and his team aimed to encode the character with a strong sense of intelligence, and a three-dimensional personality. While not explicitly stated, the character’s external design aims for sympathy, likeability, and romantic inclination; in hoping that the player will form an emotional connection. The fact that she was produced to function as a virtual girlfriend for the user, with her ability to only help and not hinder the gameplay experience, further compounds this belief. In reaction to her, audiences perceived her with the embedded encodings, from reviewers dedicating portions of their write-ups to highlighting her, to people dressing up as her, and others manufacturing fan-fiction and porn to enact their desires with a character they’ve come to feel enthralled with. While the latter form of user-created media wasn’t what the creative team envisioned for her, the overall consensus toward her indicated the character was successful in establishing the representation of a female game character; though the encoding is at times in conflict with the decoded reactions.
Female protagonists are few and far in-between in video games, thus, Elizabeth’s representation makes her a prime role model for the female demographic; however, the messages her representation exude provide contradictory standards. The factors that went into how she was represented, produced, and consumed provide strong questioning over whether or not she is a genuine example of progression in the industry. Draper indicates that making the character less attractive would have prompted potential controversy as well, but would it have really? Wouldn’t it have signified that games were becoming inclusive of all shapes, sizes, and looks? There may have been mean-spirited debate on the internet over how “hot” she was, but in a time and age where as many progressive perspectives are disclosed as there are misogynist ones, this form of representation would have some legs to stand on. The character is only representative of the notion that a combination of learned intelligence and catering to media’s approval of power through beauty is what will allow the female populace to succeed in games, and by extension, life itself. Through understanding what factors were implemented in how and why Elizabeth was designed in this particular fashion, then one may register that as a character, she only provides further conflict for the representation of women in gaming.
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