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Have you heard about Tera? It’s an action-combat based MMO by the unfortunately named Bluehole Studio. I checked it out it at PAX East this year. As someone who is sick of the “toolbar icons and cooldown timers” system of combat, the more action-focused stuff in Tera is a huge selling point for me. It’s an interesting feature, but sometimes the action combat stuff gets overshadowed in conversation by the other big feature of the game, which is the abundance of boobs and asses.

Every time Tera comes up, someone brings up the fact that the women in the game are dressed like strippers while the men are dressed like normal fantasy characters. (i.e. like idiot emo circus clowns.) Tera is by no means the worst offender in this regard. This sort of thing has been going on for years. Even in World of Warcraft I’ve found articles of clothing that appear as jackets on men and as corsets when placed on a female avatar.

In Tera, you’ve got a character type that wears a miniskirt that is so short, when she leans forward to run you can see her underwear. The usual assortment of bare midriffs and cleavage windows abound, shrinking heavy armor to the point where, if you melted it down, you wouldn’t have enough metal to make a decent set of flatware. Some footage seems to show they’ve even got boob jiggle physics in there.

Like I said, this is an old issue. We’ve been talking about it for years, and the trope of armor-clad men fighting beside bikini-clad women is older than videogames themselves. It’s not that the problem is worse, it’s that more women are trying to get in on this hobby and finding the aesthetics of the young male fantasy to be off-putting. It drives some people away from the game who would otherwise play it. Issues of fairness and respect aside, there’s now a strong financial incentive for developers to fix this in order to make their customer base as large as possible.

Women enjoy a good power fantasy now and again, just like men do. They want to cast spells, slay dragons, and kick ass. Generally speaking, most of them don’t dream of doing this while wearing metal underpants. At that point, it’s no longer her fantasy, but his – the guy standing behind her in the raid party.

Some women want to play as a beautiful avatar, but they don’t want to end up dressed like a stripper. Other women actually do like the idea of dressing as a stripper. Still others are okay with it as long as the men get the same treatment. Some guys want to play as a half-naked chick, because those are fun to look at. Some guys don’t want to have to be ashamed of their videogame of choice because it looks like cheap, pandering trash. Some guys want to play as a male, but they wouldn’t touch a game if it made them dress like a Chippendale dancer. Some people don’t care what anyone looks like because they’re here for the powergaming and not for playing dress-up.

No matter what they do, the developer is going to end up angering some of these people by pandering / catering to the others.

But why is the developer making these broad decisions about how my avatar is or isn’t dressed? The solution to the whole problem is obvious: Unhook the avatar dress-up system from the loot-gathering mechanic. Let each player dress the way they want. Let everyone choose to be practical, or practically naked.

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You might remember that I played Lord of the Rings Online a while back. That game had a system where you could wear two outfits: The one you appeared to be wearing for the purposes of fashion, and the one you were actually wearing, for the purposes of protection and stat-bootings. If you found a really sweet hat at level 20, you could still appear to be wearing it at level 30, even if you were really wearing an uglier, more powerful helmet.

A “dress yourself” system also solves the ongoing MMO problem where everyone is dressed like a mismatched vagabond until they reach the endgame, at which point everyone is dressed the same. It lets people personalize their look, which greatly boosts the self-expression aspect of these games. (So many people fuss over their avatar during character creation, only to have all of their hard work covered up by a dumb helmet.)

I think this would also make a great money sink for in-game currency. (And if you’re listening developers: This could be a chance to make some sweet microtransaction money.) The regular “armor” can look somewhat bland and neutral, while the cosmetic items you buy will look more exotic, revealing, or badass.

I anticipate some objections:

It’s completely immersion breaking for me to be wearing two different things at the same time! This makes no sense! You’re ruining the game!

First of all, if “immersion” is a priority for you, then maybe MMO’s shouldn’t be your go-to genre. When I find myself in a pickup group with Boba Fat, xxbadazzxx, Bob_bob_bob, and Gandulf, my sense of immersion is pretty much gone. Moreover, is the “wearing two outfits” thing really more ridiculous than going into battle wearing an iron thong, which is what we have now?

What if you con foes in PvP and you want to see who is tank spec and who has blues?

What?

I want to see what the enemy players are really wearing!

Oh, ok.

You can solve this in a few ways. You can strip away the cosmetic facade and have people appear in their “real” gear when they enter PVP. You can add icons to their names to indicate what level of equipment they have. This isn’t much of a stretch, since you can already click on someone and magically know what level they are relative to you. You can have player gather enchantments, which they can place onto any cosmetic item they like to make it behave like “armor”. You can just leave the gear level unknown, forcing players to figure things out themselves without meta-gaming.

And now a two-fer:

I don’t like this because people will still be able to objectify women with skimpy outfits!

Also:

I don’t like this because it means some people would play as half-naked dudes, and that would be, like, totally gay.

You get your fantasy when you dress your character. If you need to dictate how other people should dress in order to sustain your fantasy, then multiplayer gaming is probably not a good fit for you.

Doing this would let the developer wash their hands of the entire debate. They could have their underwear models on the box art without forcing people to play as underwear models in the game. Everyone gets to have their own fantasy character. Isn’t that one of the goals of roleplaying games?

Shamus Young doesn’t want to catch you trying to look up his skirt. Also, buy his novel, which has a magic-casting woman in practical clothes.

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