One of my favorite things about video games is being able to customize my character so they look badass on the battlefield. Whether it’s something as simple as changing hair color, creating awesome outfits, or unlocking new skins, character customization is always something that captures my attention in any game. I can spend hours working on curating matchy-matchy sets and collecting skins.

In the Legion expansion pack of World of Warcraft, I spent a lot of time trying to unlock all of the different skins for my feral druid. Each skin was more difficult to unlock than the last, so I never unlocked all 28, but I sure put the work in to sport a skin that made my character look like a tiger. 

Additionally, I would visit older content areas of the game to look for rare and shiny pieces of gear that formed stylish sets on the humanoid form of my character. As a feral druid who could shapeshift into different animals, I had a lot of customization options. It was the perfect kind of character for me. 

I typically played a male as my main character in game, so a lot of the armor options were bulky and coverall to endure the stress of battle. However, my alternate characters that I played less frequently were a mix of male and female, so I had a lot more options for customization if I got tired of dressing up my druid. 

When it came to customizing the appearances of my diverse list of characters, I started noticing some really stark differences between the armor sets of male and female characters in-game. Some things would look a bit…different. 

This was a really popular in-game armor set. The female version looks entirely different than the male version of the same exact armor set. There was no way to opt in for a cover-all option that resembled the male version on a female character. If I wanted to dawn an elegant armor set like the one above, I had to be comfortable showing some skin as female character. 

Memes about this have been circulating the web ever since I can remember. There have been many discussions in the industry about it as well. Yet, we still continuously see things like this not only in armor selection, but character proportions as well.

As an impressionable teenage girl, this was jarring. So much so that I wouldn’t play a female as my main character to avoid the weirdness I felt. But, let’s be real. World of Warcraft is far from the only game that caters to the male gaze in some way. 

Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed playing as the opposite sex in video games. I encountered many males who played female characters as their mains. To spark conversation, I would ask them why they preferred or chose to play a female character despite being male IRL. A lot of the time, the answers were innocent and genuine. In several instances, however, the conversation went something like this:

“Well, if I have to stare at a butt while I play, I’d rather it be a hot girl butt.”

Definitely awkward to hear. Comments like this had a significant impact on how I developed as a teen, including my self esteem.

After hearing several remarks like this, as well as being surrounded by buxom and athletic female characters in revealing garb, I found my self esteem dropping significantly. I didn’t look anything like those women who are heroes in this video game. Was I supposed to? I mean, they got all of the attention. Did I have to look like that to be well-liked and accepted?

It took me a really long time to unpack all of these things. I hadn’t realized at the time how influential games were on my physical, mental, and emotional development as a teen.

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Newer games like Cyberpunk 2077 have seriously pushed the envelope in terms of character customization, which is amazing! However, I can’t help but think about the effect some of the content (like in-game strip clubs) will have on an entire generation of players. Although the ESRB suggests the game is rated “M” for mature, there is certainly no shortage of teens under 17 getting their hands on a copy of Cyberpunk and visiting Lizzie’s Bar.

Sex sells. It’s been a reality in American culture for decades. Having the freedom to express one’s sexuality in a safe environment is one thing, but purposefully creating revealing female-specific armor sets and designing female characters with proportions to be gawked at is definitely sending a particular message to young people everywhere. 

I do not believe the solution to this pervasive issue is to do away with “sexy” armor options. I do not find that to be a realistic goal. However, I’d like to continue to see more equity in character customization in the gaming world. If females get sexy and revealing armor, so should males. If males get conservative and realistic armor, so should females. A balance is all that I seek.

With Women’s History month now having come to an end, I felt compelled to share a part of my experience with the male gaze in gaming. Have you noticed anything similar in the games you play?