Movement can be a powerful thing. Most of us who play games can appreciate the importance of a well-timed jump in a platformer, or a skillful dodge in a fighting game, but sometimes it’s the seemingly ordinary movements that actually tell us the most about a character. The way they do simple things like walk, or sit down. And like anything else about a character, movement can be used in ways that resist tired gender stereotypes, or in ways that reinforce them. In Bungie’s hugely successful online shooter Destiny, players start by creating their own character, a Guardian who will fight to protect the last US bonus slots online. As with character creation tools in other games, this one lets you choose from different genders and races.
In most ways, Destiny treats its playable female characters almost identically to how it treats its male characters; for instance, the armor you acquire when playing as a female character isn’t sexualized, but looks just as practical and stylish as the gear equipped by male characters. However, there is one way in which the male and female characters are differentiated by gender, and it has to do with their movement. Watch how a male guardian sits down, taking a load off after a long, hard day fighting the forces of pure evil. It’s simple. It suggests confidence. When a female character sits down, however, it’s a completely different story. She sits like a delicate flower. This is supposed to be a hardened space warrior and yet she is sitting around like she’s Ariel from The Little Mermaid. A character’s animation and movement is just as much a part of who they are as their appearance and their clothing.
And like any other aspect of a character, game designers use movement to communicate information about them to the player. This isn’t inherently a bad thing; expressive character animations are just a way for the game to contribute to our understanding of who a character is and what defines them. How a character walks, jumps, even how they sit down can tell us a lot about them. For instance, Ree-u Hayabusa’s precise and graceful movement conveys that he is a highly trained ninja, while the way Nathan Drake scrambles and fumbles in dangerous situations is meant to suggest that he’s more of a relatable, ordinary guy who just keeps finding himself in extraordinary circumstances. Nathan: “[Laughing] We were almost in that!” By contrast, the way that women move in games isn’t just used to suggest their confidence or their skill or some other facet of their personality. It’s very often used, in conjunction with other aspects of their design, to make them exude sexuality for the entertainment of the presumed straight male player. Catwoman from the Arkham series has a deeply exaggerated hip sway when she walks. In combination with her clothing and the game’s camera angles, all of this is meant to drive the player’s focus to her highly sexualized butt.