A recent article on the Border House blog discusses the issue of handling sexual dimorphism when designing new species for games. The article gives as its examples of process the Turians from Mass Effect, and the charr from Guild Wars 2. Only male Turians feature in the Mass Effect games, which has made the issue moot in that case, but turns out to be a revealing choice, exposing an issue in thinking on this topic. Art director Derek Watts puts it this way:
“They’re all males in the game. We usually try to avoid the females because what do you do with a female Turian? Do you give her breasts? What do you do? Do you put lipstick on her?”
That comment reveals an extremely limited view of sexual dimorphism. Sadly, this is exactly what James Cameron did for the intelligent aliens in the film Avatar. In that film, which went to great lengths to feature biologically plausible aliens, the female aliens, called Na’vi, did in fact have breasts, a nonsensical decision in the context of that film. Our own Vince Keenan facetiously remarked “It’s because they’re lactating mammals.” What a bizarre conceit for an alien race!
Compare this with the take presented by Kristen Perry, responsible for the design of the female charr in Guild Wars 2:
“It really didn’t make any sense to have boobs on a charr female, particularly with all the effort we took to make her sleek and fierce. We thought they should have no breasts at all or at least hide them under some fluffy fur. Above all else, we needed to be true to the race, of course! […] I gave them a choice: either be subtle and downplay the breasts [...] or go full-on realistic. Yes, that’s right —none or six!!”
That the debate was between “none or six” demonstrates that critical thought about how to show sexual dimorphism in this race was given. In this case, the male of the species had already been designed for a previous game. Despite this limitation, when the time came to design the females, the artist did not just add female human secondary sex characteristics to the male charr. Because of this, a more unique, interesting, and sensical creature arose.
To arbitrarily make our invented species map to humans is to ignore the fascinating diversity of life on this planet, as well as our own creative potential. Penguins, blue whales, peacocks, hyenas; these animals all have wildy different degrees and expressions of sexual dimorphism, both from humans and from each other. Even working within the technical restraints of needing to match human rigging, as in the Mass Effect games, aliens could be made to map the sexual dimorphism of any of the above species, rather than implicitly following the pattern of homo sapiens.
The design of a species’ sexual dimorphism also tells players about the reproductive strategies of that species. The reproductive strategies of a species inform our understanding of its society. Male angler fish are dwarfed by their female mates, whom they fuse with, becoming reduced to little more than gamete factories. Male deer, who are polygynous, lock antlers with other males to compete for breeding access to females. Peacocks endanger their lives growing and grooming vast plumage to impress peahens. Female sperm whales live together in pods with their young, while mature males spend most of their time wandering the oceans alone. Male honeybees only have one set of chromosomes, and the queens are the only fertile female females, which, in a fictional intelligent species, would map very neatly onto a three gendered society.
Ours is a creative industry. We can imagine, manifest, and make plausible, fictional races bearing little or nothing in common with our own physical appearance. We can do the same with the genders of those races, and we miss a tremendous opportunity to explore new ideas by failing to do so.