Desire demons are female

There are things that I read that I do not know how to respond to, that I would like to speak about but cannot articulate anything more than a simple, “Yes, you are right.” Such was the case when I read Opinion: Awful Lot Of Heterosexuals Around Here Sunday morning. While reading Andrew Meade’s article, I could not help but nod and frown in equal amounts. It’s true. We do “need a respectable cadre of characters that entertain and enlighten”, “characters that just happen to lead alternate lifestyles.” I agree with him. We, as developers and writers, should be doing more.

But, as is my practice, I moved on to read other things.

I next came across Mattie Brice’s piece. In An Escape of One’s Own. I read over the following paragraph twice:

“The problem is games aren’t an escape for everyone looking for one. In fact, they provide an escape for a very particular identity that only sometimes overlaps with others’. As children, we didn’t really notice this dissonance, but growing up as a gamer, you notice something doesn’t feel quite right. This is evident by the demographic of those who would self-identify as a gamer and the image the industry continues to portray to attract and distance certain identities. The way our community is structured, games will often jolt minorities out of their escape and back into the reality they wanted a break from. This isn’t only from the offensive and dismissive depictions of minority identities in games, but also from gaming journalism and social gatherings. How could this be? Shouldn’t everyone be used to it by now? We all know everyone isn’t an 18-24-year-old straight guy, so just ignore it and look to the content we do enjoy.” (emphasis added)

Most media is designed, marketed and sold to that demographic, 18-24-year-old straight males. Don’t believe me? Here is an example I saw just yesterday as I was playing Dragon Age: Origins:

Desire Demon

The Desire Demon from the Dragon Age series of video games.

Above is the Desire Demon from Dragon Age: Origins. This single creature says more about the world of Dragon Age than I could in thousands of words. In their mythology, Desire Demons appear as females. It’s so utterly simple that it took me hours of play and several different encounters to pick it out. In fact, let me type it again with the right emphasis for you to catch what I am saying about this: Desire Demons are female.

The gender, proportions and placement says everything about how the developers saw their audience. Even if it was done on a sub-conscious level, it is still there. The creature that represents temptation, desire and lust is a woman. And, to make matters worse, it’s that way for all players too. No matter if the player is straight, gay or some other label. For every single player, no matter their own preferences or that of the character that are playing,  the manifestation of desire — for both characters and player — is that of a woman. Simply put, the game expects you to be attracted to women.

Now, yes, you might be able to explain it from the game’s lore. You might be able to say that because demons are related to how the various races interact with the Fade, how their dreams and magics interact with that realm, that maybe, just maybe, it gave rise to forms that relate to those that first touched it. You could say that. I certainly tried to find some reductionist way to fit it into the lore, that some magics might have given birth to that particular form. I tried several different ideas. Eventually, I gave up and went with Occam’s Razor.

It’s all very simple really. If the power of a demon is to present itself relative to their name — that Sloth offers lathery, Rage offers power, Hunger offers thirsts — then Desire, if she is to match her name, must be in a form that is desirable. And, if we are to believe that all characters, no matter their preferences or tastes, find women desirable, then we must question the very purpose of that image. Why is the Desire Demon limited to female form? Can she change? Would she, if she even could, change form to match what the characters wanted to see?

That is what bothered me more than anything else. We are told that demons appear as pleasurable things, that they offer you images and dreams of things you want. So, do you want a woman? Do you? I was pretty sure my character didn’t. She was going to marry Alistair and find a good place in society — yes, I know the end but my character doesn’t. She, when faced with the temptation with the Desire Demon stroking herself, laughed — well, I laughed for her. We weren’t tempted by this female demon. For my character, a muscular man would have been something more desirable.

Yet, I was forced, in a moment of “dissonance” that Mattie talked about, to consider the collision of what I thought as player and what I thought as character. Me, as player, found the demon attractive, but my character did not. She had the hots for Alistair, although, yes, there might have been a fling with Zevran that one time. Who was the game talking to with this image? Me as assumed audience or me as combination player-character?

I want to know the answer. If it was the audience, then they fell into catering to the male gaze [See Kate Cox's series for a primer: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3]. If not, then… how does it makes sense for players and characters that might not be attracted to women? Wouldn’t it have been easier to shape the Desire Demon in such a way that it was a temptation for any player? Why not have it morph between male and female shapes? Why not have it wear more clothing? There are ways to be sexy without being rather naked and having bits mostly hanging out. Shifting robes and curved shapes could be interpreted by any player as their own form of lust. There are so many other choices, better choices.

Let’s return to Mattie for a moment:

“When journalists, developers, and average gamers tell me gaming is for just for people who play games, looking for that escape, what they are actually doing is requesting me to settle for someone else’s escape, where I am still marginalized. They are telling me to sacrifice my enjoyment and my safe place for the hedonism of others. I know journalists, writers, and developers are reading this: can you still tell me everything is just fine?” (emphasis added)

No, it’s not fine. Yes, we should be more inclusive in our worlds, our works and our writing. We need “characters that just happen to lead alternate lifestyles.” Developers and writers need to think about what images they are putting forth in games, what that says about their own audiences. We need to consider what stories we are telling and what stories, more importantly, we are limiting by which pieces of the narrative picture we are drawing for the player.

BioWare, with the characters in Dragon Age: Origins, normally present sexuality not as a defining label but as a a mere momentary mask for the player. They can pick and choose and few comment or judge. It’s a safe space to be subversive if wanted. In most of the occasions where I  have come across characters who have expressed some type or flavor of sexuality, I just accept it as everyone else in the world does too. But there is a major problem right in front of us here. The game states what shape desire is: Desire Demons are female.

13 comments

  1. I agree that tons of games are weirdly heterosexual male-gaze oriented. Your post made me think that we could use more religious diversity in games too (or… any religiousness, really).

    1. I’d go so far as to say that most media is male-gaze oriented. Nearly all. Until you really start to think about what you are putting into your eyeballs, it’s all just slightly… off. At least for me anyway. I do find women attractive but have gotten so sick of everything being sold using the formula of “(female) sex sells” that I roll my eyes at all advertisements I see. Seriously? Your message is “Buy this lamp and then I’ll have sex with women”? Really?

      The religion point is interesting to consider, at least in theory. Game designers/writers have to be very careful about which parts of which religions they include in their game. Veer too close to a known (or popular) religion and many people will cry foul. I know that the Dead Space franchise ran into this problem with their stuff.

      I could name a few science fiction novels that had interesting takes on how religion influences (for good and bad) civilizations and cultures. Notably, Dune (one of my favorite books) comes to mind. So does Empress by Karen Miller and Absolution Gap (Revelation Space #3) by Alastair Reynolds.

      What did you have in mind for religious diversity? Like, different denominations (which Dragon Age definitely has) or more like completely different world views?

      It might be interesting to make the player choose a religion among a number of choices and then have it influence their ‘death state’. Belief in reincarnation means that you come back as another character. Belief in resurrection means you can, with the right cost, be raised from the dead. There are a number of interesting ideas to play with there. (Ze Frank, one of the people who have inspired me to do something creative everyday, has a similar thing: “Christian“, “Buddhist” or “Atheist“)

      1. I feel like I’ve never played a game where the protagonist has a relationship with God, or the gods… well, I take that back. Okami is pretty Shinto-feeling. Atheist or agnostic characters would be interesting too, but it seems like lots of npcs don’t ever think about religion, which seems odd.

        I feel like computer games have great potential to be inspiring, non-cheesy religious art but that no one has really tried it?

        1. “I feel like I’ve never played a game where the protagonist has a relationship with God, or the gods… well, I take that back. Okami is pretty Shinto-feeling. Atheist or agnostic characters would be interesting too, but it seems like lots of npcs don’t ever think about religion, which seems odd.”

          That’s an interesting idea. You mean a protagonist who has a personal relationship with a god? No, I can’t say I have seen a game like that either. Certainly antagonist relationships are there. The God of War series is about fighting gods. Certain RPGs like Earthbound could be seen as fighting against god. Those happen. But a protagonist who has personal relationship, like a one-on-one thing? No, I don’t think I’ve seen that — not a positive depiction anyway.

          From the writing standpoint, it’s hard to do. You have to be very careful with how you depict faith in a story. It’s easy to have characters have a causal faith (like the devotees around the altars in the “Knights of the Nine” DLC for Oblivion) or even be the “bad guys” in their level of fanaticism — as if belief, by its very presence, was a bad thing. You have to present enough detail so that the faith is believable within its context by having some backstory that links the canon of their religious events (miracles, prophets, etc) to how that has influenced this or that character in the present.

          For example, does this religion have a holiday? If so, does this character celebrate it? Why or why not? Did they have an experience once that turned them off of celebrating that holiday or following that certain custom? In the process of worldbuilding, something I’ve obviously played with, you have to balance the needs of filling out the character with what the story you are telling. What information (exposition) is needed and where in the story?

          And that’s just for writing. From a game design view, it’s way more complicated.

          If the player is to have control over the character who believes, the designer has to construct the world in such a way that the player can believe in those ideals, rules or even god too. And that is very hard. It requires a high degree of willingness to be part of the world the designer presents, to believe both the designer and that particular god. There is already a high level of dissonance between the player and the world they temporarily inhabit. Getting people to understand a religion enough through gameplay to make a choice about it requires a great deal of either constant exposition or a preexisting knowledge on the part of the player.

          “I feel like computer games have great potential to be inspiring, non-cheesy religious art but that no one has really tried it?”

          Hmm. Religious art, huh? Do you mean art within the game or art via the game? The first, I’ve seen. The Assassin Creed games have many replicas of famous buildings and constructions that could easily be classified as religious art. Other games have created their own religious artifacts, both in-fiction and as nods to those from current and past world religions.

          Certainly, several open-world games provide frameworks where those ideas could be explored — art could be created via the mechanics in the game. Items can be crafted within games that could take on importance for a certain player. Certain scenes can and have had a profound impact on how people think.

          I would think it would come down to what you think the role of “religious art” is in the first place. Is it made as an act of worship toward a deity from the person creating it? Or is it used to inspire people to look towards a certain god? Does it teach? Is it a means to reinforce certain ideas and concepts?

          My short answer, after hundreds of words on it, is yes. Probably.

  2. It’s also why when they pick on demons in other games like Castlevania, they always choose the Succubus. I’ve only seen one game that gave me close to a desirable Incubus. Only. One.

    1. Which game was it? I’m interested in seeing that. Because, as you and I have pointed out, it’s all women all the way. Which, you know, is fine if the entire world is both straight and male. But it isn’t.

      What’s worse, now that I’ve had time to think about it, is that it’s a skinny woman too. So, not only is BioWare saying that their audience prefers that desire be a woman, but that she be thin too. That’s a hell of a thing, right?

      Once I noticed it, after I had a few minutes worth of laughing about it, I couldn’t help but to think of other ways they could have done it. Clothing, voice or even text can be constructed in sexy ways. The fact that they went for the visual aspect first (followed by the voice) says a great deal.

      Of course, most of the time, I’m reading the text at the top and bottom of my screen instead of looking at the middle anyway. Why not just make desire a shifting form, something elusive and swaying yet never… quite there. Sexy doesn’t have to be just a (mostly) nude female form. I would have been way more affected by just text and voice than the visual aspect of “her” appearance.

  3. Ah, but what *kind* of voice? Female? Male? Not disagreeing with you here, Dan, just wanting to know if you’d thought that far ahead. I totally agree that there are many things they could/should have done differently. Desire is neither male nor female, after all, and seduction is always subtle.

    A shifting form would have been fantastic, actually: female to male and back again, perhaps both at once, different body types, different voices, as it tries to gauge the player’s preferences based on their reaction to it. Better than beating the player over the head with the designer’s definition of sexy.

    1. “Ah, but what *kind* of voice? Female? Male? Not disagreeing with you here, Dan, just wanting to know if you’d thought that far ahead.”

      Not that far, no. Actually, in my own playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins, I grew tired of waiting for the characters to voice act most interactions and would, after I had read the text on the screen, just skip ahead. Some of the voice acting is pretty good but, like most games this size, not all of it is worth sitting through all the time.

      I had a thought earlier today that an easy way to fix this problem, as I see it, in the Dragon Age mythology is to just have some scholar make the observation that interaction with the Fade projects the thoughts, the archetypes, from the person who started the ritual or spell that particular time. That way, all things that come out (if a portal) or are seen within (for the times the player is there) are all projections not for the player, but another character. The Point of View could shift so that the player, via the character, is looking not at their desires mirrored but the recesses of another mind.

      By adding a similarly voiced — fixed by layering both male and female tracks — demon in a male form, each instance of a Desire Demon could be tailored to the cut-scene they are shown within (most cases) or explained by story logic — they were summoned by a straight male magic user. By just including an alternative form, or even “female to male and back again, perhaps both at once” as you mention, they could have moved right past this strange and narrow definition.

  4. Why are any characters representing abstract concepts gendered? Because it allows you to anthropomorphize and tap into the existing culture, not necessarily because you want to make gendered assumptions about that concept. Wisdom and Freedom are typically female, while Rage and Sloth are typically male; is this also an expression of the male gaze?

    Personally I find genderless / ambiguous portrayals of Desire (as Neil Gaiman does in Sandman) to be more immersion-breaking and artificial than they are helpful. Because Bioware’s basic assumption is that the player is bisexual, they can’t really switch from male to female based on player choice except by the vaguest of guesses.

    1. “Why are any characters representing abstract concepts gendered? Because it allows you to anthropomorphize and tap into the existing culture, not necessarily because you want to make gendered assumptions about that concept.”

      Maybe they didn’t do it on purpose. Considering everything else in Dragon Age: Origins, it’s certainly possible that they ran out of time and decided to just have one model of the Desire Demon. However, without an in-lore explanation of why there is only one model, a female model, my question still stands. Even if they didn’t mean to, they set up a situation where some players were going to experience dissonance.

      “Wisdom and Freedom are typically female, while Rage and Sloth are typically male; is this also an expression of the male gaze?”

      I’m not sure what you mean here. Are you saying that the concepts, the symbols, of Wisdom and Freedom are typically female (in Western cultures) or that there are Wisdom and Freedom demons in Dragon Age. As, if you are saying that Wisdom and Freedom exist in Dragon Age, please send me a link to the wikia. I would really love to look at the idea of some demons within that mythology being benevolent or even just temporarily “good”.

      If, however, you mean the symbols personified, then, yes, I agree with you there. Western culture does, typically, associate certain ideas to certain genders. No, that, in and of itself, is not male gaze. It’s actually Western heteronormative normality at play as cultural ideas are being reinforced by the interpretation of symbols: the mirroring of concepts back at the society they were created within as a way to maintain identities.

      “Because Bioware’s basic assumption is that the player is bisexual, they can’t really switch from male to female based on player choice except by the vaguest of guesses.”

      I find that observation quite interesting, that BioWare decided to create a game designed for bisexuals. I am now interested to see how those design, and especially marketing meetings, went. They must have been cutting out “straight” material left and right.

      I played the game as a straight woman, romancing Alistair with, as I mentioned, the one fling with Zevran. The fact that my character was not bisexual was the problem here. My character was not attracted to her, it made no sense for that to even be a temptation as it was obviously constructed.

      What I think might be the problem here is not their assumptions but the problems with determining intention on the player’s part. Yes, I can easily see how many people might think that the game assumes bisexuality. After all, they have multiple options for romance — male and female, in various combinations. However, it becomes very hard to determine how the player is thinking and if they are even playing a role at all.

      How do you determine algorithmically that a player’s or even character’s expressed, or not expressed, sexuality might be? Do you let them take a test or fill out a survey? Even if you do that, players might be lying to ‘game’ the game for some end. You might wait until they attempt to romance another character but, even then, you have to content with some players taking actions not from within a role but from the point of view of seeing something, of wanting a spectacle to watch. It’s very hard for designers and, as an amateur one myself, I feel for them in this respect. Most games just, as you said, assume something for the player — or just ignore it completely — and then allow them to play that out.

      To its credit, the Dragon Age series rarely does that in so much that it has a world where sexuality has numerous flavors and expressions. The problem becomes when bisexuality (or even homosexuality) is not part of some players lives or even worldviews. The game then seems to be pushing something against them as their view of how a fantasy world should work battles with how BioWare says they world works. (Although, honestly, you use magic and fight dragons, allowing for more sexuality expressions should not be much of fight after you’ve gotten to that point.)

      In that respect, the Dragon Age games are pretty tame when you compare them to some science fiction and fantasy stories I have read — and even some I have written. Something to remember, and I have to tell myself this too, is that when we play games we enter another world, a “magic circle”, where our cultural norms might not mesh with what we see, hear and have to experience. This is though always a good thing — although it might not seem that way. If a game or story has made you think at all, something good happened there. You were, if only for a moment, part of the fictional dream, you became the character within your own mind.

  5. Moo! Reading through this made me realise that the best visual (and perhaps conceptual) interpretation I’ve seen is Neil Gaiman’s Desire, in his Sandman series. >.> Wonder why there’s nothing at all like that in videogames – after all, comics suffer from very much the same problems as games when it comes to this sort of thing.

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