Few things fan the fire in video-game culture quite like boobs.
It started with Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. By the mid-1990s, games had detailed graphics and characters modeled in three dimensions. Lara came along at the right time. With her rather inflated attributes, she became the poster child for video games as they moved into an era of aggressively courting teenaged boys with sex and violence. It became accepted wisdom until quite recently that games that were actually respectful of women needed to have them be well-clothed and small-bosomed. If, on the other hand, a female video-game character had a large pixelated chest, the game was probably a dumb, anti-feminist male power fantasy.
Perhaps the purest expression of this line of thought came from indie game developer Ryan Creighton, who described his efforts at feminism in his game Spellirium thusly: “I patted myself on the back for asking our character designer to give her a small chest, and for marring her face with a big red scar to "de-beautify" her.”
1 1.To be fair to Creighton, his level of self-examination across the entire post demonstrates that he wants to do the right thing—as does his previous claim to Internet fame, programming a game made by his five-year-old daughter. This triggered video-game Twitter to go into one of its all-too-regular feminist controversies for a day, although this one was quite mild compared to certain others. Creighton wasn't alone in his struggles with chest size: the creators of Bioshock Infinite faced criticism for the cleavage of one of their lead characters, and the upcoming Final Fantasy game— subtitled Lightning Returns—is best-known pre-release for its developers super-sizing the chest of the eponymous Lightning.
“Big boobs bad, small boobs good!” is obviously a superficial and negative stereotype itself. Many women are curvier, and treating their genetics as character study is bizarre. Claire Hosking, a grad architect, illustrator, and hobby game maker, brilliantly wrote about this in January. Her argument isn't just that the stereotype of larger-breasted women as being shallow-but-fun is bad. It also dives into how video games as a medium are treated: “Just as we should avoid establishing a new category of ‘serious and therefore worthy’ games, we should avoid establishing a new consensus on the body type of a deep woman.”
The video-game industry has consistent struggles with gender and sexuality. Historically, games have been treated as more for boys than girls, and programming and tech have leaned male as well. And the more that money flowed through the industry, the more games were created to be safely aimed at conventional audiences—and in the American entertainment world, “safe” almost always means “aimed at young men.” But games have demonstrated an appeal beyond that, and gender/sexuality issues have become increasingly difficult for the industry to ignore.2 2.This year's Game Developers Conference turned into something of a referendum on the industry's gender issues. “How about we just decide how not to repel women?”
In short, this mess is far more complicated than “Big boobs bad!” Jenn Frank thinks she knows how to start fixing it.
It started as a throwaway joke:
What if you had to watch a sexy videogame character also buy bras, cry softly when she can't find one that fits, and go in for mammograms
— Frank Jennenstein (@jennatar) July 30, 2013
But the response to that joke was more than retweets and favorites and LOLs—Franks was buried in ideas for games both snarky and serious. That inspired Frank, a game critic herself, to create “Boob Jam.” The event would run for several weeks and give people the chance to turn those 140-character ideas into actual games.3 3.A “game jam” is a term used for a gathering of game developers over a short amount of time to try to make something out of a simple idea. Most are local, taking place over a weekend or so; some are general, like the Boob Jam, which took place on the internet for over six weeks. Although the official end date for the Boob Jam was the end of October, submissions and ideas are still trickling in. (You can play all the games here.)
Boob Jam's most important rule was this: games couldn't be about breasts from the perspective of “the straight male gaze.” The most professional-looking of the submissions, Cold Wave demonstrates how this might work. A narrator details an autobiographical story of one woman coming to term with her breasts as an adolescent, starting with the story of a man hitting on her when she was 14 when the cold made her nipples hard. Thus the game has those nipples shoot lasers when it snows, and tells stories when the snow stops. Although the rules of the game state that you're supposed to avoid hitting all the men in the way of the laserboobs, the voice actress's sly chuckle and playful “oops” when she does hit a man suggest that the laserboobs are as much blessing as curse.
Some games explored breasts and bodies from the perspective of trans people. Devi Ever's Grand Titons, done in the throwback style of Nintendo/Super Nintendo games, starts with a pixelated naked man who becomes a woman by stages as he progresses out of a dungeon.4 4.Grand Titons is very specifically based on ideas from the classic game Another World (sometimes Out Of This World, and as such, can be ridiculously difficult. Anna Anthropy's (o)(o) is a simple game about the sensitivity of her nipples when she started taking estrogen, portrayed as spiders to avoid in the game. Some games were more comic than others—the text-based game Fittest tells the story of a fantasy heroine forced to attempt to go bra shopping.
Frank was surprised by how many men were interested in submitting about their boobs and discomfit with their own bodies. This helped her realize some of the implications of the project. “That got me thinking about my discomfort in my own body, or the physical and emotional dysphoria of being trans and how that connects to boobs.” The core dissonance, for Frank, was that games and other media treat breasts as primarily sexual objects, but they were all kinds of other things for other people. For different people at different times, breasts are a source of lethal cancer, milk for children, embarrassment, pride—whatever.
Jenn Frank is a friend of mine. I say this partially in the interests of full disclosure, partially in the interests of letting readers know that this piece isn't attempting objectivity (if that were possible anyway), and partially as an apology to Jenn for what I'm about to do. When I interviewed her, one of the last things she said was “Boob Jam is not mine.” Indeed, she stressed that she wanted to remove herself from its press to a certain extent: “I really feel like the idea for boob jam was 'forged in the fires of the internet,' it didn't really come from me, necessarily, although boobs are a sensitive subject for me, too.”
She's not wrong on that account, at least. Boob Jam got a lot of press when it was announced, and to a certain extent, excitement for the concept outweighed the actual number of games created (20 or so). This wasn't necessarily a bad thing. According to Frank, there were a large number of people who wanted to make games, but lacked either the time or the ability to do so. Both those categories include Frank herself. She wanted to make a game about an experience she'd had where an acquaintance discussed her breasts to the point where she couldn't take it anymore: “it was going to be this terrible thing where the player plays that man, and he turns to me and constructs really rude things until the 'win state,' which is me crying and fleeing.”5 5.Her plan was to do the game in the style of the Monkey Island games' “insult swordfighting,” a famous game mechanic where players learned new insults and comebacks in order to mentally defeat the opponent.
The gap between enthusiasm and ability proved to be a slight disappointment: “Another thing I did not do, and that I think I would do in the future, is make resources and links a little more available or obvious to the would-be first-time designer.” She may be being a little hard on herself here; we're living in an age of increasing accessibility of game creation tools. Some of the Boob Jam games were made in Twine, a free sort of choose-your-own-adventure generator on steroids. The Boob Jam games are there, and they're interesting, regardless of whether the numbers matched the ideas.
No, where I disagree with Jenn Frank is where she says that she's not the story.
The Boob Jam didn't take a side in the Great Breast War of large versus small. It was an attempt to treat that as a false dichotomy, to say that those aren't the right questions at all. For Jenn Frank, this was revelatory.
“Rush Limbaugh, going over [Sandra Fluke] who dared to discuss women's health, he does what every white male in south Texas does, which is presume that the pill is, not for treating the symptoms of what we call PCOS, but for screwing. When I first went on the pill I was *not* sexually active, and frankly it was tough getting my mother to sign off on doctor's orders, because of 'how it looks.'
And this ties VERY DIRECTLY into BOOB JAM. We—game players, lawmakers—are so obsessed with sexualizing the female human body, [that] we legislate as if some of the parts on that body that can fail are "sexually active" or sexually viable parts, as opposed to actual human parts. So uh yeah, when people in games feel entitled to monopolize the conversation on human body parts that belong to biological females, I do feel real distress.”
As I was just about done with my interview with Jenn, she started to tell me a story. It was “The Radicalization Of Jenn Frank,” which started as a joke about video games, but become more because she started organizing around that joke about video games.
“You know, I grew up Protestant, and at debate meets I always scoffed at the kids who had "keep your laws off my uterus" bumper stickers on their tubs. I only learned about the concept of 'bodily autonomy' during Boob Jam, and that's been the most valuable thing, for me. Can you imagine? Me, a feminist, getting all the way to age 31, never hearing the words 'bodily autonomy' before.”6 6.To be fair, most of those 31 years weren't spent as a feminist. She wrote a piece called “I Was A Teenaged Sexist” that went viral last year.
There's a direct political element as well. Frank, a Texas resident, says that she realized later that she was inspired in part by the protests surrounding the controversial abortion bill this year. That, the war on women overall, and the various breast-related video game controversies all tie together in that they're about perceptions of women. Body parts that are simply physical facts are treated as signifiers of morality, intelligence, and worthiness by people who want to control women.
Video games may be an unlikely front in that war on women, but the Boob Jam does fight it, by encouraging bodily autonomy or even just acknowledgment. Jenn Frank’s decision to help create the event was impressive, but that she did so with a willingness to learn for herself while encouraging all kinds of people to join, makes the project an unambiguously good bit of activism.