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Female Representation in Desktop Dungeons
by Rodain Joubert on 03/01/14 01:06:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



The following was originally posted on our QCF Design blog.

The broader debate of women in videogames needs no introduction, regardless of one’s stance on the matter. Everyone with an Internet connection and at least some investment in videogame culture has heard stories of the industry’s gender bias (which we’ll go ahead and assert is very readily apparent).

Now, Desktop Dungeons itself isn’t some haven of progressive social ideas and forward thinking. We didn’t start the game with an overarching agenda in that area – but during the course of development, we were heavily informed by the dialogues, rants and documentaries around the topic of female portrayal and how some games screw that up so badly.

The time at which we truly started ramping up our in-studio policy of awareness about DD females was at the beginning of the beta build, when we had the opportunity to reset a lot of things (in particular, our art style). But we also had to contend with two major problems: one, our work on visuals was usually tied in with coding priorities, particularly during the early dev cycle. Thinking about stuff was one matter, doing it was another.

Our second issue was that despite being strongly opinionated on these matters with a firm, feminism-friendly stance, the challenges we encountered in representing our women fairly and respectfully were numerous and rooted in some really deep-seated bias.

So what we ended up presenting was a product that had a mind to at least not completely screw up. In some parts.

Though Desktop Dungeons has always been gender neutral in its story and mechanics, it came out the door with a male-slanted art roster. For the freeware version, the entire character sheet was male, only accommodating women when third parties made custom tilesets available. And when the Beta came around, we only began work on active female representation after we’d already dealt with the male graphics as our norm.

This was an intimidating task. We already had a unique character portrait for every race and class combo in the game (as a rough estimate, that’s about 120 different pics). Adding females to the combinatorial mix instantly doubled that number and we were additionally burdened with the requirement of not doing things the simple and “acceptable” way.


Quite frankly, we wanted the women in DD’s universe to be adventurers first and runway models second. This adjustment turned out to be startlingly non-trivial – you’d think that a bunch of supposedly conscious, mindful individuals would instantly be able to nail a “good female look” (bonus points for having a woman on our crew, right?), but huge swathes of our artistic language tended to be informed by sexist and one-dimensional portrayals. We regularly surprised ourselves with how much we took for granted.

And it wasn’t good enough for us to simply react with deliberate ugliness or typically masculine factors – the idea was for Desktop Dungeons to remove the gender binary entirely instead of just making everyone a man. In de-emphasising sex as much as possible, we hoped that players would be able to enjoy a more gender agnostic environment in general. Some of our proudest mechanical tweaks involved removing notices and choices in particular areas. Male / female adventurer rolls were deliberately made random. Gender-neutral character names were popularised in places. On closer inspection, one may notice the remarkable similarity between the in-dungeon sprites of male and female elves. And we have some quiet thoughts about the fluid nature of our beloved Kingdom Taxidermist.Shorthands for the feminine kept crawling into our work when we weren’t paying attention – smooth skin, homogenised facial structures, evidence of makeup, you name it. Even characters who we thought would easily sidestep trouble (like the female wizard) simply looked like young, pretty women in grunge costume rather than hardboiled dungeoneers. Portraits for some species went through several drafts just to deprogram our subconscious idea of what felt normal and right.

In some of the more egregious cases, time and pressure still had us throwing up our hands and going with what was easiest for us with slightly disappointing results … like bringing in an entire cast of female goblins relying on secondary markers like eyelashes and lipstick. We also messed up pretty badly by whitewashing our cast (with the occasional blue-skinned Bloodmage, but that doesn’t really count). And for the most part, enemy rosters and main story characters still reflect a heavy male bias. Our only obviously female vicious-tier boss is identified primarily by her role as a matronly figure. And while DD largely averts the problem of the overall female body getting needless sexualisation, we’ve gotta admit that the Earthmother still looks rather “generically hot”.


But we like to think that we did some good with what we tried, and our minor efforts – far less insightful and involved than most of the work done about gender in this industry – still managed to generate conversation and opened a few eyes from time to time, at least according to some of the feedback we've received.

If there’s one thing that we hope, it’s that our next game project will be more observant and inclusive from the very beginning, encompassing intersectional representation where possible and showing players that there’s always one more way to represent a complex group of people! It won't change the world by itself, but we want people to know that we're willing to contribute towards this long-due shift in videogaming's cultural narrative.

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Art Director


Tony Latour
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Fantastic article! Thanks for the honesty shown in this article and especially thanks to the entire team for taking this issue into account during the development process. You have gained a new customer!

Ron Dippold
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A nice variety - how often do you get to play a mature female in a video game?

I am curious about the googly eye motif in column 4 of the first pic through. That's not a complaint, but having them arranged like that makes me wonder if it was deliberate.

Danny Day
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The googly eyes are a thing with all the classes that come from the Church kingdom building: Priests, Monks and Paladins. It's deliberate, this is a game that has 9 distinct deities and we tend to have a few things to say about religion too ;)

Ron Dippold
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Ah yes, now that you mention it, the columns are identifiable as fighty, sneaky, magicky, and now churchy. Thank you!

Robert Crouch
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It's a hard balance. If the purpose is to ensure that you don't offend anyone you'll be disappointed because there are groups who strive to identify as marginalized.

I think that choosing a believable model and adhering to it is fair. You're in a dungeon, if your women wear makeup, where do they get it? Where do they keep it? Why do they wear it? It's not inexcusable to have women wear makeup, but it has to make some sense why a woman months into a dirty dungeon is going to have nice makeup. If it's armor, why would a woman wear a chainmail bikini? It doesn't seem too protective. If a woman is wearing plate armor, she should have some muscles. If she is wearing an Armet she needs to have short hair.

I think that by trying too hard to completely remove gender, we also remove personality. If you want to use a gender stereotype it shouldn't be taboo, if you wanted to make a flirty woman or a protective man, those should be allowed. They just shouldn't be the only examples, nor should they be forced into situations where it doesn't make sense.

In reality women and men are different, if they weren't this post wouldn't exist. The challenge is to respect those differences while not tending toward one stereotype or another too strongly. I wonder if maybe a character generation algorithm that could be seeded with some initial conditions could be useful. So you decide on your roles "This is a female wizard" and the algorithm creates 4 prototypes that say pretty basic things like whether the character is overweight or underweight, how old the character is, how tall the character is, basic personality traits like how social they are, how hygienic they are, what their mood is.

That way you might find that your wizard is a 5'11" husky woman who is eternally optimistic but uncomfortable in social circumstances. That's a believable type of woman, and while I just made up those qualities it reminds me of certain people I know in real life, at least more than the standard RPG barbie doll. From that, even if it's just to generate a portrait, you can sort of imagine how that kind of character would look or act. Having an algorithm pick the traits would let you stick to the realities of sex differences (women are shorter than men on average, women are less muscular than men on average) but still allow for actual variations (It's not unreasonable to see a 6' woman or a man who is 5'4") but in general your characters would respect some real attributes (averaging all women's heights would show they were shorter than the average man). Things more superficial could be considered in terms of the character. She's a wizard, she can have long hair. Do other wizards have long hair? Is there a reason she wouldn't want to have long hair? She's shy, so while she's a wizard she's unlikely to be wearing a slinky robe, it would be a bit more conservative. Maybe she's more interested in looking powerful or organized than attractive.

It's a little easier to not have to justify your decisions when characteristics are picked statistically. If you get a slender, flirty, attractive elf girl, maybe that can be played up as long as it's reasonable, (she still needs to be strong enough to wear her armor, properly protected, doesn't have time to fix her hair between axe swings) and you could do that in reasonable confidence that most girls won't end up slender flirty attractive elves.

Trying to do it by hand though is like trying to pick random numbers. You either fall into patterns, or you try really hard not to fall into those patterns which just causes you to fall into a different pattern. If you try to avoid creating attractive women, you aren't really representing reality, where there are attractive women. They just aren't the only women.

jin choung
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"Quite frankly, we wanted the women in DD’s universe to be adventurers first and runway models second."


but definitely, the runway models thing had to be in there somewhere... we just didn't want it to be FIRST. so not top tier supermodels like victoria secrets or sport illustrated models... but definitely in league with the chicks that model bras for the sears catalog... definitely no lower than tj max underwear models. that was the floor. and anyone who could only make regional campaigns was out of course.

Christopher Landry
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The part about goblin genders had me scratching my head a bit... I'm not sure I ever cared whether a goblin I was killing was male or female. I think somewhere along the line I assumed that all goblins look pretty much exactly the same, regardless of sex, so I could never really know without being a goblin myself whether the goblin I just killed was male or female.

Trying to force some of them to "look female" seems to have back-fired a bit, since it seems like the only way to make a non-human, inherently ugly/deformed race like goblins seem female is through silly stereotypes like large eyelashes or googly eyes.

I guess what I'm saying is this: The farther a race is from what a normal human looks like, the less important it is to be able to distinguish between male and female.

Humans: differences are clear.
Elves/Dwarfs: differences are less clear.
Goblins/Orcs/Werewolves: differences are almost indistinguishable.
Jellies/Gelatanous Cubes: ...gender?

Men and women among humans are distinct and different in most cases, but among the dramatically non-human types like goblins? I don't think it's necessary to make the distinction at all, to be honest.

I applaud the author for being straightforward about the difficulties encountered in trying to make the portraits fair across the board. I can only imagine how hard it can be to make someone look neutral and unique at the same time, instead of "clearly attractive" or "clearly ugly". Playing the middle ground, where most real people exist, has got to be tough.

Danny Day
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The Goblins in the article are referring to the playable ones that are unlocked later in the game. They've got a distinct setting/backstory in the game world and, as such, it made sense to give them the same gender differences because they were humanoid. We did debate giving Goblins multiple sexes as a way to explain their penchant towards extreme bureaucracy, but code-wise that proved a feature that had little impact on gameplay, so it was axed.

The Goblins that the player fights in-game are a story unto themselves.

Christopher Landry
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I see, that does explain going through the headache of attempting to make non-stereotyped female-looking goblins.

I'd be interested to know if there is, in fact, any way to do it that doesn't involve stereotypes. I confess I'm not particularly artistic, so I can't come up with any either.

Funny, I hear a lot about people complaining about the Ms. Pacman style stereotyping to make a generally male or ambiguous looking character seem female, but I'm not sure I've ever heard any suggestions on how to do it without stereotypes. I guess the assumption is that the ambiguous/male character just shouldn't be transformed to look female, but that can't be the only answer, as your goblin dilemma demonstrates.

There needs to be real suggestions from the complainers as to how to go about doing something like what you did: making a generally ambiguous/male humanoid race fairly represent its female population.

Nathan Destler
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Props to you guys. I can see that you didn't always win, but you fought nonetheless, and you did far better than most. If everyone tried as hard as you guys, we'd have this sexism thing licked.

Tim Turcich
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Stereotype is sometimes needed by design, but stereotype neutrality is too. Having the spectrum creates a greater diversity of ideas as well as a more realistic feel, the more extreme stereotypical ends of the spectrum are often the exciting part in which we are use to being exposed to. The history of gender extremes being modeled towards more masculine audiences just created the expectation, and trying to pull away from it can be daunting when the human condition based on past experience gets in the way of people being able to accept new things. Slow process, but it is somewhat interesting to realize that this article shows some interesting solutions.

I love the goblins above... Goblins traditionally have been emotionless beady eyed that lack character in general. Even remotely giving them more effective traits like emotional eyes, instantly makes them more interesting and effective in conveying complexities that the male gender extreme has lacked in the past. Just pulling away from these extremes opens the door to possibilities!

Alexander Jhin
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Why do goblins have to be identifiably male or female? Can you tell a male crow from a female crow? No? Then why is it required that you should you be able to tell a male goblin from a female goblin? Maybe goblins have very low sexual dimorphism... or perhaps, even very low cultural gender cues.

I like the article: It's a good effort to be more inclusive between male and female and has a nice modesty to its tone. But while it's inclusive of gender issues, it falls a little bit short of thinking outside the box of human thinking, human culture, and human phenotypes. A fantasy world can reflect on the flaws in human society by totally doing away with the structures that cause them in the first place.