Ever since its release in 2009, League of Legends (LoL) has become one of the most thrillingly popular MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) games in the world, garnering a revenue of over 2.1 billion U.S. dollars in 2017 alone. Players each choose from one of the unique 140 characters offered by the game to compete in a 5 v 5 battle; the ultimate objective is to destroy an enemy base on the opposite side of the map. These characters, also known as champions within the game, each have a unique role within the composition of a team.
However, when going through the champion selection process it becomes immediately apparent that male and female champions are not displayed in the same fashion (excuse the pun). Women are constricted in tight-fitting garments over enlarged boobs and butts that often only barely cover their breasts and genitals. Men, on the other hand, are generally completely clothed or armored. I gawked at the difference between the doctor-themed Nurse Akali and Surgeon Shen: one is clearly designed for sexual appeal while the other looks far more credible and viable. Such a disparity is not only insulting to female champions by treating them as nothing more than sexual objects, but LoL’s sexist perception of girls also harms them by diminishing their agency in the real world.
This observation is not exclusive to my own opinion; online forums and blogs are buzzing with League of Legends fans debating this injustice. For example, a fan dubbed ‘The Fairy Wizard’ makes quite the reasonable complaint about the design of Morgana, a mage-type champion in the game: “what this displays, is a pair of tits stuck on an objectified, but otherwise intriguing character”. Looking at Morgana’s cover art, it isn’t hard to see where he is coming from. Over her exaggerated breasts, she wears a definitely-not-supportive bra while little else covers the rest of her torso. The Fairy Wizard goes on to point out that many female characters in League of Legends are anatomically disproportionate (an understatement, to say the least). Just look at Morgana: she is skinny to the point of starvation and her back is bent so much (in an attempt to be even sexier, no doubt) that the only explanation for the sharp angle is a broken spine.
So, Riot, I’d love to know: why are the vast majority of your female characters impossibly beautiful (in the most anorexic, crippled way), and needlessly provocative? Surely there’s a way to present these personas in a compelling and powerful manner to your gamers that doesn’t involve near-nudity or pure sexual appeal?
Independent writer and LoL fan Mattias Lehman presents a potential solution in his article “Gender Representation in League of Legends” to the problem of female objectification within his beloved game: diversify women champions. Currently, almost all are lean, sexy women; most display an absurd amount of skin given their jobs. In fact, a mere 6% of heroes are given skins (alternate designs that players can buy to use within the game) which do not reveal any skin.
Lehman’s simple proposal to design heroes who don’t fit into the ‘skinny and sexy, with a touch of nudity’ category is thus an obvious and perfectly relevant answer to the problem of female sexism within League of Legends. One such character who already fulfills his requirements is Diana, who Lehman himself says that “she looked like… a dark, powerful, scary badass with an unexplored storyline.” At her peak, she was picked by players an astonishing 10% of the time.
However, Lehman’s argument fails when it comes to the champion Taliyah. Though she is unique in her own right and does not possess the same sexy, impossible beauty standards that are so widespread across the rest of the female characters in the game, her pick rate is a depressing 1.8%, which places her at an underwhelming 135 out of 140 heroes in terms of popularity. In one way or another. Taliyah is lacking in a characteristic that shapes her into an appealing and strong character. Therefore, there must be a factor that Lehman is not accounting for within his argument that simply designing conventionally less attractive women would aid in the perception of women within League of Legends.
In Christopher Bell’s article “Sexualization and Gamer Avatar Selection in League of Legends”, he posits that a degree of attraction is needed for female champions to appear viable to players; after all, complete disregard for any aspect of beauty also does not benefit the image of women in society. Such attraction and esteem can be found in both the character’s appearance and pose. Judith Rasband argues in “Power of Personal Appearance” that characters who are dressed appropriately and look suited to their role are considered with more credibility. Moreover, body language (as posited by Kim Darrah) plays a big role in how people are perceived; clenched fists and wide-apart legs, for instance, appear more confident and thus garners respect.
For example, Akali would look far more powerful and respectable in traditional wushu getup (rather than her current skimpy armor) while in an actual fighting pose. And speaking of poses, compelling female characters (such as the ones below) can be designed so that they do not require form-fitting armor or nudity to appear powerful, as long as their body language appears dominant.
Therefore, League of Legends, which relies on its diverse offering of playable characters to create an engaging user experience, needs to stop objectifying female characters through its champion designs. Riot should combat such misappropriation by illustrating its women in appropriate dress and body proportion as well as compelling body poses. By doing so, League of Legends would positively impact the perception of women in society by displaying them not as objects of sexual pleasure, but as capable warriors who are equal to men.