Boob Jam: Games to depict 'unsexy reality' of breasts

Tomb Raider screenshot
Image caption The 2013 reboot of Lara Croft did away with the bigger breasts of the earlier incarnations

The whole thing started as a throwaway comment, a joke, on Twitter.

What if, wrote Jenn Frank, there was a computer game that involved a sexy character shopping for a bra but ended with her crying softly because she could not find one that fitted.

"Everyone thought I was kidding," Ms Frank told the BBC. "I thought I was kidding, and then two hours later I was building a website for it."

"It" is Boob Jam, a weekend-long event during which game developers will go without sleep to create games that offer players a more truthful and accurate depiction of breasts and what it means to have them. While other game jams take place in a hotel, conference centre or the offices of game developer, Boob Jam will be a virtual event with people gathering in cyberspace.

Before now, Ms Frank said, discussion about breasts in video games only considered them as sexual objects for people, males typically, who did not have them. Accuracy in this context meant better jiggle physics.

"We keep talking in this really circular way about one part of the human body not the whole of the body," she said.

Boob Jam will aim to undercut this, to demystify breasts, free them from the corner video games have shunted them into.

"The underlying joke is that for a lot of people, breasts and having them is an incredibly unsexy reality," she said.

That, said Ms Frank, a scholar of videogame culture and history, was the unwritten rule for Boob Jam.

The games it will aim to produce will portray breasts as anything but sexual. Hence the suggestion for a game about the frustrating search for a bra that fits or the fear that travels with every woman that goes for a mammogram.

That's a long way from many current titles that define their female characters by their physical appearance. Few of those games would pass the Bechdel Test - an informal way to gauge whether a film is biased in its depiction of gender.

A film passes the tests if there are two or more women in it that are named and who talk to each other about something other than men. If not, it fails and the chances are that its female characters only serve as something against which the male characters are defined.

Changing times

"Boob Jam is not a lone shot in the dark," said Dr Helen W Kennedy, of the University of Brighton, who studies game culture.

Over the past 15 months, she said, there had been a huge amount of activity around getting game-makers to change the way they depicted women.

"Boob Jam is just one of many attempts to move the discussion on and change the aesthetic away from women being nothing but boobs and sexual objects to thinking of them as active subjects," said Dr Kennedy.

That activity has produced women-only game jams and created interest groups that help women develop the skills to work in the industry.

There has been a Twitter campaign centred on the hashtag #1reasonwhy, funding has been found for a film about women gamers, and Anita Sarkeesian's long-term study of the limited ways women are portrayed in games.

"We're in the process of a big shift in gaming culture and how masculine that's been," said Dr Kennedy.

One example of this trend is the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider that featured a younger Lara Craft who lacked the big breasts of earlier incarnations.

That was a conscious decision, said Rhianna Pratchett, who designed the game's story and said that change had helped her concentrate on other aspects of Lara's character.

Image caption Boob Jam might produce games that deal with the fear that accompanies a mammogram

"When I started on Tomb Raider, Lara already had her more realistically proportioned look, plus actually looking like a young woman who had dressed herself," she said.

"I've been really impressed with the way that the concept art for the game embodies Lara's strength and beauty, without being overly sexualised.

"Players were very positive about Lara's new look and felt like it was a visual indication of just how seriously we were taking the character," she said.

In the past, Ms Pratchett told the BBC, games had failed because they had put nothing behind the "inflated mammary glands."

"In the real world, sure, a nice pair of boobs do it for some guys - and girls - but there's usually a lot more to it than that," she said.

Getting away from a narrow, physical view of women unleashed a torrent of creativity, said Ms Frank.

The sheer variety and inventiveness of ideas that people sent in response to that first tweet helped turn Boob Jam from a joke into a long term code-a-thon scheduled to happen at the end of September in the US, which Ms Frank is now frantically organising.

"It was not really my idea," said Ms Frank. "There were just so many good suggestions for games that kept coming in that I just thought I would help preserve them. I'm really excited to see what people come up with."

Strangely, she said, the idea of treating women as whole humans had proved hard for some people to accept.

"It's incredible to me that breasts as anything other than a sexual plaything is confrontational to people," she said, adding that the idea has been born out of frustration with current games and was not meant to take all the fun out of play.

"I do not think I am going to dismantle society and civilisation, but I would like to shift the conversation along a bit," she said.

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