Sexual Dimorphism in…Video Games [Part I]

It’s my second-to-last blog post of the semester, so I’m going to attempt a two-part one to be fancy. In this post, I’m covering the biological concept of sexual dimorphism, touching briefly on the human level of sexual dimorphism, and use human-generated fantasy examples from the game World of Warcraft to illustrate how the Western human psyche may put these noticed differences into practice. Next time, I’d like to bring this into the realm of why we need more female scientists – particularly in the fields of biology and human evolution. It’s an issue that affects me personally – affects you personally, too, whomever you may be – and will be a good way to culminate my own experiences and growth as a feminist this year.

So, without further ado, let’s talk about gnome breasts!

Okay, so I was partially kidding about gnome breasts. We’ll talk about those after we have a brief biology review.

What is sexual dimorphism?

Gosh, I’m so glad you asked! In basic terms, it’s how much a guy is different from a girl in a given species. Now, as a feminist blog, “guy” and “girl” are not used terribly often here, and their usage is a little different when compared to that of biology. So, to keep it simple, a “man” in this context is someone born with the XY chromosome pairing, and a “woman” in this context is someone born with the XX chromosome pairing. There’s a wide range of what can happen to cause deviations in biological sex, gender identity, and expression – not to mention sexual preferences, cultural differences, and the fact that some animals don’t use the X/Y dichotomy at all! – but for the sake of simplicity – and since my examples are simple human, mammal, and World of Warcraft species – we can stick with this.

Sexual dimorphism can be measured in humans with the discipline called anthropometry, or the scientific study of human body measurements and proportions. In this manner, we can gain observable scientific data regarding the differences between sets of humans – in this case, “typical” males and females.

In anthropometry – and comparison of sexual dimorphism in other animals – each species is given a set value based on the averages of the measurements taken by scientists. The math behind it is a little complicated (though definitely not impossible), but the important part is that no sexual dimorphism between the genders of a species is given the value of 1. Humans are approximately 1 – somewhere around 1.23, if my memory of my recent lab serves. The further a species deviates from 1, the more sexual dimorphism is present. That means that something in that species’s evolutionary history caused considerable physical changes between the males and females.

So, when talking about the physical differences between males and females, it’s nearly taboonot to mention the peafowl. You’re probably used to hearing the term peacock, but that’s because Mr. Struts-His-Feathers in the upper right of the photo gets all of the attention. He’s the peacock; in front of him lies a (rather unimpressed?) peahen. Together, they are peafowl. Notice the size difference? Ignoring the ornamentation, it’s not much. That suggests that males don’t have to rigorously compete for mates in this species. The long feathers, however, DO suggest that, for whatever reason, that particular ornamentation is the key to continuing one’s own genetic lines.

It’s interesting to note, though, that not all species have hulking males and waif females. For example:

This is, uh, the wonderful Hawai’i Garden Spider. And guess which one’s the girl. In many spider species, it’s dangerous for males to mate because they’ll often be eaten before it can even happen! Scary stuff.

(The main point of this wasn’t to freak you out regarding spiders, trust me; it’s to show that there’s a wide array of ways to exist on this planet.)

And now, since I just alluded tothisplanet, let’s look at one that’s not. Welcome to World of Warcraft!

Meet the Draeni, the Tauren, the Orcs, and the Trolls. (Don't feed the trolls. I also advise against eating the Tauren.)

This figure is taken from a Wired.com article-blurb based upon a much more in-depth look at this particular subject – sexual dimorphism in World of Warcraft. The Wired article, found here, was mediocre quite honestly, but it did a fantastic job of introducing the subject to the Wired audience. (If you must torture yourself with the Wired audience’s responses, scroll down a bit after the blurb ends. Have fun with your head-to-desk injuries.)

The real article, written more in the style of an academic paper, is here. Now, I must say, this woman does a FANTASTIC job at analyzing a few aspects of World of Warcraft’s strangely hulking humanoids next to their much more petite, magazine shoot-worthy females. There are many factors, of course – notwithstanding the fact that the game is largely targeted to a young male audience that’s generally receptive to sexually attractive females and he-men vessels through which one can live vicariously – but ultimately, I feel as though the ultimate one was ignored.

In the article, the author brushes male standards aside with the idea that World of Warcraft takes place in a warring area. (War doesn’t necessarily make beefy war heroes plentiful in the gene pool, by the way.) She’s much more focused on the strange dichotomy between non-human and more-human females: the closer to anthro the species becomes, the more stereotypically attractive the female becomes.

As you can see, she definitely has a point. Gnomes and Orcs – both of which you see at the bottom, sandwiching the picture of the female bodybuilder – are both very physically robust and muscular for women. However, the more humanoid Blood and Night Elfs look much more similar to a centerfold model.

Now, as a scientist, I find this interesting. This, to me, suggests that the daily lives of the Elves – blood or night – are very similar to that of humans: women take care of their children while they form a pair bond with a strong, muscular, protective male who both provides resources and protection to the woman and her child. In the Orc and Gnome cultures, this may not be true.

However, instead of going into interesting reasons as to why they may be the way they’re portrayed, the author bemoans the fact that they are that way at all, arguing that more diversity would have added interest to the game. While I agree that a game targeted at young males is likely lacking in imagination, I disagree with her idea that these sexually dimorphic trends are unreasonable. Just look at the dimorphism between the Hawai’i spider male and female – relatively, their difference dwarfs that of the first World of Warcraft image shown above!

And that’s where I bring us to the point I think needs to be made. This is where I now say it.

Feminists have an obligation to be well-versed in biology and evolution if they want to win the war. It is not a maybe; it is a prerequisite. Without it, any sort of talk of equality will fail.

However, we’re saving the reasons behind such a bold statement for next time! See you in two weeks!

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