Hair has always been a problem for game developers. The Witcher 3 managed to make Geralt’s mane grow in real time, yet it, like the hair from so many games, is constantly clipping through his clothes. And of course black games critics like Evan Narcisse and Tanya DePass have spoken at length about the important issue of lack and misrepresentation of black hair in games. But I have another problem: one hairstyle in particular.

It’s this one, and it pains me to look at

A lot of female characters simply leave their hair loose, and that’s frustrating enough. It’ll tangle terribly, and constantly get in the way. That’s why at first glance, the loose, choppy ponytail sported by so many women in games seems to be a step up. But those long fringes framing her face would pose the exact same logistical problems. (You can trust me on this – several years ago I got so fed up of constantly scraping my hair behind my ears only for it to fall back into place seconds later I cut it all off (though I’ve since grown it back.))

Yet, through video game magic, these characters manage to keep their hair slicked to the side of their face and neck no matter how much they lean forwards to pick up treasure or duck into crevices or whatever adventurous thing they’re doing now.

And it usually is an adventurous character who sports the style. Illustratively, Lara Croft is both one of the most well recognised and well respected female protagonists in games and also one of the worst offenders when it comes to this style, particularly in the recent reboots.

I know it’s hardly the biggest problem with Quiet’s design, but you’d think a sniper would know better

This is picky, certainly. But in a world where gamers so often discuss realism and what breaks their immersion, this is what I most often find pulling me out of the game world.

But it’s more than that

This hairstyle seems to come from two conflicting urges: to have the character’s hair demonstrate a pragmatism and carefree attitude towards beauty norms by being tied back, but also to prevent her from looking too severe according to these same beauty norms, leading to loose strands being added to soften her look.

Frustrations about realistic gravity and empathy for how annoying this hairstyle would be in reality aside, it demonstrates a direct conflict between character design that cleverly illustrates something about the character and character design that only aims to make her palatable to a presumed straight male audience.

There is no other reason for this loose hair. Certainly, removing it would save developer resources, since it usually has some form of physics, if not a realistic one. And of course, adding realistic physics to these curtains of hair would be completely counterproductive as they would constantly obscure the woman’s face. This would be problematic for the audience, and anyway, Lara Croft wouldn’t be much good at gunfights if she had to tuck her hair behind her ears every time there was a gust of wind.

Elena does tuck that strand away in several cutscenes, but it never seems to bother her in combat

This is easy to fix

The simple solution is to uncomplicate your ponytails. In the real world most people’s hair is of similar enough length to get it all into an elastic. Especially if they know they regularly do things that require it to be out of their faces.

But there are a thousand alternatives. Might I suggest plaits? Just like ponytails for keeping hair out of the way, but they also prevent tangles. It would take Lara much less time to braid her hair than it must take her to comb all the knots out when she’s done adventuring. Again, you can trust me on this one.

However, this issue is in and of itself just one more way in which female game characters are unrealistically homogenised – they tend to be white, thin, and have long hair. This is, undoubtedly, the most nit-picky of those issues, but it does link to issues of how femininity is inextricably culturally linked to hair. This is an issue that has wide reaching ramifications for women in the real world, from teenage girls being shamed for getting pixie cuts to misogynoir and transmisogyny.

More Cassandra cuts please

Therefore an improved variety of hairstyles would not only increase the realism and storytelling potential of these games, but would also chip away at this association between long hair and womanhood, reducing the sway that these cultural values have over us.

And it really would save me a lot of stress over wanting to buy Lara Croft a thousand bobby pins.


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Jay Castello

Contributor
Jay is a freelance games writer specialising in intersectional feminist critique, how to improve games and use them to improve the world, and cute dogs. She loves inhabiting digital spaces in all their forms, and being constantly surprised by just how weird and wonderful games can be.
  • Gizensha

    Funny how tiny details like that can royally break immersion.

    I’m not concerned about realism, generally, but if something is going for a realistic aesthetic, then small practical details like footwear, pockets, hair, period-appropriate makeup, and the like, have to be considered, because something stylized? Can get away with a lot. Something going for realism? Not only do I tend to find that aesthetic uninspired for most works – some do need it to really work, but when a work doesn’t… As I say, it comes across as uninspired to me – but you have to get the little bits of scaffolding, the small, every day, stuff spot on in order to allow the audience to believe that the big stuff they don’t have experience with is being accurate (And, that also means doing your research. Because some of the players of your realistic archeology game are going to be archeologists, some of the players of your realistic take on caving [with monsters] will be cavers, and some of the players of your realistic game with climbing will be climbers and will notice if your protagonist can’t take easier routes than the ones they can take, or supports their weight with their arms rather than their feet when footholds are available in the animation cycle.)

  • Bryan Rumsey

    As a fellow person who constantly sweeps my hair behind my ears each and every day I fully agree with this article. I always double or triple tie my hair when doing physical activities and (despite their cultural relationship with femininity) I’ve been known to use hair clips to keep bangs back when necessary. I too would love to see a day when hair styles aren’t gendered and we can stop using dumb words like “man bun.”

  • SinkingSage

    Dear writer: I’d like to see you try and program hair physics.

    Also, it’s just a game, stop acting like this is a big deal, why does digital hair get on your nerves so much?

    I can see quite clearly it’s an agenda piece, you’re tired of long hair representing femininity etc, etc…
    Guess what, that’s not gonna change, just as beards will always be seen as a sign of masculinity. It’s innate, it’s human nature.

    Why is it that so many cultures, separated, for thousands of years, before the printing press, before television, before the internet, all had something in common: Women sported long hairstyles, it represented the classical woman figure, it still does… It’s human nature, it’s instinct, it’s mother nature.

    • She said keeping long hair is fine but it’d make sense to uncomplicate them as bits shouldn’t risk keep falling in their eyes.. Which makes sense.

      Not sure you actually read the “agenda piece.”

      • SinkingSage

        It’s just a game, there’s no hair inside your eyes causing you discomfort, it’s not real, get over it.

        • .. Is something you could say about almost any criticism at all? Everyone is “over it” she specifically said it’s not that big a deal in the piece.

          Who’s making drama from nothing? 😅 Why does someone suggesting different takes on female in game hair bother you? Jeez.

          • SinkingSage

            The article has this as a subtitle “It’s time to sever the association between long locks and womanhood”.
            This is more of a demand than a suggestion.
            Games have plenty of different female hairstyles already, I don’t see the point of the article.

          • Then why are you here commenting?

          • J.j. Barrington

            Obviously, questioning the purpose of the article and its writer. Can’t you tell that much?

          • No, that’s not a demand, it’s an opinion, in an *opinion piece*.

            It makes some decent points re: practicality and writers should write whatever they want to write about. The fact that a bunch of people are commenting in different types of agreement would imply others have thought about this too. *shrugs*

      • J.j. Barrington

        … but bits WOULD keep falling in their eyes in combat.

        • SinkingSage

          It’s not real, nothing falls in their eyes, they are video game characters.

          • J.j. Barrington

            I know. It’s nothing to make this big a deal over. And yet..

    • Aenea

      If you care about details in games then it stands to reason that noticing this is something most if not all games currently do wrong.

      There’s no agenda about it, you sound like one of those irritating anti-SJWs who see an agenda in everything who are becoming more of a pest than SJWs ever were…

      • J.j. Barrington

        No, there’s definitely an agenda when you liken it to gender roles and such. There’s no shortage- though perhaps not the abundance as for women- of long-haired male characters with a bit of hair here or there that covers the eyes. Gaming’s most iconic rivals, Cloud and Sephiroth, each have hair styles that aren’t very conducive to the high level of combat they take part in… and nobody cares.

        • Aenea

          Well, the author of this article cares so your “nobody cares” is wrong huh?

          • J.j. Barrington

            She mentioned them? She talked about how unrealistic their hairstyles were for their line of work?

            Oh, she didn’t.

            Because it only matters when it’s a female.

          • Aenea

            Hey, I find it stupid no matter what gender… And if she’s not mentioning them perhaps she doesn’t know them? I didn’t know who they were at the top of my head either…

      • reallydude?

        “However, this issue is in and of itself just one more way in which female game characters are unrealistically homogenised”

        right there, agenda

        • Aenea

          It happens with most all female characters tho, and let’s face it, it’s because long hair does look better, it’s why some male characters have long hair as well: looks better, nothing more, nothing less.

          Don’t put your panties in a twist when a woman notices something about female characters and writes an article about it…

      • J.j. Barrington

        “This hairstyle seems to come from two conflicting urges: to have the character’s hair demonstrate a pragmatism and carefree attitude towards beauty norms by being tied back, but also to prevent her from looking too severe according to these same beauty norms, leading to loose strands being added to soften her look.”

        Another example of how this is agenda driven, as there’s nothing anywhere in the article to support this interpretation.

        “it demonstrates a direct conflict between character design that cleverly illustrates something about the character and character design that only aims to make her palatable to a presumed straight male audience.”

        More example of the agenda.

        Shall I go on?

        • Aenea

          The bit about male audience was not necessary but let’s be real, how characters look in videogames is done because it looks nice, it’s all about presentation after all. Is it so hard to grasp that a woman might look at it from a female perspective?

    • The “If you don’t like it then why don’t you make it yourself” is an empty argument. Was Roger Ebert a horrible critic because he couldn’t make movies?

      Also, long hair and beards as a comparison? Psssst. There are guys with long hair, bruh.

      • SinkingSage

        I never said that men don’t rock long hair.
        I said that on women, it was seen as a feminine trait.
        My argument was that real world physics are ~extremely (something you can’t even learn because it’s too difficult a task for super computers) difficult to simulate, so the author should think twice before telling devs to make it better.

        • That still doesn’t make sense. Things are getting better all the time, there’s no reason not to call things out because they’re difficult.

          • J.j. Barrington

            That’d be like calling out scientists for not having solved the cold fusion thing, though. Sure, you CAN do that, but why?

          • Yes, it’s exactly like that.

          • J.j. Barrington

            I wonder: what’s the point in you ever commenting around here? You don’t do a good job of defending the articles. You don’t bring any new evidence. You’re not encouraging anyone to take a closer look at your side of things.

            If you actually want people to come around, you’ve got just about the worst method of doing so. Physical violence would be better.

        • Jay Castello

          I didn’t say they should make it better. I said they should make it easier for themselves by having simpler hairstyles.

          • reallydude?

            You complain about homogenization, so your solution to the hair styles is… homogenization?

          • Jay Castello

            No, my solution is “an improved variety of hairstyles” as per the article written right there.

          • J.j. Barrington

            An improved variety? Then you have numbers showing how widespread these hair styles are? Are you considering what people at large generally care about and want to see, or are you asserting that developers should prioritize the opinions of an extreme minority- currently, just you and your buddy Greg- when designing hair?

            Why should your take on this have more weight than someone else’s? Why should it have any weight at all? You aren’t representative of a majority of even a sizable minority. Your opinions don’t reflect those of the people that pump the most money into the industry.

            Most importantly: there are bigger problems to deal with- within gaming and without- than fabricating gender issues about stray hair strands.

            You say you take this seriously? Then don’t try cashing in on manufactured controversy. Tackle ACTUAL gender problems in gaming, like the lack of female developers. If you want people to think you’re genuine, don’t use vague numbers from studies that don’t break down the data significantly enough.

            For example: core gaming sustains and drives the industry; not mobile or browser-based games, but games for which you wind up having to buy hardware. It’s disingenuous, then, to count those who play casually as investing as much time and emotion (and money) as those who are core gamers. It’s anecdotal- because the studies never divulge this- but the majority of female gamers tend to fall in the “casual” category: people like my mom and sister, my girlfriend and her mom. They’re fundamentally different from my ex, or the girls I worked with at GameStop.

            If you truly do care about how women are portrayed in all aspects of gaming, don’t make generalizations that try to force an image upon people that don’t agree with you. Give them cold, hard facts they can’t dispute.

            No one is giving female characters a certain hairstyle to perpetuate an oppression of women or anything like that. Saying it’s because of societal norms also belittles the choice of women who WANT to wear long hair.

            Admit that there are TONS of female characters who don’t fit what you’re complaining about. Acknowledge that even the same person can find a multitude of hair lengths and styles attractive all on their own. Come off as something other than holier-than-thou, and people might approach what your saying with a more open mind.

            That, however, requires a mind that’s open on your end, too. So far, I’m not seeing it.

          • Jay Castello

            This is an opinion piece. As such, you’re welcome to disregard it as only my opinion. You’d be welcome to write your own opinion piece with your opinion.

            I do tackle other problems regularly, including in numerical and fact based articles. If you want a fact for free right now (I usually charge for my work!), addressing your segue, how about the fact that more women own consoles than men. Not mobile or browser games. Consoles. (https://www.polygon.com/2015/11/4/9669110/pew-research-center-female-gamers-statistics.)

            I’d take your comments about how I should do my job and how I have an open mind more seriously if you didn’t leave a negative comment on every single article we publish here. Doesn’t seem very open minded to me!

          • J.j. Barrington

            Odd that your link even states that it contradicts another poll.

            “The ESA’s survey showed a gender disparity skewing toward men, with 59 percent of its male respondents calling themselves gamers as opposed to 41 percent of women polled.”

            There’s some explanation, too, which could easily skew the report you rely on.

            “The Pew findings exclusively reveal data regarding technology owners over the age of 18, while the ESA’s numbers present a picture of gamers young and old.”

            The rest of the stats kinda point at the majority of those women being mothers, and there’s nothing that indicates that they identify as gamers, like the ESA survey referenced in the article you link to.

            That’s the kinda thing I mean: using surface stats.

            Since I don’t comment on every single article, I can’t have negative comments on every single one. Thanks for the hyperbole. That aside, the reason you see me remarking with a “negative” view is because that view differs from yours.

            For whatever reason, you see long haired female characters as being indicative of some forced gender norms, but most gamers don’t see that. Even I admitted that there’s something to bad hair physics taking someone out of a game, but not everything about every game is related to some attempt to keep down a minority group.

            For example, you said something about this all appealing to straight males. But what if it doesn’t appeal to them? What if they like short hair? I mean, Grace Jones short? What if it’s a gay guy? Or gay girl? My girlfriend isn’t into women… probably… but she has her idea of what she thinks is beautiful in a female. It’s not always long hair influenced by “gender beauty norms.” She likes my hair short, but also likes when it’s long. The way you approach these things, however, these design decisions only serve one demographic.

            Do you ever stop to consider that might not be the case?

          • stevoman75

            I think the issue with your solution is these are designers and artists making these models and they want to craft their idea of beauty and elegance into the characters even if that means a little suspension of disbelief. As an artist myself, when I draw a character I’d never “make it easier for myself by having a simpler hairstyle.” Sometimes proportions and designs are even accentuated in an unrealistic, yet believable fashion just for appeal. It’s not that your idea is bad, it probably just goes against their creative ambition.

          • I think you bring up a pretty solid point. Jay’s point still stands for me, but your point of (essentially) saying that flowy locks of hair are fun and cool is definitely something important to keep in mind. No one wants to get to a point where videogame art and design is purely utilitarian, that’d be dull.

          • stevoman75

            I see both sides of the conversation as well and recognize that sometimes I’m even a little too quick to disregard criticisms that focus more on social and utilitarian aspects of design choices in video games in lieu of the artists right to make what they yearn to make. I think the suggestion of more options in games should maybe be thought about more among artists at least in some games but from an artists perspective, a lot of the time you want to show the world your expression and if everyone was to put a wig on your design of choice it wouldn’t feel great. At the end of the day we all have different views of what is important in video games, which is what makes these conversations so great. Thanks for the platform to put in my 2 cents! And keep up the evocative writing Jay, don’t let the jerks get to you!

    • Jay Castello

      I completely understand that programming hair physics is hard. So, solution: program less hair.

      Also for the record, your history is wrong. Chinese and Korean cultures often regarded hair as part of filial piety, and therefore never cut it, similar to Sikhism with religious piety. Ancient Greeks saw long hair as a symbol of power. Cherokee people associate long hair with handsomness in men. It’s not instinct, it’s culture.

      • J.j. Barrington

        And yet, while you were mentioning the male side of those cultures, you ignored the female side, too. In all those cases and many more besides, even IF men wore their hair long, there were styles men wore than women didn’t, and vice versa. Asian cultures had the topknot, or variations thereof. Native American tribes had separate adornments- if the men wore any.

        STILL, the long hair for women persists in all those cultures and others. So you really didn’t bring to bear a salient point.

      • SinkingSage

        How am I wrong? Women from those cultures rocked long hair to be seen as “womanly”.

        Edit: Solution: program less hair?
        Just because it’s difficult we should stop? No, that’s loser talk, no one ever got anywhere by giving up just because it was hard.

        • Jay Castello

          If it were instinct, should we not still critique it where it harms women?

          • SinkingSage

            I commend you for this reasonable response, props.

          • Jay Castello

            Thanks! I appreciate your saying so.

  • xboxmaster

    i’m so glad that games DON’T DO WHAT YOU WANT, and keep their females beautiful with pretty long hair, U MAD FEMINIST U MAD LOLOLOLOLO

  • Hozi Sukura
  • Clothing getting screwy like that is a big one for me too. The biggest though is when they don’t climb stairs or ladders realistically. It’s gotten MUCH better over the past decade, but still pops up and really sticks out when it does.

    • ThinkingClass

      haha can’t say I’ve noticed odd climbing animation except the old climbing A ladder in a FPS while still holding a gun.
      wasn’t there a medal of honour game where you could reload a rifle and throw a grenade at the same time so a mysterious third arm would pop out of no where and throw it.

      Medal of honour Underground I think it was. But, a Female protagonist with sensible hair if I remember correctly. …Swings and roundabouts.

    • reallydude?

      I’ve noticed some real bad ladder climbing animations too, some games make your human look like a lizard climbing a tree lol

  • reallydude?

    “However, this issue is in and of itself just one more way in which female game characters are unrealistically homogenised – they tend to be white, thin, and have long hair.”

    https://cdn0.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/8293329/ugxw29fcdypy.png

    What were you saying?

    • Jay Castello

      One varying example (that’s still a white thin woman?) does not change what “tends to” be the case.

      • J.j. Barrington

        That’s a recent example from a high-profile game… and you don’t have to be a thin white woman? Isn’t she customizable?

        If this long-hair thing “tends to” be the case, gimme some numbers that bear that out.

      • J.j. Barrington

        Oh, as to your complaint about Quiet: since she’s a sniper, the scope would be right up on her eye, meaning it’d be moved out of the way long before she took the shot.

        Wanna know something else?

        She’s right-eyed, so hair over her left eyes does exactly nothing.

  • J.j. Barrington

    I just typed in “short hair video games” in a google image search… ALL women,(lots of the gals from Touhou) and quite a few high-profile characters. Faith(Mirror’s Edge), Bayonetta, Elizabeth(Bioshock), Ada Wong(Resident Evil) on just the first row. (Many of the images link to a “5 best female video game characters with short hair” article, by the way.)

    Changed up the search to the better-flowing “video game characters with short hair” and got Yuna(Final Fantasy), Ashley Johnson(Resident Evil), Aya Brea(Parasite Eve), Aqua(Kingdom Hearts), Blue Mary and King(King of Fighters), Ashe(Final Fantasy), all in the first three or four rows. I imagine most real gamers wouldn’t even need me to have the games they’re in put beside their name, because they’re just that well-known.

    What would happen if we went through and counted all the long and short-haired ladies in games from this generation? What about Max and Chloe and Victoria from Life is Strange? What about Zombra, Tracer, and Zarya from Overwatch alone?

    I get the feeling that even if we did so, you’d find something else to harp on about. Someone’s clothes wouldn’t be conservative enough; someone else wouldn’t have a typical enough body type. You wouldn’t be satisfied until nearly every character were disqualified for not fitting what you think characters should look and act like.

    Do hair physics need to improve? Sure. Are hairstyles in games indicative of some culture-ingrained stereotype about women? You could argue that, if it weren’t for the many different cultures contributing to gaming. You could argue that, if only one type of hair style were represented, or largely so.

    But these things either aren’t so, or you haven’t offered up enough support to suggest that to be the case.

    Take this:

    “This hairstyle seems to come from two conflicting urges: to have the character’s hair demonstrate a pragmatism and carefree attitude towards beauty norms by being tied back, but also to prevent her from looking too severe according to these same beauty norms, leading to loose strands being added to soften her look.”

    Where are you getting that? Who came up with that interpretation? YOU. You’ve decided for developers and other gamers what these women mean in regards to their hair. And you have NOTHING else supporting that.

    That’s no way to make an argument.

  • We’ve moved on to hair now. I’m sorry I gave this article a click. Oui.

  • You want MORE short hair??
    what are you insane?!!?
    its bad enough nobody wants to bother making long hair a possibility in character creation