It Gets Worse…

The Female Voice in Video Games

Milena Droumeva is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Glenfraser professor in Sound Studies at Simon Fraser University specializing in mobile technologies, sound studies and multimodal ethnography. She has worked extensively in educational research on game-based learning and computational literacy, formerly as a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Research on Digital Learning at York University. Milena has a background in acoustic ecology and works across the fields of urban soundscape research, sonification for public engagement, as well as gender and sound in video games. Milena’s current project was supported by ReFiG, a SSHRC partnership grant exploring women’s participation in the games industries and game culture. bio-twitterbio-twitterbio-blog

Kaeleigh Evans, Renita Bangert and Nesan Furtado are all post-graduates from the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University, and all three have worked as Research Assistants with Milena on the Voice and Gender in Videogames project. bio-twitterbio-twitter

Despite their historically tumultuous relationship with issues of gender and representation, many scholars and game journalists have argued that video games are generally moving in the right direction (Lynch, Tompkins, van Driel & Fritz, 2016; McNally, 2016), at least visually. While progress on the image front has taken us from scantily-clad polygon Barbies to humbly-garbed warrior women, vocals – we argue – have done the opposite, regressing from synthetic vowels to overdramatized breathy moans. One major element of game audio – and one players spend a considerable portion of game time experiencing – is the battle cry: the vocalizations characters make when attacking or being attacked. What follows is a case study of the battle cry as an exploration into gendered sonic tropes in video games.

The Study

We looked at the evolution of battle cries for major female characters across several iterations of three classic franchises – Mortal Kombat (MKII, IV, 9 and X), Street Fighter (SFII, IV and V), and Soul Calibur (SCII, IV and V). All of these games belong to the arcade fighting game genre – one of the foundational genres for much of modern game design – and employ a host of shared tropes. We ask: How do characters sound depending on their gender? How do sonic tropes embody gender differently? We approached this project both from an observational and from a content analysis perspective by tallying distribution of male to female battle cries in a given fighting sequence. We focused on the most prominent and long-standing unique characters from each title: Mileena, Kitana and Sonya Blade from Mortal Kombat; Chun Li, Cammy and Sakura from Street Fighter; and Hilde, Ivy and Xianghua from Soul Calibur. To date, we have played and captured a total of 166 fighting sequences representing 15-20 fights for each character against a male opponent. In order to achieve consistency of capturing conditions, we attempted to construct an ‘average play’ scenario for each fight: both characters dealt similar amounts of damage at a medium difficulty setting. Each female character’s battle cry count is derived from an average of 5 random fights with different male opponents.

Our analysis shows that while in the 1990s women’s battle cries made up 30-45% of the total vocalizations in a given fight sequence, later iterations of these games see an increase to 50-60% of total battle cries, with the important note that there is also a massive – over 300% – increase of sounded elements altogether. Potentially, this can be attributed to the industry’s evolving standards for more authenticity and greater immersion through richer graphics, sound effects, and voice work. In this way, game worlds end up importing the pre-existing vocal stereotypes of cinema and advertising that further encode cultural constructs of femininity and masculinity (for cultural constructions of the female voice and embodiment, see Mary Ann Doane 1985). Based on our efforts so far, we have developed three central character tropes in terms of their vocal battle cry performance, all of whom hearken to past and existing cinematic and broadcasting vocal typologies (see Kaja Silverman 1988 for voice typologies in film using a psychoanalytic lens).

A screenshot from Mortal Kombat depicting Sonya Blade

Fig 1. Sonya Blade (Mortal Kombat)

First we have the Warrior Woman: a modern-day Joan of Arc. She’s strong, serious, and has to avenge something for someone or prove the point that girls can fight too. She has a defined mission, and has to go against the odds. This is reflected in her somber, serious tone. This confident female’s voice is of medium-high register with clear timbre, coded as middle-class and white, often featuring a British or (non-regional) American accent (think Sarah Connor of Terminator, or Arya Stark of Game of Thrones). She uses low tones, and is only breathy to accentuate the importance in what she is trying to communicate. Soul Calibur’s Hilde is perhaps the most becoming of a warrior woman trope with stern lines such as “Duty!” and “Honor” peppered before and during fights.

This character trope shows the most equal distribution of male-to-female battle cries in a given sequence, at 45-50% female to 50-55% male vocalizations. Yet unlike the filmic warrior performances of the likes of Sarah Connor, Katniss Everdeen or Arya Stark, the warrior woman in games harbours a contradiction: Her vocal performances in cut-scenes often serve to cartoonize and stereotype her character. As a result, she is heard uttering lines like these in an over-exaggerated tone before or after a battle: “I’m just doing my duty! Please don’t take it personally…” (Chun Li) or “Shut up!…Go away!.. Leave me alone!…” (Cammy) in an over-emotional and anxious tone. Take Sonya Blade: her character arc aligns with the way she dresses, talks and takes damage, yet her gameplay movement mechanics employ a sassy poison kiss accompanied by a sultry moan. Both Street Fighter’s Chun-Li – an agent of INTERPOL with a penchant for street fighting – and Cammy – a former assassin and current British spy – are undoubtedly warriors, yet their cut-scenes contrast with their battle cry performance in jarring ways. For instance, when Chun Li playfully chimes “Wanna see my kung fu?” before a match. The flippant dialogue and frequent use of helpless whimpering only serves to undermine the warrior status of these women, despite what the backstory and character development might otherwise suggest.

A screenshot depicting Pyrrha from Soul Calibur

Fig 2. Pyrrha (Soul Calibur)

The next trope we have is The Cutesy One: the butt-kicking doll. She’s your run-of-the-mill kung-fu-trained princess cheerleader schoolgirl. She thinks it’s either “play time,” like Street Fighter’s Sakura (“That was a lot of fun! Let’s fight again someday!”), or she’s fighting you because there’s no alternative and she’s just so sorry, like the reluctant Pyrrha of the Soul Calibur series (“I’m sorry… I have no choice”). Xianghua’s (Soul Calibur) markedly childish battle cries (reminiscent of Link’s “Teyyyyahh!”, for the Legend of Zelda fans out there) are offset by her visual sexualization and accentuated further in the vocal presence of her daughter Leixia in SCV. The butt-kicking doll embodies a notion of innocence, as if her sexuality is unaware, but overflowing nonetheless. It is important to note of the three franchises, Mortal Kombat (a US title) markedly lacks a cutesy character. Arguably a trope of Japanese anime, the butt-kicking doll is overly apologetic, playful and giggly, ever delighted and reactive. Her voice is often artificially pitched up, light, breathy, and at times squealy. Her movement mechanics often include unstable footing and flailing punctuated by amplified clumsy sighs and especially protracted screams of pain when taking damage. This sonic trope has the most uneven distribution of male-to-female battle cries in a given sequence, where she often comprises up to 70% of the total sounded elements in a fight compared to her male counterpart.

A screenshot from Mortal Kombat depicting Mileena

Fig 3. Mileena (Mortal Kombat)

Finally we have: The Seductress. The witch. The magical femme fatale. The seductress embodies a more agential performance of confidence. She is typically “bad” or at least morally ambiguous and features a deeper alto tone, with a tendency for animalism (e.g. Mileena’s raspy, growly tone). The Seductress’s guttural, mature tone of voice is nevertheless located in a young and oversexualized female body. In this trope, the raspy growl and elements of her overtly inviting sexuality seem to be intrinsically linked to a kind of otherworldly quality: connections to magic and the arcane, and/or physical hybridity or deformities. For instance: Mileena’s (MK) animalistic growl may stem from her distinctly inhuman background, the handkerchief around her face hiding a gigantic set of fanged teeth. Yet her sexuality is a more defining characteristic than her monstrous visage, and this can readily be observed with her vocal performance uttering lines such as “Was it good for you?” in her fights. Street Fighter’s Juri and Soul Calibur’s Ivy are also prime examples of this trope, both exhibiting the raspy witchy growl while existing in young sexualized bodies and utilizing highly sexualized taunts in their battle sequences such as “Feels good, huh?” (Juri) and “I’ll play with you, for a little while” (Ivy).

One term for such disparities between our heroines’ in-battle vocal presence and their cut-scene lines is disembodiment. In her classic essay on disembodiment and gender, Mary Ann Doane (1985) suggests that in film women’s voices are often subordinated to emotional and subjective elements like voice-over commentary, interior monologue and flashbacks. In games, disembodiment also plays out in the way that a character’s visual self aligns with or clashes with her sonic self. While the warrior woman is vocally embodied most closely to her appearance (e.g. race and age), most other character typologies show a clear disembodiment. This is how we end up with characters like Street Fighter’s Sakura who sound 10 yet appear 25. Street Fighter even comments on this in-game as if it’s on purpose (“Are you really a schoolgirl?”). As one of the most representative cases of the seductress trope, Ivy (SC) has the voice of a 40-year old lifetime smoker, wrapped in a 25-year old’s sexually-idealized body. Juri, Street Fighter’s witchy seductress, is particularly disembodied visually, appearing almost as young and nimble as Sakura, yet featuring the drawling low voice of a much older femme fatale. Of course, many characters defy strict tropes, and that is often reflected in their vocal range and battle cry styles: Mortal Kombat’s Kitana is in some ways visually closest to seductress Mileena, however, her medium-range somber tone places her sonically closer to a warrior. Soul Calibur’s Taki is every bit as sexualized as the rest of the female cast in this series, appearing cute and innocent; however, her firm tone and confident – though high-pitched – battle cries defy the butt-kicking doll trope. Cammy (SF) too is not a typical warrior – not only does she appear 15 but with the clear, firm tone of a 30-year old, she is visually one of the most sexualized warrior type characters.

Disembodiment extends to another dimension of battle cries themselves: the offensive versus defensive cry. In our reading of sounds across Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter and Soul Calibur there seems to be almost no difference between when women take damage and when they’re dealing damage to their opponent. In other words, what the content analysis doesn’t show us is that even when sonic elements are almost equal in frequency, women simply sound most of the time as if they are being hit, while men make very few defensive cries. Check out this spectrogram of an Ivy fighting sequence: Even though she wins and KO’s her opponent, the long yellow lines we see in the spectral analysis is her own KO sound – a reverberated orgasmic scream. Even when she wins, we are treated to her cry of pain.

A screenshot of Adobe Audition's sound visualization tools showing Pyrrha's knockout scream.

Fig 4. Spectrogram of Ivy’s KO scream (Soul Calibur series) using Adobe Audition’s sound visualization tools

Despite advancements in technology – or perhaps because of them – the same design choices persist; to use a sonic metaphor, the tech actually amplifies the problem. Reliance on high-quality voice acting samples rather than short synthesized bursts also brings with it the endemic representational problems of cinema, all in the name of greater realism and drama in the gaming experience; that’s where the heart of this problem lies. Marketing, audience analysis, user profiling, and player feedback: these massive titles represent what ‘powerful’ women should look and sound like. In some situations these women are the mascots of the game. They’re cosplayed at conventions, they’re the cover character, and they are featured in amazingly over-the-top advertisements, making their representational politics critically important. Voice remains a persistent way to stereotype not only gender but race as well, so while we call for diverse bodies in games we must also call for diverse voices. Literally.


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