[continued from part 1: The Oasis of the Real]
The team lineup. From left to right: Pyro, Engineer, Spy, Heavy Weapons Guy, Sniper, Scout, Soldier, Demoman, and Medic.
The TF2 team members are, each of them, individual archetypes of “classical” masculinity.
The Heavy is the good-natured and huggable bear (protective; physically massive), the Medic is the aloof intellectual (professorial; teutonic), the Spy is the sleazy Eurotrash Lothario (seductive; manipulative), the Scout is the hyperactive teenager (shallow bravado masking youthful self-doubt), the Sniper is the easygoing outdoorsman (rugged; distant), the Demoman is the “damaged goods” drunkard (as symbolized by his eyepatch and slouching shape), Engineer is the cornfed and capable All-American Dad (friendly; mechanically-minded), and Soldier is the aging army man (strict; blustery).
Lastly, the Pyro, the only truly faceless and sexless team member, is either an unreadable monster, or a stand-in for the Female Gaze, or both. Pyro’s dumpy pear shape, short stature, small hands and feet, muffled alto voice and the flowered purse sitting in Pyro’s locker in the respawn room all point to them being femme incognito in the TF2 boys’ club, thus being a pitch-perfect allegory for the real-life “gamer girl”.
The Pyro’s head is enclosed in a rubber gas mask, the design loosely based on the Israeli civilian model, sans bulky cylindrical filter. The effect of the round, dark lenses is one of surprise and innocence, with the sunglasses feel of cool anonymity. This blank face contrasts with the Pyro’s passionate, slash-and-burn style of gameplay. And the mask serves another purpose—it effectively mutes the character, turning all their words to a mumble. Of the character classes, Pyro also has the fewest number of recorded lines of dialog. In a game where chatter is important on multiple levels—the characters talking to each other during the course of the game, and their players communicating via microphoned voice and typed text—Pyro is effectively wordless, communicating with their teammates using muffled voice-sounds instead of “yes”, “no”, “medic!”, etc. This does not prevent the player of a Pyro from using mic chat or typing, of course, and the Pyro’s vocalizations are clear in their intent just from rhythm and intonation. But symbolically, the Pyro is de-voiced, de-faced, and even disembodied in the huge rubber suit, which is the loosest and least revealing of all the characters’ costumes.
The Pyro’s loose rubber suit as compared to the Scout and Soldier, in more form-fitting outfits.
Pyro can be interpreted as a metaphor of what it takes to survive womanhood/minorityhood as it exists inside the brutal structures of white, western, patriarchal “nerd culture”: to exist faceless, voiceless, bodiless, and buried within as much protective equipment as possible.
The lack of voice is a particularly poignant symbol in the world of online gaming, where voice chatting to your fellow players is a normal part of play for men, and something that is feared and avoided by women. Any revelation of female gender in games traditionally dominated by men (which is nearly all of them, but particularly online FPSs) is met with savage harassment, insults, and sexual propositions. This is awful for the targeted player, and bad for the game itself. Normal activity and discussion is aborted as all attention turns to the female voice and player, and it is rare to see a woman speak up on mic for more than a few sentences before giving up speaking at all. The women who do maintain voice contact with other players are forced to be continually defensive, and a common tactic is to hunt down and repeatedly kill harassers until they are shamed into shutting up. Obviously, this method of dealing with harassment is impractical for players who aren’t already skilled enough to pick off anyone they choose.
When a girl get’s on, you’ll hear things like, make me a sandwich, b****** don’t play video games, suck my ****, are you really a girl, and stuff like that.
I never use a mic either and I have voice settings set to zero. But I tend to get friended and then asked all sorts of personal questions. Am I really a woman? Where am I from? What’s my age? Do I want to have sex with a boy who later told me he is 13?
I really do hope people automatically assume I’m fat neckbeard with a flaming shirt instead of a young girl. I once posted in a facebook MMORPG page and people wouldn’t stop harassing me with disgusting remarks. Now I just play it safe and make a buff barbarian named werewolfguy1980 every game.
Pyro’s (relatively) quiet mannerisms belie an absolutely brutal attack, their flamethrower being the only standard weapon in the game to elicit specific vocal responses from characters it sets on fire, responses that happen involuntarily.
Playing the Pyro is exhilarating, and immediately enjoyable, with a low skill ceiling that makes it a favorite class of beginners. The sheer power of the attacks, coupled with the visual effect of seeing your target running around in flames, and hearing him screaming in panic, is immensely gratifying. There is a sense of righteousness to it, as the Pyro is a spectacular character and difficult to miss, spouting flame in huge arcs across the barren sets. The Pyro’s victims usually see them coming a long way off, and will often die long after the Pyro is already gone—having burnt to death gradually while the Pyro made an escape or sought other targets. It is also not unusual to kill a Pyro who has set you on fire, only to burn to death after they’re dead . A single Pyro can quickly kill or disrupt an entire roomful of enemies, and when a nearby Pyro makes itself known, teammates will often warn each other with calls of “Pyro! Pyro!”, often causing panic and retreat.
This power earns the Pyro some resentment in the community of TF2 players (who are distinct from TF2 fans, with some overlap), who grumble about rank amateurs being able to run more experienced players down simply by charging at them with the flamethrower. Issues of game balance aside , resentment of perceived (but not actual) power imbalance is something women in nerd culture deal with on a daily basis, with many rank and file nerds constantly and vocally frustrated that the women in his life refuse to accede to his demands for love, sex, and ego reassurance. Any demonstration of female agency in the nerd community is met with accusations of “attention whoring”.
The idea that women only like x because they want attention has been around as long as I can remember. “Women only pretend to like football so that men will like them,” “Women only pretend to like games so that men will like them,” “Women only pretend to like Star Wars so that men will like them, ” etc, etc. According to this stereotype, women only pretend to have interests so that guys will like them. Women have no agency; no interests; the only thing they want is male approval and attention. This stereotype is perfectly illustrated in the Idiot Nerd Girl meme.
But some women won’t be bullied into silence. Those women are called attention whores for refusing to hide the fact that they’re female and still having an opinion.
Pyro’s sexless design was initially uncommented-upon by Valve, but certainly intentional. The flowered purse in Pyro’s locker has been there since before the game’s launch, during beta testing. Promotional collectible trading cards created before the game’s release in mid-late 2007 are intentionally opaque, despite using a male pronoun:
Original Valve flavor text on the now-defunct official Team Fortress 2 site design (since completely overhauled) referred to Pyro as “he” sometimes, and “she” other times, randomized during page refreshes. This intentional opacity is in-character for Valve, who enjoys taunting their fanbase. It has led to a debate which has lasted, literally, five years. The argument is a neat little petri dish for gender attitudes in the gaming community:
The suit is too ambiguous to say just by that. The voice is mostly male, but there exists the possibility of a female just being really muffled by the mask’s filter. The pink handbags and “Hands on the hip, pout position” imply female (Or a feminine guy) but the choice of weapons, especially melee (Axe, Axe with Barbed-wire, Car battery tied to a jack, a rake, and a hammer) point to a VERY aggresive personality, which is usually associated with men.
My guess is that pyro is just a very crazy man, but who “channels” the spirit of his dead mother, ala Norman Bates, which explains the purse and humiliation stance.
Totally a dude. Would you want to date a chick splitting someones head with a fire ax? If you just said yes in your head you need some serious help.
Why is this debate still going on? Pyro is voiced by an adult male and his muffled voice is too deep to be a girl’s.
I think that the Pyro is two midgets in a suit, one male one female, standing on top of eachothers shoulders and they swap over who controls the legs and arms everytime you respawn.
Unsatisfied with the unexploited femininity of the character, amateur character modelers produced dozens of hyper-sexualized Pyro models, including this eye-rollingly unimaginative “bikini top” version:
This one isn’t quite as bad, but the exposed hair, jiggling breasts and high-heeled boots are poorly-conceived. EDIT: Of course, the response from the fandom is excellent:
The fact that the type of person who would spend weeks designing a topless version of this character—a character who needs a closed asbestos suit just to survive—was unhappy with Valve’s original concept, speaks very well of Valve.
Still, we have to ask: is the Pyro another gesture by male game designers of female erasure, disempowerment, and minimalization, or is it a clever subversion of the “strong female character” trope? An empowering revenge fantasy, or a fetishistic objectification? Who is looking at the Pyro, and who is looking out from the Pyro?
The answer depends on who’s doing the looking, of course, and the dichotomy is probably a false one in the first place. This dualism is, ultimately, unresolvable. Which is the reality of all womanhood within patriarchal structures.
Fan image of Pyro by Hellstern
[continued in part three, as yet unwritten]