Taking a Punch Like a Man — Just Not From OneS

Felice Herrig has taken a punch from a man before. Many. She's also hit back. Hard. She's a mixed martial arts fighter, in a comparatively small population of women professionals, and, like it or not, in many gyms her only sparring partners are men.

"Some guys go way too light on me, like they don't want to hurt me, or they have to treat me like a little girl," Herrig says. "Other guys go as hard as you, as if you were a man, and their attitude is you're in a man's sport, you should be able to hang with the men."

Herrig is in a man's video game, the upcoming Supremacy MMA, along with another female colleague, but neither fighter will hang with the men. Not in the same ring of that video game, anyway. Though the two will be the first female mixed martial artists to appear in a video game, they will only be able to fight each other in it, making their inclusion both a pioneering step and a notably cautious one.

Cautious hasn't been a word associated with Supremacy MMA since gamers first got a look at its gameplay in January, which featured blood, brutality, shattered limbs and warehouse venues that some mixed martial arts fans said played to anti-MMA stereotypes of a mindlessly violent sport. It's also what many first thought of when Herrig and Michele Gutierrez were introduced in late February, in a video and screenshots showing the two pounding on each other with similar fury.

The development studio, Kung Fu Factory, has taken the criticism in stride, hewing to an in-house motto of that their game "unlicensed, unrestricted and uncompromising," which offers both opportunities and risks.

The decision to include Herrig and Gutierrez in the roster female combatants is likewise a risk, but how they are included shows it to be a calculated one. Herrig and Gutierrez will be subjected to the same kind of blood, broken limbs and violence that the male combatants will encounter. But no man will be the one inflicting it.

"Here's the reason why: The game is so brutal," Herrig says bluntly. "There's lots of brutality in it, there are breaking bones, and we don't want this game to look bad by the fact a guy beats me up in the game, and breaks my leg. It wouldn't look good and I think it would be incredibly bad for the sport."

With no create-a-fighter capability that means the game has only one pairing for its female roster. I asked Herrig if it disappointed her that, for being a pioneering figure in her sport, her character was limited to only one fight in her video game appearance.

"I'm a little disappointed, yeah," she admitted. "It's a little bit limiting, but I can see where they come from with that. Maybe Supremacy MMA 2 will have that option. I think that it would make the game more exciting.

"I explained that to them," Herrig added. "I let them know that I though it would be a lot more exciting (to have her fighting men) and it would have a lot more options."

Ricci Rukavina, the co-founder of Kung Fu Factory, respects Herrig's point of view but his studio never considered pitting women against men in the game. While Kung Fu Factory has said that this game is more of a fighting game than a combat sport simulation, it recognizes that with MMA in its title, people expect some level of realism, and women fighting men would shatter all of that.

Taking a Punch Like a Man — Just Not From One

"We wouldn't want to do anything with female fighters that mixed martial arts is not known for, or does not happen in mixed martial arts," Rukavina said. "At the same time, we wanted to treat them exactly as we were treating the men in the game.

"We're definitely not toning down the violence that the female fighters can do and have done to them," Rukavina said. "I saw a fight that Felice had; it was pretty brutal. It was also a really interesting fight, with several interesting moves. I don't think anybody there who saw it or saw it on the Internet would disagree that it was a pretty ferocious brawl. Because that, it furthers the point that there's no use to segregate the damage that would happen in a video game. We're not going to change the rule that it could happen, just because they're women."

That said, "A male against a female is not something we've seen happen, or would probably enjoy watching," Rukavina said. "It's not an aspect of MMA, either, and it's not something that would make sense."

Supremacy MMA has straddled the line of being a fighting game - with less-than-realistic animations, and more arcade-style tactics and movesets - and being a sports game in appearance and tone. It's notable in that the fighting genre has long pitted female characters against male characters, with full-power attackes inflicted on them. It's just the violence done has been largely cartooned or completely unrealistic.

Kung Fu Factory's hybrid approach - stylized action, quasi-realistic damage - gives it a choice in how its fighters and their circumstances are portrayed. While here the studio can fall back on realism to justify the gender segregation, I can hardly blame it for not putting women against men in game. That would create an unbelievable headache for both Kung Fu Factory, publisher 505 Games and, frankly, the industry as a whole. However male-female fights were designed, no one would be happy with it.

Gimped animations, toned down blood or brutality would be seen as a patronizing gesture toward women; just one YouTube video of a male fighter breaking a woman's nose would create a backlash of protest and a mainstream media fury that could rival the worst portrayals of video games on the nightly news to date.

And the truth is, even if it has just two fighters, Supremacy MMA is still being bolder on the subject than an MMA establishment whose major promotions either ignore women's fighting or treat it as a novelty. The Ultimate Fighting Championship does not sanction a women's division. Strikeforce, which licensed the other mixed martial arts title, EA Sports MMA, does promote women's bouts, but it was just bought up by the UFC, although reports say it will still run as a separate entity.

Still, Dana White, the UFC president, has said he has no interest in women's MMA. Supremacy MMA, which isn't licensed, is not only the sole video game appearance for women mixed martial artists, it's a heavy shot of mainstream publicity for women's MMA at a time when many are concerned it could disappear.

That notoriety is reciprocal to Supremacy MMA, of course. "We've already seen reactions. There's interest in the fact we've put females in this game. The real question," Rukavina said, "is why haven't others?

"It's 2011, and this is a first," Rukavina said. "That's kind of amazing, if you think about it."

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 4 p.m. U.S. Eastern time.