When I first saw Ana, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds publisher Krafton’s attempt to put a face on its artificial “virtual human” technology, I was disappointed to see that this supposed Web 3.0 innovation was really just another pretty, pale girl. She’s airbrushed, but still tangible. She’s biting her tongue, looking at you. And I fear she exists only to be looked at, and not much else.
Krafton released its first images of Ana on June 15. We got two tight close-ups of a vaguely East Asian woman with all of the expected egirl accoutrements, dyed hair and adventurous ear piercings. Ana, who was created with Unreal Engine, has a lightning bolt tattooed on her finger. It’s clearly visible when she puts her pinky up to her lips to stare at you with clear, amorous intent.
Krafton revealed its “virtual human” technology in February with a technical demonstration displaying “motion-capture-based vivid movements, pupil movements enabled by rigging technique, colorful facial expressions, and even the soft and baby hairs on the skin.” The publisher announced its intent to use carefully designed virtual humans not just in its games but in its Esports demonstrations, and in the hope of creating more virtual influencers and singers like “robot” Instagrammer Miquela.
That’s influencers and singers, plural, so Ana is likely only the start of what I can only imagine to be a circus troupe of PUBG robot babes. Robot babes are particularly trendy right now, because we haven’t grown at all since watching the movie Her in 2013. Before that, we got used to the idea of robots being malleable, unemotional women. In other words, “perfect” women.
Back in 2011, deferential, female-coded virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa started to live in our devices and corroborate the popular image of a loving, supportive electronic woman most recently informed by future-focused Y2K media—think Cortana in Halo in 2001, or the virtual popstar in Disney’s 2004 movie Pixel Perfect. In 2016, a man in Hong Kong spent $50,000 to build a robot that looked like Scarlett Johansson, who coincidentally voices the virtual assistant in the movie Her. We really haven’t learned anything from that movie.
We also haven’t learned much from real artificial intelligence experts, who, over the years, have emphasized that female-coded robots alienate human women tech users and reward harmful stereotypes about women being servile and dedicated through whatever abuse they suffer. In 2019, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released a publication arguing that “Siri’s ‘female’ obsequiousness—and the servility expressed by so many other digital assistants projected as young women—provides a powerful illustration of gender biases coded into technology products, pervasive in the technology sector and apparent in digital skills education.” But tech companies like Krafton continue to create within these gender biases, sewing them tighter and deeper into our societal fabric.
Partially, that’s because of gaming’s conflicted but addicted relationship to sex, and the evil eye of the merciless, always appraising male gaze. Mainstream developers have, on occasion, attempted to move beyond the archetypal video game woman to embrace more realistic depictions (to Reddit’s great disappointment), but character designs of women in video games at large remain recursive: buxom and flexible. I love embracing my inner bimbo as much as anyone else, but when stiletto-heeled women with nipped waists are the only representation we have in video games, it reduces an entire gender into a repressive stereotype.
But even more than they are for pliant women, tech and video game companies are horny for the ill-defined terms “Web 3.0” and the “Metaverse.” Both are meant to invoke the idea of an empowered online individual but, in practice, are usually just ways to rehabilitate and market out-of-date virtues (prioritizing work productivity, individual ownership) for a fresh audience. Perhaps to take cover from quickly crumbling blockchain “innovations” like pay-to-win video games, new Web3 proponents cling to comforting images of technological progress, which includes those ethereal, buxom digital women who might be capable of a roundhouse kick in Mortal Kombat, but would never nag you about your dumbass NFT investment. Criticism isn’t in their source code.
Krafton invoked all the right buzzwords for its Ana news, writing in a press release that “ANA is designed to engage a global audience and help establish KRAFTON’s Web 3.0 ecosystem” that will “attract the interest and popularity of Gen Z” through music and a foray into influencer-dom.
The company declined to answer any of my questions (“Do you think Ana’s design will alienate female gamers? “Is Krafton doing anything to prevent Ana from relying on stereotypes?” “Can you describe how Ana’s design and capabilities might appeal to Gen Z specifically?”), saying in an email to me that “there will be more announcements/details in the coming weeks!”
Ideally, in the coming weeks, we’ll be lucky enough to receive another close-up of Ana giving the camera meaningful bedroom eyes, except with a little more forehead. Speaking on behalf of my generation, we can’t get enough of a poreless forehead.
Sorry, I don’t mean to be wholly pessimistic about Krafton’s intentions. It’s possible that, below her neck, Ana will contain some messaging that indicates she is not another iteration of male developers conquering technology by shaping it into their preferred future—a thin, pale, obedient woman. Who, by the way, also wants to sing with “advanced voice synthesis” and become a social media phenom, which you’d be forgiven for mistaking as the only two career paths open to a beautiful woman.
OK, so maybe I do mean to be pessimistic. It’s eternally frustrating to be a woman excited by video games and the internet only to have their potential routinely diluted to the same tedious tropes a straight man depends on to get off. Making AI women that represent the same qualities Victorians found in the restrained angel in the house is not “Web 3.0,” it’s bog-standard, traditionally sexist. An AI-assisted voice can be represented by any visual, any blob or creature, but the best Krafton can come up with is a woman I’ve seen on advertisements and thinspiration Tumblr since I could go online.
But I should put up with it, shouldn’t I? This is how we live, regurgitating the same images and rewriting the same opinions that no one listens to and yet still finds time to disagree with. I just don’t want Krafton to act like this is the future. Sometimes I feel like we’ve been stuck in history for as long as we’ve been recording it.