Venus in Mars: Gender Equality in Fighting Games 4


Let’s be hon­est: No per­son with eyes can deny that, in just about any game, the ten­den­cy is to design guys to appeal to the ego and girls to appeal to the dick. This trend is most pro­nounced in fight­ing games. There are scads and scads of lists of the “Hottest Girls in Gaming,” and these lists are filled with char­ac­ters from fight­ing games. From the Dead or Alive franchise’s breast physics engine to Chun-Li’s superthighs to just about any girl in any game you care to name, female fight­ers are sel­dom designed to be appeal­ing choic­es for female play­ers.

The sex­ism inher­ent in geek-related media has been dis­cussed at length already, so I shall only con­dense and sum­ma­rize here: In most games women are depict­ed in sub­or­di­nate or sup­port roles. Their pro­por­tions are atro­cious­ly askew (thank you Lara Croft), and their out­fits (at least their pri­ma­ry out­fits) are often heinous­ly imprac­ti­cal. These facts have led many astute observers to con­clude that video games are sex­ist, as they objec­ti­fy women. The stal­wart defend­ers of the faith then typ­i­cal­ly respond with vit­ri­ol in defense of tra­di­tion, say­ing that men are sim­i­lar­ly objec­ti­fied (Spoilers: They are not). These noble pal­adins demand sym­pa­thy for the horde of pow­er­ful, brave, armor-clad and gun, blade (or gunblade)-wielding war­riors who must save the day every day, insin­u­at­ing that men, by con­stant­ly being cast in such empow­ered roles, are just as oppressed and objec­ti­fied as women.

The key dif­fer­ence between the objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of the gen­ders is that, where­as women are pre­sent­ed with char­ac­ters that rein­force the notion that “You are a piece of meat for con­sump­tion,” or “You are only sec­ond best and can­not be pow­er­ful or save the day on your own,” men are given char­ac­ters such as Batman to rein­force the notion that “You are the God-damn Batman.” It is a law of the Internets that to be Batman is bet­ter than to be any­thing else. People of the Internet, I ask you, is not Marcus Fenix a kind of Batman? Is not Kratos? Is not Link? These men are brave war­riors who save day after day after day while sweat­ing excess testos­terone and mak­ing the other poor bas­tard die for his country/planet/hive col­lec­tive. And so it must be, or else such pro­tag­o­nists would not live long in our mem­o­ries. To con­clude, his titan­ic crass­ness aside (or even fac­tored in, should you choose), would you rather be Duke Nukem or one of the strip­pers with whom he holds court?

These facts are unavoid­able, and our Beloved and Most Esteemed Editor has just released an excep­tion­al piece on the inher­ent sex­ism with­in games and gam­ing cul­ture. As bad as it is out there, I feel that there remains one genre that, while by no means untaint­ed by this trend, is at least far, far more pro­gres­sive than it is given cred­it for. I present to you the fight­ing game. Though they get (and deserve) a bad rap for their reveal­ing cos­tumes (which con­tribute to the meaty mind­set dis­cussed above), there are other fac­tors inher­ent in fight­ing games not nec­es­sar­i­ly present in other gen­res that should afford them a sec­ond glance before dis­miss­ing them as sex­ist trash. Fighting games fea­ture truly “strong women”, not only mechan­i­cal­ly (that is, in the con­text of the games them­selves) but also from a nar­ra­tive stand­point. This dual equal­i­ty is sel­dom seen in other games, and fight­ing games are often even-handed in their treat­ment of men and women.

I pro­pose, for the moment, that we table dis­cus­sion of the per­va­sive and trou­bling sex­u­al­iza­tion of females in fight­ing games. I’m not doing it because it doesn’t mat­ter. If it didn’t mat­ter, I wouldn’t feel the need to defend the genre I love so much (I would sim­ply buy the games and to hell with who­ev­er would crit­i­cize what I choose to play). I’m doing this because I feel that there are other issues wor­thy of dis­cus­sion. I real­ize that the issue of cloth­ing will be dif­fi­cult to get past for some read­ers, but I beg your kind­ly indul­gence.

I, per­son­al­ly, have man­aged to for­give the issue of female fight­ers’ skimpy attire. I have always been more inter­est­ed in how the char­ac­ters played than what they wore. If I didn’t like how a char­ac­ter played, I wouldn’t play hir no mat­ter how sexy ze was (there is a rea­son I gen­er­al­ly avoid the Dead or Alive games, which I feel han­dle like an ass on stilts.  Also, tol­er­ant as I am for skimpy cos­tumes, there comes a point.) Admittedly, I’m still new to the fem­i­nist crit­i­cal lens, but I never sensed any­thing too prob­lem­at­ic in the char­ac­ter designs, at least to the point of it being a deal-breaker. Don’t get me wrong, it was always clear to me that the cos­tumes of the male and female fight­ers were stress­ing dif­fer­ent things, and meant to evoke dif­fer­ent reac­tions in the play­ers, but what’s also been clear as a con­nois­seur of fight­ing games is that, despite how much play­ers may squeal about “bal­ance issues,” these games are basi­cal­ly fair fights, with the results of indi­vid­u­al bouts more in the hands of indi­vid­u­al play­ers than the char­ac­ters them­selves. For the most part, the char­ac­ters are func­tion­al­ly equal. Granted, unlock­able boss­es such as Street Fighter IV’s Seth and Guilty Gear X’s Kliff and Justice are what those in the Fighting Game Community call “cheap as hell,” but for the most part, all fight­ing game char­ac­ters were designed to sur­mount and be sur­mount­able.

This inher­ent equal­i­ty is per­haps the fight­ing genre’s one sav­ing grace in the face of the sex­ism and objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of design. There is no way around the, shall we say, “appeal­ing” char­ac­ter designs of the fight­ing genre’s female mem­bers, and I don’t see the trend going away any­time soon. But at least they’re on the front lines. At least they are main char­ac­ters. If we real­ly exam­ine female fight­ers, we see a pletho­ra of strong, com­pelling char­ac­ters in inter­est­ing (and not usu­al­ly sex­u­al­ized) cir­cum­stances.

Character Selections

Let us for a moment focus on the nar­ra­tive strengths of the fight­ing genre’s female char­ac­ters. Frequently, fight­ing games revolve around some sort of cen­tral tour­na­ment (which some­how man­ages to span the entire globe, mul­ti­ple planes of exis­tence, and space), and con­tes­tants (the selec­table char­ac­ters) enter the tour­na­ment to attain some goal beyond mere vic­to­ry at the tour­na­ment. These goals cover the entire dra­mat­ic play­book, from aveng­ing the death of a loved one to stop­ping (or facil­i­tat­ing) the Evil Master Plan to assas­si­na­tion of one of the other con­tes­tants. All com­pelling, inter­est­ing moti­va­tions, and all expressed by female char­ac­ters. Though story is not the focus of the fight­ing genre, to those of us who like to think about our games, what story there is must inform our views of the char­ac­ters we play if we are to exam­ine the game as a text and not mere­ly a toy.

Many female fight­ers either are or were in some sort of mil­i­tary or law enforce­ment ser­vice (Chun-Li and Sonya Blade are both cops of one form or anoth­er). Generally, they are given high­ly sen­si­tive mis­sions that place them in fre­quent dan­ger. This in itself is a refresh­ing change of pace from the lit­er­ary (espe­cial­ly gam­ing) norm of plac­ing women in a sec­ondary role, either as set dress­ing, sup­port, or cel­e­bra­to­ry booty. The inclu­sion of women in mil­i­tary and law enforce­ment roles, while not entire­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary in games, is still a sig­nif­i­cant point in favor of fight­ing games.

Now let us look at speci­fic exam­ples from some of the genre’s biggest fran­chis­es. Where else to begin but with Chun-Li? Chun-Li has become known as the “First Lady of Fighting Games,” as she was the first selec­table female char­ac­ter in fight­ing game his­to­ry in Street Fighter II, a title which was rev­o­lu­tion­ary in sev­er­al respects. Chun-Li is a law enforce­ment offi­cer on a very dan­ger­ous mis­sion: to stop M. Bison (or Vega, if you’re not from ‘round here), a dan­ger­ous and pow­er­ful crim­i­nal. Now, I myself am not an INTERPOL agent, but I wouldn’t think they would leave such tough assign­ments to a rank ama­teur. Clearly, Chun-Li is a top agent and a skilled mar­tial artist, more than capa­ble of going toe-to-toe with the likes of Ryu and Ken (not to men­tion PUNCHINGFRICKING CAR TO PIECES in the bonus stage).

Crimson Viper, a new­com­er who joined the fray in Street Fighter IV, is anoth­er secret agent. Clad in a suit that grants power to the wear­er (Okay, so a fem­i­nist read­ing here is a lit­tle twist­ed, grant­ed), Crimson Viper is ded­i­cat­ed to her mis­sion, and main­tains an all-business atti­tude through­out. She also bucks the trend of over­sex­u­al­iz­ing female char­ac­ters (although, again, we have yet to entire­ly escape it, midriffs ahoy) by hav­ing an at least rel­a­tive­ly con­ser­v­a­tive char­ac­ter design and demeanor, and is one of the more mem­o­rable char­ac­ters among the new batch of fight­ers. Makoto, a mar­tial artist who debut­ed in Street Fighter III: Third Strike and is not a secret agent or gift­ed with any super­nat­u­ral abil­i­ty, is also note­wor­thy for buck­ing gen­der stereo­types and typ­i­cal pre­sen­ta­tion. She enters the game’s tour­na­ment to drum up pop­u­lar­i­ty for her dojo, which has fal­l­en on hard times after the death of her father. Though her moti­va­tion is steeped in cul­tur­al tra­di­tion, it is refresh­ing to see a char­ac­ter com­pet­ing for such a noble, if mun­dane, goal as pre­serv­ing the fam­i­ly busi­ness. Add to that Makoto’s aggres­sive, “tomboy­ish” per­son­al­i­ty and her karate dougi uni­form, and we have our­selves an inof­fen­sive, non-sexualized, com­pelling char­ac­ter (who, from a game­play per­spec­tive, is a pow­er­ful, ass-kicking fight­er)!

The Soulcalibur series is one of my favorites, and it bears spe­cial men­tion because a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of its ros­ter fights clad in rue­ful­ly imprac­ti­cal cos­tumes. Ivy Valentine, the de facto poster child for ram­pant sex­u­al­iza­tion and fanser­vice, is a com­pelling char­ac­ter for rea­sons other than her design. She is self-motivated, on a sworn mis­sion to erad­i­cate the evil Soul Edge (one of two myth­i­cal blades at the cen­ter of the Soulcalibur story). She invents her sig­na­ture weapon after years of research and dili­gent­ly tracks Soul Edge all over Europe, con­quer­ing many pow­er­ful fight­ers in the course of her jour­ney. Also, one of her cen­tral rival­ries in the series is with Cervantes, who she dis­cov­ers at the end of Soulcalibur is her father. From a lit­er­ary per­spec­tive, the strug­gle to over­come the father is usu­al­ly reserved for the son (the Skywalker fam­i­ly is an icon­ic recent exam­ple, although even Zeus and Oedipus laid the beat­down upon their fathers), with the father/daughter rela­tion­ship typ­i­cal­ly being one of mutu­al ado­ra­tion. Ivy, though prob­a­bly not unique in this, does take up the tra­di­tion­al son’s rival­ry, which places her in the para­dox­i­cal posi­tion of being a com­pelling, pro­gres­sive female arche­type in a sex-object wrap­per.

Seong Mi-na, anoth­er fight­er from the Soulcalibur series, has an equal­ly inter­est­ing and com­pelling story. Denied entry into the coast guard to defend from an impend­ing enemy inva­sion because of her gen­der, Mi-na runs away from home in search of a pow­er­ful weapon to prove her worth (Soul Edge). Throughout the course of the series, she runs away from home no less than three times, first to attain Soul Edge, then to escape her father’s rig­or­ous train­ing and an arranged mar­riage, and last­ly to stop a head­strong stu­dent of her father’s from find­ing Soul Edge, which she learns is evil. Mi-na’s nar­ra­tive has ele­ments of a tra­di­tion­al coming-of-age story, and her jour­ney is inspir­ing; one wants to cheer Mi-na on as she exhibits gen­uine hero­ism game after game. Her char­ac­ter design, though not exact­ly con­ser­v­a­tive, is less ridicu­lous than Ivy’s, and unlike Ivy, Mi-na’s cos­tumes gen­er­al­ly opt for the more tra­di­tion­al.

Different Styles

We have seen how women in fight­ing games seem to be made of strong stuff, story-wise. They have to be. Otherwise, why would they put their lives on the line in such a way? Compare this to how girls are por­trayed in, say, Ninja Gaiden for the XBOX (Why hello again, Dead or Alive series!). Ninja Gaiden presents us with four female char­ac­ters, but you only need to remem­ber the names of two of them (the other two are a dead girl­friend and an occa­sion­al note telling you how to jump or where to find a weapon). If Ivy is sex­u­al­ized, then Rachel, the non-enemy female char­ac­ter, is a car­i­ca­ture of sex itself. Her story (a fiend hunter from a fam­i­ly of fiend hunters is hunt­ing fiends to bring an end to the curse that has trans­formed her sis­ter into a Greater Fiend and will some­day con­sume her) is as noble as any fighter’s, but in prac­tice she is any­thing but empow­ered. Throughout the course of the game, Rachel is eaten (and then res­cued), is unable to kill her (lit­er­al­ly) demo­nized sis­ter, Alma, and thus is chained up and taken cap­tive to be offered as a sac­ri­fice to strength­en said sis­ter (and then res­cued), and final­ly hangs help­less­ly over a river of lava (and is then res­cued). She also jig­gles and shi­nes with demon-innards, and is clad in an out­fit that is every bit as imprac­ti­cal as Ivy’s, but with twice the leather. Oh, and through­out the two thou­sand+ hours it will take you to beat Ninja Gaiden, she is bare­ly more than set dress­ing both times she appears out­side of cut-scenes. Her sis­ter, Alma, appears twice as a boss. While there may be char­ac­ters in fight­ing games sim­i­lar in design to Rachel, the play­er spends a lot less time res­cu­ing any of them.

This rais­es a legit­i­mate point. How many girls in gam­ing does the play­er either pro­tect, escort, or res­cue? Protect/Escort/Rescue the Girl is a sure­fire recipe for instant plot, and has been since the dawn of video games with relat­able pro­tag­o­nists (The open­ing cutscene of Ghosts ‘n Goblins illus­trates my point well). In fight­ers, how­ev­er, you are actu­al­ly play­ing as the girls, help­ing (or expe­ri­enc­ing, depend­ing on your out­look) them in their vic­to­ries again­st fear­some ene­mies and sumo wrestlers. Over all, it is the fight­ing genre that has given us the most empow­ered female char­ac­ters, even though they seem so rarely to come in any size other than fetish.

Fighting games are fan­tas­tic! Where else can we see a tiny girl like Talim make a com­plete fool of a golem like Astaroth? What other genre would give us school­girls who can punch cars to pieces?1 Other game gen­res can­not boast the kind of gen­der equal­i­ty, from a mechan­i­cal per­spec­tive, that fight­ers can. In games where gen­der is more than a sim­ple cos­met­ic deci­sion (specif­i­cal­ly the older Elder Scrolls games and Everquest, although there are undoubt­ed­ly more), we typ­i­cal­ly see a trend:  men are given boosts to Strength, Endurance, Badassery and Inventory (you know, because they can carry more stuff) while women are encour­aged, by a stat bias bonus, to opt for the phys­i­cal­ly weak­er, magic-based class­es, the assump­tion being that a girl is less inclined to be able to han­dle her­self in a fight. I can think of a mul­ti­tude of char­ac­ters in fight­ing games that defy this stat bias on all regions of the gen­der spec­trum. Ivy’s attacks are among the most dam­ag­ing in Soulcalibur 2, her com­bos are some of the most dif­fi­cult to exe­cute, and Dan Hibiki of the Street Fighter series is, for the most part, a worth­less laugh­ing­stock (to say noth­ing of Rufus).

On A Gender Bender

Fighting games seem to take the same para­dox­i­cal approach of fetishize/empower with women of all kinds, which is more than can be said for the rest of the indus­try at this point in time. Much has been made about the addi­tion of Poison to the Street Fighter X Tekken ros­ter. Though not the first trans­gen­der char­ac­ter, she has become one of the most high-profile in video game his­to­ry. Though there is uncer­tain­ty about Poison’s sta­tus from those who refuse to accept such pro­gres­sive think­ing from a fight­er,2 Poison is unmis­tak­ably female. Her story has been chron­i­cled thor­ough­ly else­where, so let us focus on the now. Currently, Poison is pre­sent­ed as overly-proportioned (the plas­tic surgery to get that form must have bro­ken at least 1.5 banks) and aggres­sive­ly sex­u­al (she’s not wear­ing the hat and hand­cuffs because she’s in law enforce­ment, which is a change in itself). In short, Poison is one of the girls! Sure, it’s a prob­lem­at­ic depic­tion, but at least the design­ers aren’t paint­ing her as an other and a freak (which is far bet­ter than many of us can claim).

I per­son­al­ly find Poison’s por­tray­al to be pos­i­tive; in a world that tries to erase trans­gen­der peo­ple, or shame them for their trans­gres­sions, to see a char­ac­ter treat­ed like all the rest of the girls (prob­lem­at­ic though that treat­ment may be) makes me cau­tious­ly opti­mistic for things to come. Plus, and this is from a sin­gu­lar­ly per­son­al stand­point, I like see­ing trans­gen­der peo­ple depict­ed as sexy and not creepy.3

It is note­wor­thy that, of all the games that have been released so far, the most promi­nent trans woman has come from a fight­er series. It seems as though game design­ers will let just about any­one dress up in a crazy cos­tume and beat other peo­ple up these days (I’m look­ing at you, Tekken series’ Kuma!). Regardless of the gen­der sta­tus of Poison, or per­haps because of it, it is clear that fight­ing games are ahead of the curve when it comes to gen­der equal­i­ty in gam­ing.4

Continue?

In any indus­try, one of the most sen­si­ble (and by far the safest) strate­gies is to appeal to the tar­get demo­graph­ic in as many ways as pos­si­ble. Since video games are now, by and large, a visu­al medi­um, it is thus sen­si­ble to design char­ac­ters to appeal to said demo­graph­ic, which in this case com­pris­es young males. There is no escap­ing the fact that women are depict­ed in an overly-sexualized way, and any fair-minded per­son will cede that this is a prob­lem. This trend, I hope, will be reversed with time. But for the time being, it is impor­tant for us to real­ize that not every depic­tion of women in games is neg­a­tive. It is not the hall­mark weak­ness of every girl that she loses her pow­ers when her hands are tied by a man, and some girls, even if their cos­tumes are only clothes in the loos­est sense, still kick ass, both nar­ra­tive­ly and mechan­i­cal­ly. Critics com­plain that there are no empow­ered women in games. Clearly, they’re just not look­ing in the right places.

Notes:
  1. Sorry, but I real­ly think that punch­ing a car to pieces is awe­some. []
  2. For there is no pos­si­ble way they could have an issue with her gen­der iden­ti­ty. Nope. None at all. []
  3. For fur­ther reflec­tions on Poison from a trans* per­spec­tive, see this arti­cle over at Kill Screen, fea­tur­ing a per­son­al hero of mine, Morgan McCormick []
  4. Unfortunately, the cul­ture around fight­ing games doesn’t seem to have caught up with the pro­gres­sive think­ing present in the games they play. Some of you may remem­ber the con­tro­ver­sy around the launch of Street Fighter X Tekken, name­ly Team Tekken lead­er Aris Bakhtanians’ pro-misogynist trash talk rant on the real­i­ty show Cross Assault. A recap of the dis­taste­ful rant, and Bakhtanians’ state­ment attempt­ing to backpedal in respon­se to the back­lash (the rhetoric of which echoes the defend­ers of the anti-integration mind­set of the 1950s and ‘60s, which for the sake of “tak­ing it in con­text” is almost exact­ly what Bakhtanians was advo­cat­ing) can be found at the links pro­vid­ed. A respon­se to and cri­tique of a cul­ture which not only per­mits but fos­ters such rhetoric is cer­tain­ly war­rant­ed, but is beyond the scope of this hum­ble arti­cle. []

Chelsea L. Shephard

About Chelsea L. Shephard

Chelsea L. Shepard (formerly Hannah DuVoix) doesn't write for the Ontological Geek anymore, but she used to be our Editor-in-Chief! She is currently earning her MFA in Game Design from NYU and is probably also thinking about Fallout: New Vegas.

  • Joel Cuthbertson

    Hannah, I’ve got to say I real­ly enjoy your argu­ment in this arti­cle. If noth­ing else, it feels like a worth­while call to expand the dis­cus­sion regard­ing fem­i­nist con­cerns about fight­ing games rather than an attack on exist­ing (and appro­pri­ate­ly out­raged) opin­ions.

    I am curi­ous though if there isn’t a “thresh­old” issue at play. This is prob­a­bly obvi­ous in some sense, but it seems fair to sug­gest that some of the female char­ac­ters you dis­cuss are so ridicu­lous­ly designed that any dis­cus­sion beyond their appear­ance is ren­dered moot by just HOW sex­ist their cos­tum­ing, etc. is. I don’t think your argu­ment pre­cludes this pos­si­ble posi­tion in an absolute fash­ion, but char­ac­ters like Ivy (and even Chun Li) seem imme­di­ate­ly and per­pet­u­al­ly under­mined by their design. Feminists and the young male demo might both point to an inabil­i­ty to care one whit about story or fight­ing mech­a­nisms in light of the char­ac­ters’ aggres­sive sex­u­al­i­ty (albeit for dif­fer­ent rea­sons).

    If noth­ing else, female char­ac­ters being so point­ed­ly ren­dered as sex­u­al fan­tasies seems to tie a woman’s power (and so her worth in the con­text of the fight­ing game) to her looks in some unspo­ken but ubiq­ui­tous­ly nec­es­sary fash­ion (through an almost uni­ver­sal ten­den­cy in design, of course). It’s been a few days since I read your piece and these were just some things I was think­ing about.

    Thanks again for the great read.

  • Joel, glad you liked it! That is, in fact, my goal. I feel the fem­i­nist con­cerns re fight­ing games, and geek-centric media in gen­er­al, should be broad­ened, at the risk of val­i­dat­ing the reduc­tion­ist view that fem­i­nism as applies to games is, and is only, “whin­ing about the cos­tumes”. If the dis­cus­sion is not expand­ed, I fear that feminism’s valid point of view, which today is met with vit­ri­olic back­lash, will soon become mere­ly ignored by the misog­y­nis­tic grem­lins out there.

    An argu­ment can be made for a thresh­old, yes (Another rea­son I don’t like the Dead or Alive series, which has cap­i­tal­ized to a trou­bling extent with their Extreme Beach Volleyball series, to say noth­ing of the Rumble Roses fran­chise, which serves no pur­pose apart from extreme meat-marketry), and though I wish I could sim­ply tell the young male demo to mature, said demo only grows to per­pet­u­ate the cycle (or become dis­gust­ed with said cycle and blog about it). The pur­pose of my arti­cle isn’t to white­wash over the ram­pant misog­y­ny in fight­ing games, but to call to the atten­tion of those dis­gust­ed with the sex­ist state of gam­ing as a whole the fact that there are indeed sil­ver lin­ings to those dark clouds over­head.

    I see your point, and I agree with you, but then there are char­ac­ters such as Street Fighter’s Makoto, who I men­tioned in my arti­cle as not being designed with oodles of sex-appeal. Though her kind is indeed pret­ty rare, there are indeed female fight­ers for whom sex is not a weapon. Makoto is one of the most pop­u­lar char­ac­ters in the Street Fighter series, and her recep­tion makes me hope­ful that more girls like her will appear.

    Glad you liked it! Thanks for the com­pelling points!

  • Aaron

    I saw some women gamers post that they don’t want gam­ing to adopt a bor­ing PC out­look but want things more bal­anced. IE taste­ful fanser­vice for the guys is fine, but give women some­thing as well. I know some women play­ers who are Vega fans and saw a female fan request some Guy and Cody alts so she could ‘dress up my boys’. Why not? Sounds good to even things out a bit.

    Your arti­cle should have men­tioned Cammy. Yeah she is a poster­board for fan ser­vice, but is there a female char­ac­ter more arro­gant than Cammy? Look at her win quotes! And yet past that tough exte­ri­or is a hero­ic char­ac­ter who dis­obeys orders to fol­low what she thinks is right (SF4), frets over a hos­pi­tal bed over an injured Juni (SSF4), wor­ries over the harm she might have caused by open­ing Pandora (SFxT). I do, how­ev­er, wish they’d give her an alt with pants! ;)

    At any rate nice arti­cle. I enjoyed the read.

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