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negative body imagesIt’s 2012. It’s been four decades since video games first began to emerge as a form of entertainment for consumption. In those decades, game complexity has improved, massive online worlds have been constructed, and 3D graphics have been honed into a fine tool, capable of as much realism as desired.

Yet there are still a few particular issues that games struggle to overcome, and they have nothing to do with technology. One of these is sexism, and the impact it has on any woman who picks up a controller How To Use A PlayStation Guitar Hero Controller On A PC Or Mac How To Use A PlayStation Guitar Hero Controller On A PC Or Mac Read More .

Only A Certain Type Of Woman Is Depicted

We don’t need to dig deep to talk about sexism in games. Negative body images in games are readily apparent.

Even at best, it’s blatant. In Star Wars: The Old Republic 3 Ways To Prepare For The New Star Wars MMO [Gaming] 3 Ways To Prepare For The New Star Wars MMO [Gaming] It won’t be long before Bioware’s first MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic, hits store shelves. It’s set to release on December 20th, just in time to make the holidays look a bit unimportant. You... Read More , female characters have four body types, one of which is allegedly an overweight character.  Of course, the largest female character model actually looks quite average. The overweight male body type, on the other hand, is pretty chunky.

negative body images

The message this displays is clear, and not unusual. It’s okay for guys to have some extra pounds. For women, that isn’t acceptable. This becomes particularly amusing when the game depicts elderly women. They retain their womanly curvature, as if frozen in time from the head down at age 22.

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Such depictions are not exclusive to video games, of course. The insistence that women must conform to a certain “hourglass” body type is also reinforced by thousands of TV shows, books, movies, and other forms of media.

Yet in most of these, women with different bodies are at least portrayed. In games, women who don’t conform to a certain (often unrealistic) standard are often simply not there – which sends a clear message. If you don’t conform to their standards of beauty, you’re not worth depiction by game studios, nor the attention of gamers in general.

There Are Few Strong Female Leads

video game body image

The problem goes beyond mere visibility, however. Even those women who are visible in games are rarely given a strong role in the story. Instead they’re usually objects, either depicted as trophies to be admired and won or as sexual bad-asses.

Hilariously, some game developers and critics seem to be under the impression that creating a character that fits the second option is progressive. Batman: Arkham City’s depiction of Catwoman is a good example of this. Apparently no one thought of making her a strong character by depicting her as intelligent, instead.

There are exceptions. One of my favorite game characters of all time in Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 4 Free Online Multiplayer Source Engine Mods For Half-Life 2 4 Free Online Multiplayer Source Engine Mods For Half-Life 2 Read More , a well-written and interesting character that somehow manages to kick butt while keeping her clothes on. Yet even Alyx is a non-player character, and has a bit of a thing for the main character, Gordon Freeman.

When asked to think of a strong female lead character in a video game who isn’t heavily sexualized, I can think of only two examples. One is Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, and the other is Shepard from Mass Effect (who can be played as a man or woman). That’s it. And even here, the characters conform to the hourglass stereotype.

There Are Few Women In The Industry

video game body image

According to common knowledge, gamers are young and male. The only problem with this argument is that it’s not true. According to surveys, the average gamer is over 30, and women make up a large part of the gaming audience, ranging from about 25% to almost 40%.

Despite this, less than 12% of the people working in game development are women according to a 2010 survey.

This is a problem for two reasons. First, it is the source of the other problems I’ve touched on previously. Perhaps if women were more common in the industry, we wouldn’t see gems like this, a quote taken from an interview with Bayonetta developer Hideki Kamiya.

“1UP: From behind!?

HK: Well yeah, from behind you can’t see the face, but what strikes me is how the woman is standing, or the way they stand, instead of just the ankles.

1UP: You know, I’ve gotta say, I don’t think you’re being honest with me. Because when you’re looking at a woman from behind, and you’re trying to tell me that you’re “looking at her face,” I don’t know if I buy that.

HK: Oh. [Laughs]

1UP: Oh. [Laughs]

HK: But anyway that’s how we’re creating Bayonetta’s moves and all that, and that’s actually the most fun part of this game, thinking about all that stuff. So you will be able to see what everybody in the team likes in a girl from the finished project.”

negative body images

The subtitle of this interview, by the way, is “We sit down for a chat with one of gaming’s most visionary designers.”

The other half of this problem is that it contributes to the issue of invisibility. Smart, creative women are rarely visible in the industry. Those who are visible tend to become so for the wrong reasons. Jade Raymond, an attractive young woman who worked on Assassin’s Creed, has had journalists groveling over her and has had the pleasure of being featured in pornographic comics (the link is to a news article, not the comic). Is she good at her job? Maybe she is, or maybe she isn’t. No one seems to be commenting on that.

Conclusion

Sexism in games is not unique. All three of these points boil down to old-fashioned sexual objectification. In each case, women are sent the message that their sexual appearance and/or appetite are their most important traits. I think fixing this issue is ultimately the responsibility of the game studios. They must hold themselves to a higher standard. Studios should focus on depicting women as important for reason beyond their looks.

Will this happen? Unfortunately, I see no reason why it would. The problem is in the bones of the industry. Since there are so few women working on games, the idea of working on games is less appealing to women. It’s intimidating. And thus, the problem does not get fixed.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

  1. greenwitch
    February 1, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    Matt,

    Your article is spot on. One thing I would add is that in addition to the body types not being realistic/fantasy type, the body types appear in many video games to be so ridiculously slight in build that it would seem crazy for these characters to be strong. Wonder Woman for example wasn't ungodly skinny like the video game fashion model characters. What I am seeing now in these characters is fine boned/almost Asian in build woman with huge breasts. If breasts sell, that is one issue. The fact that these woman look like marathon runners with large breasts while they are "kicking butt" is comical at best.
    What concerns me is the impact on body image to fit/athletic girls. My 13 year old  is an avid gamer. Her favorite games include Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Skyrim etc. She is skilled a javelin thrower and cheerleader. She has a six pack most  men would envy. She is a a solid size 4. She tells me that she has a huge butt after she plays these games and wants to diet. The part that she hates is the fact that her athletic/musclar arms are almost always missing from any depictions of these "strong" female characters. She asks me how they can be possible be strong. She tells me that she loves her games and tries to ignore the fact that they female characters look "stupid". Maybe when she is in her thirties, their will actually be female characters who look like real olympic athletes. Is that too much to ask? Strap the large breasts on  is you must to market, but at least make the women look strong/athletic.

    • James Bruce
      February 2, 2012 at 9:22 am

      I hope you realise you just commented an article about the stereotyping of women, while at the same time stereotyping "asian" builds yourself? That kind statement kind of dilutes everything else you said.  

      Look, I dont wish to be rude, but the videogames are not to blame for your daughters attitude towards dieting, just as barbie isn't either. The very fact you refer to her as having a "six pack" and being a "solid size 4" would indicate you have some strong input there yourself, even if you're not conscious of it.  

    • greenwitch
      February 2, 2012 at 10:46 pm

      There are many things that influence children in the media. I could add to the list movies that feature fashion model tyles as tough, strong women. Classmates at school. My role as a parent is obviously the most important. That is a no brainer.
       
      I do appreciate your well taken point about the inaccurate desciption of "asian" to refer to an ectomorphic build. Obviously that isn't specific enough to be accurate with the size and variety of body types within the continent of Asia.( My apologies to any asian readers for the generalization that James seems to have implied is some sort of over the top racist Archie Bunker comment  conveniently rendering any of my other comments invalid.)
       
      My intent of describing my daughter's body type is to note that it is ridiculous that she could potentially see herself as fat.  A size 4 is smaller than average yet she sees herself as above average. Having a "small/hot" body type as you  describe your characters above isn't any more superior than my daughter's six pack with well defined shoulders or  Marilyn Monroe's hourglass curves. A small/fit frame shouldn't be marketed as being superior to a larger fit frame just different. Making it the only choices sends a message. Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.
       
      You don't know me, so I would appreciate you not infer that I am some sort of beauty pageant mom who gives her daughter poor self esteem. I tell her everyday that she has a beautiful, healthy body. She thinks that she needs to have no body fat when she compares herself to people with smaller frames/ectomorphs who in some cases have far more fat on their tiny frames and no muscle. It isn't helpful to have the gaming industry show only ectomorphic players to choose from. It somehow normalizes this view that her father and I try unsuccessfully to fight that a small/fit frame is the best body type. Would it hurt you have a mesomorphic gymnast's build to choose from? Is a ballet dancer's body type always superior to a gymnast's?  

       She is also concerned about her muscles growing too large from sports. She eats well/heathily and doesn't have an eating disorder. She is, however,  telling me that one place she gets that image is from the games where the athletic characters are always tiny. She tells me that she knows that they are "super fake and stupid" and wishes she had other choices. Choices would be good.

      We can always agree to disagree on what is ideal. Having more choices, however, wouldn't hurt anyone.

       
       
       

    • James Bruce
      February 3, 2012 at 7:33 am

      Thanks for the clarification there @d960f6a03f801456df8788cef33d526f:disqus , I'm sorry I painted you in that way. You sound like a great mom, now. I still think videogames are a small factor in the media onslaught she no doubt receives everyday, but point taken. 

      I would like to mention though that a lot of games do actually let you adjust body size - Skyrim, for instance. You can make your avatar as petite or fat as you like really. Admittedly, I choose a petite Asian-looking girl for mine, but the choice is there at least, as you say. I suspect no one has ever chosen the bigger builds though. 

      Perhaps we should blame society in general for the ideal woman body image, rather than games which reflect the needs of society. If society changed overnight and thought fat women attractive, I suspect games would suddenly start producing huge heroines too. My point is, the games aren't driving this, they're reflecting it.

  2. App Unwrapper
    January 17, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    Interesting. I was just thinking about this because I downloaded a free game and the screenshots had women wielding swords, with at least DD cup sizes. Not sure how they'd stand in real life, much less fight.

  3. James Bruce
    January 11, 2012 at 9:21 am

    I really hoped we had gotten past this "waaa, sexy characters portray negative body image for girls" BS as a society, but obviously not. Hey, your next article should be about buff guys presumably, because seeing their big rippling muscles really makes me want to kill myself out of shame at my puny little muscleless body. 

    Seriously, I wish society would just stop being so "politically correct". Hourglass figures are portrayed in media because they ARE sexy, because men DO find them attractive. It's innate, it's natural, and who the hell are you to say that it's wrong?  

    I'm not really sure what you're trying to argue for to be honest. Do you want characters in video games to be less attractive to the consumer? If so, no one would buy them. Hey I got a better idea - how about arguing for a better healthy diet so MORE people can actually look attractive instead?!?! (ZOMG, did I just go there? Oh yeh, I did baby! ^_^)

    Perhaps one of the problems here is that youre talking about video games which are primarily targetted at guys. If you were to argue against the ridiculously thin/blond barbie being sold to little girls, I might agree with you that it could have a negative effect. 

    Yes, there should be more women in the industry, but again, it's a male targetted industry. Guys play videogames more than girls, so guys designing them for guys to play makes more sense. Perhaps - just PERHAPS - there is a significant difference between genders, and we should just accept that and move on, instead of constantly arguing about things being unfair or sexist, or negative body image, or objectification of this and that, or not enough women in whatever industry. It really does get tiring when there are real problems going on in the world, like genuine oppresion of females in any middle eastern country. 

     

    • M.S. Smith
      January 12, 2012 at 12:54 am

      First, stop with the politically correct nonsense. This has nothing to do with politics. 

      I get the sense that you don't understand what the problem with objectification is. So let me boil it down to you.

      Objects don't have free will. They have no personalities, feelings, or desires of their own. As such, you can use them as you desire without any concern about them. They are, after all, objects. 

      Objectification is the process of stripping a person of the qualities that make them a person. No personality, No free will. Few or no emotions. And that's exactly how most games portray women.

      At the least it is immature. But the bigger problem is that media influences how people act. If you are a woman and you play many games, you might start to wonder if you really should act like the women in those games. And if you're a guy  and you play a lot of games, you might start to wonder if you really should treat women like they're treated in games.

      Saying that games are targeted towards guys was already addressed in my article, but in any case it is not an excuse. In fact, it makes your argument worse. I'm not sure why you don't pause to consider that it might be bad for a male audience to automatically prefer for women to be portrayed as unrealistic mannequins. Let's be clear - some of the models used to portray women in games simply don't exist in reality. 

      The "Hey, your next article should be about buff guys presumably" comment is irrelevant. Maybe men are sometimes objectified in games or maybe they're not. But the conclusion of that argument has nothing to do with this article. In other words, two wrongs won't make a right. 

      Suggesting that I focus on the oppression of women in middle eastern societies is also irrelevant. I don't live in a middle eastern society, I have very little knowledge about them, and in fact I never have been to a middle eastern country. I don't think I have much business commenting on what they do. 

      On the other had, I live here in the United States and I've played games for well over a decade. So I'm well qualified to comment on this issue.

    • James Bruce
      January 12, 2012 at 12:14 pm

      If you've played games for over a decade, I'm assume you've been so influenced by them as to now "objectify" women? And if not, why not?

    • M.S. Smith
      January 13, 2012 at 10:40 pm

      College. Some feminist friends. I had no classes in it, but I had a few pro-feminist professors. It rubbed off.

      I grew up with some very sexist attitudes. Some of them were probably rooted in my obsession with games. Others were rooted in more general sexists attitudes that are commonly found in western culture.

      If I had never encountered some people that were willing to challenge me on those attitudes I would still view women with a general "prizes to be won" attitude, as I had before.

    • James Bruce
      January 17, 2012 at 10:36 am

      Figures! ;)
      I think you're projecting though. Not all guys who play video games treat women as objects, and you certainly can't blame video games for causing that attitude - just as you can't blame GTA for encouraging violence in children or increased car-jacking! You may have been brought up with that attitude (or wherever you got it from?), but again, that really has nothing to do with video games. Feminists, like anyone with an "ist" at the end of their name, tend to take things too far. 

      I'm sorry, but it feels very much like a personal attack when I read things like this. I love video games, and I love games with female characters who are hot. In fact, my skyrim character is hot little fighter mage (with a lot of backstory and a developed character I might add!). I certainly don't objectify women though, and it's quite insulting when I read that I do because I play, and support, games with attractive female characters. Neither do I feel "objectified" when I see male leading roles with big rippling muscles and bulging packages. 

      Your heart is in the right place, Matt, I can feel that. Treating women as possessions is disgusting behaviour - but videogames are not the battleground. 

      (Religion is…)

    • Padam
      May 7, 2012 at 3:02 pm

      The people who do this are etehir paid video game reviews or very popular free lance game reviewers.Considering you asking this i'm assuming you would need to be a free lance to get the games.You will need to draw attention to your self as a game reviewer, although this won't be easy.I recommend posting game reviews were people will care to look or watch them.Jake.

  4. Haplo
    January 11, 2012 at 12:21 am

    I can think of April Ryan and Zoe Castillo from the The Longest Journey saga, strong characters and not because their sexuality.

  5. Dave Parrack
    January 10, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    Bayonetta completely overplayed the sexy female character thing. It was just distracting in the end. Sadly game companies are merely playing to their target audience.

    • James Bruce
      January 11, 2012 at 9:07 am

      It's made by a japanese company, so discount any portrayal of anything female. The entire country is stuck in a view of women that is hundreds of years old. 

  6. metazai
    January 10, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    I support the second point if only to encourage someone to create an update of "No One Lives Forever".  One of the most enjoyable FPS franchises of my youth . . .

    • Joel Lee
      January 11, 2012 at 12:15 am

      Holy crap! I thought that game had disappeared into obscurity and been forgotten forever. I loved NOLF and once played it 12 hours a day for an entire summer. Enjoyable indeed.

  7. Anonymous
    January 10, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    Give it a rest. As long as it is a visual medium, there will be "sexist" portrayal of women. Women are nice to look at, and sex sells. Is this really a mystery? There is no conspiracy, it is not men "keeping the woman down". 

    I work at a game company with a big female art department, and guess what? The sexy girls are still sexy. Women don't even want to draw other women that aren't sexy. Nobody would buy it.

    Video games are in the realm of fantasy, if you're fantasizing about something, that thing is not usually mediocre. When you're buying a TV, do you fantasize about the 32" 720p model? Same goes for the character of a video game. I freely admit that there could be more lead roles in games for women, but even if there were, don't expect those women to be 5s on the sexy scale.

    Be realistic. 

    • M.S. Smith
      January 11, 2012 at 4:55 am

      Why did you put "keeping the woman down" in quotes? That would imply you were quoting me. But I never said that.

      In any case, this isn't actually a rebuttal. All you're saying is that this is how things are, and how they always will be, so deal with it. 

      Your point between women and TVs, by the way, made me think for a moment that you're fakeposting. Because after all, viewing women as objects (i.e. TVs) rather than people is exactly the sort of thing I'm ranting against in this post. 

    • Anonymous
      January 11, 2012 at 5:32 am

      This wasn't a rebuttal. If your post was just a rant, ok, if it were supposed to be a convincing argument, you went about it in a very naïve way. You didn't cover a lot of key reasons that women ARE and WILL ALWAYS BE objectified in games.

      My original point is that as much as it may be sexist, you're not going to change anything, no matter how hard you try. Women are objectified, because we as men want them (women also prefer to look at pretty women). They are beautiful to look at. The hourglass figure is what our society finds attractive.

      I wasn't quoting you, but referencing the cliché that seemed so appropriate to this article. Sorry about that, it's hard to convey tone in a comment.

      As far as Women vs TVs, in the context of a game, the characters *are* objects. They bend to our whims, they are *ours*. They objectify everything we hope that character will be. We own them, shape them, and want them to be the best that they can be. I see nothing wrong with that.

      There must be more distinction between a video game character and the real thing. If you're worried about the female plight, there are much more useful paths to explore.

      PS. Whatever fakeposting is, I don't think I'm doing that. I'm real, I promise!

    • M.S. Smith
      January 12, 2012 at 12:33 am

      I'm not saying that attractive women can't be portrayed. But that's now what we're talking about here, is it? 

      No, what we're talking about is women with breasts that should have their own mailing address. We're talking about female characters that have absolutely no characteristics besides their bodies. We're talking about girls that are portraying as nothing more than bodies to be admired. 

      I find it incredible that you're telling me that I should be realistic, when you're the one who sees no problem with portraying women as ridiculous mannequins in the vast majority of games.

      I am asking that games portray women as they actually are. I am asking for them to be given a damn personality once and a while. I am asking for female characters to be given some lines that aren't sexually suggestive every one and awhile. It's really not much to ask. So why hasn't it been done?

      Well, I already addressed that in my article: see, the lack of women in the industry. 

    • fumduq
      January 12, 2012 at 12:53 am

      I can't speak for the entire industry, but I work in a gaming company, and almost 60% of the art department's workforce is female, maybe even more. I asked a few of them today if they were given the option to pursue a more realistic female role, with an average body; nobody could understand why anybody would want to do that. 

      As James Bruce and I have both pointed out, people like breasts, people like hourglass figures, nobody is interested in the character if she's average. Why do you think we have superhero comic books? Why do you think these superheroes have super powers? It's because nobody is interested in a protagonist that's average. A female lead will have big boobs, and an hourglass figure. A male lead will have big muscles (or some other exaggerated feature). 

      We play games because we want to engage in some sort of fantasy. We want to be powerful, we want to be something above and beyond. We don't play games in which we go to the office and file paperwork all day (the sims notwithstanding). In addition that, the big money is believed to come in mostly from males. Males (and most females) want to see breasts, and hot bodies on female characters. Dialogue in many games is unimportant, or ancillary at best.

      I and many other people would never have bought many games that we have if the characters weren't sexy. Money talks.

      I'll sum it up. People are playing games because they're engaging in fantasy. Fantasy requires engagement, engagement requires some sex appeal (in this context). So again, I say, be realistic.

    • CRNHB
      May 25, 2012 at 2:24 pm

      " One is Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, and the other is Shepard from Mass Effect"
      You can make "unsexy" male-female characters in many games that have a slew of customization sliders(sure, crap like age of conan does not change it much, but others do. It's quite possible to make an alcoholic dirty shortie in Skyrim, for example (and not the best one, too).). Another character that I can name is Alice from the first American McGee’s Alice (before she was CorpseBridified by Burton.) There are others, too. But I feel that instead of making the women ugly, we have to just sell sex both ways, using female and male bodies freely. Sounds weird at first, but that kind of equality would be better, than just doing this one way. It's like "oh no, there is too much sexualisation of women in gaming..." instead of going "Lets go to town destroying the sexy image! We'll make this a new trend (that won't actually sell)!", stop and think "hey, we can bring even MORE people into gaming, if we appeal to the other demographics as well! Lets go make some man thong armor (or whatever)!". IMHO that's the way forward in this debate, just even out the playing field. in MMORPGS make some female armor that makes them look like little battle tanks with legs, and some male armor that consists of pretty much three belts. There, inequality solved.

    • CRNHB
      May 25, 2012 at 2:25 pm

      P.S.- Just to clarify. I agree that there should be more variation, just not through destruction of what we have, but through adding more choices.

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