3 Ways Game Studios Still Reinforce Negative Body Images For Women [Opinion]

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.

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, 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.

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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

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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, 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

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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.”

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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.

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