Body Image and Gaming: Problematic? – A guest post

Today’s guest post is from Samantha Owens. In addition to being an officer in her World of Warcraft guild, she blogs regularly at S.Owens Writes, her forum for posting fiction, photography, and wonderfully mixed musings.


You’re slaying dragons, swinging a gigantic sword. You’re crashing through hallways, gun strapped to your back, taking it off to shoot at a moment’s notice. You’re shooting off arrows midair, your lithe pet running to attack your target as soon as you command it. But that character that’s swinging that sword, shooting that gun or bow… what does it look like?

Most likely, it has pretty unrealistic proportions. If you’re male, he has an inverted triangle-shaped body, with bulging muscles, shoulders, and thighs; and a trim waist that leads down to a toned pair of legs. If you’re female, you’re more likely to be waif-like, excepting the disproportionately large breasts and possibly butt that you’re sporting.

Studies have shown that in both men and women, after playing games where these characters represented them, they walked away from the game feeling worse about themselves and their “less-than-perfect” physiques and body types.

Some have called for providing more realistic body images in games in order to counteract the destructive feelings that the games caused. A great example of where this worked was when EIDOS changed Lara Croft’s physique to reflect a more realistic version of her – one that was fit in reflection of the athletic feats she has to accomplish, and toned down the famous enormous breasts that were talked about in earlier versions of the game.

However, games can also provide a better sense of body image, no matter the shape or size that the character is.

I played Tomb Raider and Unreal Tournament when I was young, and didn’t play much else seriously until I was introduced to World of Warcraft three years ago. I noticed the portrayal of women in Unreal Tournament especially – most of them didn’t reflect realistic body types of women, and to me, their body types suggested that because they were part of this tournament they weren’t “feminine” at all.

In World of Warcraft, there are thirteen different races you can play, some that resemble humanoid forms and others that don’t, in all shapes and sizes. You can play a green-skinned orc, a tall, slender blood elf, or a short, chubby gnome. However, there are some problematic issues with the images – unrealistic body types, gear inequality (some of the gear from 60-70 is downright scandalous on female characters), players accused of playing certain races simply because they were “pretty”. Ultimately though, WoW is pretty good about providing a variety of options for avatars and how you want to represent yourself.

I main a gnome priest on Alliance side, a blood elf paladin on Horde side. The gnomes are short and chubby, with round faces and bellies and multi-colored hair. The blood elves are tall, slender, and lithe, with large busts and long, mostly “normal” colored hair.

I love both of them, and they are probably the most contrasted body types in the game. My gnome is short, can run under things that most characters can’t, can hide in cabbages growing on her farm, and seems to run faster than any other race.

My blood elf is tiny and slender, but is mainly a tank – which means although she might look thin and fragile, she is fabulously strong, strolls straight into groups of enemies and clobbers them in the face with her sword, blocking their attacks with her shield.

I find this to be incredibly empowering – to be the epitome of what women are described as and still be able to face and defeat the same foes as men. Both of them also perform feats I would never be able to do myself without tons of training and athletic ability I don’t have.

What it comes down to, is my characters are not me. On some level, the game is an escape from reality, the same as delving into the pages of a book or sitting captivated by the story in a movie. Each of them has a story, a personality. I have even used both of my mains as loose inspiration for characters in my novels. They are still not me, they are their own fictional entities.

So are the unrealistic examples shown in gaming problematic? Sure, to an extent. What we’re working toward, however, is appreciating every body, no matter how small or big, thin or plump, short or tall. The number of games (especially role-playing games) that are extending the options that we can use to create our characters are increasing. In Dragon Age or Guild Wars, I can make my character as small or as big as I want. Promoting positive body image in other channels will provide a space where people will want to create a character based on how they want, not on how society wants their characters to be.

Gaming is a big part of millions of people’s lives. Pushing for positive body image for all, no matter if you’re a playing a human character that resembles your reality or a character that’s not human at all – will begin to provide a space where people can be themselves, and the game will be just what it should be – a game where we can be judged on our merit, not on our looks. One day, society will get there. We can be the people to push it forward. And we just happen to like playing games.


26 responses to “Body Image and Gaming: Problematic? – A guest post

  1. While I agree with your post 100% – for some reason I always viewed both video games AND music I listened to as just video games and music I listened to. I never cared that my Dad banned the Black Sabboth album since it was satanic. I liked the beat, the sound, and the throbbing rhythm. I could care less about the words. I guess that’s the same way I always viewed video games – just as a game and nothing more….not as a view into my soul or anything.

    All that crap being said :-), I do agree with you that video game manufacturers definitely play up that aspect of things for no reason whatsoever. I’ll support you in whatever campaign you want to start!

    • Thanks! I’ve always viewed entertainment in general that way – it’s entertainment. There are a bunch of examples in just gaming of this, that violence in them doesn’t make you violent, etc. However, subliminal messaging is something that happens with issues like body image, we can see that in every aspect of our society, why wouldn’t it permeate gaming and entertainment? It’s something that should continue to be talked about and work toward solutions that are logical and balanced. πŸ™‚

  2. I like how Dragon Age Origins (Xbox360 and PS3) does it. The clothes and armor you equip to your characters changes what they look like, and they look the same on both male and female characters. It means that if you want to equip your priestess in a giant suit of armor, then she walks around in a giant suit of armor.

    All the characters (male and female, with one exception) are beautiful to look at. So the situation presents an interesting tradeoff. Bigger, heavier armor in the game provides much better protection for your character, but isn’t as sexy to look at. So you, as the player, have the choice. Scantily clad characters who are a lot weaker? Or stronger characters buried under layers and layers of steel plates?

    • Dragon Age Origins is exactly what I was referring to in the post, and I really like how they do it as well. I also think that in the context of the game body type makes sense to match to it, which Dragon Age exceptionally makes possible. If you’re a rogue, you’re likely going to be lithe and quick, if you’re a warrior, you’re probably going to be bulkier from swinging a sword and wearing plate all the time. If you’re a caster, there’s no physical strength involved, so it doesn’t really matter what your body type is, but you likely won’t have muscles popping out everywhere.

      • That’s actually my favorite game of all time, for totally different reasons. (One word: Alistair.) But what they offer is my ideal – I just want options! Options that make sense, and don’t make me totally suspend my disbelief to play… and that let me make a character that looks like me if I want to.

        • Hehe Alistair is a big factor in my enjoyment of that game, as well πŸ˜› I agree completely with your sentiment about having options though, not being shoved into someone else’s idea of what your character should look like.

          Now I want to play Dragon Age…

  3. Jennie-babe, Great post! have often wondered if people playing those games suffer from negative body image after playing. Although I am not a gamer, never have been (even though I worked as a technical writer for a huge gaming studio at one point), I can see how these characters of “perfection” might negatively affect people who struggle with self-esteem anyway. It’s the same as opening a glossy mag and envying the waifs spread across those pages, too, I imagine. People find any number of ways to feel bad about themselves and use the environment to work out those inner dialogs and energies. It’s very interesting. I do love seeing the shift to more “normal bodies” in advertising, and now apparently games, that we are seeing now and it’s in large (ha, ha) part due to the demands of consumers. Thanks for this cool post. By the way, I emailed my guest post to you last night so you can preview it. XOXO

    • I agree that when there’s already a pre-existing problem, that those images can cause a larger problem, but if there isn’t, it’s less likely to affect them. πŸ™‚

      • Exactly, Samantha. I agree with you totally. Fat as I am, I never envy those under-fed bodies in mags or want to be anything other than I am. I blog about this on BigBodyBeautiful. All that to say: I realize that I’m absolutely not the norm. I do not suffer from self-esteem or body issues now, but I remember struggling with this when I was younger, so I can relate either way. Well, I loved your post, sista. Thanks for the conversation, too. πŸ™‚

  4. “What it comes down to, is my characters are not me. On some level, the game is an escape from reality, the same as delving into the pages of a book or sitting captivated by the story in a movie. Each of them has a story, a personality. I have even used both of my mains as loose inspiration for characters in my novels. They are still not me, they are their own fictional entities.” – I think this described it perfectly. I think what causes most flamming problems when people are discussing this topic and making articles is precisley the fact that the video game is being made and treated as a real life thing in a totaly wrong way. I think instead of shrinking down breasts of Lara Croft, nowadays designers should focus on better customer support, which is what is doing far more harm in my opinion. The derogatory and beyond insulting crap I hear in one game of Heroes of Newerth would be enough to send ones entire personality down the drain and not like it is different in other games.
    Video games popularity has honestly sky-rocketed since 15 years ago (can only give examples I have seen and damn, I am not old!), where playing videos games was observed far more differently then it is today – and people were playing them differently, there was a far more distinctive line between fantasy and outlet and reality. nowadays, when people are making a character in an RPG, a vast majority makes Themselves, not a Character and people who want to keep it Fantasy and have a skyclad busty nelf are being criticised by people who don’t instead of them using the customise options and doing their thing.
    Personaly, I never pay that much attention to customisation or the looks of characters – I focus on gameplay and story, even tho I personaly thought this will be vastly different when first starting World of Warcraft. I opened a Nightelf, beautiful, moonlike, enchanting, subject of many art, cosplay and fantasy – because I loved the race looks that formed out of reading and watching all of it. But, then TBC came and I fell in love and for what, 5 years, this is me :
    (could not find the obligatory t6 Transmog photo 😦 )
    What my point is that people should play what They want and I am all for there being customise options and everything, as long as nobody comes to me and flames me for using said options to make my character just as I like it πŸ™‚

    • I’m with you. If we had to do away with all idealized physical fantasies, people along all points of the gender spectrum would be sad! But the current body image movement isn’t about making traditionally attractive people feel bad; it’s about making everyone feel worthy and represented. To me, as you said, options and diversity are key – both in games and the media and the real world. I promise not to flame you if I pass by in Azeroth. πŸ˜‰

    • I love that he’s chewing bubble gum πŸ˜€ I agree, I don’t want anyone to shame me for the choices I make for how I want my characters to look. It’s the freedom of choice, and the options to choose many different types that is important. As you can see, my choices are varied. I don’t know why I choose the characters I do, I’ve tried every race and certain classes/characters I ended up rerolling because they just weren’t “right”. I did end up with an army of gnomes Alliance side. πŸ˜›

      • I tried a lot too, and I love all the other characters, but I LOVE my shaman and not just that I LOVE male draeneis (and I did end up with what, 5 of them? πŸ˜€ )
        If you look at the chats, there is always hate coming to that race due to their looks, same as there is for Belf females being oversexualised (I mean, we all seen their starter armor, this was my face 0_0 followed by What the hell? )- but the game should not be about it and people should stop focusing solely on the looks.
        We mentioned Lara and I LOVED her, still do. When i was younger I wanted to be her. But it was not (solely, cause she is pritty, cup size irrelevent!) for the physique. The greatest factor was that she is so athletic, can climb, knows languages and history. I was fascinated and the game made me dive right into leaning about Egypt for example. This is how the gaming expirience should be – not a pie throwing contest of who is right when they are clothing or fashioning their characters πŸ™‚

        • I love this conversation. Also the bubble gum – I had missed that! I didn’t play video games ’til I was much older, so I kind of missed out on Lara. But I loved Carmen San Diego for the same reasons – she was smart and kind of dangerous and traveled the world! It wouldn’t have mattered to me what she looked like.

          On the other hand, I will always think that a diversity of not just body types but skin colors, hair styles, etc. will always be a better model for people in media. It’s like how obsessed I was with American Girl dolls (even though I never owned one, because they were HELLA expensive). After years of only having a few characters, they released a feature where you could design a mini-you, basically, and they made a ton of money. Because little girls are drawn to seeing themselves in the things they play with… and, while characters shouldn’t go totally bland trying to represent “everyone,” I like having the option to do so where it makes sense.

          • I’m thinking about buying the current Tomb Raider…it’s only $12 for PC and it follows her in her younger years. Since I’m generally better at video games now, maybe it’ll be fun πŸ™‚

            I really liked the American Girl dolls too, but I never got one. I always wanted Samantha because she had my name. πŸ˜›

          • Of course. πŸ™‚ And I was a Felicity freak. I did get her human-sized nightgown replica one year for Christmas, and proceeded to wear it every single night for like three years.

        • I loved Lara for the same reason! I was okay (read: bad) at Tomb Raider, but I also enjoyed those traits about her, especially the athleticism (I really enjoy when my characters have something that I don’t? :P) It makes me sad that people make fun of any of the races people choose to play. I don’t think I could play a male draenei, but I like them. I get the “gnome punting” jokes all the time and every time I say I want a gnome hunter people say that their pet would eat my toon. But whatever. πŸ˜›

          • My pet would rub her head on you and purr-growl. She’s a mangy hyena who I will keep forever, because she looks just like my real-life mutt. Who needs exotic beauties when you can have a fuzzy mess that stops to scratch itself every 3 minutes?

  5. Pingback: Body Image and Gaming…Problematic? | MinnieGames·

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