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.