Many studies have shown that female characters in video games are sexualized, with a bodily emphasis on erogenous zones such as breasts, hips and thighs, and that these representations (coupled with the sexualized images of women in other forms of media such as advertising) play a role in lowering the self- and body-esteem of girls and women.
In a recent article, G. Christopher Williams asks, “People like to talk about the changing dimensions of Lara Croft’s chest over the course of years, but have you ever noticed the upper-arm development of Ryu over just four Street Fighter games?”
Just as women’s bodies in video games are idealized, so are men’s bodies, with an emphasis on the inverted triangle and impossible sets of rippling muscles. Are these overly-masculine bodies as troublesome as the sexualized bodies of female characters?
To date, I have only discovered one article about the effects of video games on men’s body image. This study found evidence of an increase in negative body image after men played games using muscular male characters and a decrease in drive for muscularity when playing non-muscular characters. But, as the author of the article notes, more studies and examinations are needed (Barlett & Harris, 2008).
Daniel Landis, the National Game News writer for The Examiner says he has been playing video games since at least age three. He describes female video game characters as “stereotypical action hero types – women who are strong but feminine and good looking” and male characters as “scruffy and muscle bound.”
In nearly 30 years of game playing, he has witnessed an evolution of body images in games and believes some game developers are pushing for more realistic body images, especially for male characters, so gamers can be more immersed. But, he says, “Video games are an escape. I don’t think most people want to play a fat loser in their fantasy.”
Landis does recognize that after coming out of a fantasy in which men are playing strong, masculine heroes and returning to their real lives where they are not heroes may have an impact on self- and body-esteem. “But that could be the same after reading a book or watching a movie or looking at an ad where you’re comparing yourself to another character. It’s not just video games.”
And he is completely right. Studies on the effects of men in advertisements, although another very limited area of research, has found evidence that “men are developing an ‘Adonis complex’ and eating disorders after being over exposed to idealized and unattainable male bodies in advertising” (Elliot & Elliot, 2005).
Landis suggests that if video games are put in context for children, it could help them understand that the muscular, idealized male characters are just fictional images and do not represent a body goal. He cites one game, Assassin’s Creed, that warns players about the stereotyped portrayals of multi-cultural characters within the game before the title pops onto the screen.
Although these warnings may seem ridiculous to adults, they may be beneficial for young gamers by generating awareness of these stereotyped portrayals, including the unrealistic body images of male and female characters..
“If parents aren’t going to put the games into context for their children, then the gaming industry could step up,” says Landis.
Barlett C. & Harris, R. (2008). The Impact of Body Emphasizing Video Games on Body Image Concerns on Men and Women. Sex Roles, 59, 586-601.
Elliot, R. & Elliot C. (2005). Idealized Images of the Male Body in Advertising: A Reader-Response Exploration. Journal of Marketing Communications, 11(1), 3-19.