Sexualization is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the making of something sexual, often at the cost of the objects’ previous identity.
In the video gaming industry, sexualization occurs to female characters of both playable (avatars) and non-playable (NPCs) categories. This is done in order to “entice” the primary market for video games – men – into purchasing, playing or interacting with a given video game.
However, this method has a blatantly obvious flaw.
Men are no longer the primary demographic for video games – and they haven’t been for some time.
Over the past three decades, the video game market has expanded to include a high number of female consumers. In Australia alone, of the 65 per cent of Australians who play video games regularly, 47 per cent are female.
With such a strong cohort of female consumers, the sexualized depiction of female characters in video games has become a rising concern. But are these characters creating real world problems?
SEXUALISATION TO DATE
The first traces of sexualization in the video gaming industry could arguably have begun in 1985, with the introduction of Princess Peach.
Princess Peach occupied the stereotypical gender role as both a victim and a prize in the (then) new release, Super Mario Bros. The whole purpose of Super Mario Bros was to rescue Princess Peach from Bowser, and once this aim was completed, Mario would receive a kiss on the cheek.
The implication of the kiss being a sexually fulfilling reward is suggested in the storyline, as it is Mario’s primary goal. He was saved Princess Peach not as an act of good will, but so that he could receive physical affection for his heroism.
This, whether inadvertent or not, made Princess Peach an object of sexual desire.
And she was the first of many.
From here, a rise of sexual expression, combined with a development in graphics, gave way to a sexual leniency in video game content. Female characters are now often hypersexualized, regardless of their role in a video game.
BOOBS FOR THE NOOBS
Despite the recent strides the video gaming industry has taken in terms of reducing the number of sexualized female characters, the issue is not completely resolved. The sexualization of female characters still occurs through a variety of methods.
The most common form of sexualization is the alteration of normal body proportions on female characters. This is done to accentuate the physical attractiveness of the character and therefore sedate the hormonal fantasies of the (supposedly) male-only gamers.
Unsurprisingly, the most common sections fiddled with are the avatar’s breast, bottom and waist. By the end of the average female character’s design, they are of killer body proportions; at 163cm tall, with a 71cm chest, 56cm waist and 79cm hip.
These physical proportions are considered “standard” for female characters in video games when, in reality, they wouldn’t be suited for neither combat nor questing.
Another commonality is the customization of gender-neutral items. This occurs most often in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG), where both male and female avatars can interact with their surrounding world.
Here, a gender-neutral item is an item of clothing that is designed to look the same on a female avatar as it does on a male avatar. However, when a gender-neutral item is customized by game developers to emphasis a given gender, sexualization occurs.
An example of is seen with World of Warcraft’s festive Winter Veil Clothes.
On the male avatars, these items of clothing are modest. The sleeves cut off stylishly at the avatar’s wrists, while the pants tuck into knee-length boots.
On the female avatars, it’s a different story. Large patches of skin are shown, with the design accentuating the avatars breasts, legs and waist. It’s designed to be revealing clothing and it leaves little to the imagination.
Another form of sexualization is the inclusion of sexual plot elements in the dialogue, function or actions of a female character. This can range from subtle incorporations, such as innuendos, to excesses, such as sex scenes.
Following this is arguable the most memorable form of sexualization: the sexual advertising of female characters.
These practices all sexualize and place emphasis on the gender of female characters in video games. On top of that, they define and stereotype female characters more so than any personality or back story information that could possibly be provided in the games.
Take Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, for example.
She fits into the normative characteristics of an action hero through demonstration of strength, speed, intellect and independence. However, her sexuality is her defining feature. When Tomb Raider was initially released, discussion of her ample bosom almost overtook discussion of the gameplay and narrative.
This became more prevalent throughout the games sequels, to the point where Lara’s role as an action hero became directly tied to her sexuality and body.
AN UNREALISTIC STANDARD OF BEAUTY
If video games are a significant portion of an individual’s media diet, then that individual may form expectations and ideals based off the sexualized characters they have seen. Their idea of the “ideal woman” will become someone who is curvaceous, slim, athletic, small-waist, tall and big-breasted: ideals that are, in reality, completely unrealistic.
Most women are physically unable to reach the body proportions depicted in video games without endangering their health or going under the knife. This creates body dissatisfaction and a drive for unobtainable proportions among female gamers, while also negatively supporting the idea that there is a “perfect” female body.
Madeline (aka DulJuice), a gaming YouTuber with over 47,000 subscribers, agrees.
“It’s frustrating to realize that girls who this might have a real effect on – girls who are escaping more mainstream media that is already telling them they aren’t pretty, sexy, [or] hot enough – are escaping to a medium that is just as flawed,” says Madeline.
“Female characters with Barbie-doll proportions are just as harmful as photoshopped models in magazines and on billboards, because they are sending the same message.”
And this message doesn’t just affect women.
Studies have also shown that men who interact with sexualized female characters have an increased likelihood of developing unrealistic beliefs about women in the real world.
The best way to combat the sexualization of female characters in video games is to replace the unrealistic with the realistic.
Women need to see that there are a variety of body shapes in the world and that not one of these shapes is imperfect. It’s only when video games fixate on an unobtainable, sexualized body type that these otherwise solid values become questioned.
“As a person who interacts a lot with the younger female audience I have, and have talked to many young girls who play games, as well as understanding what I do about the general effects of this kind of thing, objectively, it’s definitely an issue how few playable females there are,” says Madeline.
“Positive representation in media of all kinds is incredibly important.
“Allowing girls to play someone who looks like them, regardless of the genre of the game, helps break down stereotypes.”
Of course, it’s not just the video game industry that can help break down these negative assertions. We each have the power to change the way we see, feel and think about our bodies.
If you feel like you aren’t quiet on the wagon, here are several tips from the National Eating Disorder Collaboration (NEDC) to help you get started:
- Focus on your positive qualities, skills and talents. This can help you learn to accept and appreciate your whole self rather than just your physical self.
- Set positive, health related goals rather than weight related ones. Ensure to practice consuming food and exercises that promote health over weight loss/management/gain. Remember – body weight is not equivalent to health!
- Avoid making body comparisons to others. Everyone is unique and different. It is important to appreciate and accept your own body type as well as the body type of others.
- Make a conscious decision about what to read and look at. A majority of female characters presented in video games are of unrealistic proportions. It’s important to mix up your media diet to include alternative media sources.
If you feel dissatisfied with your appearance or if you feel you are developing a body image disorder, there are many people you can turn to. This can be a trusted friend or relative, a GP, or a counsellor (see The Butterfly Foundation, which is contactable on 1800 33 4673).