Home > Game Language, Game Theory, Video Game Research > Cultivation Effects and Body Image in Gaming

Cultivation Effects and Body Image in Gaming

I have to admit there are some beautiful characters in video games.  Not only do they look great but if they were any more photo-realistic and good-looking I might just develop a complex.  The men and women running around saving the nation/world/galaxy from evil are not only fearless, but the finest physical specimens you will ever see.  And that’s a shame.  In a media world where so many of the people we see have atypical body types we find that even our games display this skewed notion of what is beautiful.

The ever-sexy Lara Croft is the standard for female action stars.

Do you remember when the first Tomb Raider came out?  There was a large outcry over Lara Croft.  Simply put, she had very large breasts and a tiny waist.  She was agile as a cat and mean with a shotgun.  Over the years her body has come more in line with the rest of the (real) female world but if you look at her last major release, Tomb Raider Underworld, it’s clear she remains (nearly) as curvaceous and sexy as ever.

Kendra Daniels is smart and sexy, but still a shallow character.

Croft is far from alone.  Many main and secondary game characters all exhibit this same notion of what is beautiful.  When I first played Dead Space, I found myself spending way too much time staring at Kendra Daniels.  Darn EA (the publisher) for putting such a beautiful, and distracting, character in the game! There is an up side however to having so many characters in this category: more content is now available for study.

COG soldier Marcus Fenix from Gears of War

Thanks to this notion of body image and its effects on media consumers, there is quite a bit of research in mass media texts on this subject and rightly so.  However it’s not just the women. The male body image has also been distorted over the years and there seems to be a marriage of the over-aggressive male with the hyper-masculine body type. From a 7-foot tall Master Chief to an overly muscular Marcus Fenix, gamers know some of the greatest heroes in game lore by their physical attributes. Now as a mass media researcher, I have ask what effects, if any, these beautiful people have on gamers.  To put it another way: to what extent do these distorted images effect gamers perceptions of male and female bodies?

I am always cautious about using television theory for video games, but there have been a few studies involving cultivation theory and gaming that may be relevant to this discussion.  Simply put, cultivation theory says that heavy television views will begin to believe that the real world resembles the tv world.  Well, it is not quite that simple, but that is the gist of it.  Now this theory has been applied to violence, racial and gender stereotypes, and body image (to name a few).  The scant few studies available on cultivation and gaming have produced mixed results.  Some reveal minor cultivation in subjects while others only see the potential for it. And while I do not want to go into details about those studies here, I will offer some thoughts about this whole discussion.

First, does genre matter?  For television, cultivation theory asserts that all content carries the same messages.  What matters most is how much someone watches television. If we translate that to video games, then playing a shooter should be same as playing an adventure game.  Likewise, a role-playing game should have the same effect as a racing game.  To be honest, I am not sure if some sports games are applicable but I will table that thought for now.

Second, the intense, visceral experience of game play is such that many times, there is no time to observe much of the environment or characters because we get swept up in the action.  Gamers spend much of their time trying to “survive” in order to beat the level or finish the game.  If you have ever played a few minutes of any recent Call of Duty game, then you know what I mean. How much might the fact that I spend most of my time shooting or trying not to be shot play into or mitigate the possible effects of cultivation?

Call of Duty Black Ops. Is this character realistic enough for cultivation?

Third, I read where the uncanny valley may also diminish the effects of cultivation. The uncanny valley (as it relates to video games) is the notion that when game character models reach the point where they look human, people will notice the little things that are not human in them and be turned off.  However when the characters become human in all areas, then they are accepted again.  Conversely, if game characters only look somewhat human, it is their human qualities that make then endearing to consumers.  So do I need characters that are nearly human in order for cultivation to kick in?  Or is it the case that the inhuman appearance and qualities of these characters leads me away from thinking that the game world is like the real world?

Of course like any other theory, cultivation has its critics (I won’t get into all that here). However I think it is certainly worth while to explore this issue.  While race and violence may vary from genre to genre, it could very well be that body image could be the constant across genres. However consideration must also be given to the engrossing nature of game play, the uncanny valley, the aforementioned genres and other factors.

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  1. November 21, 2010 at 20:07

    Thanks Jeff for the interesting article.

  2. November 22, 2010 at 06:44

    Hey Jeff. Really interesting article.

    Kind of off on a tangent, but what are your thoughts on games with customizable characters? Without claiming it is a ‘bad’ or a ‘good’ thing, it would seem to me that given the choice, we are still going to choose the most visually attractive character possible. I think it is interesting that players may be enhancing the popular notions of body image with their own contributions that, of course, were also influenced by earlier media. Kind of like a big spiral.

    Anyway, as I said, that was a bit of a side thought. I enjoyed the read :).

  3. JLJ
    November 22, 2010 at 11:45

    Brendan,
    I don’t think this is a tangent at all. It’s really an application of the theory using resources found in some games. It’s brilliant. However it really hinges on if games present players with a variety of (physical) character types. In addition to gender, color, and perhaps some facial scars, can the player add body type, height, weight, disability, and so on? If is he/she does select some of these different models, how does that change the game play and NPC interaction? Now if the game presents all those choices (and the consequences of those choices) would players select the most attractive characters?

    On the other hand, what does it say if the only choices players are presented with are the normal/attractive character types? Can we say that most (even all) video games present the same messages as to what is beautiful?

    You are really onto something here, Brendan. I’ve been tossing your comment around in my head all morning, trying to figure out what to do about it. No conclusions yet.

  4. Justin
    November 29, 2010 at 16:26

    “While race and violence may vary from genre to genre, it could very well be that body image could be the constant across genres.”

    Thinking about cultivation effects in gaming is interesting, but I really don’t think the above quote is arguable as stated… maybe I’m misunderstanding you there’s far too much stylization and variation in games to make such a statement.

    Gears of War, which is among your examples, has its own distinct aesthetic. When playing the first Gears and hearing a mention of a character having lost a young son, I couldn’t help but imagine a child as wide as he is tall with bulging muscles and no neck screaming “Daddyyyyyyy!” in an impossibly deep voice. I don’t consider the cast to be normal or attractive, but they do a good job being badasses.

    As far as genres, most run-and-jump platforming games have characters that noticeably trend toward the cute, and often favor stylization over realism if they’re even human at all.

    On the other hand it seems that if the characters depicted in any media are meant to be realistic, they’ll be held to the popular standards of real life beauty, influenced by the same factors that dictate which actors are cast in TV/movies. I don’t think it’s a separate issue for games.

    In regard to the dominance of normal/attractive character types, I think it’s worth noting that games from Asia (not as dominant as they once were but still readily available) often present different aesthetics. You may find it worthwhile to examine fighting games, which offer the player a chance to champion and in some way identify with a variety of different types.

    Just a few examples for fun:
    A robust female fighter: http://bloodyroar.wikia.com/wiki/File:MitsukoDesignBR.jpg

    Good deal of variety, and note that the character on the far left is male:
    http://game.snkplaymore.co.jp/official/kof-xiii/character/

    Which this article elaborates on:
    http://www.4colorrebellion.com/archives/2009/08/07/ash-crimson-is-a-dude/

    Another fairly diverse group: http://www.sfgalleries.net/art/sf3/sf3-3s/poster-sf33s1_big.jpg

    This is turning into a huge post, but what I’m basically trying to say is that it’s not surprising that games that mimic Hollywood sensibilities present the same notion of beauty, and that’s entirely logical.

    But games are in no way limited to these sensibilities and often offer a lot of choice in either choosing or defining who you are.

  5. JLJ
    November 29, 2010 at 21:14

    Justin,
    First, thanks for the links. Second, you make a lot of sense. I am leery of applying theory developed for other media to video games. Not to say that those theories are not relevant or applicable, but we have to make those determinations based on the games themselves and those who play them and not on tv and film theory. Cultivation may very well be modified for games, but like you say, characters in games are so very different than those on tv. Characters in Gears look different than those in Borderlands for instance.

    When George Gebner first coined the term cultivation, he stated that different programs produced the same messages. Can we say the same thing for games? That has yet to be determined, but I think that with such a strong precedent, it is worth exploring.

    Oh….I loved your Gears example! That was funny!

  6. November 29, 2010 at 23:22

    Beauty is such a crutch in the entertainment industry as a whole. I look forward to the day when game characters can solely rely on how interesting they look rather than how beautiful they look. I watch Tom Hanks, Ed Harris and others like them because they visually intrigue me. How great would it be to control a character whose physical traits more accurately reflect my own and he gets to be the hero! I would find myself much more attached to this character than say, a Marcus Fenix, or a male Commander Shepard.

    Female characters (both virtual and real) I think struggle more because men are scientifically proven to be more visually driven and women are instinctively keen to this visually-dominated behavior (‘beauty magazine’ moral issue aside). Even women want to look at other visually-pleasing women. So a very difficult cycle is formed. Female characters don’t have to look like Lara Croft but they’ll still need to be equipped with some set of eye-pleasing physical traits to be theatrically accepted. So, a game-equivalent to a bald Ed Harris is much more likely than a game-equivalent Meryl Streep (no offense Meryl).

    Either way, I look forward to playing as Epic Average Joe and kicking not-so-average bad guy ass.

  7. M. Malone
    March 26, 2011 at 16:43

    Thank you so very much for sharing this information with the public.
    I am using it for a college project. thank you.

  1. November 23, 2010 at 09:09
  2. February 16, 2011 at 10:46

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