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.
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.
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.
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?
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.