Although video games have only been around for a few decades, social conformity has been a pressure placed on societies since ancient times. Individuals in cultures all across the world have a history of having their beliefs, values, actions and decisions influenced by external groups who dictate and assign social norms. The twentieth century is no exception, with the advances in telecommunications, technology and globalization spreading around the world, mass media as an entity expanded and gained a strong, powerful influence on society. To this day mass media has arguably the single strongest influence on society’s attitudes toward body image, which is perpetuated most notably in recent years by video games.
Society has always had a vast control on the public’s popular opinion of ‘the ideal body image’ particularly among females. Women have a lengthy history of attempting to keep up with the ever changing ‘perfect body’, with examples going as far back as the late 1800’s. One of the first widespread female body image archetypes was known as “The Gibson Girl” after illustrations created by popular graphic artist Charles Dana Gibson. “[He] defined the ‘ideal female form’ of American women as a woman with a thin waist, large bosom, rounded shoulders, and smooth neck; Gibson girls were fragile, and seen as voluptuous, but not lewd” (History Of Body Image In America, Bushak) This helped to create of one societies first cultural celebrities which created a nationwide desire to achieve an ‘ideal American female body image’. Over the span of decades, the ideal female image cycled through phases including the flappers of the 1920’s and the ever popular pin up girls of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. As we neared the turn of the century, mass media had become the number one influencer on fashion, beauty and pop culture helping to form norms and expectations of society. In the 1990’s the desired body archetype for the American woman had drastically changed from curvy and plump to skinny and lean. Heroin Chic was a look popularized by models who donned wispy, slender, and drugged looks in correlation with the growing popularity of the grunge scene. Advertisements using stick thin models added to the “thinspiration”, which swept across America most famously by Kate Moss who stated “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” (Social Media Effects on Young Women’s Body Image Concerns: Theoretical Perspectives and an Agenda for Research)
Also, during the 1990’s male body image became a more prominent topic for conversation as the ideal man was seen as a strong, independent providers. ““In addition to being financially successful, they need to be well-groomed, in good shape, emotionally skilled in relationships and the emphasis on looking good is just part of the bigger package” (History Of Body Image In America, Bushak). Men in pop culture were portrayed as handsome, tall, muscular and capable which helped to create the ‘macho man’ body image archetype which is still present in today’s culture. The idea of ‘male perfection’ was only further expanded by the use of films, fashion, television, pop culture and fictional video game characters which fit the ‘perfect body’ image. The research across media types demonstrates that the standard of physical attractiveness for men presented in traditional mass media has become more muscular, leaner and socially valued.(Virtual muscularity: A content analysis of male video game characters: Martins, Williams, Ratan, Harrison) Both males and females have been affected by social expectations of beauty and body image throughout history, most notably so heading toward the turn of the century.
During the 1980’s two of the most iconic and popular games were created: Super Mario Bro’s (1985) and The Legend of Zelda (1986). Both games became widely popular and incorporated elements of action, adventure and problem solving as each main character’s quest was to rescue their respective princesses. This helped to perpetuate the ‘damsel in distress’ female stereotype in which women were incapable of ‘saving’ or ‘rescuing’ themselves; which had become a pop culture and societal norm. Female characters were seen as weak, young, beautiful, troubled ‘princesses’ who seek strong, smart, capable men to ‘win’ them. Video games were mainly marketing to men during this time, solidifying women as trophies or prizes won at the completion of a level.
Throughout the next twenty years entering the twentieth century, video games continued to grow in popularity and quality. As games became more intricate, the depiction of humans in video games became altered. Women were given unnatural and over exaggerated features, and were often dressed in skimpy or revealing clothing. In video game adaptations, female characters are often given minuscule waists, large breasts, thin long legs and a completely flat stomach. For example, in the mega popular Tomb Raider (1996) players follow Lara Croft an English archaeologist in search of ancient treasures. Croft’s appearance was created to be an attractive, intelligent, young brunette woman, complete with exaggerated “pin-up girl” qualities, including disproportionately sized hips and waist. When the game was advertised to the public it was represented by half-naked female models at trade shows, instead of the strong willed independent heroine female gamers craved. (How is female gender generally represented in various genres of video games?:Kondrat). Following the popularity of attractive women in video games, game creators all over the world continued to upkeep the unrealistic female body ideal in order to keep the attention of male players. Female characters continued to be manipulated and created for objectification and sexualization by culture dominating male players, in order to increase interest and profit.
(Image Coursey of Tomb Raiders.net: http://tombraiders.net/stella/tomb1.html)
Video games are currently one of the largest most popular forms of media, with 155 million Americans regularly playing video games its no surprise that 26 percent of players are under 18 years old. (Here’s how many people are playing games in America: Campbell) As children enter their adolescence, their views of society and self image begin to change as they become impressionable to the world around them. Young gamers are also more likely to be affected by body image and appearance of characters than adult players. A 2008 study found that young men and women experienced lower body satisfaction after fifteen minutes of playing a game where the characters were muscular (in the case of boys) or thin and attractive (in the case of girls) (Body Image – The Internet and Video Games). When faced with societal pressures regarding body image and beauty, some adolescents turn to dieting, extreme exercising, and/or eating disorders as an unhealthy means to gain the body they believe is socially acceptable. This standard of unrealistic body imaging in video games has been connected to ‘The Barbie Effect’ in young girls, where the ideal female image is distorted because of the physically impossible female measurements given to Barbie (FEMALE).
One of the largest, most successful video game series of the modern age is the Grand Theft Auto series created in 1997. Even with a total series sale of over 235 million dollars, GTA is not immune to its fair share of body image morphing and over sexualized female characters. Being known for its carnage, over the top situations, and graphic nature GTA is marketing towards 20 something men who desire a game with “no rules”. The over sexualization and obvious misrepresentation of women are prominent and poignant as the series seems to attempt to single handedly set women back 50 years or more. Women are sought after as objects of control or use, and are presented as unreasonably thin, unintelligent, discardable tools. “The satirical barbs at its target demographic are too heavy-handed, the industry too much in its adolescence, which leads to many of its male players to revel in its frat-boy humour, rather than feel repelled by it (Grand Theft Auto V and the Culture of Violence Against Women: Saar) This ‘frat boy humour’ is encouraged and rewarded by the continued abuse, objectification and sexual exploitation of female characters in the series. Grand Theft Auto V (2013) even went as far as giving the player the capability to have sex with a prostitute and murder her for their money back. Grand Theft Auto is just the most recent success story in an onslaught of unrealistic societal expectations and characteristics deemed ‘marketable and entertaining’ by millions of players around the world.
(Image Courtesy of PC Wall Art: http://pcwallart.com/grand-theft-auto-women-wallpaper-2.html)
When comparing the top ten highest grossing video games of all time, there seems to be a correlation between success and character representation. While many, many factors go into the success of a video game (storyline, content, characters, entertainment quality, etc) it is worthwhile mentioning that the top three best selling games of all time have not one misconstrued body image attached to them.(List of best-selling video games). All three; Tetris, Minecraft and Wii Sports, have no issues regarding body image, over sexualization, or over exaggeration of character. Could this speak to the success of games which are marketable, playable, enjoyed by both genders and contain no harsh undertones of societal pressures to be perfect or to fit in? The effect that mass media has on body image are two ropes which have been intertwined since the beginning of time and is unlikely to become untangled in the near future. Nonetheless, with the modern culture of female video game players on the rise, the continuous debate over attitudes toward body image could be altered. As the video gaming culture continues to grow and expand, society looks forward to the disintegration of unrealistic body expectations and over sexualization in both video games, as well as mass media as a whole.