Last week, critic Anita Sarkeesian published a video about female body diversity in games. “All the Slender Ladies” examines why games often showcase thin, young, humanoid women but rarely feature lady rock creatures or skeletal female priestesses. Male video game characters more often deviate from standards of male attractiveness, she explains.
Feminist Frequency’s “All the Slender Ladies”
“It’s as if male characters are free to embody whichever physique best communicates their personality or abilities,” Sarkeesian said, in comments that echoed a talk she gave in 2015 about the things she’d like to see change in video games. “But when it comes to the design of female characters, that kind of imagination or creativity doesn’t seem to exist.”
When female game characters, and especially playable characters, are uniformly thin, young and attractive, Sarkeesian argues, it reinforces the idea that a woman’s value is tied to this body type. Game designers staying true to the trope may be pleasing a large part of their audience, but are simultaneously shooting themselves in the foot: Diverse personalities are better mirrored by diverse character designs. Your game isn’t that fun if everyone’s the same.
On the player side, a dearth of body-type diversity can affect self-perception. Dmitri Williams, a new media professor at the University of South Carolina who studies video games, told me over email that body type diversity is important because “representations matter to both genders, and especially to young players learning what ‘normal’ is and wondering how they do or don’t fit”. When “normal” in video games doesn’t reflect “normal” in real-life, younger gamers can feel marginalised on a day-to-day level.
In her video Sarkessian spotlights the character-driven FPS Overwatch, citing some shortcomings in its roster’s diversity. It’s an interesting choice to critique, as the game is often praised for its diverse character roster.
At 2014’s BlizzCon, when Overwatch was revealed, Blizzard teased the male characters Reinhardt, Torbjörn, Hanzo and Winston, whose respective body types are muscular, stocky, sinewy and… gorilla. On the female side, Tracer, Mercy, Symmetra, Widowmaker and Pharah were showcased, all of whom are thin, Sarkeesian points out in her video.
“For all the apparent variety and diversity in the heroes Blizzard showed off at the game’s debut,” Sarkeesian comments, “there wasn’t much diversity to be seen in the body types represented by female characters.”
The game’s current line-up, which includes one character added since launch, is laudably more diverse. In Overwatch today, 12 heroes are male, nine are female and one is without gender. Of the women, Zarya has the physique of a bodybuilder, Mei is larger and Ana has the body type of an old woman. The gender ratio isn’t 50/50, but 1/3 of the women deviate from female body norms in gaming. Overwatch is certainly getting there.
Nicole Martins, a professor of media at Indiana University, co-authored a 2009 study on female body imagery in video games, and more recently, one last June on how hyper-idealised video game bodies affect men and women. “In our  study, we analyzed over 8,000 human characters across 150 game titles. Only 358 were female (less than 5% of the video game population).” Noting the full diversity of Overwatch’s current roster, she added that Overwatch is a “great step in the right direction”.
Rabindra Ratan, who researches the psychological experience of video games at the University of Maryland, told me over email that body type diversity in Overwatch shows how far the game industry has come. “The wild success of Overwatch illustrates that most of the gaming public does not care to preserve gaming as a male-centric space, where characters are designed to satisfy macho instincts,” Dr Ratan told me.
Sarkeesian’s video points out that there’s still a lot of room for improvement when it come to body type in games. I’ll add, though, that three and a half months after Overwatch’s release, I’m still appreciating its character design, along with its its seven million players.