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  • Writer's pictureIndy Goodwin

The Images You Sell Are Problematic: The Importance of Plus Size Representation in Video Games

Borderlands' 2 character Ellie

This is an older piece I've reuploaded here. I think it's some of my best work.

The video game industry is currently the biggest entertainment industry in the UK in terms of spending. More and more people are choosing to engage with the medium whether it is through mobile apps with the dreaded microtransactions, through more traditional games such as Call of Duty or Fallout or even through the medium of interactive entertainment – Netflix’s Bandersnatch, for example.

With increased audiences must come increased responsibility – video games pull in audiences from all walks of life. To some extent, we have seen improvements. We have seen stories from queer protagonists, people of colour, men, women, children, even mentally ill protagonists. Progress indeed, but there is one area that remains criminally underrepresented.

Despite all these fantastical stories taking place in far off lands, most of the character models adhere to the same mould. Granted, we’ve come a long way since plus size representation was limited to a small rotund Italian man with a mushroom addiction and his imaginary pet dinosaur, but there is still a considerable shortage of larger characters.

Female characters are typically thin but curvy, an ideal that is nearly impossible to recreate without surgery. Male characters tend to be lean and overly muscled – a figure out of reach of most average joes. Taking a cursory glance around you, you’ll see people of many different body types and shapes. So why are we still refusing to accept this in video games?

Anastasia Wyatt, junior artist on indie title Heaven’s Vault, believes pressure from shareholders could be the problem. She said: “With the big companies they've probably been more cautious because they think this is the only thing that sells because that's all that there’s been in the past. A small company has less shareholders and a lot less pressure if they take what they consider as a risk with less idealized looking characters. It's not going to be disastrous for them in that respect if it doesn't sell well.”

It is not just pressure from shareholders here either, players themselves exert pressure on publishers to use idealised figures. World of Warcraft announced a new allied race with the launch of its newest expansion – Battle for Azeroth. The race was called Kul Tiran humans, and feature a much bulkier frame and taller than the standard human model. Plus-sized gamers rejoiced. The rest of the community did not. Within a few hours of the announcement the Blizzard forums were full of people asking for a ‘thin’ version of the character or spewing vitriol about how this character model was ugly and shouldn’t be implemented. It’s a difficult position to be in.

Wyatt said: “I think that's why publishers get nervous because they see criticisms like that. They think that even if they would like to use a plus size character in the people will react badly and they don't want to see those sort of comments perhaps. Which is a shame.”

Regardless of any outside pressure however, representation is very important. Not only for the people represented by plus-size characters, but to combat fatphobia – the fear of being fat. A large amount of stigma still exists towards plus size people in the wild, and games that equate fat to lazy or disgusting do not help.

Representation is even more important when you consider the young age children are exposed to this type of media. Dr Peyta Eckler, professor of social communication at the University of Strathclyde, is concerned about the effect this may have.

She said: “I think this is an industry that is made predominantly for men and unfortunately it it's feeding them unhealthy stereotypes which are hugely outdated and problematic nowadays. Not just about body types but women in general.

We cannot ignore and be blind to the societal repercussions of such images. I'm not sure if this will come to be regulated at some point, but also I think for young women, there needs to step back and a reality check. Realizing okay what we've talked about these are unrealistic images. Yes they do show what's desirable but they're taken to an extreme and no one can live up to that extreme.”

The erasure of plus-size figures in games contributes to a negative perception overall, especially if children are being exposed to this erasure from a young age. Normalisation of different body types and figures is very important in formative years.

That’s not to say all portrayals are negative however. Take Ellie, first appearing in Borderlands 2 by Gearbox. She is a skilled, fiercely independent mechanic who is unashamedly fat. More than being unashamed, she is proud of her body and who she is. A mission for her involves you collecting statuettes of her from the wreckage of bandit cars. She said they were made to make fun of her, but she loves them and the way she looks. She displays the collected figurines in her garage, clearly delighted with the result. It is this kind of body positivity we need in the industry. Ellie doesn’t let others tell her what to do with her body and loves it the way it is.

Heaven’s Vault reliably uses varied body types and shapes. Huang is chubby, the professor is old. They look like bodies that have been lived in, bodies that have stories to tell. No one is inherently evil because they look different. This also makes the characters infinitely more engaging.

Wyatt said: “Not everyone is going to be the man with the same build, in the same stubble. We designed the characters this way because this is what people look like. It's also a good thing to do because then you just get an interesting range of characters. If everyone is the same man with stubble that's boring.

I certainly feel like when you're playing games and especially if it's trying to be a game it's about sort of a realistic story and you're trying to emotionally connect to people; if everyone looks like this idealized super model then it seems less real.”

The world would be terribly boring if we all looked the same. Video game worlds are similar in this respect. Worlds populated with a varied cast of characters are more engaging, more alive. Playing a game populated by varied characters is infinitely more satisfying, particularly from a roleplaying point of view.

Of course, for every good example of plus size representation there are a million bad ones. Look at all the extra difficult and physically disgusting zombie enemies that also happen to be fat. For example, bloaters in State of Decay 2 and boomers in Left 4 Dead. You also have Wario from the Mario series and Dr Robotnik from Sonic, both antagonists and visibly overweight. Depictions of fat characters are not usually kind, coding them as either lazy or undesirable purely because of their size.

Not even the God of Thunder is immune from this character coding. Stepping away from the realm of video games for a moment, Avengers Endgame saw Thor begin drinking to forget the people he had lost, resulting in a ‘beer belly’. Completely understandable considering how traumatic the previous film Infinity War was to watch. However, they played his weight gain for laughs. Cheap jokes resounded about his weight for the rest of the film. This is the sort of thing more widespread plus size representation would combat. If plus size people were a regular occurrence in these universes, the ability to poke fun of them for being unusual would disappear.

It is clear that change is needed, but how do you change an industry still beset by outdated stereotypes and fatphobia? Dr Eckler said: “I think there has to be change from within. I think once more women hopefully become part of the creators of these games. They would start changing some of the content, forcing change in the content.” Wyatt has a different view. “I think that games where there are different characters, people are really beginning to pick up on them. I think we've been slowly seeing more diverse characters in recent years. More games with female leads for example, when I was younger there were only a handful of games that had female characters in them. It will take time, but I believe we will see more body type diversity as the industry evolves.”

There is hope. The indie games market is doing rather well at telling the stories of all kinds of people and players. Away from the eyes of publishing houses and shareholders, wonderful, beautiful games are being made. In the truest spirt of video games as communication, stories are told about people of all shapes and sizes and races and genders. It is an amazing thing and something it is hoped will begin to be a standard, no matter what level you are publishing a game at.

Video games can be a powerful vehicle to communicate ideas. There is no reason why they couldn’t be used to provide some much-needed normalisation of the existence of different body types. It is the responsible thing to do. The power to create a world as you want it to be, or as you see it is in a developer’s hands. Use that power for good, create a more accepting society. Goodness knows there’s enough hate going around as it is.

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