It’s long been thought that the portrayals of people we see in the media have an impact on how we feel about our own bodies. Stick-thin models in magazines, beautiful actors in the movies and pretty people all over the internet are assumed to have a negative effect – but there has recently been some good news when it comes video games.
According to a study by Stetson University and Fairleigh Dickinson University, games featuring sexualised protagonists may not have as much impact on us as once thought. Female participants were asked to play Tomb Raider Underworld or Tomb Raider (2013) at random before reporting on their self-objectification and body dissatisfaction. The results indicated that the former’s sexualised version of Lara Croft didn’t make players feel body shame – or at least as not as much as other types of objectification (more about that later).
These findings don’t entirely surprise me. Female characters who are inappropriately dressed for the task at hand and whose boobs seem to defy all laws of nature may make me roll my eyes in exasperation. But I don’t feel they cause me to have any internal negative thoughts, because I’m aware they’re fictional: they exist only inside a video game and therefore don’t send a realistic message about women’s bodies. Why should I bother comparing myself?
I wonder if the study’s participants feel the same way and whether the titles chosen had any effect on the results. There are other protagonists who are far more sexualised than Lara and most gamers are aware of her move towards a more realistic design over the years, so we tend to view her earlier days as a relic. In addition, the archaeologist was never simply about her looks; they’re not her only contribution to the Tomb Raider games and she can kick some serious butt, in either tiny shorts or cargo-pants.
Regardless, some will look at the findings and surmise that we no longer need to concern ourselves with sexualised characters because they don’t negatively affect players. Other forms of objectification are more damaging, with the study citing ‘catcalling’ as an example – and again I’m not surprised by this. Feeling objectified as a result of something you’ve seen in the media is a thought you’ve arrived at independently. But catcalling is a real person confirming that notion in real time, and that’s far more hurtful.
It’s not really that simple though, is it? Just because sexy protagonists don’t make us feel bad about ourselves doesn’t mean we should put up with seeing them in all of our games. Not everyone can be blond-haired, tan-skinned, big-boobed and tiny-waisted, and constantly seeing characters who embody that tired representation of beauty quickly gets boring. Games have come a long way in recent years but there’s still plenty of room for further diversity and giving us a whole range of heroes to spend time with.
It’s not about censoring, or feminism, or being offended by the sight of bouncing bosoms and pert butt-cheeks. If that’s what you want to see in your video games then knock yourself out – there are more than enough titles out there to interest you. It’s just good to be aware that being surrounded by a culture which constantly perpetuates a certain body-type as being perfect can impact how positively we feel about ourselves, and having access to media that only reflects that culture could reassert those values.
As said by professor of psychology Chris Ferguson in an interview with Kotaku: “Media holds a mirror up to culture. And sometimes we don’t like the mirror. It must be dirty or smudged for it to look this way. But it really is more of a mirror.”