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Is the physical hypersexualistion seen in video games unique to women?

Considering the portrayal of male protagonists in video games, are men over-sexualised as much as women?

Be it the latest rage over Tracer’s pose for Overwatch, Alison Rapp’s sexually charged dismissal from Nintendo, or the craze surrounding Microsoft’s hiring of female models at one of their events, there has certainly been a great deal of talk regarding the perception of female sexuality in the video game industry. Something that tends to grab far less attention, however, is the perception of the male sex in video games and perhaps in the entertainment industry in general.

From Deadpool’s rock hard abs, Thor’s crazy arms and Drake’s physique despite his age, male protagonists tend to be extremely athletic.

 

images taken from game covers and the movie preview for Thor

Athleticism and fitness are fundamental characteristics of Superheroes

The argument could be made that these physical attributes are a by-product of the characteristics and personality traits that the protagonists possess. For instance, a soldier in Call of Duty has to be athletic. A super-mercenary/mutant is obviously as fit as can be. A world renowned treasure hunter can’t help but be buff.

The sort of Alpha males that are often portrayed in video games tend to be more masculine in general, which goes hand in hand with their macho personalities. While the portrayal of female personalities is certainly over-exaggerated, when it comes to the men, it is more a by-product of the type of heroes we've come to expect, which in turn forces developers to make them more masculine.

Obviously, no one would want to play a morbidly obese superhero, but limiting the over-exaggerations could certainly be a start. What if Thor had a six-pack instead of an eight-pack? Or the Hulk, being a giant green monster, didn’t have extremely in-shape abs? What if Spiderman skipped chest day every now and again?

Meeting the quota

The issue remains that while there is certainly a great deal of commotion when it comes to the misrepresentation of the female body in video games, there's certainly a lack there-of for the men. In reality, the fact that attractive, athletic and sexualized characters - whether male or female - are more appealing in video games and certainly boost sales is largely the reason developers and designers make use of them.

This profit-based mentality is by and large also the reason for a greater number of male protagonists in video games. The great majority of the gaming audience are men, and this is especially true for violent and action-packed titles. A game is obviously more appealing (to men) when you can fully empathize with your avatar, something that cannot be done to the same degree with a female protagonist. Interestingly enough, this is is also the likely reason for the presence of sexually-charged and flirtatious female supporting characters. After all, as we all know, sex sells!

Customization's place in the problem

Of course, games that allow physical customization tend to be an exception to this trend. Fallout 4, for instance, allows a physical build choice ranging between muscular, skinny and overweight in a triangular manner. However, the great majority of gamers, when given the choice, go for a more muscular physique, as can be seen in the plethora of in-game screenshots available online. While the argument could clearly be made that people tend to be more attracted to a muscular physique, and are naturally more likely to pick a more attractive physique for their own character, this feature is by no means representative of the general population.

 

The Proteus Effect

But is this necessarily a bad thing? I mean sure, we have unrealistic expectations of both female and male physicality, but so what? In fact, due to a phenomenon known as the Proteus effect, there may even be benefits to this trend. The Proteus effect takes place when a person reflects the characteristics of their avatar, upon themselves. This effect is amplified even further when you assimilate the character to reflect your own looks and attributes, but aren't limited to using only your real-world physical traits. In other words, seeing yourself as a strong, dominant and attractive male could boost your confidence and even motivate you to transform yourself to better match your avatar.

This doesn't always end up as a positive factor however; at times, the sheer ease with which a player can 'become' athletic and muscular (virtually) becomes a deterrent in their physical lifestyles. This in turn feeds into the unhealthy lifestyles that gamers are somewhat known for.

Concluding remarks

So what's the point to all this? Should all men just start working out six days a week to meet these perceptions that have been set forth? Or perhaps we should boycott all video games that over-exaggerate the human physique? Or maybe we need to send a clear message to developers that we aren't buying games based on their sexual attractiveness? That decision is entirely yours to make. However, realizing that this problem isn't unique to women, is still important.

So what do you think? Is it fair to compare men and women in an industry that is largely male dominated, in both the consumer and supplier side of things? Is it fair to only focus on women's issues, where the men aren't exactly represented correctly either? Should critics also talk about men's over-sexualization in video games? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

Published Apr. 21st 2016
  • Mathenaut
    This isn't really going to be addressed so long as the awkward hypocrisy of it is upheld.

    Bayonetta, designed by a female as a literal female power fantasy, is just male pandering because a certain minority of people are insecure with themselves. No real kind words to say about that.

    Sexualization of males is okay because it's flattering and something men want? That is the bar for a power fantasy, that is all there is? Says who, people who wouldn't know a thing about the matter but presume it's simple because that is their stereotype for men? Nice one.

    When the bar for this sort of thing is 'when I am offended', then it mostly becomes a non-issue. Which is exactly what this is. This isn't even something you see outside of a small corner of the korean mmo market anyways - but you wouldn't know that unless you actually play games.
  • Rhys Bjornsen_5219
    Bayonetta is an interesting case in that the character pushes boundaries: she is very sexualized, but at the same time the character is aware of it, and even more so, it is part of the character's power. There have been many interesting discussions about this (pro and cons, about the character as well as the intentions behind it), but one common thread I saw was: Bayonetta is an exceptional female video game character, not the rule.

    However, I have yet to see anybody claim that Bayonetta's character is meant to pander to males who are being insecure about themselves (which is the only way I can make sense of your second paragraph). Maybe you want to clarify your statement?

    But relatedly, the fact that Bayonetta was written by Mari Shimazaki is at first glance not much more than a brownie point, not without context. Sexism is not restricted to the members of the opposite sex, and that we have one working sexualized character written by a female writer does not mean that all sexualized female characters are a-ok. (And to be clear: not knowing more about the context myself, I for now presume that Ms. Shimazaki designed the Bayonetta character fully intentionally.)

    "Sexualization of males is okay...?" I think the question is: are males being sexualized as a rule in the first place?
  • Rhys Bjornsen_5219
    I too think that there is a difference between idealization of a character (somebody you might want be like) and sexualization (somebody you want to look at). The former has attractiveness (not necessarily sexual) as side effect, whereas the latter has sexual attractiveness as goal. In that light it is disingenuous to lump the two together; especially because female characters are more likely to be sexualized (and more over the top) than male ones.

    Should critics discuss over-sexualization of men in video games? Sure - when it actually happens, with male characters as mere objects of desire. But as Valinthrose points out, just having muscles does not automatically make you attractive for the member of the appropriate sex, and the muscular protagonists are more heterosexual male power fantasies than anything else. Which is also something which could be discussed, but it would be a different discussion.

    Note that I'm not saying that it is wrong to allow characters to look sexy, or even unrealistically so, but it is tiresome that often this is the only option available for female characters. To give an example: One thing I really enjoyed when playing Mass Effect was that I could model my Shepard into a woman which wasn't very attractive, but looked rather realistically like a strong (physically and mentally) Commander who you really wouldn't want to mess with. I was able to idealize that character, instead of being forced to play a cutie.

    "The great majority of the gaming audience are men, and this is especially true for violent and action-packed titles". Uhm, no. The ESA found in 2014 that the split was 52/48 for US Gamers, and other market research backed that split (https://www.vg247.com/2014/10/28/fps-rpg-men-women-research-pc/). Also interesting: FPS have a m/f gender split of 66 to 34. So yes, more men than women are playing FPS, but it is far from being a great majority.

    For me that raises the question: is the game industry leaving money on the table by not making FPS more appealing to females? And I don't mean at the expense of the current male demographic, but in addition to it. Dialing down the sexualization of female characters might be one way of doing it (obviously, more research is needed).
  • Chrisator
    Featured Contributor
    You make some very valid points, however your differentiation between idealization and sexualization, while thematic to your argument, isn't exactly correct. Sexualization, rather than meaning sexually attractive, quite literally is making something more sexual. In the context of the article, where we speak of over and hyper-sexualization, we're talking about things that don't need to be sexual, but are. Therein lies the problem, and while I in no way equate male and female problems in this concept, to not notice that men are sexualized too would simply be oversight.

    The points you make with empowering characters to choose their own physical attributes are completely correct. However, more than this choice, it is important to note that allowing for extremely muscular and athletic men - be they attractive to the opposite sex or not - in video games could be detrimental to the image we have of men in general. How important that image is, I don't know. But that's in many ways the core concept within the article.

    Finally when it comes to statistics with regards to games, we generally have one very big hurdle; the definition of gaming. Almost all of these surveys tend to consider Facebook, mobile and browser based games as video games, and while this could very well be a valid definition, it doesn't really fit into the sort of discussion we're having here. Furthermore, most such surveys also largely focus on the U.S. gaming base, but the U.S. only makes up a small percentage of the gaming market.

    Within a global scale though, the numbers are hard to come by; this study is likely the most relevant of its kind (http://auth-83051f68-ec6c-44e0-afe5-bd8902acff57.cdn.spilcloud.com/v1/archives/1384952861.25_State_of_Gaming_2013_US_FINAL.pdf) however it doesn't factor in genre and game type biases within its data. That being said, the survey does state that women tend to go more for puzzle style games, young girls go for cooking and dress up games, and men/boys go for Racing, Sports and Action games. This disparity is quite large, and a factor that many surveys done on video games ignore. Keeping all that in mind though, even taking a 66-34 split on FPS games, I'd consider a 2-1 majority quite a large one.

    Without a shadow of a doubt though, I do agree that more research is very much needed in this field. Also, thank you so much for reading and commenting :)
  • Capt. Eliza Creststeel
    Contributor
    So, are there video games out there that let players customize the size of a male character's pants bulge? (Range: (1) A Grower Not A Shower --(5)----- (10) Ron Jeremy)

    I've not seen any. Yet a lot of games have chest size options for women. Dragon's Prophet (which I reviewed) for instance had several sliders for chest size.

    But I do think it's good that some games and media are aware of this stuff and makes fun of it. Jokes in Deadpool's movie and game makes fun of sexy bits, like the gratuitous butt shots of superhero glutes.
  • Ty Arthur
    Featured Contributor
    While there is clearly a disparity, yes, there absolutely are games that give you a male pants bulge slider. Saints Row IV immediately comes to mind.
  • Mathenaut
    Might be because genitalia doesn't really bulge like that unless it's an erection. Kind of a lazy comparison.
  • Valinthrose
    Reading your response to Larry, I think you touched on an inherent difference between the way men are depicted and the way women are depicted.

    The over athletic super muscular 'manly man' depiction of men in video games isn't actually about sexualizing men. On the contrary, as a bisexual men, I find most male characters to not really be that attractive. The point of them is to escape into an idealized form of yourself, and that's what the male characters in video games are portrayed to be. They're a power fantasy where YOU are the top marine, YOU are the biggest zombie killer, YOU are the SLAYER OF GODS!

    But women? That's not what they want to be. Having listened to a lot of women comment on these issues, they don't idealize THEMSELVES as large breasted pencil weist bubble bottom sex objects. Quite the opposite. They're just looking for a similar thing for themselves that the men get. Athletic, strong, powerful. So something to bear in mind is that when men are 'sexualized', it's not a sexual ideal for those who are attracted to men really(with the exception of Chris Hemsworth...mm). It's the ideal form of the HETEROSEXUAL men who want to escape into a reality where they're powerful warriors.

    Women want the same thing, but they don't get to have that by and large. There have been efforts as of late though. League of Legends added Illaoi, a buff Hawaiian woman that feels like a powerhouse to play. Overwatch added Zarya, an athletic and buff powerhouse of her own. Neither have to be 'plus sized' in the sense of being overweight, they're just not the skinny sticks you normally see in...well...League of Legends and Overwatch. Take a look at Illaoi, and then take a look at Miss Fortune. spot the key difference. Is there a comparison like that for male characters? Not really. Male characters also usually get to have a wide variety of body types, from a giant wall of muscle, to a lean assassin, to...Gragas, or Roadhog. Female characters, by and large, do not have anything even close to that variety.

    So, TL;DR, basically, the so-called 'sexual ideals' of male characters are what heterosexual men want to be, not what people are actually attracted to(for the most part), while the 'sexual ideals' of female characters are actually an impossible body standard that those attracted to women DO actually find attractive, but it's not what women WANT to be.

    That's the key difference between the two, and it's why things are a lot less representative for women, than men. This is not in any way equal. This problem IS in fact unique to women. That's just still the case. And one or two legitimately hot male characters don't change that trend.
  • Chrisator
    Featured Contributor
    While I understand your differentiation, I strongly disagree with it. You could very well argue you don't find these depictions attractive, the fact still remains, many women and men DO. Speaking from a purely psychological standpoint, stronger, more athletic Alpha males tend to be far more attractive in the natural order of things. But even if you were to say these men aren't attractive to women, the point remains that this over-exaggeration is an issue in large part because of the false reflection it can have on male ideals. Simply put, if most men are depicted as physically fit in video games, but most men in the real world are anything but, then the duality causes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy for many men who feel they aren't as good as these superheroes seem to be. This is in no way different to small waistlines and huge breasts in women, albeit less obvious.

    You mentioned characters in League of Legends and Overwatch, but the thing is that games like that tend to fall in a completely different spectrum. This is largely because of the reasons behind your choice of character; you don't pick Miss Fortune for her looks, you pick her for her abilities and her awesome Ultimate. The same can't be said of games where the visual descriptors of your characters are mutually exclusive to their abilities and sex. While on that topic though, I'd say while Miss Fortune might be attractive in her posters and fan depictions, within the game itself, she is really not.

    And that's sort of what leads to my third point; while women of course have every right to want more plausible female characters, the personas that we've come to see from our protagonists and superheroes simply point far more to the over the top and idealistic characters, then the relatable ones you'd want. The Femme Fatales and Tricksters are bound to be overly attractive, and to point this out, they need to be over-exaggerated. Does that make that any more acceptable? I don't know. But it does point to the flaw in our perception of female ideals in the real world vs those in gaming. That, and again, action packed video games are largely marketed towards young adult men, hence the superhero men and the super attractive (ish) women.
  • Larry Everett
    Featured Columnist
    I'm surprised that no one has commented on this... maybe it's an over-explored topic? I don't know.

    Although I understand there is a precedent towards idealism in video games, I think there is still an unnecessary bend toward women needing to be more ideal than men.

    The first example that comes to my head is from Star Wars: The Old Republic. Now, I don't think that SWTOR is hypersexulized by any stretch, but look at the character creator. There are limited body types for the game. And as you might notice as you scroll through the different types the male body types are far more varied than the female.

    I think we all would like the ideal body, but diversity in video games is hard to come by.

    In January, Valiant released a great comicbook called Faith. She is a superhero in the truest way, and she just happens to be plus-sized. But she's actually not the first comicbook character to trend toward the every-man/woman body shape. You mentioned Spider-man in your article. Miles Morales is a super-skinny kid (not to mention that he's black and Hispanic).

    Although it's not the goal in every video game, I do think that developers should start looking to create character that are more relatable. As the gamer becomes more diverse, so should the games designed for them.

    Anyway, thanks for writing this article. :-D
  • Chrisator
    Featured Contributor
    Thanks for reading it :D

    I think the reason video games don't really make relatable characters is largely based on the fact that most gamers play video games as a sort of release from their real lives. That's mostly in contrast with comic books, where while you do want a sort of escape, you also want to imagine yourself as the character, hence the relatibility and variety you would see in comic books.

    In many ways though, they also tend to heed the masses and so make their customization and character creation more male dominated.

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