This isn't a topic I see often discussed in the arena of gaming, but I think it's relevant all the same. I am not going to sit and argue as to whether weight is an "-ism"; we can go around and around about "choice" or "predisposition". That is not the topic I want to go into though, instead I want to focus on how it is depicted in gaming, and why the modern trend is problematic. We hear a lot about race, gender, sexual orientation, and classism but I rarely hear people mention ableism or related issues with regards to gaming.
Remember, characters in games don't exist, they don't need to eat, sleep, work-out, have sex; they appear as an artist CHOOSES them to appear. If a female character appears in skimpy armor, it's because an artist chose to put her in it, not because "she likes to be sexy". We can flesh out these characters to justify those design choices, but how we choose to depict a character and the attitude we set around them are decisions the creators make.
Before I dive in, I may use words accidentally that might offend, but I do not intend to. If you, a reader, discover a word related to weight used pejoratively or insensatively, it is not intended. Point it out and I will happily remedy this.
The "Oaf" or "Fat Idiot"
The most common overweight character in a game is usually male; overweight female characters are a rarity (but do exist, stay with me). This character is usually associated with some level of sloth and/or gluttony. They are usually portrayed as a joke, an idiot, someone to be laughed AT, not WITH. It took about thirty seconds of thinking and the same time researching to find three examples.
Gragas - League of Legends
|Source: LoL Gragas Splash Art|
Bacchus - SMITE
|Artistic license taken|
Rufus - Street Fighter Series
|What Capcom thinks of Americans|
So these three essentially show the same thing; fat people are to be ridiculed, they are at fault for their status, and exist for your amusement. Do not be fooled by the trojan horse of "Oh but they are fighting with thin people so it's okay," I would almost give you that for Rufus, but he is constant parody and thus loses it; but these characters, unlike the serious ones, are not meant to be cheered on, they are meant to be laughed at.
There are only three positive depictions I can think of, though I will not claim that my knowledge of all gaming character is encyclopedic. The first, and a stretch, is the main character from Saints Row. When creating the player character the creator can choose from a wide (no pun intended) range of body shapes, including characters that would likely be considered obese. This size (so far as I can tell) has no bearing on the character's ability to wear certain clothing, perform tasks, or interact with the story and it is never brought up as a negative....but on the other hand, that is partly because the player's customization choices are not addressed period. Even whether you are male or female is barely touched on in the game, and most characters will say the exact same thing no matter what. I will commend SR for not making it a negative or using a stereotype, but at the same time, it's kind of like ignoring racism by deciding it doesn't exist.
The second, like the first, is similarly a mixed-bag. The Sims allows players a large array of choices, and the "Attractive" trait is entirely unrelated to the character's actual appearance. The thing is, like the example in Saints Row, this is basically making the issue invisible. It's like ignoring race and just treating everyone "the same" without context of their experiences.
The last is a rare exception; a female character! In 99% of games, female body types and male are vastly different. Even lauded MMOs like City of Heroes allowed much larger males than females; the best most female characters could hope for is to be about the same size as an Olympic lifter. If you wanted to be an overweight woman, you're usually out of luck. Most female character's have the body-slider options that range from: "Victoria Secret Model" to "Plus Sized Victoria Secret Model" Alas, this is one, but she is not playable...she's Ellie!
Ellie - Borderlands 2
|Concept art, but is basically how she appears in game|
The MMO Exception
Many MMOs have allowed players to make rather large characters, though most often they would qualify as "Thick" (see below) more than they would "Fat". Star Wars the Old Republic, City of Heroes, and many others. However, as I have addressed above, like in Saints Row or The Sims, these games ignore virtually every appearance choice a player makes, and so their depiction is meaningless. Allowing it is certainly a positive, but it's not the end of the story.
"Fat" versus "Thick"
One of the first comments I can envision is that there are other large characters, even in the games I used as an example, but there is an important difference. Though I am no doctor, I would describe how "large" characters are depicted in two ways "Fat" and "Thick". The former are the kinds above, where the character is overweight and more meant for the comedy of others. "Thick" characters on the other hand, might be wider than average, but are usually meant to be taken seriously and just a ton of muscle.
Take E.Honda from Street Fighter as an example; he is a Sumo wrestler and is also large, but his belly is clearly muscular like an Olympic weight lifter, he does not get the same "jiggle" that Rufus did. Though some of his moves might be a bit comical (like him sitting on his opponent) he has a certain dignity about him. You aren't meant to laugh at him, you're meant to fear those pounds of muscle coming at you.
|Calm, serene warrior, easy to take seriously|
So the conclusion is that generally when someone with a larger body is depicted, someone who might a higher than average BMI, they're meant as an object of ridicule, not respect. Like many Sitcom husbands, we're meant to "laugh at the fat guy" and this intrinsically dehumanizes these characters, and people like them. While I can't say I have first-hand experience being the person who goes from 300 lbs to 150 lbs, I cannot imagine the difficulty they must endure, especially overcoming the inertia of simply starting out. To make it worse, gaming, a hobby often associated with people with weight issues, is not doing them any favors or giving them much hope. Even other media, such as movies, books, and television, have at least stepped up and given some positive examples of larger characters (Tony Soprano may be a mixed-character, but he does not exist to be laughed at for his weight).