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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Depictions of weight in gaming

Note: There is now an update to this post, please see:

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
Gragas carries around a keg of ale which is used in two of his abilities, another involves him getting drunk, and a third involves him flinging himself, belly first, at the opponent. Now one could argue that Gragas is just using his weight to his advantage, but his stumbling, ponderous walk and he speaks with a comedic drunken slur to his voice. We are not meant to cheer on this character, we're meant to laugh at how he manages to perform in that state. The character is stripped of dignity; this is not a drunken-master of kung fu who we know to respect, it's a ponderous giant to avoid.

Bacchus - SMITE
Artistic license taken
Bacchus is basically the same as Gragus, he is depicted as a drunken oaf who's move-set involves throwing himself belly first, drinking, and getting others drunk. Ironically, older art of Bacchus (also known as Dionysus) actually depicted him as rather thing: See here. Like Gragas, Bacchus stumbles around and speaks with a slur while carrying a large leg of meat to eat.

Rufus - Street Fighter Series
What Capcom thinks of Americans
It's not a series I am especially familiar with; my knowledge ends at Street Fighter 2 Turbo for the SNES, but I had recalled seeing a reveal of Rufus and went to do a little research. Rufus does not necessarily drink in the manner Gragas and Bacchus do, but he has a very strong personality, a huge ego, and his model has belly-jiggle that would make the Dead or Alive breasts jealous. Rufus at least fights like a serious character and his move-set does not appear to focus too much on "He's fat so he does fat guy stuff" but his over-the-top demeanor and the way he emulates a kung-fu master make him look more like a parody than a serious character....not to mention his own splash-concept art shows him with a tub of popcorn. Rufus exists as almost a commentary on "Americans"...he thinks he is the best fighter despite lacking proof, he eats constantly, he is over-the-top, and he is very large.

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.

Positive Depictions

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
Ellie is a very large woman, she, according to the developers, even needed some special modelling work done to achieve. She is self-motivated (for a quest-giver), animated, and has a distinct personality. She makes numerous comments regarding her weight, and another character (her mother) supposedly asked her to slim down, but she likes who she is and is generally a positively depicted character so far as I can tell. One quest does involve people trying to make fun of her by making hood-ornaments in her shape, but she decides she likes them and owns that...still, it would have been nice to see quests not centered around her size, especially since she is involved in maybe 4 quests total. That said, she isn't depicted as incapable, comical (any more than any other borderlands character), or oaf-ish.

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
In Conclusion...

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).


  1. The Pandaren males in WoW, which fall somewhat under your MMO exception, excepting that WoW allows very little customization, are a relatively positive representation of weight, and certainly don't fall under thick, either. They are characterized as enjoying their food and beer, and even have a racial called "Bouncy" which reduces their fall damage (which may be as much a Gummi Bear reference as it is to jiggly fat people, who as one myself can say I don't bounce so much as splat), but the weight is largely ignored and the people are generally shown to be happy, positive, outgoing, and competent.

    1. I had forgotten about Pandarens! I think they fit under the positive depiction both for their body image (I vaguely recall them generally being positive) and the "Cheer on, not laugh at" aspect.

  2. @Talarian: Yes, but they completely forget about applying that same philosophy to the pandarian females. I would like to see weight-positivity extended to my sex. Also beast-positivity: instead of feminized depictions of lycanthropes (worgen), undead, trolls, etc., I would like to see equally savage and/or disgusting women of a similar size and constitution. Have you noticed how female worgen are not even allowed a hunched quadruped stance, and must be erect and feminine?

    Regarding the post - I agree with you for the most part. I wouldn't say though that avoiding any comment regarding appearance is disempowering as you seem to imply: 'these games ignore virtually every appearance choice a player makes, and so their depiction is meaningless.' It is not meaningless. The mere inclusion of women as playable characters was a big step for us a few years ago. We are still fighting for a better representation of the many types of men and women (fat or thin or less-than-sparky or fabulous) without claiming that these ought to have a bearing on the gameplay. In fact, I would rather the gender of my character had no bearing (except on romance options) than have females get less strength and more magic and males the opposite, as I hear discussed from time to time. I don't want to deal with discrimination on the basis of gender either because there's already enough in real life. If you want to be more edgy, there's always some unreal shit you can throw on your players. I would think it is the same thing for fat people - despite feeling identified with your fat character, you will not want to be subject to discrimination in your game either.

    I think in this case the most sensible approach is to allow the option without drawing attention to it. Help normalise it. At least as for playable characters. Better realistic representations of obese people as NPCs would be safer for the player.

    1. I think I should clarify; I don't mean to say that the size of the character should necessarily bear on gameplay, but I don't consider it as much of a victory when the game just flat out ignores any player choices in creation. However, I don't want it to be "NPC 1 makes fun of you for being overweight" or even to have some kind of stat difference. I suppose what I'd like to see is players of both genders of different weights (and appearances) and not have it be the butt of a joke. Have NPCs of varying weights and sizes without it being something meant to be mocked.