Study Finds That Unrealistic Fighting Game Character Designs Detract From the Player’s Immersion
Rachael Hutchinson, associate professor of Japanese studies at the University of Delaware, spent the past four years conducting research about how her students felt about the body types on display in various fighting games; overall, students did think that unrealistic body types detracted from their enjoyment and immersion in the game. Although this aspect was not the most important element for many of the survey respondents, the students agreed that more diverse body types would aid in their enjoyment.
Hutchinson also found that male players tended to take notice of the unrealistic body proportions of the male characters, whereas female players took notice of the proportions of the women in the game. In other words, people took note of the characters that they theoretically would resemble in real life — and when the results didn’t match up, they felt alienated.
Because Hutchinson specifically studied fighting games with multiple character options, as opposed to narrative games with just one character, she drew some more specific conclusions. Although her students were admittedly put off by character designs, she found that once they began playing, they identified with whatever character they had chosen based on mechanical elements rather than the character’s appearance. During a match, the player’s identification with their chosen character decreased when they felt like they were losing control or couldn’t perform the moves they wanted to do, then reappeared if they felt like they had regained control again. In Hutchinson’s words,
When you’re losing or feel like you can’t control your character, you get frustrated and lose that sense of identification. When you’re winning, you identify with the character no matter what it looks like. These are functions of the genre, not related to how the character appears.
Hutchinson went on to emphasize that the availability of choice, as well as the short length of each match, might be what causes players to view the characters differently in fighting games as opposed to other games: “I think a lot has to do with choice, with whether a game gives you a choice of characters. These fighting games are different from other genres, and the way people play them is different.”
Although I’ve only experienced anecdotal evidence for these findings in my own life, they match up very well with my own experiences playing fighting games and talking to other friends about how they feel about their characters. These findings also bolster the initial points that I made in my editorial about Ryu’s new design in Street Fighter V; this is what I meant when I said that all fighting game characters are objectified, albeit not necessarily sexually objectified. When you play a fighting game — as opposed to, say, a single-player narrative game — you do identify with your character, but you also tend to see them as a tool to achieve a goal, rather than as a human being. Since fighting games often include very little narrative, basic signifiers are used to distinguish between characters, rather than more extensive humanizing elements.
The availability of choice in a fighting game allows players to see fighters as a collection of skills and attributes, rather than as individuals — but that doesn’t mean that we all aren’t still internalizing implicit messages about how we “should” look based on the characters’ designs, even if we aren’t thinking about that directly as we play the game. During a match, I’m pretty focused on whether or not I’m going to win! But when I was growing up, I do remember looking at the character selection screen in Soul Calibur and feeling ashamed that my body didn’t look like Sophitia’s. I distinctly recall my feelings of inadequacy and the sense that I had in my mind back then that boys didn’t like me because I didn’t look the “right” way.
If Soul Calibur (and other fighting games) had included characters with lots of different body types, then I’m not sure I would have had quite the same sad reactions as a teenage girl. If I had seen people of all shapes and sizes using varied skills and tactics to fight on a balanced playing field, then perhaps I would have internalized the “Healthy At Any Size” movement years prior. Instead, I spent my youth feeling ashamed about my body, and I can directly track a lot of those feelings to the appearance of pop stars in music videos, super-models in magazines, and — yes — characters in fighting games.
Clearly, it’s more important to fighting game players that mechanical elements strike the right balance in these games. The fact that many of the women characters have the exact same body type may not be a priority for anybody once they start playing. I can admit myself that I don’t notice what a character is wearing or even what they look like once I start playing. I notice those elements more when there are slow-pans up the character’s body at the beginning and end of matches, or during special moves, or on the character select screen — all of these are moments when I am not playing, but rather watching the character. While I’m actually playing, it is easy to forget about all of that.
However, that doesn’t mean that those appearance-oriented moments — from the character selection screen, to the in-game slow pans — do not matter at all. They set a precedent for how the players perceive themselves, and for the moment, it’s a damaging precedent, because it’s one with very little body diversity. Given how extensive fighting games rosters tend to be, this seems like a fix that could be incorporated with ease; as it is now, though, any character with an “unusual” body type tends to be presented as a joke, rather than as a serious fighter. Yet including more body diversity would better allow people to identify with the characters that they choose, even if only slightly — and it might even help them be less judgmental about their own bodies, not to mention other people’s bodies. It feels like a change that’s a long way away, so it’s hard for me to feel all that positive about it, but at least Hutchinson’s research can be one more citation in my tool-belt.
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