The Gender Cocktail. Part II: Big chests and little waists?

Part I of this looked at gender representations and found that they were heavily skewed male. In this installment, I’ll share the visuals for some context. We now know that females are underrepresented, but when they do show up, how are they represented?

Part I of this looked at gender representations and found that they were heavily skewed male. In this installment, I’ll share the visuals for some context. We now know that females are underrepresented, but when they do show up, how are they represented?

The expected answer would be that they are hypersexualized. Big breasts, tiny waists. Well, let’s see. And while we’re at it, why not also take a look at the male characters? The research on body shapes is large and consistent and I’ll summarize: if you look at hyper-sexualized versions of your gender, you feel like crap, and it doesn’t matter what gender you are.

OK, so how can we compare game body shapes to real ones? This is pioneering work done by my colleague Nicole Martins at Indiana University. The full papers are here for females and here for males. It turns out that there are databases of “real” body shapes out there, primarily made for the clothing industry. We used the CAESAR dataset. These have 3D data on hips, busts, leg lengths and dozens of other body parts. Using these data we used Poser to create a “typical” female and male shape as our baseline.

Then, using the same sample of characters from the first post, we took screen captures of the characters, imported them into Photoshop, measured their dimensions and then created a composite Poser figure for them.

What we found for female characters surprised us. First, no big breasts. No, not a typo and not an error. The numbers do not lie. The CAESAR dataset shows an average chest circumference of 38 inches and the composite game character had an average of 32 inches.

One other thing we didn’t expect were giant heads, but in retrospect it makes a lot of sense. Games don’t all have a zillion pixels of detail and to show human expression the heads often end up disproportionately large.

We dug a little deeper and split the results into high-res and low-res games to see if this head thing continued, and to see if maybe in the more detailed versions we’d find our digital vixens. We found the opposite. When we looked at high res, the average bust size was 29 inches and low res, 38 inches. The latter is “realistic.”

Then we took a look at the men in the same approach, and this time with slightly better rendering software.

And again, freakishly large heads, likely for the same reason. What would be a test of hypermasculinity? Big chests apply here, too. And we found the same pattern. The real-world baseline is 40 inches of chest circumference, and the game characters had an average of about 43 inches. Bigger, sure, but not herculean. When we split this into high-res and low-res, the differences dropped out entirely for the high res versions. The low-res was 45 inches, making us wonder if this was a graphical issue or really about large, caveman dudes. We dug further into the ratings and found that for the children’s games (by ESRB rating), the average chest size was 46 inches. It’s possible that this is hypersexualization, but also possible that in low-res situations this is a simple technique for making clear the character’s maleness.

What’s the bottom line? For male characters, everyone looks pretty realistic except for in children’s games where they are he-men. That’s potentially a damaging stereotype for young males who, after all, are going to grow up to be smaller-chested on average than these characters. (I’m letting my son stick with Stevie in Minecraft…).

What do we make of all of these stats? First, it’s clear that females have been under-represented. Second, at least for the year we looked at, females were not hypersexualized as we expected. Third, it’s male characters--in children’s games--that are actually hypersexualized.

There’s an argument to be made here that rather than there being anything sinister at play, games are simply made by and for a group (males). Give any creator license to choose their creation and they pick content that’s of interest to them. Dudes make games for dudes. Thus, the cycle of female representation can only change if women make games in greater numbers. Here are the data on women in the industry from IGDA numbers (2004 and 2009) and Game Developer (2012):

2004: 93% male/7% female

2009: 86% male/14% female

2012: No overall numbers, but by job function

Producer: 77% male/23% female

Programmer: 96% male/4% female

QA (the gateway job): 93% male/7% female

Given these numbers, we’d expect to see little change in characters, but maybe there’s some hope in customizability? Or maybe that’s spitting in the wind. Still, given how many females play, you don’t need to be socially progressive to consider adding more balanced character content. It makes good business sense.

And, truth be told, as a father of a daughter, I’d like to see my kid controlling some badass chics blowing away aliens on the way to save her hapless boyfriend.


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