Fighting games have long featured characters based on racial and cultural stereotypes. The cartoonish nature of these fighters sometimes wanders from the zone of good-natured fun to the land of racism or extreme sexism. Presumably the characters are the way they are because they are deemed compelling, but that reasoning may have walked straight into a wall of research. According to a new study out of the University of Delaware, gamers care about how their avatars play. They give a negligible number of shits about characterization.
Associate professor of Japanese studies Rachael Hutchinson conducted a four-year survey measuring fighting game characters and their impression within gender stereotypes. These findings were collected into her paper, “Gender Stereotypes in Japanese Fighting Games: Effects on Identification and Immersion” which was published in September’s Journal of New Media and Culture.
Pulling subjects from her “Japanese Visual Culture” class each semester, Hutchinson had students play fighting games like Tekken and Soul Calibur populated by male Herculean pugilists and shapely female combatants. Hutchinson’s question: “Do stereotypes increase or decrease the player’s identification with the character they are controlling?” More specifically, she was interested in finding out if gender stereotyping effected male players.
Hutchinson conclusions: Gamers just like to kick ass.
The exaggerated physiques of fighting game characters — male and female — are meant to immediately communicate who they are or how they play. In most fighting games, there is a brief opportunity, often just 30 seconds, to select a character. Exaggerated physiques, whether brutish or slender, communicate what kind of fighter gamers going to control. To the extent to which they do that accurately, they can be helpful, but gamers’ central concern was playability.
Hutchinson’s students all reacted well to one thing: winning. The binary win/lose in fighting games unambiguously decides the better button masher. From the questionnaire she gave students, 37 percent answered that winning was the number one thing that enhances identification with a character, and 27 percent answered losing as detracting from identification. Costumes and appearance was ranked low on enhancing identification (8 percent) while the same ranked 14 percent on detracting identification.
That doesn’t mean they didn’t notice the characters on the screen. Hutchinson quotes a female student playing SoulCalibur IV:
The women all look pretty ridiculous; I’m not sure how it’s possible to move in such tight clothing, let alone fight. Why are they all wearing (tiny) skirts? … It’s kind of gross and it makes me angry that the female body can be used like that. It’s like they only expect teenage boys to be playing this game and this is part of how they lure them in.
A male gamer playing SoulCalibur II noted that the massive physique of some characters, like Astaroth, could influence younger players untuned with media literacy “in their disillusionment of muscle dysmorphia.”
Another male player, who was also a bodybuilder IRL, felt weirded out by the extreme physiques of these characters.
“I am into weight lifting, and in all honesty I don’t know how these guys do it. Seriously, these guys would put some of the top body builders to shame … Jin Kazama. Are they kidding? He is unbelievably cut up … Looking at this guy makes me feel like giving up, because he is an alien, and it’s not fair he gets to look that ripped.