Body Types in Games · Games Criticism · Uncategorized

Apropos of Nothing

It’s, uh… it’s been a heck of a couple weeks, hasn’t it.

A lot of stuff has happened. For a few glorious hours last Monday, many of us in the Twittersphere indulged in a bit of saucy appreciation of Street Fighter V‘s bearded alt-costume “Hot Ryu” and how in many ways our desire to either have sex with him or to have him greet us with dinner and a massage after a rough workday express something about how women and queer folks express desire for fictional characters compared to cishet guys. Both of these links are by my friend and amazing person Maddy Myers, newly of The Mary Sue.

Then came Riley MacLeod’s recent essay for Offworld on stealth games and queer masculine bodies. Specifically he talks about how stealth games often give players an avatar that — thanks to the expressed nature of stealth as non-combat, quiet, sometimes acrobatic sneaky work — lets them inhabit a body that’s not “idealized and innately powerful, adorned with grim faces chiseled onto neckless heads.” Riley evokes the images of just being someone a little bit shorter, a little bit smaller, and having to navigate the world around you… one often filled with other masculine bodies one must interact with or be judged by. It’s a very compelling read.

Metal Gear Solid V came out and we finally, at last, got the definitive canonical word on why Sexy Sniper Quiet™ is dressed in the utterly ridiculous outfit she has been shown wearing since the game was announced. Spoiler alert: the reason is complete and utter nonsense (spoilers in link) and it feels like if we were ever thinking there would be a satisfying reason for this, well… we were probably deluding ourselves (video in link almost certainly NSFW, though no nudity).

And then of course there was comedian Nicole Arbour’s utterly execrable, totally indefensible “Dear Fat People” viral video. I will not link it; I encourage you not to seek it out, either, because it is six minutes of your life you won’t get back, and it is literally every tired fat shame-y joke about fat bodies that any comedian has deployed ever (they can’t run fast! they’re gluttons!). Arbour’s argument is that fat shaming isn’t “real” and that even if it was, it’s a good thing because it should be deployed in an effort to get fat people to lose weight.

Yesterday I went grocery shopping, which means two 45-50 minute light rail trips on which I have time to just sit and think about things, and all of these things started to come together in my mind. As I was thinking about it, Maddy made a couple of tweets that gave me even more to consider, this time about cosplay:

I stopped checking the internet, I stopped thinking about things long enough to listen to the latest Justice Points ep. And then I got on the train to come home and I thought a little bit more, and I saw this tweet by Aevee Bee:

Basically, all of these things have me thinking about bodies, and mediated representations of bodies, and specifically representations of bodies in games. And the question I keep asking myself, considering all of it, is: what are bodies “good for” in games?

It was Riley’s article that really got me thinking about this. Because I think his point is spot on: stealth, as a genre that typically speaking features mechanics and gameplay elements different from the typical AAA shootymans or swordymans (or sometimes shootyswordymans) power fantasy, does present a way in which bodies outside the heteromasculine power fantasy norm can make an appearance. But I realized the reason they can do that is because they’re viewed as “appropriate for the task.” Which is to say: this is going to require crawling through air ducts and sneaking around quietly and so [x] body is “appropriate” for what is being asked of us to do.

I tried to imagine: what role would, say, a fat body like mine have in a stealth game? How would that play out? I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen, though I’d be happy to be proven wrong. The closest I can imagine is one of the worst fat characters ever, Samurai Shodown‘s Earthquake. He’s a ninja, but that’s the joke: he’s big and fat so how could he possibly be a ninja? Similarly this is both the peril and the promise of Street Fighter 4‘s Rufus (which I’ve written about before), whose acrobatic style and speed are at odds with his round, fat body… again, the whole point of the “joke.” I say “the peril and the promise” because I distinctly want fat bodies to be put in situations where they are “unexpected” or “inappropriate,” but since doing so almost always paints them as objects of derision or ridicule, I am usually displeased with the results.

This is by no means an indictment of Riley’s excellent article. Rather, I say this because I feel as if my experience with embodiment in games is exactly the opposite of his. There are no games in which bodies like mine are considered “appropriate,” because the list of things non-muscular fat bodies are “good for” in games, mechanically or thematically, is extremely small. They’re almost always associated with food, laziness, cruelty, or with the “fart attack” which is in fact a rhetorical shorthand for “fat bodies are disgusting.” If you want more about this, feel free to watch the video of my GDC talk from this year.

So I find ways to enjoy inhabiting the bodies that are available to me. I scrupulously reject the muscled neckless cishet bro power fantasy body, but I am happy to dive into the svelte and toned form of, say, MGS2‘s Raiden, or considerably more frequently, into the bodies of women characters of all shapes and sizes (though I wouldn’t say those shapes or sizes are all that… varied).

I sat down and really thought: when do fat bodies get agency in games? Because yes, to some extent this is about representation on the narrative or thematic level, about how fat bodies appear. But because games offer us spaces to play in, and a specific and curated set of ways with which to do so, even an avatar you don’t identify with/feel you’re “inhabiting” has an impact on the meaning-making process of play. What fat bodies are allowed to do is as important as how they appear.

The answer, for the record, is that the list is incredibly, depressingly short. A thing fat bodies are allowed to do often is fight. But that “fighting” is often a very specific vision of what is “appropriate” for a fat body to do in the first place. Wario and Earthquake are two examples of “the gross fat guy” who generally is defined by his list of abjectionable or gross actions: farting, eating (and smelling like) raw garlic, belching, etc. The upcoming Street Fighter V reintroduces SF Alpha-era character Birdie, a hefty bruiser, but makes being fat, overeating, and being “gross” his new schtick. The “gross fat guy” is rhetorical shorthand for our cultural views on fatness: that it’s associated with being slovenly, unclean, unfit, and… well, “gross.”

In Playstation All-Stars, Fat Princess — a literal “woman as the ball” character in her own game — gets to fight, but she does so mostly by proxy: she uses magic, calls soldiers to protect her, rides a giant chicken… and when she does attack “on her own,” the attack is about food. Her level 1 knockout move makes a piece of cake appear, which she runs toward at high speed, KOing anyone between it and her.

Fat Princess eats a piece of cake, going from "thin" to "fat" instantly
Fat Princess’s round start animation from Playstation All-Stars. Source:

Think about that for one fucking second. This is a game where Nathan Drake calmly whips an oil barrel out of nowhere, kicks it at the target, then shoots it out of midair. Fat Princess inadvertently kills people because they stand between her and food. Both of these bodies are cued as “appropriate for” fighting, but Fat Princess is only allowed to fight in a way that is “appropriate” for her body.

And then there’s extremes like Rufus and Bob. As I’ve said before, Bob is a capable fighter but his fatness is a self-imposed “handicap,” and Rufus is an amazing, speedy acrobat but he’s also portrayed as delusional and ridiculous. Bob fights in a way that’s “appropriate for” his body — utilizing belly flops and other similar “heavy”-feeling moves — but is himself kind of a joke, while Rufus fights in a way that isn’t “appropriate” and in the process becomes a joke for precisely that reason: “fat guys can’t do that. He must be a joke!”

Perhaps this is why I found Arbour’s completely bullshit “Dear Fat People” bit to be so hurtful, so painful: it was a long list of what fat bodies are “appropriate” or “not appropriate” for. Her (and I am being gracious here) “jokes” inscribe countless such labels on fat bodies: that they are default helpless, weak, shameful, harmful to yourself and others, less good. They are “appropriate” only as objects of pity or ridicule. It is the ultimate statement of “here is what I think you and people like you are good for” and the answer is “nothing.”

This is compounded in games by the fact that playable fat characters — and I mean fat, not “muscle-big” — are so incredibly rare. The lion’s share of fat characters — even the ones I enjoy and think have lots of positive features — are NPCs or background characters. They are literal objects, there solely to be viewed, manipulated, and acted upon (physically or emotionally) by others. And this sends yet another message about what fat bodies are “appropriate” for: being victims, being acted upon, having no power, no ability.

But as a person with a fat body who plays a lot of games this leaves me in an uncomfortable limbo. Unlike the smaller, more compact, less hegemonic bodies Riley describes as being common in stealth games, there is no positive equivalent for fat bodies in games, not that we are not forced to make for ourselves — or more accurately “make do” for ourselves — in avatar creators or through plain old everyday wishful thinking.

So what are my options?

1.) Embrace what games tell me my body is “appropriate” for — food obsession, being “gross,” being heavy/slow, being pitiable — and learn to live with it.

2.) Aim for characters that break the mold of what fat bodies are “good for” — like Rufus — but accept that these characters, in breaking the mold, universally become objects of ridicule.

Generally, I go for 3.) spending a lot of time in bodies that aren’t like mine, often acting negatively against bodies that are like mine. Every time my nimble Demon Hunter in Diablo 3 kills one of the big, round, bloated zombies, that’s what I’m doing: I’m stuck in the body of a lithe, tiny woman I will never be like, being reminded that fat bodies are gross (and sometimes explode into a cloud of angry bees? I guess).

Usually at this point I stop and go: “I wish I knew what the answer to this is.” But I do know what the answer is. We need more fat bodies in games, and they need to be both “appropriate” and “inappropriate.” We need more fat characters with agency, and we need more fat characters whose agency is not the center of ridicule. I want a Rufus-alike who the other characters in game consider to be serious rather than an opportunity for a joke. I want a Fat Princess who, rather than gorging herself or chasing cake, is a powerful and smart ruler, loved by all. I want a big fat Texan ninja who leverages and understands his size yet is able to effectively and competently do his job, and who can do it without being “dur hur fat guy farts on people to attack them.”

And importantly I want these experiences to be authored, not consigned to avatar creators and customizers. I want characters where the creator was able to view these bodies as worthwhile, important. I want making a fat character to be a choice a game creator can make because they were inspired or intrigued or interested, not because they need lazy shorthand.

I suppose until then, I’ll have to keep on dancing in these other, more “appropriate” bodies.

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