Ah, the onward march of technology. Though the fiddly arguments over what "next gen" really means are unceasing, the general trend is that games get bigger, slicker, richer and more lifelike with every passing year.
Soulcalibur's Ivy may be the poster child for this annual augmentation – literally. It seems with each passing year, her endowment multiplies, ushering in each passing technological evolution with more ludicrous, top-heavy jiggle than the era before.
But it'd be unfair to pick on Miss Valentine. After all, unrealistic body types in games are nothing new, a conversation-starter as old as Lara Croft. The fact that "sex sells" and the proliferation of exploitive body types is a cultural pandemic, not simply a video game issue, is the easy way to explain it, but the "easy" way is seldom very enlightening, nor does it help us learn about why we play.
What does it all mean, in an interactive medium where realism, immersion and engagement are the primary goals? Are we seeking idealistic images as avatars for ourselves, to complete the fantasy of power that gaming can provide?
Is this a case where the gaming audience has been misjudged through the ages by marketing teams who assume each and every one of us is a vapidly salivating 15-17 year-old male – until their assumptions have unconsciously shaped our taste?
Is This What We Want?
Again, it's an easy pastime to criticize our society for leaning too heavily on unrealistic stereotypes for male and female bodies. It can actually be an enlightening exercise, when you're on a packed subway or on a crowded street, to simply take a look around you, and see what human beings really look like. Chances are the handsomest man you see will not be a broad-muscled he-man, nor will the loveliest lady be a leggy siren with burgeoning cleavage.
However, most of the heroes in popular entertainment are still uncommonly beautiful; ugly or even merely common looks are still considered a plot device or a character trait, and with a few exceptions, games generally seem to lag a bit behind film as far as discovering the appeal in the common. Even men with war-torn, unattractive faces, still have heroic bodies, usually.
But that's because we don't want games to be common, do we? Picture a fighting game where the characters were simply ordinary, dressed in suitable exercise gear, and not particularly special to look at. That would be true realism, and even with some glorious game mechanics, you've got to admit it'd be a bit boring.
It seems we don't really mean it when we, as gamers, say we want "realism" – what we really want is an appealing fantasy so vivid we can really believe in it. A world where the women are titillating and the men are fierce, rendered with such eye-catching density that we can almost reach out and touch it.
The Flesh Is Weak
At the same time, we as an audience seem to reach a general consensus in rejecting games that seem to be manipulating us with too many crotch-shots. Using overblown flesh visuals and overt, eye-to-brain sexuality is a quick and dirty shortcut to emotional engagement, when we'd rather be drawn in by things like, oh, I don't know – good characters, perhaps, a compelling backstory, and maybe, just maybe, really solid game mechanics?
We sense when the marketing campaign is trying to buy our attention with a huge neon sign emblazoned with "XXX," and we resent that. Contrary to outsider belief, gamers comprise a spectrum of age ranges, motivations for play, tastes and preferences – if we've been caged into a single demographic in the past, it's only because that makes it easier for the folks upstairs to sell us things. That's just business, but games are personal to their audience.
We're in a state, now, of continually considering what our young medium is and what we can expect to get from it, where we want it to go. We've richened in many ways, but are still using shortcuts – long cutscenes in lieu of narrative environments, high-powered explosions in lieu of crafted plot climaxes, and raw, primal flesh in lieu of subtler kinds of power.
We'd like to look at beautiful fantasies we can believe in, but that's not all we want.
What We're Fighting For
And there's no backlash like that of the internet-based gamer audience when it doesn't get what it wants. So if we're not all salivating teenage boys, and we resist being bought with cheap sex alone, then why does the stereotype of unrealistic bodies in games persist? Why is Ivy's exponential bustline such a hot issue to our community?
Maybe the genre has something to do with it. While most video games feature a hot woman at some juncture, fighting games seem to have the highest and most diverse population of them. Fighting games ask you to "choose your fighter," and while those games generally are made or broken on game mechanics, part of the appeal is that the character images we control may be representations, unconsciously, of ourselves.
In a mechanics-driven genre, the star of the game is the player's skill level. Yes, Taki might be beating Astaroth silly for mysterious reasons of ninja vengeance and sword-obsession, but it's really about you, challenging the machine, or your friend, for control-pad dominance. Whose looks, and whose body movements, best represent you?
Though, is anyone reading this article five-foot-eight and 110 pounds with a 22-inch waist and a triple-E breast size? (And if you are, can I steal your figure?)
Assuming that body types in games represent ideals, and that game bodies are stand-ins for ourselves to some extent, we still haven't figured out a good reason why we want to look quite this way.
Survival of the Fittest
The idealization of the human form in art is nothing new. When Botticelli painted Venus, or when Michelangelo chiseled David, we can assume they were not, at least on a conscious level, creating depictions of themselves, or even what they wanted to be. And if we think of games as art to the extent that we're able to use them as vehicles for self-expression, the same holds true for our Soulcalibur lineup.
Venus was an archetype of female beauty, in the humanoid tradition of Greco-Roman gods; David was an archetype of male beauty, both representative of human evolution taken to its highest condition. And our fighting game characters are archetypes of what they represent – fearlessness, aggression, purposefulness, and primal fierceness. It's even arguable that tapping into adrenaline-fueled aggression when we play video games is a biological replacement for how we as humans felt in an era when we had to fight more overtly for social dominance, physical superiority, the best mate, the food we had to kill to eat.
That's Darwinism at work – survival of the fittest. And so in a game where you survive on your skills, you want to look like the fittest. Why not go over-the-top and be such an ideal that it wouldn't be possible for you to exist in the current genetic landscape?
The Unanswered Questions
So even though we've generated a theory for why we like to be obscenely perfect women or aggressively idealized men when we play video games where aggression or combat is at the core of the gameplay (and that's most games, really), there's still one issue left – how does this affect us, and what does it mean for the future of games?
As a female, I'm not sure whether my perception of other women – or of myself – has been affected by the avatars I see in the games I play every day. I do know that, when I take that quick look around the crowded subway car to see how other women really look, I am always a little bit surprised – but there's no clear way to blame games for that, when it's such a pervasive complex in other entertainment media.
I do know that some of my female peers feel that the flesh displays in gaming are degrading to them – even if that primal, aggression-based exposure supports the core tenets of a particular title. And I've often wondered how my majority-male peers in the gaming audience feel about how men are portrayed in games, and whether being continually exposed to powerful, armed brawlers on the warpath makes them feel more or less powerful in their "real" lives.
Not to mention the fact that gaming is in steady pursuit of wider-spread cultural legitimacy. And while it's good that many "casual gamers'" play habits are helping them understand ours better, and that Rock Band has made all kinds of folks quit believing that the console is a mysterious tool of evil for immature people, we'd really like it if people could appreciate our core titles the way that we do, consider the value in the things we find most valuable.
And if, when they take a closer look, all they can see from a distance is that we like tits, there's going to be a problem.
While I've said before it's not constructive to consider anything "just a game," a game is still not in and of itself real, and that's part of the appeal – we can explore fantasies, see and do things that aren't possible in the real world. And we all, of course, can delineate the difference between fantasy and reality, right?
So, with a good reason or not, are idealized body types harmful or helpful to the identity and maturity of gaming? Next time, would you rather see the debut of a demure, complex Ivy – or one with bigger jugs than ever?