The Virtual Census: The male body in videogames (Martins et al., 2011)

Over a year ago, Nicole Martins published an article about body dimensions of female videogame characters and these female characters are pretty much unrealistic as in other media. This year, Martins and colleagues gave the male side the same magnifying glass and it’s pretty much the same unrealism, but with some disquieting differences compared to the women of videogames.


The 150 top-selling video games were content analyzed to study representations of male bodies. Human males in the games were captured via screenshot and body parts measured. These measurements were then compared to anthropometric data drawn from a representative sample of 3000 American men. Characters at high levels of photorealism were larger than the average American male, but these characters did not mirror the V-shaped ideal found in mainstream media. Characters at low levels of photorealism were also larger than the average American male, but these characters were so much larger that they appeared cartoonish. Idealized male characters were more likely to be found in games for children than in games for adults. Implications for cultivation theory are discussed.

My laptop is showing signs of senility… Hold on until my master’s dissertation!Drawn from the same pool of videogames as in their previous study of which these 150 top videogames from March 2005 to February 2006, there are 3122 male characters out of the total of 8572. This sample size of male characters is a huge discrepancy when compared to 368 female characters. This is addressed in Williams et al.’s 2009 census article, where the likely causes are developer demographics and consumer demographics that drive the discrepancy. The 3122 male characters were distilled down to 1074 that they were able to analyze.


Mitsurugi's evolution throughoout the series

Using recorded sessions and screenshots, coders measured the characters’ height, head width, chest width, waist width, and hip width in inches. Chest width is taken at the widest whereas waist is taken at narrowest. They created several categories to see differences in male depictions according to realism and ESRB age rating.

To produce a comparison with a real life male body, they used data from a 1998 study that sampled 6000 US individuals across various physical characteristics, such as age, ethnicity, weight and such. Like they did with the female videogame study, they created a 3D models for comparison.

The first figure is the average human male body. The second figure is the average male videogame characters. The third figure is the average male in low realism. The fourth is the average male in high realism. They fixed all models at a height of 69.55 inches in order to directly compare body proportions. Although, I’m interested to see what’s the average height of videogame characters, however I’m guessing that the average would be significant different from real life and the deviations even higher.

The models are creepy, let’s get down to the numbers and see how male videogame characters are not human. Their heads are about 13 inches bigger, chest is bigger by about 2 inches, waist is 5 inches wider, and the hips are 7 inches wider. One thing they didn’t analyzed are the legs, just looking at those legs, they’re kind of stubby.

Looking at the differences between realistic and low realistic male characters. They defined realism in terms of photorealism, so details and pixelations. So, the realistic male characters have a smaller head, chest, waist, and hips than the low realistic characters. Compared with real humans, the realistic characters are still bigger in terms of head size, waists, and hips, except for chest size. As for low realistic male characters, well the picture tells it all. Some might muse these characters are played by real humans in suits.

Another comparison is between the age rating, they compared “E” and “E+10”-rated male characters to “T” and “M”-rated male characters. They found that kids’ male characters have larger chest by 4 inches and smaller hips by 3 inches than those in adults’ male characters. Compared with real humans, the kids and adults’ male character are just bigger on every measure. So much for cosplay, well there’s always Photoshop…

The authors found that male videogame characters are not as bad in negatively affecting men and boys’ body satisfaction, in contrast to female videogame characters.  Although, this is not directly measured in this study, the male characters while bigger than real humans, they don’t display any of the media idealism of masculinity, such as the idealized V-shape chest-to-waist ratio. This is noted about highly photorealistic male videogame characters’ body proportions which didn’t deviate too much from an average person. In contrast, a previous study that looked into videogame magazines had an effect on boys’ drive for muscularity, although I haven’t read it, the characters’ hypermuscularity in the magazine were identified as making an impression in setting off boys’ quest for muscles. Why haven’t we seen hypermuscular male characters in the actual videogame may be a difference of perspectives. IMO, it’s likely marketing has a hand in it, since their goal is to sell videogames as attractive as possible, and maybe photoshopping male characters physique is one of many ways. Or, which kind of videogames are more advertised than others may be a factor. In contrast, videogame designers think differently, thus are more concerned in making the videogame work rather than making it pretty to buy.

Alternatively, the authors argued that the differences may be less dramatic given the obesity rate in the U.S., since their human dimensions data is from 1998, today’ average physical size may be very different, mostly likely at the waist. The authors argued that male videogame characters’ physique are perhaps more realistically ideal and it is the average American man is becoming less ideal.

I had an idea earlier, that low realism and age ratings are correlated in explaining proportion differences. I had the thought that cartoonish characters are most often depicted in children’s videogames and that the level of photorealism is lower compared to videogames catered towards older audiences which often depicts more to real-life proportions. However, this is not the case, and this had me reconsider other explanations. Martins and company offered some explanations in their discussion section; they discussed the “uncanny valley” effect that low photorealistic characters have such disproportions to avoid comparisons with real human characteristics. Alternatively, it might’ve been done for stylistic reasons. Some stylistic reasons, at the top of my head, probably for making cute characters, Super-deformed characters, comical settings, etc.  They did analyze the data between videogame genres, but found none.

The authors found it perplexing when comparing depictions of female videogame characters. Female videogame characters are unrealistic depicted, whereas male characters are unrealistic to a lesser degree. They argued that it has to do with demographics, both from the producers (i.e. designers) and consumers (i.e. gamers). A spiralling cycle where videogames catered to male propensities attracted men to the videogame industry to create more of those videogames, thus an unequal gender ratio in the videogame industry. One of the sad effects is how female characters are depicted according to male ideals, oozing sexiness to the point of sexual objectification. Why?  Maybe they are following trends in other media? Male fantasies? Designers’ perceived audience (mostly white male) expectations of female characters? Perhaps (IMO) male videogame characters are treated differently by the designers, as objects of art like sculptures? Perhaps, another content analysis study on the body proportions according to art theory, such as the golden ratio. That sounds kind of nifty.

The authors listed limitations of the study. One being a content analysis study, it doesn’t tell what kind of effects male videogame characters has on male or female gamers. Not all videogame characters were analyzed because some are in the background or too small, in the case of characters in the Nintendo DS. Another limitation is that the majority (72%) of male characters are depicted in the “T” or “M”-rated games. So, children are unlikely to encounter the “E”-rated male characters as often as those in the older-rated games. As a grinding reminder, this study specifically looks at body proportions, it is but one of many ways to look at body image effects, at the top of my head, we could look at facial features of videogame characters, for example.

A representative sample of videogames has shown that the male videogame bodies aren’t likely to negatively affect men’s body satisfaction since the dimensions aren’t terribly irrealistic. However, they suggested future studies should investigate the type of game and type of images gamers are exposed to. My suggestion is to directly examine videogames that just oozes masculinity through and through, such as the wrestling genre, and games that were explicitly designed for maximum masculinity, such as God of War or Gears of War. Another suggestion is to look at the culturally defined range of character customization. This was prompted by this blog post. It begs the question if freedom of depiction is culturally restrained, whether we can have a guy with chest hair or a woman with a flat chest. Whether these choice restrictions narrow our range of what dimensions of a human being should be.

Martins, N., Williams, D. C., Ratan, R. A., & Harrison, K. (2011). Virtual muscularity: A content analysis of male video game characters. Body Image , 8 (1), 43-51. doi:  10.1016/j.bodyim.2010.10.002


2 thoughts on “The Virtual Census: The male body in videogames (Martins et al., 2011)

  1. In Appendix B, They are certainly appear feminized with the narrow shoulders and extra thickness in the hips and thighs. Just make their heads normal human sized, give them longer legs/shorter torsos, remove the crotch bulge, add some breasts, smooth out the abdominal muscle definition a bit, and you will have some very average looking females.

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