Games are not really known for having the greatest body diversity. But you know what? Some games are doing all right. This month, we chatted about what body diversity in games means to us, how it can be meaningful, and what, if anything, we think is enough.
What games have surprised you with their representations of different types of body diversity?
Melissa Brinks: I don’t know that it was a surprise necessarily, but I was very happy to see that the character creation screen of Dream Daddy included not just fat bodies but also bodies with binders. Not to get too deep into the weeds here, but the popular conception of what a “daddy” (in the, uh, non-fatherly sense) is tends to look pretty normative. That Dream Daddy extended the “dream” to include trans and fat bodies (and trans and fat bodies!) was an unexpected delight. I would have liked to see more body diversity within the game itself, but I think providing a space for players to imagine their dream daddies without such rigid definitions was a positive step.
E. Forney: I’ve been playing through Pokémon Shield recently, and I was surprised that the ice-type trainer, Melony wasn’t the typical skinny anime girl build you’d expect. For once, a character that I could cosplay without feeling like the “blown up” version! I’m used to earlier generations with Misty, Erika, Sabrina, Whitney, Jasmine, and Clair who essentially all had the same build.
Elvie Mae Parian: I was surprised by the Saints Row games, as goofy and intentionally buck wild as they are, to actually let you create a character with the wide size parameters they have. Even other games with bigger franchise clout like Final Fantasy XIV and Grand Theft Auto Online have limited character creators that restrain you against making a bigger person or someone who may be smaller than average. Saints Row doesn’t care what you look like in order to wreck havoc.
Nola Pfau: I gotta echo Forney here, I know that Pokémon games have generally worked on being more and more inclusive with each successive iteration, but the newest generation really had a great spread of different types of people. Of course, not all of those representations were good; specifically some of the Team Yell goons were pretty disappointing.
What games do you feel have meaningful positive body diversity? What does meaningful positive body diversity mean to you?
Melissa: To be honest, I can’t think of any off of the top of my head. I feel like body diversity in games is often incidental or worse, a source of humor or fear. Players creating their own characters can add much-needed body diversity to a game, but since games typically play the same regardless of how your character looks, it’s more about the (still important!) kind of representation based purely on seeing without exploring meaning.
Meaning is kind of tricky, but the way I think of it is that I’d like to have some indication that the creators of a game’s world have given thought to what it means to have a non-normative body in their world—what does it mean to be fat, disabled, trans, or otherwise? If it doesn’t mean anything because the world they’ve created is not fatphobic, ableist, transphobic, and so on, does that idea ring true through the entirety of the story?
For example, I praised Dream Daddy for allowing you to have fat and trans daddies. And while I think that the game was a step in the right direction and that the treatment of both Brian and Damien were positive, I’d also have liked to see the game explore those identities with a little more depth. How would that look? I’m not sure! But mindful, meaningful representation rather than just passing references is something that really interests me.
Forney: I feel like Tacoma did a pretty good job of this. They only really have six characters, but their body types varied. As the protagonist, you are learning about their lives aboard the spaceship Tacoma by tracking recordings of them (in the form of their color-coded forms moving around and reciting what they said long before you arrived). I don’t recall any specific moments where characters were talking about bodies other than one character explaining why he likes to work out so much. If I recall it correctly, Andrew’s motivation to hit the small gym area on the ship was more to keep him sane in the harsh environment of space since he missed his family and had limited interactions with other people.
In general, Tacoma was very genuine and tackled well-written human concerns. It wasn’t specific to body diversity and positivity in the story, but I appreciated the conscious choice to include a variety of bodies. So, at a minimum, I think including diverse bodies that aren’t seen as unusual or bad can make a game meaningful. I’d like to see a lot more of it though, since that bar seems pretty low.
Elvie: It is a little hard to define what piece of media makes “meaningful” decisions, especially on something like positive body diversity.
There is a reason why Undertale is successful the way it is and its impact continues to make ripples with many to this day. Undertale portrays all sorts of relationships and types of bodies in very nonchalant ways without question or overemphasis. To me, positive diversity means portraying things just as is, but a lot of media has been unfortunately cornered in a place to draw special attention to these decisions for either brownie points or the good faith of representation.
Although I am boasting about Undertale, it mostly comprises of anthropomorphic non-humans in the presentation of these different body types and identities. This issue seems to ring true across other pieces of media in which diversity is translated to things that aren’t necessarily direct analogies to our own world as they should. It’s very difficult, for instance, to name a nonbinary character off the top my head who is actually a proven human. Let’s also refer to the statistic in which children’s books portray more animals than Black people.
I would like future media to take note of what Undertale does with its heart, but also to consider what it means for representation that would be more directly translatable to reality as opposed to allegorically.
Nola: I guess the sticking point here is how do we define meaningful? I know that’s part of the question above, but our personal views end up subjective to the extreme here. It’s easy to say, “oh, I want to see trans bodies and fat bodies,” and I do, but also, what about the depiction of them makes them meaningful? Representations of body diversity that are incidental to the story of a game are important, I think, because it normalizes those types of bodies, but I’d also be interested to see body types as relevant points to a game, because there are certain experiences that are specific to each body type. For instance, trans bodies in games are nice, but how many games are about being trans, down to the unique experiences of having a trans body? How many depictions of disabled bodies are in games, and in what ways do they (fail to) accurately convey the experience of a person who lives with a given disability?
When creating characters in tabletop games, do you include characters with different types of body diversity? How do you make that diversity meaningful in-game?
Melissa: I’ll admit that I asked this question because it’s a weak spot for me. I’m a person with a lot of privilege, and I tend to do that thing a lot of well-meaning privileged folks do—I worry about getting representation wrong, especially in games where I actually play the character, to the point that I frequently end up choosing characters that are more closely aligned with my lived experience. It’s kind of a mixed bag, because on the one hand, I am less likely to step way outside of my lane and do something thoughtless, and on the other, it means my games can tend toward homogeneity.
Being aware of this tendency is a good step, but awareness doesn’t really progress anything. I need to challenge myself to include characters whose identities are markedly different than mine, especially because I frequently DM and a world comprised of various “mes” is boring. I also need to think about how to share information with players in a way that’s realistic, thoughtful, and meaningful without feeling like their identities are inconsequential. I’m trying to find the line between dropping in that a character is fat, for example, without having to have that character experience some kind of bigotry or have to bring it up constantly for it to matter, which I’m doing by listening to how other DMs and tabletop players do it, especially those who experience those marginalizations themselves.
Forney: I love to play all sorts of different characters in RPGs. To an extent, my characters will have some of my personality, so I try to pick out one identity to keep in mind to help form character decisions. When I play with my friends, I’m not worried about potentially misrepresenting a character with a different identity—not because I’m necessarily doing it correctly, but because my friends know that my exploring other identities comes from a place of empathy and willingness to learn.
In terms of body diversity specifically, body type is usually one of the things I’ll explicitly decide at the beginning based on character background, but bringing it up in play varies. I had a character who was a farm laborer in her twenties, so she was explicitly stocky and had good constitution. In that game, your occupation and the region you came from informed your character a lot. In a completely different game about waking up on an alien spaceship and figuring out what to do, I chose a character who had been assigned male at birth and had transitioned non-medically. However, in that game, the characters were more preoccupied with figuring out the ship and how to survive or escape, so there wasn’t a lot of exploration of character background. So I guess, I make the physical body characteristics meaningful if I can, but I don’t want to stretch to make it a point of focus for a game it doesn’t fit in.
Elvie: This is something I try to be conscious of especially as a brown-skinned person in which white, European-coded characters continue to carry majority default faces across numerous fantasy works. I love exploring history and have been trying my best to incorporate fact comfortably into worlds that are otherwise fiction to challenge whitewashed history. Although I too am someone with a lot of privilege, I also know I have to be careful overstepping aspects that I am not fully educated on, especially when it comes to creating characters that have bodies and are of cultures that are not of my own. There is always a balance of acknowledging that certain things don’t matter, but in the context of our own reality, even if these stories take place in a fictional reality, they still do.
Nola: So I’ve had this weird thing whenever creating fiction, ever since I was a kid, where I will almost universally forget to describe a character’s physical form. This has absolutely carried through to creating NPCs for games; I will pick a given monster or whatever, and usually come up with some kind of mannerism, but I will almost never describe them visually unless someone takes the time to ask, at which point I stumble over myself and realize I’ve forgotten a key ingredient to the mixture. This is tangential to the topic of body diversity, it’s more about my brain, which… doesn’t consider shapes at all. In light of this topic, that means I’ve got an incredibly big weak spot myself, and that’s something I’m definitely trying to work on, down to a Post-it note on the side of my monitor that reads “What do they LOOK like?”
Melissa: Same, Nola! I never think about what characters look like unless it’s like, one singular defining trait or piece of an outfit. I need my own Post-it.
Is the visual representation and/or specific mentions of body diversity enough?
Melissa: I asked this question and now realize it’s kind of a useless question—what does “enough” even mean?
What I was angling at was more the question of whether a character being fat, for example, is satisfying. I think it can be, but there’s more to it than that. Seeing yourself reflected in media that treats you as human is, I think, extremely valuable.
But some media is content to just mention that people of this or that type exist in a universe without exploring what that means, whether it factors into their identity. That doesn’t mean that every story about a fat character should only be about fatness—that’s extremely limiting!—but rather that I should get the sense that creators have thought about it.
Forney: I’m a fatter female-ish person, and honestly, when I see a larger person (especially a non-cis-male person) who isn’t in a game to be mocked because they are fat, I’m pretty happy. At least right now, just including a different body type feels good. But I’d like games to push that more with exploring narratives or how different bodies affect gameplay or something like that.
Melissa: I think what you say about “right now” is really true, Forney. I don’t think it’s wrong to ask for more right now, but there is so little body diversity represented in games that there’s also nothing wrong with feeling good about what we do have. That’s something that we (“we” in a very broad, cultural critic sense) sometimes forget—”right now” is a valuable time, too.
Elvie: I also agree that we shouldn’t feel bad about taking pride and finding content in the tiny things. Just pure, visual representation shouldn’t be the end-all solution when I think authorship and thorough, more proper exploration of these ideas in stories should be, but with climate of media representation now, those things are still positive steps in some way forward. There never really should be just “enough,” but that there should be building blocks to ensure that there’d be even more.
Nola: No, it’s not enough.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.