College students in college have negative feelings about exaggerated and highly sexualized body types

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Students who play Japanese fighting video games often object to unrealistic portrayals of characters, drawn with exaggerated and highly sexualized physiques, but say the mechanics of the game itself are more important to them.

These findings come from researcher Rachael Hutchinson, an associate professor of Japanese studies at the University of Delaware, who conducted four-year surveys of student attitudes toward games. Her article, “Gender Stereotypes in Japanese Fighting Games: Effects on Identification and Immersion,” was published in the September issue of Journal of New Media and Culture.

“In these particular games, the characters – male and female – have very extreme and exaggerated physiques,” Hutchinson said. “These are very unrealistic body types.

“My question was: does this interfere with a player’s ability to relate to a character [he or she is controlling during the game] or their immersion in the game?”

She found that gamers noticed and had negative feelings about exaggerated body types and that there were differences between the reactions of men and women, although both genders expressed concern about the influence on young players.

Men, she said, were more concerned with the extreme body images of male characters, drawn with muscles so exaggerated that even a student who was a bodybuilder called them unrealistic. In contrast, women were more likely to criticize the sexualized portrayal of female characters as an indication that men dominate the video game industry as designers and business leaders.

Despite these objections to character images, students told Hutchinson that other factors were much more important to their identification with characters and their immersion in a particular game.

“When I asked them what interfered with their identification with a character, sexualized elements were ranked number 6,” she said.

Far more important to players were factors such as whether they won the game and whether they could easily direct a character’s actions.

“When you lose or feel like you can’t control your character, you get frustrated and lose that sense of identification,” Hutchinson said. “When you win, you identify with the character, no matter what they look like. These are functions of the genre, unrelated to how the character appears.”

The research also shows the value of studying a particular type of game, rather than the industry as a whole, she said. Japanese fighting games give players a choice of dozens of characters and the ability to engage in short combat sequences that only last a few minutes. After a fight, a player can change characters if they wish.

In another type of game, where a player leads a single character through a narrative that can take hours, the results may be different, Hutchinson said.

“I think a lot has to do with choice, with whether a game gives you a choice of characters,” she said. “These fighting games are different from other genres, and the way people play them is different.”

New Minor in Game Studies

A new interdisciplinary minor in game studies is available this semester, largely due to interest expressed by students, said Hutchinson, co-founder of UD’s game studies research group. This group was created with the support of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research in the Humanities of the College of Arts and Sciences (http://www.ihrc.udel.edu).

A survey of undergraduate students revealed that many students – with majors such as computer science, art, communication and languages, literatures and cultures – were interested in a minor in game studies, said Hutchinson. Professors from various disciplines worked together to create the program and develop related courses.

The minor requires 18 credits in subjects including game design, game reception, and games and culture, and Hutchinson said it’s already popular with students.

“Most of the students have been playing these games for a long time,” she said. “Now we can help them learn to think about themselves in a different way.”

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