How video games demonize fat people

America’s most pervasive cultural product rarely treats its audience with respect.

How video games demonize fat people

America’s most pervasive cultural product rarely treats its audience with respect.

When I encounter the fat body in a video game, the disappointment that follows is so hot and pure that there is, as a matter of self-care, an urgent need to remove myself from the moment and get on a plane. I refuse to accept that in the world of prestige video games — AAA in industry speak — a body like mine and those of the people I love and admire, can only exist in one of two ways: a cheap laugh or a site of disgust, usually both. After the refusal is a bloom of something hope-adjacent. Perhaps somewhere on Twitter a fan community has rehabilitated this particular depiction into something empathetic and inclusive, or at the very least, cute, as they so often do.

According to the analysts Newzoo, the AAA video game industry made an estimated $116 billion in revenue in 2017, an adjustment from their previous assessment of $108.9 billion. This year, they project the industry will reach $125.4 billion.

In 2018, the AAA video game remains our most persuasive and powerful cultural product. And yet it almost exclusively depicts the fat body, my body, as a noxious threat, a monstrosity, an object of ridicule, something to be dealt with violently. But why?

Darlene from Dead Rising 3.

Darlene from Dead Rising 3.

For the last three years, Alyssa Preston would get a call to show up to a soundstage not unlike a high school gym, put on a suit of skin-tight velcro, and get to work as a motion capture actor. The varying needs of the frequently hectic days would determine where a team would apply motion capture markers to her suit, or how her face would be painted for the skeletal performance capture rig — Hellraiser worn as a headset.

“I kind of thought I looked like a Teletubby,” Preston told me with a chuckle over Skype. The sophistication of AAA game development was new to the veteran stage and TV actor, but that had never stopped her before, especially as a larger woman. “I have stood on stages doing a nude scene and felt completely safe,” she said.

Preston brought up one of her first experiences in the motion capture studio. “You walk in and your character is being told how worthless they are for having a large body in this intense torture scene ... As a fat person in real life, you have to have a healthy disinterest in what others think of you to get the job done.”

What Preston alludes to is the opening hour of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, the sequel to the critically acclaimed Wolfenstein: The New Order and reboot of the wildly popular anti-Nazi series. Preston’s likeness was the literal scaffold for Sigrun Engel, the fat, possibly queer daughter of the chief antagonist of Wolfenstein II. The abuse Sigrun endures at her mother’s hands is a mirror to the abuse your character — the handsome, white, straight William "B.J." Blazkowicz — suffers from his own father. Domestic violence, the game argues, is where fascism takes root.

It also means that Sigrun is unusually important to the game’s narrative. Over the course of Wolfenstein II’s campaign, she joins the resistance, pleads for her humanity, and eventually earns the trust of her fellow rebels. That developers MachineGames chose to devote so much screen time to her is extraordinary — AAA development is costly and every element must be accounted for. But Sigrun can never be played. At best, you observe her from a distance, her power fantasy pushed further into the future.

“When fat women appear they’re almost exclusively never player controlled actors,” said Todd Harper, an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore's program in Simulation and Digital Entertainment and an advocate of fat acceptance, over Skype. “The only one I can think of is Fat Princess… and you don’t even control her in the Fat Princess games! She’s the football!”

“Games often reflect the culture they’re made in,” wrote Kiva Bay, a fat activist and writer, in a conversation over Google Docs. Before Trump and the Alt-Right, we forget that one of the largest and most naked displays of hate was once a subreddit devoted to terrorizing fat people. Although r/fatpeoplehate drew from the same well as Gamergate, its scope was wider. In the subreddit, pictures of fat people — almost exclusively young women — were shared for open ridicule. Many were doxxed, others targeted for prolonged campaigns of abuse, subject to the terrifying and detailed fantasies of people who genuinely believe fat bodies should be exterminated. For a time it was Reddit’s most popular and most toxic sub — 150,000 subscribers strong at its height and who knows how many lurkers — and was shut down only after intense public scrutiny.

“I think we just haven’t seen a mainstream project that truly tackles the experience of fat embodiment in a way that is humane or compassionate towards fat people,” Bay said.

In 2013, Capcom Vancouver released the third installment of the Dead Rising franchise, famous for funneling an unprecedented number of zombies into a coherent experience. A critical feature involves battling a variety of human bosses or ‘psychopaths’ in the game’s language (softened to ‘maniacs’ in Dead Rising 4). Psychopaths from previous games include a delusional fat lesbian mall cop, a delusional fat otaku, and a delusional fat tiger trainer.

But few things suggest cancelling the human project and starting over like Darlene Fleischermacher, a psychopath from Dead Rising 3. Darlene makes her entrance riding a mobility scooter, burping and farting and eating a turkey leg at the same time. The camera lingers on her exaggerated features to accentuate the horror of her design and I find myself wondering about the person tasked with modelling her feet, which are too big for her heels. Her weapons include projectile vomiting, of course, and an oversized... spork. Once defeated, Darlene is pinned by her mobility scooter and drowns to death in her own vomit. This unlocks the ‘Gluttonous’ achievement.

Dead Rising 3 would go on to sell 2.5 million copies according to Capcom’s Investor Relations data. (The previous titles sold 1.8 and 3 million copies, respectively.) Of the millions who bought any of the Dead Rising games, how many would honestly interrogate the fat characters they encountered? If I were to hit my head and generously claim that 80 percent of Dead Rising 3’s audience found Darlene objectionable, that’s still half a million people who did not. How many do you need to scale a lie?

“We had to pick our battles, and that was kind of where we chose to draw the line.”
Insomniac CEO Ted Price, on the decision to not put fat characters in ‘Sunset Overdrive.’

Largely speaking, early video games cast fat bodies as the ubiquitous enemy — the brute, a boss, the escalating threat. Ironically, fatness became a way of visually signaling that an enemy has more health. “Imagine a body normative enemy advances towards you,” Harper said. “You hit it with your sword, once, and it flickers away. A larger fatter enemy appears and requires three hits of your sword to kill because there is simply more of him.”

“If you think about the development of video games and video game graphics, in the ‘Atari age’ there was no fidelity to show the fatness of bodies in the way that you might expect,” Harper added.

As video game development grew more sophisticated, so did the pursuit of fidelity. The blobs of our infancy sharpened to the sprites of our tweens, both replaced by the noisy, blown-out punk of early 3D acceleration. And on it went, the aesthetic layer of each new era more complicated than the last, which, in turn, asked you, the player, to shell out more and more money for both the hardware that powered these games and the growing number of people required to make them. This isn’t to downplay their technical accomplishments but a reminder that fidelity is ultimately an expression of the economics of scale, and the core principles of game design began as compromises to its logic.

In terms of the fat body, fidelity meant more than approximating its form — the satisfying arc of a pendulous belly, for example — but a performance of fatness. The deliberate enforcement of a system of rules that don’t exist in the world of the game, but do in ours.

If you are fat in a video game, you are lazy or deluded, often about your looks; hopelessly bound to the act of consumption and its attendant bodily functions; almost always topless to make clear the fact of your fatness and if you are blessed with clothes, they are strained to their limits, your belly always finding a way. It also means that you fart, a lot.

Think back to Darlene — briefly — or King Hippo from Nintendo’s Punch Out (1985), a boxer whose weak point is inexplicably his belly; Earthquake, from SNK’s Samurai Shodown (1993), notorious for his signature farts; Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance’s (2002) Bo Rai Cho, who, same; the lumbering Boomers of Valve’s Left 4 Dead (2008) with their exposed bellies and blinding vomit; Bob from NAMCO’s Tekken 6 (2009) whose moves are all named after food; Rufus from Capcom’s Street Fighter IV (2009), his belly rigged with its own jiggle physics to make him a single lethal breast; Roadhog from Activision Blizzard’s ferociously popular shooter Overwatch (2016), shirtless and leatherbound, huffing strange fumes to up his health.

Fatness, then, isn’t just an escalation — Snorlax blocking the route in Pokémon — but a heightened performance of what a developer imagines the world demands fatness to be. “The most common mode is fat as a stand-in to show that a character is greedy, to show that a character is slovenly, to show that a character has low moral fiber,” said Harper. In other words, fatness a universal shorthand that ensures a player can both read and read into the systems of a particular game without alienating them. And so we get the qualities we’ve come to know about fat bodies in games, their lust for food and drink, their greed and corruptible nature.

“Rather than making [a] character three-dimensional in their own right, it’s easier to fall back on tropes that are easier for presumed straight-white-male-cis-able bodied players to immediately understand,” said Anthony Burch, a writer for Riot Games. Before joining Riot, Burch was the lead writer for 2012’s Borderlands 2 by Gearbox Software, a sci-fi multiplayer shooter styled to look like an issue of 2000 A.D. Burch was also responsible for creating Ellie, a character in the Borderlands 2 universe who, until Sigrun, was the closest thing we had to a humane and empowered fat female character. “‘Intelligent fat man’ isn’t a known stereotype players can immediately connect with... so instead you get ‘psychotic and ugly fat man.’”

But if the fear of alienating a player is so great that lazy tropes are somehow safer, this alone doesn’t account for their frequency — if a fat body appears at all.

Sunset Overdrive was released in 2014 by Insomniac Games. Part zombie shooter, part Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, the Xbox One exclusive boasted a robust customization system that let you be whatever you wanted — except fat. “We wanted to put our time into wild outfits instead of technology to bloat up people or bloat them down,” Sunset Overdrive director Drew Murray told Kotaku. (“Bloat” — what a word to describe my body. )

Later in the piece, a shape emerges. “You have so much other complexity in all the things you can wear, the hair, the animations,” said Insomniac CEO Ted Price. “We had to pick our battles, and that was kind of where we chose to draw the line.” (Emphasis mine.)

“For a long time, I simply accepted that heroes were thin,” said Bay, who has written extensively on the impact customization options had on their sense of self, including the humane character creator of Saints Row 2 by Deep Silver Volition, which put gender and fatness on a slider back in 2008. “I’m non binary, and it’s cool as hell to be able to nudge that gender slider one way or the other … There’s something really progressive about that, because it shows a possibility of positive fat embodiment, shows the way a world could be if there weren’t these artificially constructed barriers and limitations.”

“It’s a matter of priority,” said Matthew Burns, the audio & narrative director at the independent game studio Zachtronics. Before Zachtronics, Burns was a producer at Bungie, working on such AAA blockbusters like Halo 3 and Halo: Reach, and as a freelance contractor for Halo 4 and Destiny. “‘Adding an entirely new body type as a selectable hero would be costly’ is a perfectly fair statement,” he said. “It’s a matter of deciding what’s important. A game is a virtual world; literally anything can be in it. Everything in a game is the result of a choice someone made at some point. Maybe a bad choice, maybe an unconscious choice, but a choice nonetheless.”

Render of Ellie from Borderlands 2.

Render of Ellie from Borderlands 2.

I asked Burns about a phenomenon of AAA development, one echoed across tech, too, as if common symptoms would give way to a common cause: Crunch, a controversial period of excruciating overtime, often unpaid, often close to the release of a title. “Overuse of alcohol, in and out of the office, was not uncommon. On some occasions frustrations and tiredness would boil over, and there were occasional late-night yelling fits or thrown objects,” he wrote. “There was one time I was coming home at 5 AM. I always wanted to try to get home before the sun came up again, but I’d failed that morning and I was angry. I sped around a corner recklessly and narrowly missed a newspaper delivery truck coming the other way on its morning rounds. I still remember the eyes of the man in the truck.”

How different are these pathologies from the ones that define an Uber or Facebook? Like tech, the video games industry has never had a genuine labour movement. The first real discussion began in 2004 when Erin Hoffman, under the name of ‘EA Spouse’ then-anonymously blogged about the terrible working conditions her husband faced at AAA publisher Electronic Arts.

Are individual developers fatphobic? Quite possibly, certainly no more than our current moment already is, and if they are, I don’t care. What fascinates me is how these inhumane portrayals of fatness find their way up slide decks, creative briefs, and vertical slices — a polished sliver of gameplay created for PR purposes — without anyone questioning them.

Perhaps the answer involved a different aesthetic layer? Not of any one game’s, but of an AAA studio’s development team or C-Suite? How different is the homogeneity of game development from the fact that tech, too, is an industry caught perpetually hiring itself — cis able-bodied white men and the women that lean into their traits — a strategy that continues to implode as buying power moves to people that look nothing like them?

Burns acknowledged that AAA teams often employ people from marginalized groups but few could risk their careers being branded, “a troublemaker.” “It’s hard to describe just how much forward momentum it feels like there is, how much sports-team ‘hoo-rah, go us!’ attitude that big AAA teams can have. The people who notice the problems often feel like they don’t have allies or won’t be taken seriously or might even get in trouble. So they keep it to themselves.”

While the repercussions of being a troublemaker (or to a larger extent, a whistleblower) are real, I’m reluctant to place the onus of change on the few and powerless, as is Burns. I mean, I’ve observed this behavior myself, at times been the troublemaker, too — not in video games or software development, but during my time working in publishing.

What if the fault lies in the nature of the corporate product itself?

Rufus and Bob square off in Street Fighter X Tekken.

Rufus and Bob square off in Street Fighter X Tekken.

Like an incantation I find myself returning to what Burns said about priorities: “Maybe a bad choice, maybe an unconscious choice, but a choice nonetheless.”

Perhaps this is why it’s so easy for AAA game developers to draw a line at the fat body and not at “wild outfits” or realistic hair physics, or why an artistic director would sign-off on a depiction that wouldn’t look out of place in r/fatpeoplehate. To them, fatness is not a description, but a choice.

A theory: As our technological accomplishments piled up — satellites and shipping containers, Animoji and 4K checkerboard rendering — our sense of self entered the conceptual space we once thought the exclusive territory of systems beyond our control, of strange weather patterns, lunar eclipses, and mashed tea leaves. (That is to say, God.) And so matters once left to God collapsed into a new system of rules exclusive to humanity, the pursuit of choice. To be fat is seen as a choice to remain fat, or worse, a refusal to choose at all, the gravest offense one can make in our current moment.

After all, isn’t the remediation of all things into the tidy realm of choice the very expression of our neoliberal times? Unlike film, TV or print, video games came of age entirely under this ideology, which holds sacred the indelible human right to choose, and that obstacles to the pursuit of that right — regulations, unions, other human rights — aren’t just threats, but moral failings. I risk speaking about metaphysics, but isn’t there something profane to recreating the world in the image of the perfect consumer?

When I first pitched this essay, I believed that thoughtfully including fat bodies in video games was the first crucial step to sparking empathy for the contours of the fat experience, and, over time, meaningful material change. Incrementalism is no substitute for revolution, but you can think for yourself, too, and decide to take action and demand better of the way things are. But inclusion has its own demands, like accepting the video games industry as it currently exists: reluctant to change without deep financial incentive, reluctant to address the pressures of AAA development.

Visibility, of course, matters, but not if it ends up being another feature on a product landing page, commodified the way body positivity means absolutely nothing now. What if the fault lies in trying to appeal to an audience of millions in the first place? Imagine a game meant only for a few thousand players or a few hundred. Let’s take a step back — imagine a game made by diverse teams working sensible hours? That’s the problem, isn’t it? The economics of a neoliberal project as vast as AAA games development means that whether it’s a workforce, an identity, or a certain silhouette, people will always be exploited. And what comes out of that cruel logic isn’t a video game — it’s a spreadsheet.

Anshuman Iddamsetty is an audio producer and essayist.