Design of video game characters has physical-world repercussions

A recent study from MIT researchers demonstrates that the exaggerated design of characters in fighting video games reinforces cultural stereotypes about gender, race, and ethnicity

MIT Open Learning
MIT Open Learning

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Photo of a group of multi ethnic people, friends sitting at home, playing video games
Credit: South_agency on iStock

By Duyen Nguyen

Popular fighting video games like Street Fighter and Tekken feature diverse casts of characters. But, partly due to the importance of spectacle to these games, their characters tend to have exaggerated bodies, costumes, and fighting styles. A recent peer-reviewed study from MIT researchers examines how this exaggerated character design — a phenomenon they call “virtual enfreakment” — reproduces sexist and racist stereotypes that reinforce harmful cultural narratives.

Published in the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change, the paper, “​​Contours of Virtual Enfreakment in Fighting Game Characters,” was co-authored by D. Fox Harrell, MIT professor of digital media, computing, and artificial intelligence in the Comparative Media Studies Program (CMS), Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); former CSAIL postdocs Sercan Şengün and Peter Mawhorter; and MIT alumni James Bowie-Wilson, SM ’19, and Yusef Audeh, SM ’17, in collaboration with Haewoon Kwak from the Qatar Computing Research Institute.

The researchers analyzed differences in the character design of Street Fighter V and Tekken 7 across gender, national, and skin color lines. The aim of the study was not to criticize these extremely popular and creative video games in contrast to other games, but rather to use them as exemplars of an industry-wide phenomenon, precisely because of their success and influence. While the results confirmed biases in the design of these popular games’ characters, the researchers also found that when designers approach the process with cultural sensitivity, the results tend to be more respectful. These findings suggest the possibility of implementing anti-biased design in video games.

“It is important to consider the quality of diversity in games and not only the quantity of characters of diverse backgrounds,” says Prof. Harrell of the results. “Researchers such as Anna Everett and Craig Watkins have argued that videogames can act as ‘racialized pedagogical zones’ that ‘teach’ people how to perform race and ethnicity. If the diverse representations in video games are highly stereotypical, many players internalize that perspective of people from other groups.”

In fighting video games, two players or teams compete in a virtual world using avatars, or characters, of their choice. Previous research on video game identity representations by Şengün and Harrell, who is also the founding director of the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality at MIT Open Learning, reveals that a player’s choice of avatar not only potentially reflects their real-world identity, but also influences their behavior. In other words, virtual identities like the characters in video games have the potential to shape “self-conception and ideas about the world, which is why understanding the biases encoded in stereotypical avatars like those of fighting games is important,” the researchers argue.

Since Street Fighter and Tekken feature both human and non-human characters, Harrell, Şengün, and their co-authors selected 64 characters with ties to physical-world nationalities and ethnicities to analyze. To understand how audiences view these characters, the study used a survey to gauge their perspectives on 13 design choices, including a character’s body and attire realism, attractiveness and admirability, and gender and ethnic representations. The survey also asked participants to share their demographic information, along with ratings on how similar they felt to each character. In addition to the survey results, the researchers examined the game mechanics of each character’s attacks, or frame data, to quantify how virtual enfreakment manifested in the fighting games.

The results supported several of the researchers’ hypotheses. For instance, they found that the range of expression for female characters was much narrower than for male characters. Female survey participants were also more likely to recognize sexist representations. In their analysis of differences based on skin color, the researchers noted a “common and mostly predictable” practice of portraying lighter-skinned characters as more attractive and admirable than darker-skinned characters.

However, some of the results, especially in relation to nationality, were unexpected. The researchers found that “majority-nationality characters had unexpectedly less-realistic bodies, were unexpectedly more muscular, were unexpectedly more heavyset, and were unexpectedly less attractive than their minority and token counterparts.” But these findings suggest that virtual enfreakment “can easily affect even the overrepresented characters,” a possible direction for future research.

Despite overwhelming evidence of negative patterns of character design in fighting games, the researchers nevertheless noted some improvements in the latest installments of both the Street Fighter and Tekken series. In designing the games’ Arab characters, for example, “the developers worked in consultation with fans and/or staff from the Middle East to approve the designs,” with apparently successful results as “those characters were each seen as less exaggerated, less sexualized, and more admirable than most of the cast, in contrast to ‘exotic’ characters designed without such local consultation.”

Characters designed by those from the same cultures as the characters are perceived by audiences as less stereotypical and more respectful, the researchers say.

Street Fighter and Tekken are some of the most successful video games to date, attracting a diverse fanbase who may be “learning and reinforcing the cultural stereotypes these videogames encourage.” But in delineating the systematic process of virtual enfreakment in these games, Harrell and his co-authors conclude that diverse design teams “can challenge the idea of a ‘normal’ character type for any virtual representation of race, ethnicity, and gender,” as well as encourage the development of more customization options for players — which ultimately paves the way for more inclusive player bases.

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