Unrealistic Beauty Standards in Games

h Daria Paterek

A few weeks ago, hotly-anticipated PlayStation exclusive Horizon: Forbidden West (sequel to 2017’s Horizon: Zero Dawn) released its first gameplay. But the game’s jaw-dropping graphics and comprehensive gameplay refinements were overshadowed by a tweet that sent shockwaves through the Twitter gaming community.


…VS Aloy

User @ApexAlphaJ had a lot to say about Horizon’s protagonist. They ranted Aloy “look[s] masculine as hell.. barely no curves or rough non-feminine features”. Then, they compared Aloy’s model to a fan-made edit with glowing skin and heavy makeup. Despite the heavy backlash, Apex continued to insist they “want to see more feminine women in video games where a female lead is presented.”

Apex’s focus then shifted from how much they “love feminine women” to this generation being “snowflakes”. They claimed that “The world has become too soft, most adults have no back-bone anymore” and resorted to calling naysayers Betas” in the replies.

These tweets, ridiculous as they may seem, demonstrate a bigger problem within the gaming community: The enforcement of unrealistic beauty standards on female characters.

The gaming community’s reaction highlights double-standards in the industry and made light of the situation through memes. Comments also drew attention to the feminine features Aloy does display. “She has a cute round face and pretty eyelashes and long hair”, one user replied.

The criticism symbolises the unrealistic beauty standards inflicted on women 

People commented how Aloy’s circumstances as a post-apocalyptic Machine Hunter meant that she “hasn’t had the chance to go to Sephora recently or watch all that many YouTube make-up tutorials.” Despite these logical justifications, her character has not been exempt from sexist criticism.


…VS Lara

The most famous female videogame protagonist is Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft. Many have criticised Croft’s unrealistic hourglass figure and the size of her infamous triangular breasts. These critics believed Lara was merely a digitised sexual fantasy designed to satisfy the male gaze of horny teenage boys. 

Lara’s objectification even spawned one of the most infamous urban legends in games- a cheat code that would strip her naked. Hearing the rumour, developer Core played a joke at fans’ expense and added a fake ‘nudity’ code into Tomb Raider 2. Instead of exposing Lara, the code caused her to explode: 

Lara’s evolution over her decades-long career demonstrates changing attitudes towards female protagonists. In Tomb Raider: Legend, Lara’s character was transformed to make her less sexualised. By 2013’s gritty franchise reboot, Lara had became a new woman. No longer just ‘Indiana Jones but boobs’ Lara underwent one of the strongest character arcs in gaming, exploring rich themes like desensitisation to violence, PTSD, and self-destructive obsession.

Most evidently Lara’s character design changed again, thickening her hourglass waist and reducing the size of her original model’s infamous triangular bust- much to the ire of some insecure ‘fans’– for practicality’s sake. This new Lara, while still conventionally beautiful, got bloodied and dirtied in a way she was never allowed to before.

Even today Lara is still objectified – see this charming ARE LARA CROFT’S BOOBS TOO SMALL IN THE TOMB RAIDER REBOOT? poll, regarding the 2018 film adaptation of the 2013 reboot, starring Aliciia Vikander.


The Root of the Problem

As the number of female gamers increases developers are making their female protagonists less sexualised, but ApexAlpha’s tweet is proof that not everyone is receptive to the change.

The criticism symbolises the unrealistic beauty standards inflicted on women in both media and real life. Gamers expected Aloy to have more feminine features, makeup, and a slimmer figure. These expectations are the result of multiple ways in which the media upkeeps toxic beauty standards for women. The expectations are maintained through many means, including porn, as one user commented:

The incels have arrived so reminder that she’s face modelled after a real Dutch actress named Hannah Hoekstra and y’all have never seen a woman outside of porn, clearly.


…VS Abby

Aloy is just the latest to bare the brunt of the mob: Apex specifically namedrops The Last of Us Part II as also pushing the unfeminine ‘agenda’, and that game had its own controversies. Remember when gamers assumed secondary protagonist Abby was trans because she was ‘unrealistically’ muscular for a cis-woman? Even though she was modelled off a real (cis-gender) crossfit athlete?

(bonus points for the resultant- completely misdirected- transphobia, gaming community)

‘But it’s not realistic for someone to maintain that body-type in the apocalypse, people say. First off, that’s debatable within the fiction of the world- though some players were so obsessed they broke down Abby’s workout routine. Second, how is Abby’s musculature more unrealistic than other heroines having DD breasts, perfect makeup and kicking ass in high-heels? Let people have their aspirational power-fantasies.  


The Next Round

the percentage of games with female protagonists decreased from a measly 9% to an even measlier 7% from 2015 to 2019

As more forms of media begin to portray women in a more realistic light, attitudes will likely change. However, there is still a long way to go, 

Aloy is a rare example of a female videogame protagonist. The positive reaction towards her character demonstrates how attitudes towards female protagonists are changing. In 2021, women are no longer solely side characters or sexual objects enforcing unrealistic beauty standards. Instead, they are becoming fleshed-out characters and protagonists.

The scandal over this tweet proves attitudes are changing. Progress is agonisingly slow (the percentage of games with female protagonists decreased from a measly 9% to an even measlier 7% from 2015 to 2019) meaningful change is possible if we continue to push. If gamers want more realistic video game female protagonists, video game developers will provide that. 

Daria Paterek

Featured image courtesy of Nicholas Kusuma via Unsplash. No changes made to this image. Image license found here.

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