RUNNING HEAD: REAL IDEAL 1
Media commonly feature imagery that celebrates idealized bodies and researchers have observed
the adverse effects of such depictions. Although video games commonly feature idealized
bodies, experimental work investigating the effects of game characters on body image
disturbance remains underrepresented. This trend is surprising as the preponderance of hyper-
muscular male and hyper-sexualized female characters speaks to the heteronormative, masculine
fantasies often given prominence in game content. Using social comparison theory, the current
work investigated how ideal and hyper-ideal video game bodies affected women’s (study 1) and
men’s (study 2) body image disturbance. The study also compared these outcomes to a non-
exposure control condition. Generally, the data provided evidence that hyper-idealized game
characters negatively affected men but positively affected women.
Keywords: body image disturbance, video games, social comparison
REAL IDEAL 2
Real Ideal: Investigating How Ideal and Hyper-Ideal Video Game Bodies Affect Men and
Idealized bodies physically unattainable for most individuals pervade media such as
television (e.g., Fouts & Burggraf, 1999, 2000) and video games (e.g., Martins, Williams,
Harrison, & Ratan, 2009; Martins, Williams, Ratan, & Harrison, 2011). As a result, a great deal
of research exists that investigates the effects of exposure to idealized bodies (see Grabe, Ward,
& Hyde, 2008). Specifically, studies on the thin ideal indicate that people begin to accept the
ideal as normative and central to attractiveness through repeated exposure to media imagery
featuring thin individuals (Brown & Witherspoon, 2002). This phenomenon can contribute to
body image dissatisfaction (BID)—a broader construct central to the current work. As explained
by Garner (2002), BID consists of dysfunctional, negative beliefs and feelings about one’s
weight and shape. Studies indicate that the negative psychological consequences of BID may be
a risk factor for disordered eating (Kluck, 2008) and mood disorders (Kostanski & Gullone,
Festinger’s social comparison theory (SCT; 1954) provides a cogent framework for
understanding how exposure to idealized and sexualized bodies affects BID for four primary
reasons. First, SCT posits that people use social information to model their behavior (e.g.,
listening to others to know how loud to speak in a restaurant) when objective comparisons (e.g.,
a runner comparing lap times) are difficult or impossible. Second, it contends that people must
perceive the comparison model as realistic (i.e., achievable). Third, one’s social comparison
tendency may be influenced (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2009), but it also exists as a stable trait
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(Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003c). As a result, trait social comparison tendency helps explain
how the same stimulus may elicit divergent effects from person to person. Fourth, comparison
may result in negative or positive self-evaluations. These four characteristics of SCT help
connect how social cues—mediated or otherwise—influence BID. The utility of SCT has
allowed researchers to explain body image disturbance among adolescent girls (Botta, 1999),
young women (Nabi, 2009), and college-aged men (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003a).
Although body image research is well represented in some media such as television (see
Grabe et al., 2008), it is notably scant among video games research. This is surprising, as games
present a curious case for body image research for two reasons. First, although video games
often present “ideal” (i.e., attractive, fit, and achievable) body types (Jansz & Martis, 2007;
Martins et al., 2009), they sometimes feature body types that stretch the limits of possibility (i.e.,
hyper-ideal). Because social comparison can result in negative or positive evaluations following
comparison, different virtual bodies may cause divergent body image-related outcomes.
Second, video games often contain heteronormative, masculine themes. These
conventions define the bulk of content within video games, as evidenced by the recent swell of
discourse surrounding game content and the imbalanced gender distribution within the game
industry (IGDA, 2014). Specifically, social media forums (e.g. #1reasonwhy; Isaacson, 2012)
and web series (e.g. Feminist Frequency; Sarkeesian, 2014) have criticized the prevalence of
overly-sexualized females and hyper-muscular males in games. Depictions of voluptuous,
scantily clad women and strong, capable men reflect what scholars argue are the masculine tastes
that dominate video game content and culture (Salter & Blodgett, 2012; Taylor, Jenson, & de
Castell, 2009). Because SCT contends that people must think of models as desirable, the
gendered lens that colors video game content may appear quite dissimilar to men and women.
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Thus, games may differentially affect men and women because the content appeals specifically
Although a few studies shed light on the effects of different video game body types on
men and women (Barlett & Harris, 2008; Sylvia, King, & Morse, 2014), the two preceding
characteristics of video games, broadly, illustrate the complexity of the proposed relationships.
In addition to taking into account the two aforementioned characteristics of video games, the
current study replicates and extends the extant literature methodologically by investigating
multiple body types for both men and women and by including a non-exposure control group.
Thus, the central goal of this work is to inform this research area by investigating how video
game characters with body types that vary along attainability affect the body image
dissatisfaction of men and women.
2. Literature Review
As evidenced by existing content analyses, idealized bodies commonly appear in media
such as television (Fouts & Burggraf, 1999) and magazines (Bazzini, Pepper, Swofford, &
Cochran, 2015). Video games exhibit similar trends. For example, in the seminal work of this
nature, Dietz (1998) found that women in games—although rarely featured—typically appeared
as idealized sex objects having large breasts and thin hips. A few years later, Glaubke, Miller,
Parker, Espejo, and Children Now (2001) reported that 11% of female characters had very large
breasts and very small waists and about 20% of female character models had either unhealthy or
unrealistic body sizes. Additionally, the authors found that 35% of male characters were hyper-
muscular. More recently, Downs and Smith (2010) reported that 25% of female game characters
had unrealistic body proportions, 40% had small waists, and 26% percent had very large breasts.
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Additionally, content analyses suggest that this type of content is not unique to certain
game ratings. More specifically, Glaubke et al. (2001) reported that 37% of games rated “E for
Everyone” featured partially nude characters or models wearing revealing clothing. Considering
additional ratings, Downs and Smith (2010) found that games rated E for Everyone, T for Teen,
and M for Mature each included female characters with unrealistic and sexualized body
proportions. Finally, a large-scale content analysis conducted by Martins et al. (2009) reported
that games rated for children had the thinnest female characters.
Thus, evidence corroborates the notion that idealized bodies are a regular, though not a
universal feature in games. Nevertheless, the consistency and salience of specific portrayals may
be indicative of the male interests that drive content development and pervade gaming culture.
Put another way, the commonality of Adonis-inspired male bodies and scantily clad, buxom
females appears reflective of a heterosexual, male hegemony.
The prevalence of these depictions in games in other media motivates research on the
relationship between idealized and hyper-idealized bodies and people’s body image
dissatisfaction (BID). Outside of video games, research suggests that exposure to these body
types can contribute to BID (see, Grabe et al., 2008). Researchers (e.g., Botta, 2000) commonly
use Festinger’s (1954) social comparison theory (SCT) as an explanatory framework to explore
the nature of this relationship. Similarly, the current study applies four primary suppositions
from SCT. First, when objective comparisons (e.g., comparing running speed or lap times) are
difficult or impossible, people will rely on social information to make comparisons. For example,
people often engage in social comparison when considering body image because no objective
measures exist. Although one can identify supposed ideals (e.g., BMI and 36-24-36 as ideal
female measurements), generalizable archetypes remain nebulous, as evidenced by differing
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standards of beauty between groups of people (e.g., race; Botta, 2000). The second supposition
from SCT contends that people must perceive a model as realistic (i.e., achievable) and desirable
for comparison to occur. In other words, the perceived difference between a person and a
comparison model cannot be too great. Extant research reveals the robustness of this supposition
(Arbour & Martin Ginis, 2006). Third, one’s tendency to compare is malleable but is somewhat
stable as a trait (Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003c, 2009). As a result, the same body image
portrayal can elicit divergent effects depending on one’s trait social comparison tendency.
Finally, the fourth supposition posits that people can socially compare upwards and downwards.
Upward social comparison occurs when people desire to be more similar to the model of
comparison (e.g., wanting to wear the same clothes as a celebrity). Downward comparison
occurs when people desire to distance themselves from a model of comparison (e.g., avoiding
mirroring the behavior of a disliked other).
These four suppositions connect media exposure to BID via SCT. Festinger’s SCT
provides a framework for understanding how mediated images of people and characters affect
people’s BID, as one merely has to think of a model as achievable to begin comparison. Thus,
mediated models—even virtual ones—can easily elicit social comparison. Indeed, a great deal of
existing work reveals the predictive ability of SCT regarding body image related outcomes
(Botta, 1999; Chrisler, Fung, Lopez, & Gorman, 2013; Hargreaves & Tiggemann, 2003a). For
example, Tiggemann, Slater, Bury, Hawkins, and Firth (2013) found that women who reported
engaging in appearance comparison when exposed to magazine images of fashion models
demonstrated greater body dissatisfaction. Moreover, the adverse outcome occurred even when a
warning label stating that the images had been digitally altered to make the models more
attractive accompanied the images.
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Despite the robustness of SCT in explaining the relationship between media exposure and
BID, men and women report different sensitivities to body-salient media messages. For instance,
Bissell (2006) found evidence that women socially compare themselves to models even when the
models stretch the limits of possibility (i.e., hyper-idealized bodies). Specifically, Bissell
exposed women to digitally manipulated images of swimsuit models then assessed their tendency
for disordered eating and their desire to look like the mediated models. The results showed that
women scored similarly on both scales whether or not they were knowledgeable of the digital
In contrast, Arbour and Martin Ginis (2006) found that males were more reluctant to
compare to extreme body types. In particular, they exposed males to images containing either
moderately muscular or extremely muscular men. They found that moderately muscular bodies
caused men to report greater personal body dissatisfaction compared to extremely muscular
images. The authors suggested that males perceived the extremely muscular physiques as
unattainable comparison models. Thus, it appears that men’s tendencies to socially compare
against hyper-idealized models are tempered relative to women’s tendencies. Nevertheless, the
vast majority of research that drives these assumptions relies on inquiry that observes the effects
of static images and linear media. Therefore, the current study aims to extend the current
research by applying these principles to video games, which are often full motion, non-linear,
and present digitally produced bodies.
2.1. Body image dissatisfaction and video games
As detailed previously, games may provide interesting insights into the relationship
between social comparison theory and body image dissatisfaction for two primary reasons. First,
games often feature very different body types—sometimes within the same game. Unlike most
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television or film characters, characters’ bodies in some video games may exceed the limits of
possibility. Because social comparison can result in upward or downward comparisons, different
virtual bodies may cause divergent body image-related outcomes. Second, games feature content
prominently influenced by masculine tastes that may complicate social comparison
generalizations. In detail, male and female portrayals in games tend to align with
heteronormative male fantasies that depict strong, capable men and highly sexualized women.
Because desirable models are more likely to elicit comparison, games may affect men and
women differently because the content appeals predominantly to men. Thus, the current study
aims to investigate how these two game characteristics may influence the relationship between
BID and video game content.
Existing work provides some information that helps characterize this relationship.
Nevertheless, research observing the effects of game characters on BID is highly
underrepresented despite the relative wealth of content analytic work in this area. To date, only
two studies fit this criterion. The first study tested whether playing a body-image-salient video
game affected users’ body image (Barlett & Harris, 2008). The authors recruited male
undergraduate students to play a wrestling game and female students played a volleyball game.
They found that males exhibited a decrease in general body esteem. This occurred when players
wrestled against either an obese or a muscular character. For females, simply playing the
volleyball game caused them to report decreased positive feelings toward both their bodies and
their sexual attractiveness. The second study by Sylvia et al. (2014) observed how average built
male avatars, as compared to hyper-muscular avatars, affected men’s body satisfaction and
general perceptions of muscularity. The authors found that those in the hyper-muscular condition
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exhibited reduced body satisfaction but it did not affect perceptions of muscularity relative to the
average muscularity condition.
These studies are important first steps in documenting the impact of video games on body
perceptions, but opportunities to expand and corroborate their findings exist. Additionally,
experimental research that explores these effects in consideration of the male hegemony in
games is non-existent. Although Barlett and Harris (2008) did examine the impact of video game
representations on men and women’s body image, the authors did not distinguish between ideal
and hyper-ideal characters. Similarly, although Sylvia et al. (2014) made direct comparisons
between ideal/normal and hyper-idealized bodies, the authors did not attempt the same
comparisons for females. Furthermore, neither existing study compared responses to a control
(i.e., no exposure) condition. As a result, the current studies—with Study 1 focusing exclusively
on women and Study 2 focusing on men—aim to replicate and extend components from these
existing studies to bolster this underserved area of research. Our primary assumption is that
women and men may react differently to the body types featured within video games because of
how differently games represent each gender.
3. Study 1
The first study investigates how ideal and hyper-ideal body types within video games
affect body image disturbance for female players. Although existing work on non-interactive
media suggests that women socially compare to unrealistic body representations (Bissell, 2006),
the hyper-idealized female bodies in games may curb this tendency (i.e., encourage downward
social comparison) because females in games appeal to male interests—often possessing
qualities women may find demeaning (e.g., gaudy makeup and revealing attire; Hartmann &
Klimmt, 2006). Consequently, we asked the following research questions:
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RQ1: How will ideal and hyper-ideal video game bodies affect women’s body image
RQ2: How will ideal and hyper-ideal video game bodies affect women’s body attitudes?
Due to the centrality of SCT to the current study, we also sought to investigate how one’s
trait social comparison tendency interacted with exposure to video game bodies, as trait
differences may facilitate or impede comparison. The tendency to socially compare is an
individual difference shown to influence the strength of body dissatisfaction following thin-ideal
media exposure and may lead to adverse effects in the presence of interventions for those high in
trait social comparison (Tiggemann et al., 2013). As a result, we asked the following research
RQ3: How will trait social comparison tendency interact with women’s body image
dissatisfaction and body attitudes?
3.1. Pilot Study
Because body image norms are somewhat subjective, we conducted a pilot study to select
the stimuli for each condition. Similar to Barlett and Harris (2008) but unlike Sylvia et al. (2014)
we used existing video games rather than manipulating a single game to select our stimuli.
Although this sacrificed some experimental reliability, it also increased our ecological validity
by observing the effects of a more diverse range of content. We conveniently sampled fifty-one
participants using a popular social networking site to watch 39 short videos of different video
games and game scenarios. We asked participants to rate the bodies of the main characters
featured in each video on a 1 (very exaggerated) to 5 (realistic) scale. For games featuring
female protagonists, participants rated the primary character in Beyond Good & Evil and the
women in Beijing Olympics 2008 as the most realistic/ideal and the characters in Mortal Kombat
(2011 version) and Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 as the most exaggerated/hyper-idealized. Paired
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samples t-tests showed that pilot participants rated both ideal bodied characters as significantly
more realistic than the hyper-idealized characters, t(34-35) = 7.08 - 19.04, p < .001.
We recruited 149 females from telecommunications courses at Indiana University for
course credit. Nearly all participants (98%) fell within the 18-24 demographic, 2 within the 25-
30 demographic, and 1 within the 31-40 demographic. Caucasians (70%) comprised the majority
of our sample, followed by Asian (24%), Latino (3%), other (3%), and African American and
Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (1%). Participants averaged 65.13 inches in height (about 5’5”; SD =
3.67) and 136.63 pounds in weight (SD = 29.67). The participants’ mean Body-Mass Index
(BMI) score was 22.81 (SD = 4.21). Using the National Institute of Health’s BMI classification
system, 7.6% of participants were underweight, 71.7% were normal weight, 24.2% were
overweight, and 4.1% were obese.
Utilizing the results of the pilot study, we selected Beijing Olympics 2008 and Beyond
Good & Evil for the Xbox 360 as the games for the ideal condition. Beijing Olympics is a game
aimed to simulate many popular Olympic events. Participants played the high dive event as a
Finnish Olympian and completed a series of dives from a third-person perspective using both
control sticks simultaneously. The Olympian was a slim, fit, and young woman with a small-to-
average sized bust. Beyond Good & Evil is an adventure game featuring a female lead named
Jade. Participants played from the beginning of the game where they encountered enemy
monsters and explored an island. Similar to the Olympian, Jade was a slim, fit, and young
woman with a small bust.
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Mortal Kombat and Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 for the Xbox 360 served as the stimuli for
the hyper-idealized condition. Mortal Kombat is a fighting game in which participants assumed
the role of Jade, a masked female fighter. The participants’ goal was to win as many fights as
possible against various opponents. Jade was a slim young woman with a very large bust and
large hips. In Dead or Alive, participants played as a female character who competes in beach-
related activities (e.g., volleyball and jet skiing) for money. The character in Dead or Alive was a
very slim young woman with very large breasts.
To minimize distractions and ensure experimental control, participants completed the
experimental protocol one at a time. After providing consent to participate, a researcher led
participants to a private room with a large comfortable chair, a large flat-screen HDTV, and an
Xbox 360. Prior to their arrival, we randomly assigned participants to the ideal, hyper-ideal, or
control condition (i.e., non-exposure). Similar to previous empirical game studies (e.g., Lachlan
& Maloney, 2008), participants played for 20 minutes. Prior to game play, a researcher explained
the premise of the game, the player’s goal, and briefly described the game controls. Additionally,
we provided participants with a sheet illustrating all of the game controls for their reference.
After 20 minutes of game play, the researcher stopped the video game and administered
the post-questionnaire. Those in the control condition only completed the questionnaire. Once
participants completed the questionnaire, they were thanked for their participation and dismissed.
3.5.1. Body image dissatisfaction. To assess body image dissatisfaction (BID), we used
three measures. First, we used the 31 item Body Esteem Scale (BES; Franzoi & Shields, 1984) to
assess participants’ positive and negative feelings for each body part using a 1 (strong negative
feelings) to 7 (strong positive feelings) Likert scale. The BES consisted of three subscales: sexual
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attractiveness (Cronbach’s α = .86), weight concern (α = .92), and physical condition (α = .89).
Low composite scores among the subscales are indicative of greater BID.
Second, we measured body discrepancy by asking participants to indicate their body size
and their desired body size using the Stunkard figure rating scale (Stunkard, Sørensen, &
Schulsinger, 1983). Greater differences between selections suggests greater BID.
Third, we measured bust discrepancy by presenting participants with hand-drawn contour
images of female figures that varied only in their bust size. Because we could not find an existing
scale that possessed the anatomic accuracy and range that we desired, we developed our own
scale (see Figure 1). We designed the Contour Bust Size Scale (CBSS) to display a variety of
busts along common cup sizes (AA, A, B, C, D, DD). Similar to the previous measure, greater
differences between selections indicates greater BID.
Figure 1. The contour bust size scale (CBSS).
3.5.2. Body attitudes. To asses general body attitudes we presented participants with the
body dissatisfaction subscale from the Eating Disorder Inventory (EDI; Garner, Olmsted, &
Polivy, 1985). Using a 1 (strongly agree) to 7 (strongly disagree) Likert scale, participants
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indicated the valence of their attitudes regarding various areas of their bodies (e.g., I think that
my stomach is too big; I feel satisfied with the shape of my body). Cronbach’s alpha showed that
the scale had good reliability, α = .85.
3.5.3. Trait social comparison tendency. We used Botta’s (1999) social comparison
measure to assess participants’ trait social comparison tendency. Using a 1 (strongly agree) to 7
(strongly disagree) scale, participants reported to what extent they agreed with three statements
that assessed how much they compared their bodies and others’ to media characters. For
example, one statement read, “I think about how my friends’ bodies compare to characters’
bodies in media.” Additionally, we added another statement that asked how much they compared
their bodies to the bodies of video game characters. We averaged the responses to the four
questions to create an index score. The scale exhibited acceptable reliability, α = .70.
3.5.4. Game usage & BMI. We assessed game usage by asking participants how much
time they spend playing video games each day of the week. For each day, they indicated their
typical game usage by selecting one of seven options ranging from 1 (less than one hour) to 7
(six or more hours). We created an index score that averaged their choices for each day (α = .93).
Finally, we calculated participants’ BMI by dividing their self-reported weight by the square of
their self-reported height and multiplying the result by 703.
All analyses used the same 2 (trait social comparison tendency high vs. low) x 3
(idealized video game bodies vs. hyper-idealized bodies vs. control) factorial ANCOVA. We
included BMI (M = 22.81, SD = 4.21) and weekly game usage (M = 1.17, SD = .55) as the two
covariates in the model. To test the effect of different video game bodies on BID, we ran our
model on the three BES subscales independently. An omnibus ANCOVA revealed marginal
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differences between game body types for sexual attractiveness, F(2, 129) = 3.10, p = .065, η2 =
.05 (see Figure 2). Post-hoc analyses with Bonferroni corrections
indicated the difference
between hyper-idealized bodies (M = 5.08, SE = .14) and the control condition (M = 4.63, SE =
.14) drove the result, p = .077. However, the ideal condition (M = 4.74, SE = .13) did not differ
from either group. Thus, ideal video game bodies had no effect on women’s sexual attractiveness
ratings relative to non-exposure. However, hyper-ideal video game bodies made women feel
more sexually attractive (marginally) compared to non-exposure.
Figure 2. Mean scores for each of the BES sub-scales by condition. Lower scores indicate more
body image dissatisfaction.
Regarding the weight concern subscale, an omnibus ANCOVA showed significant
differences between game body types for weight concern, F(2, 126) = 4.30, p = .016, η2 = .05
(see Figure 2). Post-hoc tests indicated that hyper-idealized bodies (M = 4.32, SE = .18) resulted
in significantly higher scores than ideal bodies (M = 3.64, SE = .18), p = .024. The control group
(M = 3.71, SE = .18) was not significantly different from the ideal group but was marginally
All post-hoc analyses used Bonferroni adjustment unless otherwise noted.
Sexual Attractiveness Weight Concern Physical Condition
Control Ideal bodies Hyper-ideal bodies
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different from the hyper-idealized group, p = .062. These outcomes suggest that those exposed to
hyper-idealized video game bodies had more positive feelings about their weight compared to
those in the ideal condition and those in the control condition (marginally).
An omnibus ANCOVA indicated that there were no significant differences between game
body types for physical condition, F(125, 2) = 1.22, p = .30 (see Figure 2). This suggests that
exposure to both ideal and hyper-ideal game bodies had no effect on participants’ feelings about
their physical condition compared to the control condition. Similarly, there were no significant
interaction effects (video game body type x trait social comparison tendency) among any of the
BES subscale analyses, F(125-126, 3) = .43 - 1.43, p = .237 - .732.
To test the effect of video game body types on BID further, we performed an omnibus
ANCOVA on participants’ body discrepancy. The analysis revealed a non-significant main
effect, F(123, 2) = 1.53, p = .22. Nevertheless, the interaction was significant, F(123, 3) = 2.72, p
= .048, η2 = .04 (see Figure 3). Specifically, post-hoc tests showed that those with low trait social
comparison tendencies (M = -.48, SE = .15, p = .017) reported less body discrepancy than those
with high trait social comparison (M = -1.01, SE = .16) within the hyper-idealized condition.
These data indicate that exposure to hyper-idealized bodies resulted in less body discrepancy for
those with low social comparison tendencies compared to those with high social comparison
Figure 3. Body discrepancy mean scores by condition and trait social comparison tendency
(SCT). Lower scores indicate more body image dissatisfaction.
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An omnibus ANCOVA on bust discrepancy comprised our final test to observe the effect
of video game bodies on BID. Both the main effect, F(126, 2) = .45, p = .64, and interaction,
F(126, 3) = .82, p = .61, returned non-significant results. This suggests that, compared to the
control, exposure to both types of video game bodies had no effect on participants’ bust
Our concluding analysis observed the effect of video game bodies on participants’
attitudes about their bodies. An omnibus ANCOVA showed significant differences between
game body types, F(125, 2) = 3.91, p = .023, η2 = .05. Specifically, post-hoc analyses indicated
that hyper-idealized bodies (M = 3.72, SE = .18) resulted in significantly lower scores than ideal
bodies (M = 4.42, SE = .18), p = .021. The control group (M = 4.21, SE = .19) was not
significantly different from any other group. This finding indicates that those exposed to hyper-
idealized bodies had more positive attitudes about their bodies compared to those exposed to
ideal bodies. Additionally, neither exposure condition differed from the control condition. Unlike
the main effect analysis, the interaction was not significant, F(125, 3) = 1.63, p = .338.
Control Ideal bodies Hyper-ideal bodies
Body Discrepancy Scores
Low SCT High SCT
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Overall, the results of the first study indicate that video games featuring ideal bodies
exhibit no significant effect—akin to no exposure at all—on player’s body image dissatisfaction
(BID) and their general body attitudes. In contrast, hyper-idealized game bodies caused female
players’ BID and body attitudes to improve compared to ideal bodies and, less frequently,
compared to the control group. Finally, there was little evidence of an interaction between trait
social comparison tendencies and body type for females. The only significant interaction
returned in our analyses concerned body discrepancy. Specifically, when exposed to hyper-ideal
bodies, women with low trait social comparison showed less body discrepancy than women with
high comparison tendencies. In other words, exposure to hyper-ideal bodies appeared to curb the
desire to be thin for those with lower trait social comparison tendencies.
Finding that hyper-idealized video game bodies positively affected women diverges from
existing work on less interactive media (Arbour & Martin Ginis, 2006; Bissell, 2006). This
finding may be the result of downward social comparison, assuming that women viewed the
hyper-ideal bodies as less desirable. Alternatively, it may be that women felt empowered by the
physical capabilities of the hyper-idealized avatars, despite their sexualized nature. Nonetheless,
this curious outcome calls for a similar exploration of ideal and hyper-ideal video game body
types on men.
6. Study 2
The second study investigated how ideal and hyper-ideal body types within video games
affect males’ body image disturbance. Although existing work on non-interactive media suggests
that men are less likely to socially compare against unrealistic body representations (Arbour &
Martin Ginis, 2006), the nature of the male representations in games complicate this
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generalization. Specifically, games tend to glorify male strength and capabilities (Dill & Thill,
2007). Thus, although hyper-idealized body types tend to discourage social comparison for
males, the array of positive attributes male characters in games possess may encourage upward
social comparison. As a result, we proposed the following research questions:
RQ1: How will ideal and hyper-ideal video game bodies affect men’s body image
RQ2: How will ideal and hyper-ideal video game bodies affect men’s body attitudes?
Similar to Study 1, we sought to investigate how men’s trait social comparison tendency
interacted with exposure to video game bodies, as trait differences may facilitate or impede
comparison. As a result, we asked the following research question:
RQ3: How will trait social comparison tendency interact with men’s body image
dissatisfaction and body attitudes?
6.1. Pilot Study
As in Study 1, the results of the pilot study informed our selection of stimuli. Participants
in the pilot rated the main character in Alan Wake and the featherweight boxers in Fight Night as
the most realistic/idealized male characters and the heavyweight fighters in UFC Undisputed
2010 and Street Fighter IV as the most exaggerated/hyper-idealized male characters. Paired
samples t-tests showed that both ideal characters were significantly different than the hyper-
idealized characters, t(34-37) = 4.74 - 25.56, p < .001.
We recruited 197 males from telecommunications courses at Indiana University for
course credit. Most participants (96%) fell within the 18-24 demographic, 7 within the 25-30
demographic, and 1 within the 31-40 demographic. Caucasians (82.2%) comprised the majority
of our sample, followed by Asians (8.6%), African Americans (4.1%), Latinos (3%), and other
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(2%). Participants averaged 70.58 inches in height (about 5’10”; SD = 7.08) and 176.66 pounds
in weight (SD = 41.84). Participants’ mean Body-Mass Index (BMI) score was 24.63 (SD =
5.47). More specifically, 4.1% of participants were underweight, 58.3% were normal weight,
24.7% were overweight, and 11.9% were obese.
Using the results of the pilot study, we selected Alan Wake and Fight Night for the Xbox
360 as the ideal condition games. Alan Wake is a third-person, psychological thriller about a man
named Alan who solves mysteries about a town during the day and battles supernatural enemies
at night. Players began at the beginning of the game where they fought supernatural entities and
explored a coastal area. Alan was a fit adult man with average body proportions. In Fight Night,
participants played as a featherweight boxer fighting other boxers of the same weight class in a
series of standard matches. The boxer was an athletically fit young man with a small build with
above average muscularity.
UFC Undisputed 2010 and Street Fighter IV for the Xbox 360 served as the stimuli for
the hyper-idealized condition. UFC is a third-person, fighting game where participants assumed
the role of a heavyweight fighter. Participants played a heavyweight championship tournament in
which they competed against 12 other computer-controlled fighters. The fighter was a very large
adult man with very large muscles. Street Fighter is a fighting game featuring extremely
muscular fighters who battle using a combination of martial arts and special powers. Participants
played as Ken in a series of fights. Ken was an above averaged sized young man with very large
6.4. Procedure and measures
The experimental procedure for Study 2 was precisely the same as the procedure for
REAL IDEAL 21
6.4.1. Body image dissatisfaction. To assess body image dissatisfaction (BID), we used
three measures. First, parallel to the female measures, we used the three subscales of the BES:
physical attractiveness (Cronbach’s α = .87), upper body strength (α = .91), and physical
condition (α = .87). Second, also like the female measures, we measured body discrepancy by
asking participants to indicate their body size and their desired body size using the Stunkard
figure rating scale (Stunkard et al., 1983). Third, we measured muscle discrepancy by presenting
participants with figures from the Muscle Silhouette Measure (MSM; Frederick et al., 2007) and
asked that they indicate the figure they thought was most like them and which figure they wished
they looked like. Greater differences between selections suggests greater body image
6.4.2. Body attitudes. To assess participants’ attitudes toward muscularity, we averaged
the responses of the Positive Attitudes of Muscularity (PAM) subscale of the Swansea
Muscularity Attitudes Questionnaire (SMAQ; Edwards & Launder, 2000). Using a 1 (strongly
disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) Likert scale, participants indicated the extent to which they agreed
with statements about the importance of being muscular. The scale had very good reliability (α =
6.4.3. Trait social comparison tendency. As in Study 1, we used Botta’s (1999)
measure to assess male participants’ trait social comparison tendencies. We averaged the
responses to the four questions to create an index score. The scale had good reliability (α = .80).
6.4.4. Game usage & BMI. We assessed males’ game usage precisely the same way we
measured females’ by asking them how much time they spend playing video games each day of
the week. We then averaged the responses to create an indexed score (α = .94). Lastly, we
computed participants’ BMI using the same method as in the first study.
REAL IDEAL 22
Mirroring the analyses for Study 1, we used 2 (trait social comparison tendency high vs.
low) x 3 (idealized video game bodies vs. hyper-idealized bodies vs. control) factorial ANCOVA
for all analyses. Again, BMI (M = 24.63, SD = 5.47) and weekly game usage (M = 2.11, SD =
1.28) served as the two covariates in the model. We tested the effect of the video game bodies on
BID as reported in the three BES subscales independently. Regarding physical attractiveness, an
omnibus ANCOVA showed that there were no significant differences between conditions,
F(183, 2) = .55, p = .58 nor were there any interaction effects, F(183, 3) = 2.33, p = .076 (see
Figure 4). Therefore, there was no effect of exposure to both types of video game bodies on
men’s feelings of physical attractiveness.
Figure 4. Mean BES scores by condition and by trait social comparison tendency (SCT). Lower
scores indicate more body image disturbance.
For upper body strength, there were no significant main effects as indicated by an
omnibus ANCOVA, F(189, 2) = .92, p = .43. However, the interaction was marginally
significant, F(190, 3) = 2.62, p = .052, η2 = .03. Subsequent post-hoc analyses showed that those
within the ideal condition with low trait social comparison tendencies (M = 4.81, SE = .19, p =
Control Ideal Hyper-
ideal Control Ideal Hyper-
ideal Control Ideal Hyper-
Physical attractiveness Upper body strength Physical condition
Low SCT High SCT
REAL IDEAL 23
.059) reported more positive feelings about their upper body strength than those in the same
condition with high trait social comparison (M = 4.30, SE = .19; see Figure 4). In addition, those
within the control group with low trait social comparison tendencies (M = 4.74, SE = .20; p =
.06) also reported more positive feelings about their upper body strength than those in the same
condition with high trait social comparison (M = 4.25, SE = .17). These data suggest that those
with high social comparison tendencies tend to have less positive feelings about their upper body
strength than those with lower comparison tendencies. Exposure to ideal video game bodies did
not affect this relationship. However, exposure to hyper-idealized bodies erased this difference.
Specifically, the hyper-idealized bodies caused those with lower social comparison tendencies
(M = 4.43, SE = .18) to report similar feelings about their upper body strength as those with
higher comparison tendencies (M = 4.21, SE = .19). In other words, hyper-ideal bodies increased
body image disturbance for men low in social comparison tendencies.
For the final BES subscale, physical condition, an omnibus ANCOVA revealed no main
effects, F(183, 2) = 1.18, p = .31 nor interactions, F(183, 3) = 2.13, p = .098. Thus, exposure, as
compared to no exposure, had no effect on men’s feelings regarding their physical condition.
In addition to the BES, we performed an omnibus ANCOVA on participants’ body
discrepancy to test the effect of video game body types on BID. The analysis revealed non-
significant main effects, F(183, 2) = .91, p = .406 and interactions, F(183, 3) = 1.34, p = .264.
These data indicate that exposure exhibited no effect on men’s body discrepancy.
Our last analysis exploring the effect of video game bodies on BID observed muscle
discrepancy. An omnibus ANCOVA showed no main effects, F(183, 2) = .30, p = .743. Despite
this, the analysis revealed a marginally significant interaction effect, F(183, 3) = 2.61, p = .053,
η2 = .04 (see Figure 5). Post-hoc examinations revealed that those with low trait social
REAL IDEAL 24
comparison tendencies (M = 1.5, SE = .18, p = .038) reported less muscular discrepancy than
those with high comparison tendencies within the control condition (M = 2.07, SE = .18). This
indicates that those with high trait social comparison tendencies tend to have greater muscular
discrepancy than those with low comparison tendencies but exposure to video games erased this
Figure 5. Mean muscle discrepancy scores by condition and by trait social comparison tendency
(SCT). Lower scores indicate more body image disturbance.
Our final analysis observed the effect of video game bodies on participants’ body
attitudes. An omnibus ANCOVA found no significant main effects, F(184, 2) = .89, p = .413.
Nevertheless, the interaction was significant, F(184, 3) = 3.99, p = .009, η2 = .06 (see Figure 6).
Post-hoc analyses showed precisely the same pattern of results returned for the upper body
strength subscale of the BES. Specifically, those within the ideal condition with low trait social
comparison (M = 4.22, SE = .23, p = .031) reported more positive body attitudes than those in the
same condition with high trait social comparison (M = 4.93, SE = .23). Additionally, those within
the control group with low trait social comparison (M = 4.06, SE = .24, p = .012) also reported
Control Ideal bodies Hyper-ideal bodies
Muscle Discrepancy Scores
Low SCT High SCT
REAL IDEAL 25
more positive body attitudes than those in the same condition with high trait social comparison
(M = 4.86, SE = .21). These outcomes suggest that those with low social comparison tendencies
tend to have more positive body attitudes than those with higher comparison tendencies.
Exposure to games featuring ideal bodies did not affect this pattern. However, exposure to ideal
bodies erased this difference, as it made those with low social comparison tendencies to report
similar body attitudes as those with high comparison tendencies. In other words, hyper-ideal
bodies caused men low in trait social comparison to report more negative body attitudes.
Figure 6. Mean body attitude scores by condition and by trait social comparison tendency (SCT).
Higher scores indicate more body image disturbance.
The results of Study 2 did not return a single main effect of video game bodies on male
players. Nevertheless, a reoccurring interaction emerged between the main manipulations and
trait social comparison tendency: those with low comparison tendencies had less body image
dissatisfaction (BID) and more positive body attitudes compared to those with high trait social
comparison. This pattern held for those exposed to ideal game bodies. However, the pattern did
Control Ideal bodies Hyper-ideal bodies
Negative Body Attitudes
Low SCT High SCT
REAL IDEAL 26
not occur for low trait comparison men exposed to hyper-idealized bodies. For these men,
exposure to hyper-idealized bodies elicited the same BID and body attitudes as high trait
comparison men within the same condition. In other words, hyper-idealized bodies worsened
BID and body attitudes for low trait social comparison men.
9. General Discussion
The central focus of the current studies was to investigate how exposure to both ideal and
hyper-idealized video game bodies affected the body image dissatisfaction (BID) and body
attitudes of female and male video game players. To capture greater nuance, we also observed
how trait social comparison tendency interacted with exposure to different game bodies. Across
both studies, males and females exposed to ideal video game bodies reported the same BID and
body attitudes as those not exposed to any stimuli. Only hyper-idealized game bodies affected
our outcomes of interest. Specifically, females exposed to hyper-idealized bodies tended to
report less BID and more positive body attitudes. In contrast, males exposed to hyper-idealized
bodies reported greater BID and more negative body attitudes. Interestingly, this pattern of
results is incongruent with existing research on static media (see Arbour & Martin Ginis, 2006;
Addressing the findings for females more specifically, our data indicate that exposure to
video games featuring ideal bodies had no effect on women’s BID nor their body attitudes.
However, hyper-idealized game bodies caused females to report less BID and more positive
body attitudes relative to both no exposure and to ideal bodies. We think two possibilities may
explain this pattern. The first posits that only the hyper-ideal bodies elicited social comparison.
This is not surprising, as existing work found that women engaged in upward social comparison
when exposed to idealized and even hyper-idealized imagery (Arbour & Martin Ginis, 2006).
REAL IDEAL 27
However, the present findings revealed that females felt better about their bodies following
exposure to hyper-ideal bodies. This suggests that players engaged in downward social
comparison. Although this seems counterintuitive, video games sometimes feature extremely
sexualized female characters that appeal to male fantasies (Salter & Blodgett, 2012; Taylor et al.,
2009). These characters may feature alluring attire, sexualized movements, and provocative
makeup. The female characters that comprised our hyper-ideal condition fit this description. As a
result, it is possible that female players thought the hyper-ideal characters were ridiculous and
upon comparison, felt better about their own bodies.
The Lara Phenomenon (Jansz & Martis, 2007) is a second possibility for this pattern of
results. Essentially, the Lara Phenomenon posits that playing as powerful, capable female
characters may make female players feel better about themselves. Rather than diminish this
possibility, avatar sexualization may bolster—or at least not reverse—this positive outcome.
Applied to the current findings, playing as capable, albeit sexualized, characters may have made
women feel better about their bodies and improved their body attitudes. This idea has some face
validity, as representations of strong female leads are uncommon relative to portrayals of male
leads (Downs & Smith, 2010). Thus, the novelty of playing as an attractive and capable female
character may have been uplifting.
Related to the Lara Phenomenon, there is also the possibility that women and men
perceive the attainability of body ideals differently and this motivates them to attend to different
details when consuming interactive media. More specifically, it is likely that women consider
specific ideals (e.g., breast size) attainable only through very involving means such as plastic
surgery. For men, however, it is possible that they consider muscle size achievable though less
REAL IDEAL 28
involving means such as lifting weights. As a result, perhaps women attended more to physical
capabilities and men attended more to the characters’ bodies.
Relative to the outcomes surrounding women, the pattern of results for men was notably
different. The most dramatic departure was the lack of main effect findings. This suggests that
male video game bodies do not affect the average male’s BID nor his body attitude. However,
taking into account the men’s trait social comparison tendency differentiated the outcomes of
interest. Specifically, men with high social comparison tendencies reported higher BID and more
negative body attitudes. Additionally, the outcomes for high social comparison men were stable,
indicating that exposure had no effect on them. Conversely, game exposure did affect men with
low trait social comparison tendencies. Although exposure to ideal bodies tended to be similar to
no exposure, hyper-ideal bodies increased BID and worsened body attitudes for men lower in
trait social comparison—making them statistically equivalent to those with high trait social
Reflecting on the pattern of results for men, it is possible that males in the hyper-ideal
condition engaged in upward social comparison and therefore desired to look like the game
characters. Although this is the inverse of the explanation presented for the female participants,
the cause may be identical. In detail, the male characters in the hyper-ideal condition, like the
hyper-ideal female characters, adhered to male fantasies. The characters were serious, tough,
extremely muscular, and highly capable—clearly adhering to masculine stereotypes (Dill &
Thill, 2007; Salter & Blodgett, 2012). As a result, males likely identified the characters as
models for comparison and thus, felt negatively about their own bodies following exposure. This
outcomes aligns with existing findings (Sylvia et al., 2014).
REAL IDEAL 29
Despite these conclusions, it is peculiar that only low trait social comparison participants
saw shifts in their BID and body attitudes, as these participants should be more resilient to
comparison relative to high trait social comparers. This finding was unexpected, but perhaps due
to the differences in how each group engages in comparison. It is possible that high trait social
comparers typically compare themselves more often against realistic portrayals (e.g., television
and magazines) relative to video game characters. The comparably extreme figures of hyper-
idealized video game characters may elicit comparison from those low in the trait because of the
assumed desirability of muscular physiques for men. Alternatively, it may be that low social
comparers are less discriminant about their models of comparison when they engage in
comparison. This notion is likely, as the trait social comparison measure asked participants about
the extent of their comparison rather than their selectivity. Thus, despite comparing less, low
social comparers may have more readily compared themselves to the hyper-ideal models due to
the characters’ body salience.
Addressing both patterns of results in unison, it is probable that the unique characteristics
of video games facilitated the observed outcomes. As described, games often feature attractive
but achievable body types (Jansz & Martis, 2007; Martins et al., 2009) but they also possess
characters that exceed the limits of possibility. The exaggerated attributes of these latter
characters tend to align with the masculine tastes that dominate video game content and culture
(Salter & Blodgett, 2012; Taylor et al., 2009). However, applied to the current findings, an ironic
outcome emerges. Rather than bolstering men, playing games featuring hyper-ideal male
characters resulted in greater BID and more negative body attitudes. In contrast, rather than
diminishing women, playing games with hyper-ideal female characters made women have more
positive body attitudes and less BID. Thus, the heteronormative male fantasy often portrayed in
REAL IDEAL 30
games may negatively affect men by pressuring them to adhere to an unrealistic standard and
positively affect women by emphasizing capability and providing a model that encourages
A number of similarities and departures emerge when comparing the current findings to
extant work. Recall that Barlett and Harris (2008) reported that males experienced decreased
body esteem after playing a game featuring either a muscular or obese male avatar. Although the
current study does not have a finding that parallels the results surrounding obese characters, our
data corroborate the authors’ findings regarding muscular avatars. Likewise, our data also
corroborate the conclusion by Sylvia et al. (2014) that hyper-muscular male game characters
reduced men’s body dissatisfaction relative to ideal/normal male characters. Departing from the
existing conclusions, we found that exposure to hyper-idealized female characters improved
women’s feelings about their bodies relative to no exposure and exposure to ideal female bodies.
In contrast, Barlett and Harris (2008) found that exposure to attractive female game characters
decreased women’s positive feeling toward their bodies and their perceived sexual attractiveness.
Thus, the present work mostly replicates existing trends. Nevertheless, the findings
regarding females diverge notably. The divergent outcomes may the result of the present study’s
multi-message design being able to capture more nuance in combination with having both a
control and an ideal body condition for comparison. However, it could also be resulting from the
continued evolution of game content, game technology, and/or the gaming audience itself.
9.1. Limitations and conclusions
A lack of experimental control limits the current set of studies. Because we selected
games for stimuli using a pretest, the differences between each game may have influenced the
results. Despite this, users rated the game characters between conditions as significantly
REAL IDEAL 31
different, which helps ensure that the main manipulations were sound. Additionally, although
using multiple games reduces control, it aids in ecological validity as it expands the applicability
of the present conclusions. Nevertheless, we assessed if the games within each condition
produced significantly different values for each dependent variable using the primary ANCOVA.
For men, both the ideal and hyper-ideal conditions produced significantly different outcomes for
the physical attractiveness subscale of the BES. All other means were statistically identical. For
women, the games in the ideal condition produced significantly different bust discrepancy scores
and all other means were statistically identical. In sum, out of 24 analyses, the differences
between the stimuli within each condition affected three outcomes. Thus, the conclusions for
men regarding the physical attractiveness subscale and the findings for women in the ideal
condition regarding bust discrepancy should be interpreted with care.
Another limitation is the size of the effects. Across all analyses, the effects at hand were
very small, sometimes resulting in marginal significance. This may indicate that the differences
in game content—and even exposure to games at all—may barely influence people’s feelings
about their bodies. However, this seems unlikely given the amount of negative attention these
portrayals aggregate (Isaacson, 2012; Sarkeesian, 2014). Therefore, it may be that a combination
of variables could explain more of the variance at hand. For example, it may not be the visual
exaggerations alone, but also certain character behaviors, role in the narrative, and overall game
aesthetics/composition. A final possibility for the diminutive effects sizes may be the brief
exposure (20 minutes) relative to the length of a full video game (upward of 10 hours). Perhaps a
longer exposure (ideally a longitudinal design) would reveal the full scope of the investigated
REAL IDEAL 32
Following focusing events such as TIME magazine naming feminist media critic Anita
Sarkeesian on their list of the top 100 most influential people in the world (Wheaton, 2015), the
call for research investigating the heteronormative male influence on game content and culture is
clear. Although the current collection of studies was cognizant of this trend in its investigation of
the effects of game bodies on men and women, more research is needed. Future work may
benefit from further investigating the curious pattern of results presented here and expanding the
scope of inquiry to other game design elements that may influence players’ feelings about their
REAL IDEAL 33
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