At a time when obesity rates are their highest in our nation, attitudes
toward obese people couldn’t be worse. Overweight and obese individuals
are frequently stigmatized and vulnerable targets of prejudice in
employment settings, health care facilities, and educational
institutions. This year alone there have been reports that obese
persons are partly responsible for global warming, increasing fuel
prices, and promoting weight gain among their friends.
Especially damaging may be portrayals of obese characters in entertainment media. Studies analyzing today’s most popular television shows and films show that overweight characters are depicted as objects of humor and ridicule, engaging in stereotypical behaviors like overeating, and rarely shown having positive romantic or social relationships. Given how much media is consumed by our culture, it’s not surprising that societal attitudes are so negative.
Video games can now be added to the list of stigmatizing entertainment media. The latest example is Sony’s release of the video game “ Fat Princess ”, a game where players compete in a medieval battle to rescue their princess from the enemy dungeon. Players can prevent capture attempts by locking the princess in a dungeon and stuffing her full of cake, thereby increasing her body weight and making it difficult for the enemies to haul her back across the battlefield to home base. The game has created some controversy, and millions of comments on the internet, many from video game players who make disparaging comments about those who have raised concerns.
As with other messages prevalent in the media, this game fuels and reinforces negative stereotypes, communicating yet again that obese individuals deserve to be denigrated. While the game would still be stigmatizing if the ‘princess’ were instead a ‘prince’, its current format is consistent with growing science documenting that obese women are especially common targets of weight bias.
A predominant concern with video games is graphic violence, but instilling prejudice and encouraging discrimination also creates harm. Children and adolescents are of special concern because they are significant media consumers. Studies now show that children who view more television and play more video games are more likely to stigmatize obese peers. Overweight girls appear to be especially vulnerable targets of stigma from boys who are heavily exposed to the media. Unfortunately, those who experience weight bias are vulnerable to a range of consequences that impair emotional and physical health, ranging from depression and low self-esteem, to avoidance of physical activity and engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors.
Video games are a source of multimedia interactive entertainment. But they also serve as a narrative of our current societal values and norms. For that reason, it is unlikely that video games featuring racist, homophobic, or anti-Semitic content would receive popular praise. The social acceptability of denigrating obese characters in the stories told through this artistic medium is a sad reflection of today’s public perceptions that obese persons do not deserve the same respect and dignity as other human beings. Time is overdue for entertainment media to take stock of its impact on those affected by obesity. Instead of invoking feelings of shame, alienation, and inadequacy, why not create sources of entertainment that are free of prejudice? Some bloggers and critics of Fat Princess have suggested non-offensive alternatives, such as instead of feeding cake to the princess to make her obese, the game would be just as effective if the objective was to seek gold (weighing notably more than cake) to fill into a treasure chest, which then had to be carried to home base. Same game, but no stigma.