On my way to work one morning last week, I came across an article in the newspaper that caught both my attention and anger. I normally only glance at the headlines because the usual superficial stories of celebrity gossip don’t hold much interest, but there was a small piece about a game available on Google Play that I made a point of reading all the way through. It existed under the heading: Liposuction game for 9yo girls ‘awful and reckless’.
Later on I did some further digging and found out that Plastic Surgery had been removed, although it was estimated that it had already been installed between 500,000 and a million times. The game’s description was advertised as the following (the bad grammar comes courtesy of the developer): “Barbara likes to eat a lot of burgers and chocolates and once she found that she looks ugly. She can’t make it up with situation any additional second. And today plastic surgeon is going to make operation on her body and face to return cute Barbara’s look. She is afraid of this.”
At the same time, Plastic Surgery for Barbie was taken down from the App Store. Recommended as being suitable for children aged nine and over and free to download, it instructed young players to perform plastic surgery on the image of a woman resembling Mattel’s doll who has ‘so much weight that no diet can help her’. Both apps were pulled after Everyday Sexism launched a campaign and protests were made by four-thousand users on Twitter.
Here’s a message for anyone who has just read the above and is now starting to worry that this is going to be yet another post on women and sexism in video games: trust me, it isn’t. I said my piece on that particular topic in a lengthy article last year and I don’t particularly feel the need to explain my opinions once again. This post is about something different: it’s about body-image and self-confidence, a subject which could affect anyone regardless of their gender.
To give you some more background, here are some additional details about the apps. The games themselves are quite simple: the player taps on a surgical tool, then on the character’s body to use it. Liposuction involves local anaesthetic, a scalpel and an implement that looks like a bicycle pump, and ‘helpful’ arrows show you what to do. The poorly-programmed controls and slow animations means that it takes around ten minutes to finish, and once surgery is complete there’s an opportunity to play dress-up with a choice of new hairstyles, dresses and shoes.
It’s bad enough that modern media promotes the perception that all you need to be successful is youth, a good body and a beautiful face, but to so obviously market this message to children? I can’t explain how disappointed this makes me. Hell, if you’re old, overweight or unattractive then you may as well forget about getting anywhere in life – but if you want a quick fix, then why not go under the knife and cut all your troubles away! It’s not just apps like these or video games in general, but all forms of media that promote these ideas. Try to think of one that hasn’t used beauty, sex or a set of toned abs for promotion at least once and you’ll struggle to come up with an example.
It’s not something I like to talk about but I was a real ugly duckling as a kid. I was awkward, shy and had several problems that prevented me from being what you’d call a ‘conventionally pretty’ child (I’d really rather not go into them here). Add to that the fact I liked to play video games and preferred to hang out with the boys rather than my female counterparts, and it resulted in quite a difficult time growing up. My parents, while great, were firm believers in ‘tough love’ and felt that pulling me apart on my appearance would give me additional motivation to change it; and this, combined with being teased at school, was enough to make me feel almost worthless.
By writing this admission I’m not asking for your sympathy or looking for attention – indeed, I’m sure many people can relate to my own tale of inadequacy and have one of their own. I’m just trying to give some context about why I feel so strongly about this subject and had such a negative reaction when I read about these Plastic Surgery games. It took me many years to become comfortable in my own skin and my experiences are what have made me the person I am today; but, even though I’m now quite happy with what I see in the mirror, every once in a while those old insecurities bubble to the surface and it can be a real battle to push them back down again. I may have had a tough time and still have to deal with the effects of that occasionally, but I can only imagine how difficult it must be for the children of today.
They’re bombarded with images of the ‘ideal beauty’ from such any early age and through so many more media channels than were available when I was young. I’m not a parent myself and so maybe not the best person to comment, but when I think of my friends’ children I do worry about how this will affect them. A study by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) found that the negative effect of media on body-image appears to be greater among young adults than in children and adolescents; and this may suggest that long-term exposure during childhood lays the foundation for the insecurities in early adulthood.
There seems to be very little emphasis in today’s media on learning to love yourself or your body, and being happy with who you are. The attitude that a person can never be ‘too rich or too thin’ is all too prevalent and this makes it extremely difficult for anyone – male or female – to achieve any kind of contentment with their physical appearance. Sadly it’s not something that can be easily changed because it’s so engrained in modern society and, let’s face it: whilst sex continues to sell, the media is going to keep using these images to rake the money in.
But that’s not to say that we can each do something about it. It’s so hard to change your mind-set when everything around you says you must be conventionally beautiful to succeed, but it’s important to remember that true beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. Yes, it’s cliché, but Margaret Wolf Hungerford hit the nail on the head when she first said that famous phrase. What really makes a person attractive is how they respond to the world and react to others around them, not their appearance.
This isn’t just something I’m saying for the sake of this post but advice I truly believe in. I have crushes that some others may find weird but the attraction is because of who that person is, rather than what they look like. There’s an actor whom I think is extremely attractive because of his wicked sense of humour; a TV personality who’s gorgeous because he seems like a genuinely nice guy; and a video game developer I’d love to meet because I admire him for all he’s achieved. What these people have in common is that they may not fit society’s view of what’s considered to be beautiful, but that makes them nonetheless appealing to me.
Give me Ragnar Tørnquist over Brad Pitt any day. The fact that this man has the creativity to come up with one of the most amazing stories in video game history makes him seriously sexy in my book. (If you’re reading this Ragnar, feel free to give me a call sometime.)
While I applaud Google Play and the App Store for removing the Plastic Surgery games, I can’t help feeling that more could have been done. The latter version was available for a year before it was taken down; it took four-thousand tweets before anything happened; and it seems like Apple’s decision may have been more to do with a possible trademark infringement than anything else – and that’s after a potential million children had downloaded the app. At the same time as being overzealous in its approval process (removing titles such as that by prize-winning cartoonist Mark Fiore after accusations of ‘ridiculing public figures’) the company lets many more like these liposuction games slip through the net.
Developers like those of Plastic Surgery make me afraid for the world and where the future of media is heading. Video games of any kind – apps or otherwise – have the potential to be a great positive medium, so why is the industry not taking advantage of that? Children shouldn’t be playing things that make them feel inadequate or that the most important thing in life is to be beautiful; and there’s no reason why games can’t potentially teach them how to overcome their body issues, or how the media distorts reality, or that it’s more important to be beautiful on the inside.
Every child deserves to feel special, regardless of their appearance, size, gender or background, and nobody should be made to feel as if they’re insignificant just because of the way they look. If we all just took the time to get to know others for who they really are rather than how they appear to be on the outside, then we may find that there are many more beautiful people in the world than we ever realised existed.
I’ll end this post with a quote by Markus Zusak, the author of one of my favourite books: “Sometimes people are beautiful. Not in looks. Not in what they say. Just in what they are.”