On March 6, 2023, video game company Electronic Arts (EA) announced the introduction of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) to their FIFA franchise. This inclusion, just like with the WNBA in EA’s NBA Live franchise, was initially celebrated as a step forward to gender equality in sport and the video game industry. However, this celebration faced pushback from many athletes about the (un)likeness of their digitized counterparts and how the game rates certain athletes’ performances. Subsequently, athletes’ public outcry drew pushback on social media, with some users urging NWSL athletes to stop making this a gender issue, arguing that it is just a technical problem because men, too, have been misrepresented in video games. In this article, we provide a different perspective on the misrepresentation of female athletes. Instead of saying “yes, the misrepresentation is about gender inequality,” or “no, it is merely a technical issue,” we want to argue, “yes, the misrepresentation may be due to technological limitations, but how these athletes are misrepresented can be a gender issue that hinders the good intention of advocating for equality.”
“Realities” in Sports-Themed Video Games
Though contemporary sports-themed video games (STVG) often use technology such as full-body scans to produce their contents, the resulting images are never simply duplications of reality. Rather, physical reality is translated and coded into a digital existence—a process called remediation. There are two parts to the remediation process: immediacy and hypermediacy. Immediacy makes mediation appear invisible and aims to make gamers feel like they are actually present in the game. For example, in a remediated basketball game, the sounds of crowds cheering, the basketball bouncing while dribbling, and shoes squeaking on the arena floor all contribute to a sense of immediacy; hearing these sounds when playing a simulated basketball game makes us feel like we are actually at the game. The use of face and body scanning to bring more authentic likenesses and kinetic movements of real-life athletes to STVG is another example of immediacy. This technology makes the gaming experience of playing with/against/as known athletes seem more lifelike and believable. Hypermediacy, on the other hand, gives visibility back to the mediation process and reminds us that the reality we are experiencing through the gaming platform is indeed simulated. For example, performing athletic movements by pressing buttons and arrows makes us aware that we are not actually experiencing those movements. Another example of hypermediacy is the omnipresent EA logo at the corner of the screen that constantly reminds gamers that they are the authors of this “reality.”
Seeing video game content through this remediation process can help us understand that critiques of “misrepresentation” are rooted in demand and expectation for immediacy in STVG. If we cannot really see the digitized Sydney Leroux as the real Sydney Leroux, how can we feel like we are actually playing an NWSL game? However, we can also read this misrepresentation as a manifestation of hypermediacy. It reminds us that we are not actually playing in an NWSL game, we are playing a video game (of NWSL). It also reminds us of the current technological limitations on authentically simulating athletic bodies in digital form for video games. So instead of asking why misrepresentations happen, perhaps the more important question, when faced with these limitations, is how are these bodies reimagined in digital platforms?
There are two parts to this question. First, in what ways are athletes misrepresented? In other words, how are they different from their physical counterparts? Second, based on what discourses or social norms are these misrepresented digitized bodies designed? Exploring these questions helps us understand the implications that misrepresentation of female athletes in STVG may have for inclusion and gender equality.
The WNBA in NBA Live 18/19
Let’s use an example of misrepresentations of WNBA athletes in EA’s STVG franchise to show how we can begin answering these questions. Since 2017, EA’s representation of the WNBA has been ambitious. In that year, they made a move to include the full roster of all WNBA teams in NBA Live 18 and continued this approach with its successor, NBA Live 19. As researchers who study sport, we observed several notable misrepresentations in the visual appearances and kinetic capacity of the athletes while playing the WNBA components of these two games.
In both Live 18 and Live 19, the digitized selves of some well-known athletes are fairly recognizable. Details of their physical appearances, such as hairstyles, hair and skin colour, and noticeable features like tattoos are replicated relatively accurately. However, any resemblance that does appear in the games is mostly limited to features above the neck, whereas the bodies seem to be created without much reference to individual athletes. For example, the athletes’ muscles are smoothed out. We also observed a fairly universal body shape: an hourglass shape where the bust is amplified and the waist narrowed.
We then compared representations of kinetics capacity—in other words, the overall flow and movement of the simulated athletes’ bodies—across the WNBA and NBA portions of the game, and found that the simulated WNBA athletes could only move slowly before crossing the halfcourt line. In contrast, the simulated athletes in the NBA mode were able to sprint across the court.
Historically, the hourglass body shape (narrow waist and amplified breasts) has been common for female characters in video games. Although WNBA players’ digitized athletic bodies are not depicted as unrealistically and disproportionately as characters like Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, it is revealing to see that the default female athletic body still corresponds to the stereotypical gendered and sexualized image of the female body. While the inclusion of the WNBA in a major STVG franchise was celebrated as a great step toward gender equality, the subtle undertone of normative, gendered discourse nevertheless persists. Against the backdrop of this gender discourse, we can understand the logic behind the smoothed-out muscles of these simulated women, even though they are elite athletes in a contact sport (how can they not have muscles?!). We can also see the circulation of gender discourse in the kinetic (mis)representations, where digitized WNBA players cannot sprint before passing the halfcourt line. This is not due to technological limitations, but rather to the game developer’s choice to cap WNBA players’ athleticism.
In a study analyzing fictional female characters in video games across 31 years, a group of media scholars found a correlation between the sexualization of women and the video game genres. Genres that usually aim toward a primarily male consumer market (such as fighting and action games) contain more gendered and sexualized female characters. Further, the researchers suggested that the sexualization of women in games could make women uncomfortable and deter them from playing. Along this line of thinking, we suggest that these milestones of inclusion in games like FIFA and NBA Live may fail to expand their target audience, and again, reinforce the stereotypical idea that women don’t play/belong in video games. This is why the misrepresentation of NWLS athletes is a gender issue, and why it matters.
Author Biographical Notes:
Judy Liao is an Associate Professor in Sport Study at Augustana Faculty, University of Alberta. Her research interests include gender and sport and diaspora sporting experiences and history in Canada. She is a big fan of the WNBA and has several publications on these excellent athletes.
Emily MacMillan worked as a research assistant for this STVG project while she studied at the University of Alberta. She has a BA degree in physical education and Indigenous study. Currently, she works as a Communications and Engagement Associate at First Peoples’ Cultural Council in BC, Canada, while also taking a Metis Women’s Leadership Program.