Chas' recent post at Righteous Orbs got me thinking about a few things (unsurprisingly—it's a thought-provoking post). The thing I want to write about here is about body shapes in games, and how they relate to the character's role in the game. I'm going to use World of Warcraft for my examples in this post as it's the game I'm most faimilar with.
In most role-playing games, the character you play uses the same basic model regardless of what class it is, and as Chas noted, they're invariably well-build musclemen if male, or "sexy" if female. Naturally there are exceptions: I don't think female orcs, trolls or tauren (or even dorfs) in WoW are supposed to be "sexy", and apparently Blizzard's artists consulted real actual women when designing the Horde females. Imagine that! Maybe it explains why the Horde women are able to stand upright, rather than walking around dragging their fists on the floor.
To use a rather extreme example of body-to-role mismatch, let's look at the male draenei:
Clearly one is a HULK SMASH melee fighter and the other is a sissy robe-wearing flinger of girly magic.
My first character in WoW was a rogue. Rogues are supposed to be sneaky-stealthy types who stab people in the back and then vanish if things get too confrontational. They do not take hits to the face very well at all. And yet, because my rogue was male and human, he was build like Conan the Barbarian, which really grates rather.
My second character was a priest, and this time I made it female. It took a lot of fiddling to come up with one that didn't look like an empty-headed bimbo.
I fully intended her to be a shadow priest, hence the serious face. Alas, her voice doesn't match her appearance in the slightest: she sounds like a bimbo in the same way that my rogue sounds like an 80s action movie character.
Coming from the other end of the spectrum we have the female characters in melee fighter or tank roles. Female blood elves are notoriously thin, and even kitted out in plate armour they look frail, so much so that they looks out of place up front getting smacked in the face by a boss. It's rather silly to imagine them being able to hit as hard, and take hits as hard, as someone three times larger and heavier than they are.
His forearms are thicker than her waist.
Make It Fit
So what could be done about this? I think it's quite simple, at least conceptually: make it so your character's body shape reflects the role it performs. Tanks and plate-wearing melee fighters would be stocky and strong-looking, regardless of whether they were male or female. Rogues and hunters would be lithe and agile, relying on stealth, subtlety and accuracy of attacks rather than brute force. And finally, spellcasters would be thin and physically weak-looking, reflecting their inability to do any meaningful physical damage. Hybrid classes like shaman, druids and paladins could simply have their body shape determined by their primary talent tree (although this may introduce oddness should a player re-spec, unless the body shape adjusted over a few days or something).
I imagine this might annoy some players (anything will annoy someone), so it could easily be made an option - some people might not like the idea of a tough-looking female character, or a thin and weak-looking male. Still, it would be nice to have the option to control a character that actually looks like they would be performing their role.
A reply to Chas' post brought up another point related to my post: animations. As things are now, if you make a priest melee something with a mace, they'll do it in exactly the same way as a warrior, paladin or shaman. The jumping animation, the running animation, it's the same across all the classes for a particular race/gender set.
This, however, is not something I can get too worked up about, as it starts to wander into development constraints territory. Animation is expensive and time-consuming, and creating a different animation for every class, race and sex combination could well be prohibitively so given the relatively minor difference it would make. That's not to say I think it's a bad idea; in fact I'd love Blizzard to do something like that—it's not like they're short of money—but I just don't feel they'd see it as worth the effort, which is a shame. It's small details like that which can really help immersion, even if they're not immediately obvious.