How Using Sexy Female Avatars in Video Games Changes Women

A new Stanford University study looks at the connection between hyper-sexualized gaming characters and the way female players view rape and their own bodies.

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Crystal Dynamics
Crystal Dynamics

Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider: Anniversary game

It’s not “just a game.”

The debate over whether we should worry about little boys playing violent video games never seems to die down. But maybe we should be fretting just as much about little girls playing those same games. Women who used sexy avatars to represent themselves in video games were more likely to objectify themselves in real life. Not only that, they were more likely to accept what’s called rape myth — i.e., the idea that a woman is in some way to blame for her rape — according to a Stanford study published on Oct. 11 in Computers and Human Behavior.

We’ve known for a long time that the oversexualization of women has a negative impact on the female psyche: one experiment asked women to try on either a bikini or a sweater; those who tried on a bikini reported feeling shame about their bodies and performed more poorly on a math test than their sweater-wearing counterparts. And studies have shown that sexualization of women in the media can negatively impact young girls’ body image. It’s for that very reason that moms worry about their daughters watching the Video Music Awards.

But playing Lara Croft — the wasp-waisted, impossibly large-breasted protagonist in the Tomb Raider video-game series who fights bad guys in an ever-so-practical tight tank top and short shorts — might be worse than watching Miley Cyrus twerking in a bikini. Researchers have demonstrated that embodying characters in virtual worlds has a stronger effect on gamers than just passively watching a character; game play can influence off-line beliefs, attitudes and action thanks to a phenomenon called the Proteus effect in which an individual’s behavior conforms to their digital identity.

And if your avatar resembles you (i.e., you’re playing with a dopplegänger), the game can make an even greater impression. Previous studies have shown playing with a dopplegänger can lead the user to replicate the dopplegänger’s eating patterns, experience physiological arousal or prefer a brand of product endorsed by the dopplegänger. Given that connection, this new study looked at whether embodying sexualized female avatars online changed women’s behavior.

The Stanford researchers asked 86 women ages 18 to 40 to play using either a sexualized (sexily dressed) avatar or a nonsexualized (conservatively dressed) avatar. Then, researchers designed some of those avatars to look like the player embodying them.

Those women who played using sexualized avatars who looked like them were more accepting of the rape myth, according to the study. After playing the game, women responded to many questions with answers along a five-point scale (from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”), including, “In the majority or rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation.” Those who played sexy avatars who looked like themselves were more likely to answer “agree” or “strongly agree” than those women who had nonsexy avatars who did not look like them.

Participants were also asked to freewrite their thoughts after the study. Those with sexualized avatars were more likely to self-objectify in their essays after play.

Though this is a small study and certainly not a definitive answer to the question of how video games affect female players, the results do raise concerns. As many as 46% of gamers are women, and according to this research, in many of the most popular games, their options for female avatars are mostly ones with absurdly exaggerated, busty body types. And many of those female gamers are young girls: 31% of girls ages 8 to 18 report playing video games on any given day.

But even as more researchers study issues around women in gaming and protests against sexism in gaming grow, it’s unlikely that video-game companies are going to change their character-design strategy anytime soon. Last year, U.S. consumers spent $16.6 billion on video games, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

And while the makers of this fall’s record-breaking hit, Grand Theft Auto V, have got complaints about the fact that you can’t play as a female character in the game (even though you can play as a man and kill prostitutes), maybe it’s better that way — at least until someone gives the women in these games a real makeover.

MORE: #1ReasonWhy: Women Take to Twitter to Talk About Sexism in Video-Game Industry

15 comments
thejeffwei
thejeffwei

really tired of all these poorly written time online articles - do they not have editors online? Counted at least 5 typos, not to mention the entire article based on a questionable study.

sushisoda
sushisoda

I have minimal understanding of stats, so someone correct me if I'm wrong, but looking at the actual Stanford article, I believe there are no significantly significant results.

They had a 4 different setups: playing as a sexualized version of yourself, a sexualized version of someone else, a non-sexualized version of yourself, and a non-sexualized version of someone else. Note: for 'self', they used pictures from a prior study and imposed it onto their virtual models; another portion of the paper describes how this was statistically successful based on participant response.

For the non-sexualized versions, the "rape myth acceptance" measurements are incredibly close; the article even admits these numbers to be statistically insignificant. For the sexualized versions, there are two things interesting to note:

1) First of all, if you were playing as a sexualized version of someone else, the rape-myth-acceptance score waslower than those for non-sexualized self/not-self. Maybe they explain this more in their discussion section or in the article, but it seems counterintuitive to the claim that "Oh my god playing as a sexualized female in a videogame is going to make you more prone to rape myth accpetance!" when literally zero of the games you play have faces of yourself. If anything playing a video game with a sexualized not-you gives you a lower rape-myth-acceptance score than playing a video game with a non-sexualized person.

2) The rape-myth-acceptance score for sexualized + self was, after finnicky adjustments, 1.95 with a standard deviation, of 0.57. That means, within 1 standard deviation (68% probability their results happened by chance), this could be anywhere between 1.38 to 2.52. For the sexualized + not self, the mean score was 1.54 with a standard deviation of 0.36, so within 1 standard deviation, it could be anywhere between 1.18 to 1.9. To be statistically significant (as in, you can be pretty close to positive that the difference in you results is a direct cause of the variables you changed), you should not have any overlap within TWO standard deviations of the means. Here, there is already overlap within one standard deviation. That could very readily happen by chance. Thus, there is no real conclusion here.

I expect more from Stanford. If they do talk about this in their discussion, which I am way too busy to read thoroughly right now, then I rescind my hooty-tootiness.

BalaMookoni
BalaMookoni

Imagery has a lasting impact on the mind. Repeat images leave their footprint in the mental space. Repetition has a tremendous power. Imagery and repetition together can create a kind of stress. And under stress, negative thoughts get amplified. When there can be so much creativity, where is the need to stoke negative emotions? Inner demons are hard to defeat. Right living and right thinking are essential to keep them at bay. It is an effort for a lifetime. Extreme entertainment drugs, addicts and weakens our resolve. 

TheNerdRage
TheNerdRage

Sarkeesian is going to have a field day with this.

TRArchaeology
TRArchaeology

Interesting. I've been playing Tomb Raider ever since the first game came out and can't say I really agree with this claim. I was 16 then and nearly 33 now and I can't say that playing as Lara Croft has had any real impact on my body image or wardrobe or made me more accepting of rape (seriously?). I also guess the researchers hadn't noticed that the Lara in the reboot game is a lot less sexualized than her older counterpart. or that Lara doesn't just wear tank tops and shorts in the games (this is especially true of the last couple of games). Heck, I've even played the Dead or Alive games and just laughed off the fact that most of the female characters in that series wear some of the most impractical outfits known to man.

Have these researchers tried conducting a similar experiment with men to see if virtual hunks like Nathan Drake affect the way men see themselves? Or are they content with promoting the idea that women can't handle playing video games?

JenniferBonin
JenniferBonin

As an RPG-playing female, when I see a chainmail bikini, I don't feel that she (or any woman) deserves to be raped because of her clothes.  I think she looks moronic, like she's going to get her bare legs or boobies sliced off by the next monster who attacks us, because she's got no armor.  And I think that the guys who design these costumes are equally are moronic, and probably have the mindset of 17-year-old boys, as well.  And all you guys who encourage the creators to use such costumes deserve some of the blame, too.

But I've got a really hard time buying this claim that looking at scantily-clad but highly-capable women characters makes women think less of themselves or be more accepting of rape.  Maybe people really are that stupid.  I'm not.  The outfits are ridiculous and should be changed for that reason alone, not because I'm worried that some 15-year-old is going to decide that dressing like Lara Croft makes her somehow more rape-able.

BillMartin1
BillMartin1

War, death, thrill rides, hangovers, recreational drugs, overeating, great books, great movies, bad neighbors, home break-ins, too much cloudy weather/rain, living near a large body of water or mountain, isolation, loss of a relative/friend, moving cross-country... stop me when I've overstated my case, which is: life affects our psyche.

Congrats on nailing down one more example of our choices that affect our psyche.

sutpen
sutpen

Females just go on and on with narcissistic self-indulent obsessing. It's like an admission of or a prayer of hope that they really are controlled by men -- or random stimuli.

AlexandreGarcia
AlexandreGarcia

Someone or something else is always responsible for people being who/what they are.
Isn't that amazing.

Realworldnonfantasyland
Realworldnonfantasyland

How about women don't go after the nerds and the jerks who care about stupid stuff like this.  This is kind of on them.  There are plenty of quiet, nice guys who don't care how Hot you dress or try and compare you to people on tv or a stupid video game.  Eventually you have to stop making excuses for everything and put it on the individual.  I LOVE how many problems we have in society that we are now talking about people feeling insecure about the figure they choose in a Video game

simileun
simileun

@TRArchaeology But hasn't "well it didn't affect me" traditionally always been a poor counter argument. It's a sample size of 1 at the most and that is presuming that you can tell for certain that your life wouldn't have been different even just a tiny little bit (whether positively or even negatively!) without this experience. 

That said, I don't think that the original experiment really makes its case at all for any long term effects. All it says is that there is some deviation in how people write an essay and how they answer a questionaire right after playing. Not that those differences persist or that they are strong enough that they might actually change somebody's view on a subject matter. Not to mention this experiment is specifically about characters that represent you the player, I would assume that Lara who is a distinct person, separate from the player (as opposed to a character in an MMO or RPG who you design yourself) would be a different subject matter anyway. 

royalgamer07
royalgamer07

@JenniferBonin I dont think much too bad about tomb raider, but chainmail bikinis should be banned. Those are the basis fo sexism

JenacideVirus
JenacideVirus

@gamerxx @Realworldnonfantasyland Ignore him. He isn't even addressing the subject of the article. He's just complaining about "women and their crazy desire to be mistreated by other guys who aren't nice like me!" This guy believes in the "friend zone" and thinks that the reason women aren't interested is because he's "too nice to them." God forbid he accept that women aren't vending machines, where you put kindness tokens in and sex falls out. People in this comment section have obviously never studied sociology, cultural anthropology or psychology and don't understand that people don't exist in vacuums and that peoples thought processes and beliefs are the unconscious product of influence that they aren't even aware of.