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

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