Content, interaction, and culture: Taking a broader look at the Sexualized Avatars Stanford Study

Gamer culture has been put under the microscope ever since pop-culture critic Anita Sarkeesian faced a barrage of gender-based hate for announcing a project examining common sexist tropes of female characters in video games, such as the “damsel in distress” or the “background decoration.” Since then, many women in the video game industry and female gamers have come out about their experiences with sexual harassment from their male counterparts.


I published an article for the Stanford news office on a recent study examining the effects on women of playing sexualized characters in virtual reality. The study asked whether “inhabiting” a sexualized character, known as an avatar, in a virtual world would cause women to be more accepting of rape myths – the idea that rape victims are somehow responsible for their own rape – in real life. They found that sexualized avatars did indeed lead women to accept rape myths, at least temporarily.


As with many such studies, critics from all walks of life flocked to the Internet to offer their two cents. Many looked back at studies done in the 90s and 2000s that attempted, and generally failed, to prove that violence in video games leads to violent behavior in real life. These critics suggested that because violence in games doesn’t cause violent behavior, sexualized games would not cause female players to act any differently in the real world.


But there’s a key difference between this study and previous studies on violent media.


The study in question took place at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which uses state-of-the-art virtual reality technology to conduct social science research.


Director of the Stanford VHIL, Jeremy Bailenson, and Jesse Fox, assistant professor of communications at Ohio State University, examined how controlling sexualized virtual characters known as avatars might affect women’s behaviors and perceptions of themselves. There is a large body of research from the VHIL and other virtual reality labs that shows avatars affect people’s behavior in positive and negative ways. The phenomenon is known as the Proteus effect.


Eighty-six women, aged 18 to 41, participated in the study. Each participant wore a helmet that immersed her in a detailed virtual world with surround sound and 3-D vision. Once in the virtual world, each woman came upon a mirror. In the reflection, each participant saw a woman with her own face or that of another woman on a body that was either dressed provocatively or conservatively.


Once the participants had gotten used to their virtual form, a male accomplice to the researchers entered the room. He engaged the participant in a short, get-to-know-you conversation with questions like, “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” Fox and Bailenson noticed that women who were controlling the provocatively dressed avatars talked about their hair, body and clothes more than the other women.


Based on methods developed by previous studies that examined objectification in women, this led them to believe that the women wearing sexualized avatars temporarily saw themselves more like objects than people—more as a “thing” than an “I”—probably because they were taking cues from their avatar’s manner of dress.


After the participants came out of the virtual world, they responded to a questionnaire that asked them to rate how much they agreed with various statements on a 1-5 scale (strongly disagree to strongly agree). Some of the statements in the questionnaire endorsed “rape myths” such as “it’s her fault she got raped because she was drunk.” Women who had worn the sexualized avatars whose faces resembled their own were most likely to agree with these rape myths. Though curiously, women who wore sexualized avatars bearing unfamiliar faces were least likely to accept rape myths.


This study has some obvious limitations: first is that the sample was relatively small. There’s also the potential that some of the participants caught on to what the study was about, despite the measures taken against that outcome. If they knew what the researchers were looking for, they may have been more inclined to respond in a particular way. By no means is this study the end-all-be-all on sexualization and video games.


But psychological researcher, Dr. Mike Yao associate professor at the Center of Communication Research at the City University of Hong Kong suggests that this study is a more realistic exploration of how gaming might contribute to violence than previous work. He said that the study is important because it is unlike previous studies that focused on the (lack of) effects of violent content in games. Instead, goes beyond content by focusing on the interactions players have in the virtual world of gaming. Video games are unique among media due to their interactive nature, so studying how that interaction affects players makes the study more relevant to real life than studies that simply examine content.


Additionally, the effects of content and interaction are yet to be examined in tandem, according to Yao.


“This particular avatar study deals with a different question. It’s an identity issue. It’s an issue of a self-other merge,” said Yao.


Though the results may suggest that interacting with sexualized avatars in video games may lead women to objectify themselves, Yao suggests that it’s just a building block in the scientific understanding of the psychological effects of video games.


It’s an understanding worth pursuing—especially in how sexualized video games might be affecting male and female players. Yao published his own study in Sex Roles in 2010 that examined the effects of sexual content in games on male gamers. Even though the study looked at content, it still established a robust connection between playing men playing video games and their likelihood to harass women and act aggressively towards them.


Traditionally, video games have thought to be a nerdy guy thing. But the Entertainment Software Association reports that 45% of all gamers are women. That number might be shocking to some people because, as Yao says, many female gamers hide the fact that they are female when online to avoid bullying and harassment.


Harassment is a ubiquitous problem in gaming, and its roots run deep and are extremely complex. The culture of both gaming and the larger culture that gamers live in offline all play into how gamers interact online. But as Yao, Bailenson, and Fox are just beginning to reveal, the games themselves might be part of the problem for both men and women. The effects are subtle. No game is overtly causing men to seek out and rape women, or women to consciously think of themselves as objects. Instead, the games might be a cog in the wheel of a larger cultural problem.


That larger cultural problem is also what I think separates the effects of violence from sexualization in video games. Video games are as violent as they are sexualized, if not more so. But it’s easier to separate fantasy from reality when players are getting anti-violence messages in the real world. Whether it’s from religion, “thou shalt not kill;” or from teachers and parents, “use your words;” the message is pretty strong: violence is wrong.


The cultural messages about women’s sexuality are far more conflicting.  Steubenville, and now Maryville exemplify what I mean. The victims in those cases were criticized for getting too drunk and wearing revealing clothing. Mass media even sympathized with the Steubenville rapists by worrying about the long-term impacts the verdict would have on their lives. Meanwhile, very little sympathy was paid towards the victim in the Steubenville rape case.


In this way, narratives surrounding Steubenville and Maryville are somewhat like caricatures of a larger cultural issue. The victims were drunk, scantily clad girls who got themselves into a situation they should have avoided. The rapists invited themselves to what they thought was theirs: a woman’s body. She was drunk, she was wearing a short skirt, she deserved it. The boys? They were just being boys. The treatment that the mainstream media gave to the Steubenville narrative is reflective of a larger cultural trend that blames women for making themselves “easy targets” while simultaneously forgiving men for their lack of restraint, something men are unfairly presumed to lack.


When popular video games like Halo, Soul Calibur, and the Grand Theft Auto franchise portray objectified, sexualized depictions of women who are also subservient and powerless, it feeds into that culture cycle. There’s a wide body of literature that suggests that both seeing and interacting with the sexualized content of games primes male gamers to be more sexually aggressive, particularly in Yao’s study mentioned above.

But this study suggests that the same content may also make women think of themselves as objects and as deserving to be objectified. While the study doesn’t say that anyone who plays a video game is going actively turn you into a sexist jerk, it does say that games could play an active role in perpetuating the vicious cycle of sexism that holds women and men back.


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