Thought Bubble: Women and Sexualized Avatars

It’s not just a game – Women and sexualized avatars


“Calm down, it’s just a game.”

Has there ever been a phrase more infuriating to the feminist video game lover?

Most often used by men when the issue at hand is one that directly affects women in a personal way, it is not only completely enraging, but also, as it turns out (unsurprisingly), inaccurate when it comes to effects the sexualized avatar has on women. There’s actually a pretty huge body of research about the harmful nature of how women are portrayed in media, and video games are no exception.


The way women are sexualized and objectified in video games has been linked in scientific research to things like self-objectification, rape myth acceptance, the acceptance of violence against women, and even a greater likelihood of sexual harassment on behalf of male players (a huge “no duh” to any woman who’s ever played a video game online).

And a new study out of Stanford University that was published this month in Computers in Human Behavior (pdf link here) takes this research one step further by exploring not just how women are passively reacting to these images, but rather how the active embodiment of these images are affecting them.

The Stanford study looked at the Proteus effect, which occurs when a person’s self-representation is modified in a meaningful way that differs from their physical selves. So, in a virtual environment, it’s when a person starts behaving in the way they think their avatar would act based on how it appears to others, and not how they would behave in real life. To do this, the women were strapped into an Oculus Rift-like artificial reality device, randomly assigned a sexualized or nonsexualized avatar that was either based closely on their real life appearance, or not at all. Once inside the game they had to look in a mirror and see their avatar, then talk to a male participant and complete a short task, and then afterwards filled out a questionnaire about their experience.


This experiment supported the Proteus effect, finding that the women in the sexualized avatars had significantly more body-related thoughts than those without, a greater rape myth acceptance, and even a risk of having negative attitudes towards other women outside of the virtual environment. Most of these effects were exacerbated if the avatar resembled their physical selves. That’s pretty huge.


Now, I’m not entirely sure why so many gamers have gotten it into their head that video games are somehow exempt from having real psychological effects, given the immersive nature of the medium and the fact that we’ve known for a while now that media can have a pretty big influence on human beings. The fact is that women are overwhelmingly and overtly sexualized, or the victims of violence, in video games. Even in 2013, many creators either don’t seem to be conscious of it or just choose not to care.

Take for example Dragon’s Crown, which was the game that reignited the conversation about the representation of women’s bodies in games this year. Nearly all of the female character designs in that game feature exaggerated sexual characteristics and clothing, as well as some truly ridiculous boob physics. (The Sorceress’ breasts are apparently filled with helium, conforming to no version of gravity that I am familiar with.) When Kotaku’s Jason Schreier criticized the designs, the artist and president of Vanillaware George Kamitami apologized (kindofnotreally) by saying, “I apologize to those who were made uncomfortable by the art’s appearance, and did not see the same light-hearted fantasy in my designs.”


Now, based on the Stanford research, you could argue that “oh, this doesn’t matter because no actual women look like that,” but this study found that it all has an effect – it’s just greater when the avatar is fashioned to look like its user. In fact, when it came to negative body-related thoughts, whether or not the avatar looked like them didn’t seem to matter. And even supposedly realistic and pro-woman games like the Tomb Raider reboot features a boob shot in the first 90 seconds, and then 20 hours of survivalist torture porn. Mass Effect, probably one of the few big game series that actually has a lot of really great female characters, has Miranda Lawson’s butt, and a lot of half-naked Asari in thongs.

Since women are now make up half of the video game market, it just makes sense for creators to think about this issue more carefully, especially because of the potential ramifications it may have on adolescent girls. And as we are beginning to reach the age of artificial reality with the release of the Oculus Rift, it’s likely that avatar embodiment will begin to have even more prominent effects on their wearers, since this is a game system that is explicitly designed to be fully immersive.


With the Oculus Rift, you become part of a game world in a way that PCs and home consoles can’t. It literally puts you inside of them. And even if the wearer can’t always see themselves, others will be able to, and avatar design will likely still remain a part of games. It no longer makes sense for antiquated design “rules” that say all women in games must be sexualized all the time, especially since research like this shows it could even be harmful. It’s 2013, for Pete’s sake. It’s time.

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