Everyone knows that representations of the female body in the world of mainstream gaming are gross, the products of a largely male industry creating games for a straight, young, male audience. Those portrayals have often been half-defended, or at least shrugged off, by a game culture — developers, media, and fans — with a default setting of "boys will be boys" and its corollary: It's not really hurting anyone.
Based on recently published research out of Stanford, though, that attitude may no longer be acceptable. A study by Jesse Fox, Jeremy N. Bailenson, and Liz Tricase demonstrated real, tangible harm done to young women by overly sexualized virtual avatars. In a paper published in Computers in Human Behavior, the researchers found that women wearing an Oculus Rift-style display and inhabiting a sexualized avatar were more conscious of their own bodies afterward. More damningly, subjects whose own faces were displayed on top of these sexualized avatars actually demonstrated higher levels of agreeing with blame-the-victim rape myths.
In the experiment, subjects saw their own virtual bodies in a mirror, and afterward were asked questions they believed were related to future research, which actually measured their attitudes about their own bodies and common rape-culture canards, such as a woman dressed provocatively is responsible if she is raped. And women who saw their own face on top of a sexualized avatar accepted these myths at much higher levels.
Why? One explanation, from the paper itself: "The sexualized self might have triggered a form of self-defense; that is, participants might have attributed blame to rape victims because they did not want to imagine themselves in a similar situation." Fox, a professor of communication at Ohio State University, and the lead author on the study, thinks these judgments may place the subjects in the role of disapproving parent of a teenager experimenting with provocative dress: "We think seeing yourself like that creates more of a sense of blame, the attitude of 'You're dressed like a slut so that's on you.'"
Fox is careful to stress that this is early research and that her work was done in isolated virtual environments. Still, her most recent study, currently under review by the Psychology of Women Quarterly, removed the VR component and assigned sexualized avatars in the desktop game Second Life. The subjects, according to Fox, still showed the kind of self-objectification that they did in the headset-worn study.
Beyond the obvious nefarious effect of internalizing rape-culture myths, this kind of self-objectification may produce even more problems for women gamers. Fox pointed out research that has shown that women who are sensitized to their body by a media stimulus have short-term cognitive impairments. Imagine a situation, then, in which a girl gamer plays as a sexualized avatar, and then performs worse on a school test than she would have otherwise.
The bottom line is this: We're just beginning to understand the consequences of portraying women as 36-24-36 Barbie dolls in gaming, but it seems obvious that it goes beyond simply "boys will be boys." Once more, from the top: Gaming doesn't need creeps.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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