A recent study published by Jesse Fox and colleagues in Computers in Human Behavior suggests women who employ sexy avatars in virtual reality (VR) may objectify themselves or blame rape victims in surveys given shortly afterward. In many news accounts, this study is reported as indicating harmful effects for girls playing video games, although implications of the study may be less clear.
Fox immersed female undergraduate students in a simple VR world where they looked into a mirror. In the VR mirror, some participants saw themselves as represented by an avatar wearing a miniskirt and form fitting top (sexualized) or wearing jeans and bulky top (non-sexualized). Even the hair was different with sexualized avatars displaying loose-fitting hair, non-sexualized avatars either short or pulled back hair. Some participants also had their own photographed image superimposed on the avatar, where others had a generic face. Immediately after the VR experience, participants answered questionnaires related to objectification and rape myth acceptance. So is this bad news for video games?
Well not necessarily. First, no actual video games were involved in the study; it was merely a simple VR task. Second, results for rape myth acceptance were actually complicated. Respondents increased rape acceptance only if the avatar was dressed sexily AND had the participant's face. Respondents who saw a sexy avatar with a generic face -- the most common scenario in a video game -- were less likely to endorse rape myths even compared to the control group. So the typical video game scenario of a sexy avatar with a generic face is actually the best outcome for rape myth acceptance.
A bigger concern with the study is the immediate pairing of the stimuli and the outcome. Women were exposed to sexy or non-sexy avatars then immediately asked about rape myths and objectification. In fairness, the authors included some distractor tasks and they deserve great credit for this. Unfortunately, too many studies of media effects don't bother making even rudimentary efforts to control hypothesis guessing. When participants can guess a study hypothesis, they oftentimes will behave how they think they are supposed to rather than how they actually feel. That is particularly a problem for undergraduate women who are probably well versed, even indoctrinated, in media effects theories of body image. The authors were obviously aware of this and attempted to control it, but it's unclear how successful they were. Especially when results are fairly small, as they were with this study, it can be hard to know whether they are "true" or driven by hypothesis guessing. As I mention in a recent review of media and body image research, this is actually a wide-spread problem for this field. The authors deserve credit for at least attempting to tackle it, but I remain unconvinced they fully succeeded.
In the "missing the forest for the trees" category is a rather obvious point: if seeing yourself as an avatar wearing a miniskirt is so bad, shouldn't we be even more worried about actual miniskirts? Or even free flowing hair apparently, as opposed to a bun or bob? The "sexualized" images in the study didn't go beyond what would be common attire at a nightclub or fancy restaurant. It is amazing how quick we often are to assume harm from the media, when comparable real-life activities are accepted or even encouraged.
That said, examples of exaggerated, sexualized characters, both male and female, are not hard to come by in video games. Tomb Raider's Lara Croft is an example of a powerful female character who remains sexualized with enlarged breasts and skimpy attire, although more recent versions of the game have edited down the sexualization a bit. The Mai Shiranui character from Fatal Fury and King of Fighters is infamous for incorporating copious breast displays in her ninja tactics.
Limits of the study (and the clumsy way it has sometimes been reported in the press) aside, I agree there is a problem with the way women are portrayed in video games. Although gaming has historically been a male-dominated pastime and sexualized images may reflect this, the Entertainment Software Association estimates that 45 percent of gamers now may be female. Even if media does not have a direct effect on our thoughts and behaviors, as cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian argues in her excellent "Damsels in Distress" series, fostering a discussion of how we wish art to portray us can lead to wider changes in society that have real impact. In the end, though, clumsy portrayals of women in video games will not be "fixed" by hand-wringing over "harm," but rather by the demands of young women who are becoming an increasingly part of the video game market.