Jesse Fox

Communication, singular

Tag: sex stereotyping

The consequences of wearing sexualized avatars

Given the recent media attention, I figured it would probably be wise to give a rundown of our experiment recently published in Computers in Human Behavior on the negative consequences of wearing sexualized avatars in a fully immersive virtual environment. Although several media sources are framing this as a study involving video games, there was no gaming element to it (although I expect the findings to apply to video games, there are different variables to consider in those settings).

A fully immersive environment. The user is in a head-mounted display (HMD) and can only see the virtual world, which changes naturally as she moves.

A fully immersive environment. The user is in a head-mounted display (HMD) and can only see the virtual world, which changes naturally as she moves.

This study was conducted while I was still at Stanford working in the Virtual Human Interaction Lab. I conceived the study as a followup to a previous study whose results had confounded me. In that study (published in Sex Roles), men and women were exposed to stereotypical or nonstereotypical female virtual agents, and we found that stereotypical agents promoted more sexism and rape myth acceptance than nonstereotypical agents. I was surprised because we found no difference between men’s and women’s attitudes. Thus, I wanted to investigate further to see how virtual representations of women affected women in the real world.

In the current experiment, we placed women in either sexualized  or nonsexualized avatar bodies. We used participants’ photographs (taken several weeks before for a presumably unrelated study) to build photorealistic representations of themselves in the virtual environment. Thus, when a woman entered the VE, she saw her face or another person’s face attached to a sexualized or nonsexualized avatar body.

Atomic II avatars

Avatars courtesy of Complete Characters database.

In the virtual environment, women performed movements in front of a mirror so that they could observe the virtual body and experience embodiment (i.e., feel like they were really inside of the avatar’s body). They had a brief interaction with a male avatar afterwards and then we measured their state self-objectification (through the Twenty Statements Test, which is simply 20 blanks starting with “I am ______”). Then, we told them they would be participating in a second, unrelated study. They were allowed to pick a number that “randomly” redirected them to an online study. All participants were redirected to “Group C” which was framed as a survey on social attitudes. The rape myth acceptance items were masked in a long survey with other items.

We found that women who embodied a sexualized avatar showed significantly greater self-objectification than women who embodied a nonsexualized avatar. Furthermore, and counter to predictions, women who embodied an avatar that was sexualized and looked like them showed greater rape myth acceptance.

This second finding was puzzling; I thought seeing oneself in a sexualized avatar would make participants more sympathetic. Our best explanation was that perhaps that seeing oneself sexualized triggered a sense of guilt and self-blame that then promoted more acceptance of rape myths.

Since this study I have conducted two other studies (both using nonimmersive environments to make sure that it is not just the high-end technology yielding these results) that support these findings. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested in those papers.

You can find media coverage of this study at the links below:

*Original story by Cynthia McKelvey for Stanford News Service (also posted at PhysOrg)

* Video Games’ Sexual Double Standard May Have Real-World Impact by Yannick LeJacq at NBC News

*How Using Sexualized Avatars in Video Games Changes Women by Eliana Dockterman at Time

*Using a Sexy Video Game Avatar Makes Women Objectify Themselves by Shaunacy Ferro at Popular Science

*The Scientific Connection Between Sexist Video Games and Rape Culture by Joseph Bernstein at Buzzfeed

Sexism in online video games

I was a tomboy as a child and was always looking for ways to invade boys’ spaces because that’s where I wanted to be. While the other girls played hopscotch and jumped rope at recess, I crashed the boys’ soccer games. I maintained the most enviable baseball card collection in the neighborhood.

Of course, this was at the age where boys hadn’t been socialized to sexually harass just yet; girls were just icky. And, if I met with any protest, I could just issue a good whooping and earn boys’ respect or have them cower in fear. As I grew up, however, I realized it was becoming more and more difficult to be a part of male spaces. After all, I wasn’t allowed to join Boy Scouts or the baseball team. Boys evolved from being my friends to having their own groups, their own birthday parties, their own shared experiences and secrets and rituals that no longer included me.

Nowadays, those exclusive spaces have changed to include online video games, as Taylor (2006), Yee (2006), Gray (2012), and Salter and Blodgett (2012) have established. In online VGs, however, there are additional factors, notably deindividuation (in part through anonymity) and the lack of punishment. Although some have pushed back against the idea of anonymity, the social identity model of deindividuation effects (SIDE) makes an argument for its role in the part of harassment although it is not required. Essentially, SIDE argues that due to the lack of individualized cues in computer-mediated communication (CMC), we defer to group identities. Additionally, social identity theory suggests that we elevate our own ingroup at the expense of the outgroup. In the gaming world, masculinity is valued and thus men promote this salient aspect of their identity. Elevating the masculine identity means demoting and demeaning outgroups, particularly anyone that can be stereotyped as unmasculine (e.g., women, non-hetero men).

Following several publicized incidents of harassment of female game players, graduate student Wai Yen Tang (check out his blog here) approached me to discuss the nature of masculinity in gaming spaces. He was awash in study ideas, and after launching an experiment, he was interested in gathering survey data from a broad sample of gamers.

With the help of several game players and scholars, we developed a list of sexist beliefs and stereotypes about women who play video games. For example, many players don’t believe women have the skills to play at a high level, so they insist that women have had their boyfriends level up characters for them or have exchanged sexual favors for game currency. Others believe that women only play video games to socialize or to make pretty avatars rather than to dominate, kill things, or earn achievements.

In our survey, we asked participants to complete a number of items relating to game play and personality traits. What we discovered is that the amount of game play and even the respondent’s sex was irrelevant to the degree to which they endorsed sexist beliefs about female game players. Rather, the respondent’s social dominance orientation (i.e., how much they believe that some groups are superior and others are inferior) and level of conformity to some types of masculine norms (the desire for power over women and the need for heterosexual self-presentation) predicted video game sexism.

The Video Game Sexism Scale is available in the article.

Fox, J., & Tang, W. Y. (2013). Sexism in online video games: The role of conformity to masculine norms and social dominance orientation. Computers in Human Behavior.


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