Jesse Fox

Communication, singular

Tag: video games

Reality check: Media misrepresentation of the sexualized avatar study

This morning started off with another media-induced facepalm. Thanks to Owen Good at Kotaku for drawing this to our attention.

One of the downsides to being a scientist is having your work misrepresented in the media. It’s bad enough when you can tell they write a report or story based on another story that’s based on another story. Worse is when they bring in “experts” to sensationalize it (especially when they don’t bother contacting the actual researchers for an accurate statement.) Fox News aired a segment on my recently published study on the negative effects of sexualized avatars. Here is what is wrong about it.

1. They say we studied “young girls” and the discussion is around children. We studied female adults (none younger than 18), which is clearly noted in the article.

2. At another point, they say we studied “gamers.” Video game play varied among this sample; participants reported playing between 0 and 25 hours of games a week (M = 1.29, SD = 3.70). Also, they were not asked if they self-described as gamers.

3. Participants did not choose avatars for this study; they were randomly assigned to assure the validity of the manipulation. (Read this if you don’t understand the importance and implications of random assignment for experiments.) I am researching choice in other studies because there could be a self-selection bias in play when it comes to gaming (e.g., women who self-objectify may be more or less likely to choose sexualized avatars).

4. The simulation was not a video game. It was an interaction with objects in a fully immersive virtual environment and a social interaction with a male confederate represented by an avatar. Further research with gaming variables is necessary because those sorts of elements change outcomes in unexpected ways, as my grad student Mao Vang and I recently found when we had White participants play a game alongside Black avatars.

5. What is most wrong is that their “expert” is not a scientist or even a gaming researcher, but a self-described life coach. I looked her up and she has zero notes on her website about her scientific education or experience. Rather, it is a business site populated with slogans like “Let’s Get it, #Go and MAKE THAT DOUGH!” (Random hashtags, arbitrary capitalization, and outdated slang all preserved from the original.) There’s no indication that she knows anything about science, virtual environments or video games, or girls’/women’s development or psychology. It’s clear from her interview that she did not read the article–I love that Owen Good at Kotaku points out that she swipes lines from another journalist’s writeup at Time.

Perhaps the most egregious transgression is when she puts words in our mouths with this gem: “But they say that this is, like, even worse than watching Miley Cyrus twerk.” NO, WE DIDN’T SAY THAT. NOR WOULD WE. EVER. That statement was made by the Time reporter and was rightfully not attributed to us.

Such are the frustrations of the scientist.

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

So there’s that.

Interestingly, the media have just picked up on a study published earlier this year that I ran while I was still at Stanford. Co-authored with my advisor, Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, and undergraduate research assistant Liz Tricase, the study found negative effects for women who embodied sexualized avatars in a fully immersive environment. Jeremy saw the article online at and captured this screenshot. *facepalm*PhysOrg sexualized avatars screenshot(Note the ad to the right, telling you to “Create Your Hero Now.”)

The article itself is an excellent writeup by Cynthia McKelvey. Feel free to check out the study itself here.

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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