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Sexy Avatars Are Making Women Objectify Themselves in Real Life

Compare that to mediums like film and TV, where the female roles have evolved over the years into fully developed, three-dimensional characters.
Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider games. Image via Flickr

Can playing a video game dressed as a sexy, murderous android actually turn you into a futuristic femme fatale? No, but new research suggests you might start thinking of yourself that way.

Here's a statistic I found surprising: According to a recent report from the Entertainment Software Association, about 46 percent of gamers are female. Almost half! And I imagine that as videogames continue to explode into the mainstream, the gender breakdown will even out even more. Yet the lion's share of female characters in games exist as a prize, a damsel in distress, or just eye-candy. Or at best, a kind of sex warrior kicking ass in high heels.


This is not shocking. Women have been sexualized and objectified in movies, TV, and ads for decades, and there's copious research on why that's a bad thing—for individual people and society in general.

But because it's an active instead of a passive way of consuming media, gaming is a different beast. When we see a virtual world through the first-person perspective of an avatar, we can start to embody that perception of ourselves. It can change how we view ourselves even in real life. If our avatar is tall, we may feel more confident. It's called the Proteus Effect, and it's a phenomenon that's just starting to be studied.

Avatars of both conservative and suggestive
varieties, from the study.

So what if our virtual self is an hypersexualized, objectified female? Yup, we internalize that too, according to new study out of Stanford University, published today in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Researchers immersed 86 participants into a virtual reality world, and found the ones who were given sexualized avatars were more likely to subconsciously think about and thus talk about their bodies.

Not only that, but the more the avatars resembled the player's own face, the more likely the subjects were to believe sexist myths like women are manipulative, or women do something to "deserve" getting raped. In other words, they actually started to view themselves as more object, less human.

The women were given avatars either dressed suggestively or conservatively, whose movements mirrored their actual movements. "Unlike images in other media, virtual humans are typically designed to be engaging and to respond to a user’s actions," the study states. "This dynamic creates a new and powerful experience beyond passive media consumption."

The study is small, but past research has reached similar conclusions. On the one hand it strikes me as an over-analysis of something that, after all, is just a game. But on the other hand, it raises a lot of questions about the impact of gender roles in what’s bound to be the entertainment medium of the future.

The issue is already generating a lot of heat. One creative example is Anita Sarkeesian's YouTube series, Tropes vs Women, which shows how the roles of females in video games are often limited to plot props or stereotypes instead of a relatable human being.

Compare that to more advanced mediums like film and television, where the female roles have evolved over the years into fully developed, three-dimensional personalities. Think of some of the badass, complicated female characters on TV right now. Skylar White. Carrie Mathison. Fucking Daenerys Targaryen. Now imagine if viewers started internalizing the qualities of those women. Seems like a much better option.