Study: Sexualized game avatars may cause self-objectification in real world women

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Video games are a means to escape the everyday humdrum and explore alternative realities. In order to access these sometimes fantastically antisocial worlds, we commandeer digital avatars. Most of the time, we're able to maintain a healthy mental barrier between the fantasy of the virtual and the snooze of the actual. But a growing body of research suggests that The Matrix may exert more influence on people's thoughts and behaviors in the real world than previously believed.

A recent Stanford University Study (PDF) found that female players who inhabited sexualized video game avatars had a tendency to internalize the avatar's appearance and showcased more self-objectification than those who "wore" non-sexualized avatars.

AvatarsStanford University
Examples of the sexualized and non-sexualized avatars used in the study.

Furthermore, participants who used a sexualized avatar that resembled themselves tended to showcase a higher Rape Myth Acceptance (RMA). This may be a very important indicator of harmful real world behaviors for both men and women. The study describes rape myths and their effects this way:

Examples of rape myths include that women do something to ‘‘deserve’’ getting raped (such as drinking, being out late at night, or dressing suggestively), that rape victims are promiscuous, or that a ‘‘legitimate’’ rape victim can prevent her own pregnancy. Not only is RMA associated with callousness towards rape victims, but also towards victims of interpersonal violence and women in general. Women who endorse rape myths are less likely to take precautionary measures against rape. Men who endorse rape myths also demonstrate a greater likelihood to rape.

Sexing up video games

The study included 86 female participants ranging in age from 18 to 41 from "a medium-sized West Coast University." The participants donned a head-mounted display (HMD), that would immerse them in a virtual world of the resarchers' design. Within the world they would be asked to explore a room where they would encounter a virtual mirror that would showcase their virtual avatar.

The participants were randomly assigned avatars that either resembled the users based on digital photos or as a female "other" of a similar age. The avatars were also either dressed suggestively or dressed conservatively.

After their time in the virtual environment, the women were assigned a free-writing assignment of their current thoughts. The writing samples were then "coded for body-related thoughts, which are indicators of self-objectification." According to the study, the participants who inhabited the sexualized avatars reported "significantly more body-related thoughts than participants in non-sexualized avatars." Whether the avatar resembled the women or not had no significant effect.


The women were also asked a series of questions to determine their RMA score after inhabiting the virtual world. The women in nonsexualized avatars scored roughly the same. The women who inhabited a sexualized version of themselves scored the highest RMA score (the most likely to believe rape myths). Interestingly enough, women who inhabited a sexualized avatar of another woman had the lowest RMA.

This is of course only one study of a small sample of participants. However, a previous Stanford study of both men and women showed that they would both have a higher RMA after interacting with a suggestively clad female avatar—though it should be noted that that study was authored by one of the researchers behind the recent report.

As video games give users opporunities to participate in all types of virtual behaviors that a functioning society would otherwise never allow, we should take measures to ensure our real selves stay securely on the right side of the fantasy divide.


This story, "Study: Sexualized game avatars may cause self-objectification in real world women" was originally published by TechHive.

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