Yesterday we discussed the potential business applications of Stanford's recent study on avatars and their real-world impact on player behaviors. Companies, we argued, can take advantage of a player's tendency to mimic the behaviors of their avatar by pumping effort into making avatars look more like their real-life counterparts.
Stanford's study also addressed another, more serious matter: In some circumstances, the appearance of avatars in a virtual space can affect how we assess real-world situations. The bad news? It isn't all fun and games, especially when it comes to super-sexualized female avatars like those in World of Warcraft and other online games.
Pixels and Policy takes a look at why avatars change the way we view the real world, and the potential problems super-sexualization creates in both the real and virtual spheres.
Stanford's Disconcerting Findings
Stanford's study on how human players will often mimic the actions of avatars that resemble them isn't just about getting online gamers to hit the treadmill every once in a while. It also looked at the role virtual worlds and online gaming are playing in an ongoing cultural dialogue on gender and the role of women.
One of the centerpieces of Stanford's research involved assessing participants' belief in the "rape myth" – the idea that a suggestively-dressed woman knowingly invites sex, and that this woman is more likely to be raped. Stanford tested gamers' views on the rape myth in a simple but effective way: Dressing up virtual characters in either conservative or suggestive clothing.
The Stanford Report has an interesting breakdown of the research model:
Fox tested the influence of avatars on attitudes and views toward
women. She showed participants two types of female avatars: a
suggestively dressed woman in revealing clothing and a conservatively
dressed woman in blue jeans and a jacket. Both types of avatars
demonstrated either dominant behavior such as staring at the
participant or submissive behavior such as staring at the floor and
The results are shocking. Both men and women who viewed the "suggestively dressed" avatar were more willing to agree that a suggestively-attired woman deserves to be raped, that she places herself knowingly in a situation to provoke the sexual attention of men. According to the Virtual Human Interaction Lab's results, all groups viewing the suggestive avatar were also more likely to agree that women gain power and influence by controlling their male counterparts.
The Trend Towards Female Sexualization in Online Gaming
Alone, the research produced by the Stanford group is shocking. What's more disturbing is that, in virtual worlds like Second Life, women often report 'sexualizing' their avatar in order to attract attention from other players. Our study on the role of super-sexualized female avatars on Second Life found that at least 70% of female players adjusted their bust size or purchased suggestive clothing in order to attract friends.
Sexualized female avatars are not unique to Second Life, where an add-on to allow large, bouncing breasts made headlines soon after its public launch. In fantasy online games like World of Warcraft, Night Elves and other female characters often occupy sexually suggestive roles and sport idealized bodies. Final Fantasy 12 sports an all-female race of scantily-clad warriors whose feet naturally bend into high heels. But what happens when these titillating features bleed into the real-world and influence players' perceptions of women?
Virtual worlds are not merely games or playpens for freeform creation – they are living, breathing entities inhabited by real people with real-world lives. The Stanford study notes that most participants only needed five minutes of interaction with a scantily-clad avatar before signs of rape myth acceptance began to show. This should be alarming when a recent report by Nielsen shows that time spent in front of video games is at an all-time high. This means that, on average, people are being exposed to more potentially sexually suggestive content for a longer period of time, dwarfing the five minute sample size used in the Stanford study.
None of this advocates banning the option of dressing your avatar in a skimpy skirt and tower heels. After all, part of the amusement factor in virtual worlds is the plethora of customization options available to a player. And true, as our study on sexualization in Second Life found, many female players dress their character in ways they admittedly would never dress themselves. But that is of little comfort.
Children and Sexualized Gender Roles
Of primary concern are children, whose views on abstract concepts like gender and social equality are still forming. More children than ever are hooked into all sorts of online games, and too few have any kind of content control for overt sexually-oriented clothing. Sure, World of Warcraft will filter curse words and Second Life restricts access to certain adult shops unless a player is over 18, but neither of these services do enough to combat the flood of super-sexualized female imagery their players and developers produce.
Should a child's online gaming experience reinforce a gender role of sexualization and objectification even before the child can fully comprehend these ideas? If it takes only five minutes for an adult mind to gravitate towards disregarding the individuality of a super-sexualized female avatar, what happens to a child playing games several hours a day for years?
Will watching an endless parade of scantily-clad avatars in impossible heels and physically improbable breasts turn a ten-year-old into a future rapist? It's not likely, but that doesn't mean it isn't important to reinforce positive gender roles from a young age. Stanford's report noted that rape myth acceptance rose even when a female participant's own face was put on a suggestive avatar. This suggests that even a female gamer makes value judgments based first on a sexualized appearance, even if that judgment is cast upon a virtual version of themselves. Is this really a gender paradigm we want young girls developing?
In 2007, game developer and feminist thinker Andrea Rubenstein voiced concern about hyper-sexualized female character designs built for the tastes of a largely male audience. Now that Stanford has shown that these "suggestive" avatars have an impact on how players view real women, her words are even more important:
The problem comes in when “attractiveness” for women is defined, as Sheri Graner Ray points out in her book Gender Inclusive Game Design,
“as male players would like them to be–young, fertile, and always ready
for sex” (p. 104).
For player characters, an argument can be made for
them disproportionately being young (although that argument weakens
when you get into MMOs and the like), but what do fertility and sexual
readiness have to do with being a competent hero? Men certainly aren’t
typically portrayed like that, and rather the elements that are
exaggerated in them tend to be strength and otherwise power-related.
Game developers have every right to design avatars that they think will appeal to their market, but would their act so cavalierly towards the sexualization of female avatars if they knew that these avatars were in some respects informing and enforcing players' real-world views towards such important issues as gender equality and rape? If Stanford's research holds up, the design of an avatar is much more than an aesthetic choice. It can alter our real-world views on groups that appear similar to that avatar.
Stanford's research is both highly alarming and much overdue. As more academics and policymakers realize that the virtual and real worlds are interacting like never before, perhaps developers will start realizing that the overt sexualization of female avatars is more than just a game.