by Stephanie M. Anderson
Over the holidays, I spent time in Michigan in my childhood home. When I wasn’t preparing food, napping, or indulging in too much TV, I found myself rummaging through closets full of keepsakes from my adolescence: personal diaries, pictures from dances, artwork that only my mother could love. And then I saw it: my old video gaming system. The days upon days I spent with animated hedgehogs, running at super-sonic speeds, swinging from treetop to treetop and bopping on the bad guys suddenly flooded back to me. I was entirely jazzed when I hooked it up and found it still worked!
You might be thinking that these games sound pretty lame. Perhaps. But growing up, my mom had very strict rules for video game playing: no blood splattering, guts spilling, or heads rolling. Furry cute characters? Check. Ultimate Fighter? Keep dreaming. Mom hated player-to-player combat games not only because you could literally rip off your opponent’s head with his spine still attached, but also because all the few female characters in the game wore leather bikinis to the battle field. “But Mom, it’s not real life!” I argued at the time. “It’s not like I’m going to imitate everything I see!”
Fast forward to 2015. Video games today are way more realistic. Almost all of them are in 3D, and create more of a feeling of “being there,” instead of watching like an outsider. New technologies haven’t changed some things, though. Despite the fact that over half of video game players are girls and women, most female avatars are pretty freaking misogynistic because of how sexualized they are (avatars are the characters you control in a game). Since these games make you feel like you’re doing things from the perspective of your avatar, I find myself feeling like the avatar IS me, in a way the animated fur balls I controlled never did. Now, instead of simply observing a big-breasted cartoon gal cut down her opponents, I’m more likely to be dropping bows with “my own” cleavage in view.
So the question arises: if we female gamers are more likely to feel that our avatars are an extension of ourselves, how do our avatar’s hypersexualized appearances make us feel about our own bodies? Or about how we see other women more generally?
Psychologists Fox, Ralston, Cooper, and Jones wanted to find out. They did a series of experiments in which female college students participated in Second Life as either a sexualized avatar or a non-sexualized avatar (Second Life is a virtual world where you can socialize with friends, go shopping, travel – basically anything you want because it’s your own alternative universe!). In the experiments, after playing, the participants answered a bunch of questions about how they feel about their own bodies and on their thoughts about Second Life. They also answered questions about their views on sexual assault, such as how and why they believe women experience rape.
What did they find?
As we might expect, women who participated in Second Life as a sexualized avatar were more likely to self-objectify – or see their bodies as objects – than women who played as a non-sexualized avatar. This makes sense considering what we know about the bad consequences of looking at sexualized images of women. They also found that the women who self-objectify were more likely to endorse false beliefs about rape and rape victims. For example, women who self-objectified were more likely to agree with ideas like, “Only strangers rape” or “Girls who go to parties in “slutty” clothes are asking to get raped.”
But the biggest question still remains – why? Why would self-objectification lead us to believe that women are to blame if they are raped?
Well, seeing ourselves as objects makes us more likely to see others as objects too. And because objects are not fully human (they don’t have feelings, after all), they are less worthy of our moral consideration. So it makes sense that seeing other women as objects makes us more likely to believe dehumanizing ideas like “Women who get drunk deserve to be raped.”
Think about that. By embodying sexualized avatars, will we inevitably see ourselves – and other women – as objects? Will we be more likely to believe that women who dress a certain way are responsible for their rapes?
Many cheered when the Lara Croft, Tomb Raider video game series became a popular mainstream game and continue to celebrate the protagonist, Lara Croft, as a “feminist icon.” Yet, in the video game, Lara Croft was always wearing daisy dukes (hello thigh gap!) and a low cut top with cleavage abounding (I don’t know about you, but if I were about to fend off some mummies, fly down a zip line, or outsmart bounty hunters, I’d want my clothes to at least cover my midriff).
The good news is that change is possible. Because of the public outcry against Lara Croft’s hypersexualized image, more recent releases of the game show her as less sexualized. (Although once could argue there is still room for improvement). So there is hope!
While I think my mom might have gone a little overboard with her rules at times when I was growing up (I also wasn’t allowed to watch more than one hour of TV a day), she saw what I at the time couldn’t. Namely, that violent and sexualized images are not neutral (even if we know they are not real), and they can affect us in ways outside of our conscious awareness.
 Entertainment Software Association. (2013). 2013 sales, demographic and usage data: Essential facts about the computer and video game industry. Washington, DC: Authors
 Fox, J., Ralston, R. A., Cooper, C. K., & Jones, K. A. (2014). Sexualized Avatars Lead to Women’s Self-Objectification and Acceptance of Rape Myths. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 0361684314553578.
 Kennedy, H. W. (2002). Lara Croft: Feminist icon or cyberbimbo? On the limits of textual
analysis. Game Studies: International Journal of Computer Games Research, 2(2).