Almost half of Americans who play video games are women, so it’s no surprise that both scientists and players have started wondering how video games affect women. It’s true that video games can be a force for good – a slim majority of parents say video games are a positive part of their child’s life – but video games can be harmful, too because of the strong cultural messages they carry. Though misogyny isn’t a product of the video game industry, games feed women sexist viewpoints through sexed-up animation, objectifying story lines, and unwelcoming online culture.
The sexy, female avatars that pervade most video games make women more willing to accept sexism, says a new study by the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab. In a recent experiment, the lab measured how women respond to sexy animation. Each woman was invited to explore a virtual space using an avatar that mimicked her movements in real life. Some women were assigned sexy avatars while others received plainer ones. After exploring the virtual space for a while, the women were joined by a male avatar who initiated small talk secretly designed to assess how much the women viewed themselves as objects after playing. Researchers already knew that acting in a virtual body changes people’s behavior, but it was surprising to see the extent to which sexualized avatars affected the women in the study. The women assigned provocative avatars (and which video game avatars aren’t sexily provocative?) were more likely to talk about their bodies than those who weren’t. Worst of all, using a sexy avatar made women more likely to agree with misogynistic statements like, “in the majority of rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation.”
People respond to images in weird ways, especially when those images represent them virtually. Now that we know how strongly sexualized avatars can affect women, we need to start thinking about what kinds of video game imagery is appropriate. Sexy avatars probably won’t be (and maybe shouldn’t be) banished entirely, but the video game industry should start inviting conversations about objectification similar to the ones beginning to nudge the fashion industry in a healthier direction.
Even in games with awesome storylines, women get the crappiest roles. We know this thanks to Anita Sarkeesian. In 2012, Sarkeesian used Kickstarter to raise over $158,000 for a video series called Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games where she methodically analyzes how popular video games portray women, and her findings weren’t encouraging. “Don’t get me wrong,” Sarkeesian told Imagine Games Network (IGN). “I love gaming, but the seriousness of the gender problem really cannot be overstated.”
For her first, second and third videos, Sarkeesian analyzed 192 famous games and found that the female characters often fit the “damsel in distress” archetype, being placed into precarious situations only a male character can save them from as part of his quest. Though Sarkeesian doesn’t explicitly spell it out, her research raises intriguing questions about whether such video games cause players to internalize the idea of women as dull, helpless objects in need of male saviors.
Can we get some new plot points in here? Stories objectifying women are old news, as any porn fan knows. Strong, complex female characters are catching on in certain industries, though. Hollywood has long been criticized for a dearth of awesome female characters, but the industry is beginning to put serious money behind characters who are anything but damsels in distress. If you don’t believe that gender identities in media can change, look no further than this New York Times piece on the Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen as a new type of woman warrior.
Many in the online gaming community weren’t happy to hear Sarkeesian’s feminist analysis. Tropes vs. Women was immediately met with a huge backlash organized by what Sarkeesian described as a “loosely coordinated cyber mob.” In an interview with IGN Sarkeesian recalls a frightening period of harassment which only escalated when she shared what was happening to her:
All of my social networks were flooded with a torrent of misogynist and racist slurs as well as threats of rape, violence and death. The Wikipedia article about me was vandalized with similar sentiments. When I publicly shared what was happening to me, the perpetrators responded by escalating their harassment campaign and attempting to DDoS my website and hack into my online accounts. They also tried to collect and distribute my personal info including my home address and phone number. They made pornographic images in my likeness being raped by video games characters which they distributed and sent to me over and over again.”
Sarkeesian isn’t the only woman who has been bullied by men trying to “maintain the status quo of gaming culture as a boys club by creating an environment that is too toxic and hostile for women too endure.” CNN recently reported that many female gamers have been harassed online. The article included a shocking anecdote about a girl who was harassed when trying to find information about a game:
In one recent story making the rounds in online gaming circles, a girl went into a certain game’s online community, asking about its mechanics. The first response she got was from a male player, telling her he’d answer if she performed a sex act on him.”
“I Kind of Expected to Get Harassed”
Though many spaces have opened up to women, video game culture remains one of many toxic places where women are made to feel downright unwelcome. Compared the the unorganized, ungoverned voices of cruel boys in online gaming forums, sexed-up animation and crappy female characters are relatively easy for activists and feminist industry members to rally against. That said, some women haven’t found harassment to be a pervasive problem, so perhaps there’s hope. Vanessa Haas, a 21-year-old gamer, thinks some communities are better than others. She’s found both the Left 4 Dead and MechWarrior Online communities she frequents harassment-light, if not exactly harassment-free. “I have a very feminine name, so I kind of expected to get harassed,” she said. “But there has onstly been one incident.” Vanessa also pointed me towards a website where women can fight back against harassment. On Fat, Ugly or Slutty, female gamers are invited to post screenshots of the creepy, disturbing, insulting, degrading or rude messages they’ve received. Though the site’s archives are ostensibly just for laughs, the About Us page notes the site’s activist purpose:
If having these messages posted online makes someone think twice about writing and sending a detailed description of their genitals, great!”
Featured image via Elder Scrolls