Hypersexualism in Gameplay and the Problem of the Action Heroine

The history of consumption of video games and computer games has largely been of one-sided demographics: the notion that men are more likely than women, boys more than girls, to play the games that had been the backbone of the gaming industry.  This notion has also become entrenched in the stereotype of the gamer as young adult or adolescent males.  With the rise of casual gaming through online games, social games, and mobile games, we have seen this gender gap shrink, and even reverse.  However, such a change is if one considers gaming as a whole; when considering video, computer and even MMO gaming to online, social and mobile gaming, the gap still sees more male players than female players.

For years, various studies have been conducted to explore this gendered gap, resulting in various theories.  In 2005, for my master’s thesis, I conducted a study to explore the reason behind this gendered gap by focusing on how women are represented in video games.  The portrayal of women in games has received both empirical and critical scrutiny, finding that this portrayal is consistently in the vein of sexuality and submissiveness.  One particular portrayal, hypersexualism, is embodied in the archetype of Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, whose advertised body size is 5’9″, 132 lbs and 34D-24-35.

Critics, scientists and players have suggested that women do not play more video, computer and MMO games because female avatars, the character the player controls in the game, are not ones they feel comfortable with or want to play as that characterization.  In particular is the idea that women may feel uncomfortable seeing the hypersexualized character as the game’s idea for what is a powerful, courageous, active heroine.  This study empirically tested how the body shape of the avatar can influence the engagement the player has with the video game, and specifically to what extent hypersexualism is a factor in whether men and women want to play that game.

The entirety of the research and results can be found in the .pdf filed provided earlier in this post, while a shorter account of the study can be found here.

Overall, the goal of this study was to understand to what extent playing as a hypersexual avatar would impact a player’s level of engagement with the video game.  I thought that women would not want to play a video game containing such a character due to their unwillingness to identify with the character, whereas men would want to play such a game due to their attraction to the character.  To test these possibilities, an experiment was designed that manipulated the body type of the player’s avatar, and both men and women were randomly assigned to play one particular type of avatar.

From right to left: Thin Character, Voluptuous Character, Hypersexual Character

Sixty men and sixty women were involved in the study.  Each person was exposed to one of three static images, female characters I created and manipulated to illustrate three different body types: a thin body, a voluptuous body, and the hybrid of these two, the hypersexual body.  After being exposed to the static image, they all played the same puzzle game, Schizm: Mysterious Journey, which was similar to the popular game Myst: both games involved exploring a photorealistic fantasy world in first person perspective, meaning that the avatar is never seen on the screen mediating the relationship between the gamer and the world.  Instead, each participant was told that the static image character was the character in the game.  Of course, this meant that they did not see the character on the screen while playing, unlike games such as Tomb Raider, which means that this experiment was not completely equitable to those gaming situations.  It was a limitation of programming skills and time that led to this arrangement, and it is a limitation I will address when I discuss the results.

After being exposed to the static image and the game, the participants were asked to answer a series of scale items design to measure their attraction to the character, their identification with the character, their attitude towards the game, their sense of presence within the game, and the likelihood of recommending the game to another person.  How long they engaged with the game was also recorded as a more objective measure than the subjective self-report gathered by the scale items.  All of these scale items were then analyzed by ANCOVA statistics, comparing men and women on these items while also controlling for reported previous gaming experience.

As one hypothesis I had was that men would be more attracted to the hypersexual character, and thus want to play the game as her, I first needed to know if men more than women found this character attractive.  Strictly speaking, this was not true: according to the statistics, the men tended to find all of the characters more attractive than the women found them, with the hypersexual character no more or less attractive than the other two.  As to the attractiveness of the hypersexual character relating to wanting to play more as her, this was not found for the men in the sample — however, it was found for the women in the sample, whom I had thought would not engage with that gaming condition due to less desire to identify with the character.  By statistical comparison of the relevant scale items, the women indicated more engagement with the game when they thought they were playing as the hypersexual character, and men indicated the same when they thought they were playing as the voluptuous character.  Identification did not seem to matter in any of this.  The following two charts illustrate this finding.

How I understood these results were partly due to the limitations of the stimuli: it may be that there was not enough of a gaming experience spent with the characters to really match the real-life conditions of playing game with hypersexualized characters.  A gaming experience is different than a viewing, listening or reading experience: the interactivity of playing the game can heighten the sense of being the character one plays through situational identification.  It’s not just that you identify with how the person looks or acts, but also with what the person does or has to do — such as fighting a villain, finding a clue, saving the day, etc.  Without a gaming experience involving the hyperseuxalized character mediating between the gamer and the world, it could not be truly replicating the experience of a game like Tomb Raider, thereby calling into question the reactions to the game by the men and women.

My limitation as a computer graphics designer may have also been involved in the results.  Perhaps the men had greater engagement with the game in the voluptuous condition because she looked more realistically curvy than the hyperseuxal character, who looked more artificial, with somewhat distorted breasts.  The men may have been responding to the more natural sexual cues of the voluptuous character; had the voluptuous character’s appearance not had the blockiness that distorted her breasts, then they might have been more interested in her.

However, even with this flaw, I think the results can be seen to relate to how women perceive the action heroine in U.S. culture.  Even with the blockiness of her breasts, the women indicated more engagement with the game in her condition.  Part of this was driven by indicating that they think men would like to play the game with such a character in it.  I feel that some of the reason for why they would think such, even when the men in the study did not indicate it, is because they are socialized to think about action heroines in this manner.  Across pop culture, women who are action heroines are hyperseuxalized in some manner: whether it is their appearance or their behavior, such as Lara Croft (even as embodied by Angelina Jolie) or Trinity (as embodied by Carrie-Anne Moss), or Catwoman (as embodied by Michelle Pfieffer or Julie Newmar).

Action heroines in pop culture prior to study.

Being exposed to such portrayals may have generated a knowledge base that led to a schema, or a script for how things are or are supposed to be.  This schema would have identified the types of portrayals for a woman who is supposed to be an action heroine, and it may have been activated when they knew the character they saw was for a video game, where such portrayals are commonly found.  The schema’s activation may have led them to have certain expectations for what would happen, or what should happen, which may have led them to respond in the hypersexual condition differently than they did in the other two conditions.

That’s my theory, anyway, it would need to be born out with further studies, and research that better approximates the everyday conditions men and women gamers are likely to face.  I haven’t been able to do a follow-up, but I would like to, and I am glad to see that other researchers have considered the issue of the gender gap and the representation of women as hyperseuxalized in these games.

Overall, I think the research should not just be about getting women more comfortable playing the video, computer, and MMO games; this end result would be more in service of the industry of those specific types of games, rather than in greater service to gaming as a whole or the benefits from gaming, which can already be addressed by online, social and mobile gaming.  However, bringing more women into those more male-dominated domains could  address the problem such representations on an industry level: if the industry sees that they have a viable consumer base that does not appreciate such  representations, then they would do more to produce games without them.  Boys and men who then engage with such games may not be as like to think that such is the way women are and/or should be.

Of course, if women are responding as they indicated in this study to the hypersexual portrayal, then their response may be part of a larger problem with pop culture in the United States.  Then it is a matter not just of getting more women in the gaming marketplace, but also in the industry — and perhaps all of the pop culture marketplaces and industries — to address this larger systemic problem.  Because if the images of Black Widow from The Avengers and Catwoman from The Dark Knight Rises are any indication, the pop culture industry as a whole has not learned this lesson, and neither has the marketplace.

If we want to disrupt the effects of the scheme, then we need to disrupt the schema, and that means disrupting the information that becomes congealed as its knowledge base.  Until the pop culture industrial machine addresses the common linking of sex and action and independence in women, then we will continue to have problems with what we are teaching both boys and girls, men and women.

About CarrieLynn D. Reinhard

I am an explorer of pop culture, technology, mass media, and human nature. I want to make sense of how we all make sense of the mediated worlds that surrounds us.

Posted on April 29, 2012, in Audience/Reception Studies, Digital Games, Virtual Worlds and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I don’t consider myself to be at all well-informed on women’s issues. Indeed, given my Y chromosome, I never really considered it period.

    That being said, this is one of the most interesting articles I’ve read in a long time. What a brilliant presentation of research and opinion. Well done!

    Like

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