In many if not most video games, female characters are often portrayed as hypersexual and scantily clothed. The range of playable female characters is usually in short supply compared to the male roster, especially in more male-dominated games like first-person shooters. Although more recently this trend has been softened thanks to strong female characters such as Ellie Williams from The Last of Us or Faith Connors from Mirrors Edge, there are still concerns that the sexualization of female characters in video games has real-world consequences for women, and in some instances men too.
These concerns include damage to women’s own self-image, as well as contributions to sexism and misogyny through the proliferation of harmful stereotypes about both men and women in video games. This notion is based on the so-called “objectification theory” that posits exposure to sexualized media characters, be it in movies, magazines, billboard ads, and, in this case, video games, increases self-objectification and decreases body satisfaction among female users. But what does the actual data say in the case of video games?
Psychologists at Stetson University in Florida embarked on a meta-analysis — essentially a study of studies — in which they combed through the findings and methods of 18 relevant studies that evaluated things like aggression toward women and sexist attitudes, as well as outcomes related to depression, body image, and anxiety among those who played sexualized video games.
Similarly to how scientists haven’t been able to find any connection between violent video games and increases in aggression or crime among gamers, despite the public’s strong opinions saying otherwise, the researchers concluded that there is no statistically significant link between video games and sexist attitudes or changes in psychological well-being.
“Overall, the ‘moral panic’ over video games and sexualization is pretty much following the ‘paint-by-numbers’ pattern of the video game debate. Lots of hyperbole and moral outrage, but very little evidence that video games are causing any ‘harm’ to either male or female players,” Christopher Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University and lead author of the new study, told PsyPost.
Ferguson, who has been studying the psychological effects video games have on players for two decades, says the research suggests the sexualization of video games, as a public health issue, is not actually a real concern. However, that doesn’t mean that calls for better representation of females in video games are baseless, he added. It’s just that when discussing the harmful aspects of video games, advocacy groups might want to focus on goals where they have a measurable positive impact.
According to the researchers, although there were some conflicting results among the studies included in the meta-analysis, the studies that were better designed and those that showed less researcher expectancy effect (when someone expects a given result, that expectation unconsciously affects the outcome or report of the expected result) tended to find less evidence for sexism, misogyny, and well-being issues related to video games.
The fact that video games often exhibit hypersexuality and skewed gender stereotypes is not very debatable. For instance, the camera in video games often lingers over women’s bodies and frames them in a way that draws attention to their butts and breasts, such as in the case of Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider franchise. Regarding character design, female characters are often shown with slim figures, but large breasts and buttocks, whereas male characters are depicted with a very muscular body, wide shoulders, and chiseled jawlines.
It’s easy to see how people might see these portrayals as damaging to both women and men, and in some instances, they might actually be problematic. While the jury is still out on the matter, video game critics may want to look elsewhere too for answers to important questions about everything that is wrong with society.
“Obviously, we go through these cycles of blaming media for social problems,” Ferguson told PsyPost. “At least with fictional media, the evidence often reveals that we’re probably scapegoating media and fiction rarely causes social problems. Again, to be fair, advocating for better representation of females in games can be a worthy cause even if the games don’t cause harmful effects. I support those efforts, just hope advocates don’t misrepresent the evidence as a part of their efforts (which, unfortunately, is all too common among advocacy groups).”
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.