Research: Sexualized Virtual Avatars Affect Real World Thinking

Researchers at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab is researching how sexualized depictions of women in video games can make women feel like they are objects, and that it may alter their perception on myths related to rape.

"We often talk about video game violence and how it affects people who play violent video games," says Jeremy Bailenson, the director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford. “I think it’s equally important to think about sexualization.”

Bailenson's research is focusing on the "Proteus Effect," how the experience of acting in a virtual body can alter someone's behavior in both virtual and real worlds. Bailenson and co-author Jesse Fox published a research paper in the journal Computers in Human Behavior that examined how using a sexualized avatar affected women’s perceptions of themselves.

Participants donned VR helmets to immerse themselves fully in a virtual world, and had motion sensors on their wrists and ankles, allowing them to move in both worlds. When in the world with all this gear on, participants looked into a mirror in the virtual world to see themselves or another person dressed provocatively or conservatively.

The researchers then introduced a male accomplice into the virtual world to talk to the participant. This seemingly innocent conversation gauged how much the women viewed themselves as objects. Women wearing the sexualized outfits bearing their likenesses talked about their bodies, hair and dress more than women in the other avatars, suggesting that they were thinking of themselves more as objects than as people, according to researchers.

This whole experience was followed up by a questionnaire where participants rated how much they agreed or disagreed with a particular statement. Myths about rape were also included in the questionnaire such as "in the majority of rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation." The participants who used sexualized avatars in the virtual experience tended to agree with rape myths more than the women who had worn the non-sexualized avatars. Women in sexualized avatars whose faces resembled their own agreed with the myths more than anyone else in the study.

The research by Bailenson and Fox suggests playing sexualized avatars in virtual worlds "changes the way you think about yourself online and offline."

"It used to be passive and you watched the characters," Bailenson noted. "You now enter the media and become the protagonist. You become the characters."

Source: Science Blog

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