This local news report has all of the ingredients: sex, teenage girls, the exploitation of them, video games, and a respected university’s research. Here to synthesise it all for us is Life Coach Jenn Lee: “This is even worse than watching Miley Cyrus twerk.”
If you’re wondering why a “Life Coach” is competent to speak on this, her remark also appears straight-up lifted from this Time.com pickup of the report one week ago. It’s a timely sound bite — hell, I used it in the headline — but it does little service to the seriousness of the study.
For starters, this report is shot through with the usual suspects of sexy females in gaming: Lara Croft (a generation old), Bayonetta and Chun Li. Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which produced this study, used precisely none of them. In fact, it doesn’t sound like the study’s 86 participants, aged 18 to 40 years old, played any commercially available game at all.
“Participants donned helmets that blocked out the real world, immersing them in a virtual world of 3-D sight and sound. Motion sensors on their wrists and ankles allowed for the lab’s many infrared cameras to record their motions as they moved identically in both worlds,” wrote Stanford’s news service in describing the study.
“Once in the new world, each participant looked in a virtual mirror and saw herself or another woman, dressed provocatively or conservatively. The avatar’s movements in the mirror perfectly copied the participant’s actual physical movements, allowing her to truly feel as if she occupied that body.”
Participants then played a game featuring a male NPC in their virtual world. He struck up what seemed to be an anodyne, getting-to-know you conversation. “Women ‘wearing’ the sexualised avatars 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.”
Afterward, participants took a survey, in which they were asked for their level of agreement with certain statements, among them “In the majority of rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation.” Participants who had “worn” the sexy avatars tended to agree with that statements and those like it.
I didn’t hear anything like that this video clip above, just a lot of stuff that would scare the holy bejabbers out of me if I was the father of a teenage girl. Here’s Lee again: “We have to be careful about what we allow our kids, our young girls, [to] use as avatars … You actually adopt their mannerisms, you actually adopt how they eat, what they wear, even what they buy.” I didn’t see that claim made anywhere in Stanford’s summary of the report, nor in Time’s pickup of it.
Lee goes on to offer some boilerplate Good Parenting Advice — limit kids’ screen time, get them to read more, offer and reinforce positive role models who exist in real life and aren’t just celebrities or attractive people. All great stuff. And Stanford’s research is useful and worth consideration too; there is an institutional (look the word up) sexism in how a lot of video game characters are portrayed. This study seriously approaches that with a rational explanation of what kind of attitudes and behaviour is reinforced.
None of that is at all served by this kind of pop-culture glossing, which alienates a gaming public well past the point of fatigue on hearing how lurid and degenerate this entertainment is, and undercuts scientific work by making it appear that some Ph.Ds watched a bunch of women play Bayonetta and then wrote up an opinion of the game.