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games research

Research 7: What happens to our self-esteem when we create an avatar?

Barlett, Christopher P. and Harris, Richard J.  “The Impact of Body Emphasizing Video Games on Body Image Concerns in Men and Women.”  Sex Roles 59 (2008): 586-601.  Web.  20 June 2013.

It should not be surprising that media affects self-image, often negatively.  Upon viewing ‘ideal’ bodies (for men, that means muscularity and for women, thinness) people feel less impressed with themselves and with long-term exposure their self-assessments are negative and can even lead to dangerous disorders such as anorexia or excessive exercise.  These results have been shown across all media outlets but the arena of video games has been left somewhat untouched.  In this article the researchers sought to find out if “playing a video game that emphasized the body would increase negative body-image” (Barlett and Harris 586).  While other media has shown to do this, video games seem to be more problematic as “video games (unlike television or magazines) offer an active role for players to become and control their video game characters.  This allows players to become more immersed, or become a part of, the virtual world” (Barlett and Harris 586).  Not surprisingly, both genders felt more negative about their body-image after playing video games, for only 15 minutes, which emphasized the ‘ideal’ body (a WWE wrestling game for men and a volleyball game for women).  Body image is comprised of self-esteem, body esteem, and body satisfaction.  All three of these are affected by the other two and can be affected easily by mass media.  People internalize notions of the ideal they are exposed to and then project their knowledge of their difference from that onto themselves through, often, harmful manners.  Like all other media, video games can have a negative impact on how people view themselves.

I am not entirely sure if this article will fit into my research.  But once again, I am still not exactly sure what my hypothesis is.  I am trying to limit it but it seems that the wealth of quantitative data is mixing me up.  It has been well hashed out that white men dominate the game industry in every way, from developers, to gamers, to characters.  Games tend to emphasize particular notions of masculinity (muscularity, heroism, and whiteness) and femininity (beautiful, weak, ‘bodacious’, hypersexual, and white).  Were I encountering a book that held such rigid standards of beauty and social identity I would probably be very perturbed – it would almost be like entering 1950’s pop culture again.  Why does it seem that those who play video games are not that concerned about this?  Could this perhaps be an attempt (unconscious of course) to enter video games into the mainstream?  It takes a hell of a long time for media to infiltrate conservative culture with ‘subversive’ messages (homosexuality and racial diversity to name a few).  Video games are a relatively new media so perhaps upon getting ground as a legitimate, meaningful media they can change their very traditional depictions of masculinity and femininity.



2 thoughts on “Research 7: What happens to our self-esteem when we create an avatar?

  1. Video games are a $65B industry, so I’d say they are quite mainstream. If we want to compare media, I’d suggest that one might compare blockbuster Hollywood movies with blockbuster action video games (indeed often they crossover). Or we might compare sports video games with sports television. Here I am thinking we will find similar themes in terms of body image. However I don’t think it is the 1950s. That is, I think that if you look at depictions of the body from the 50s, you’d find them quite different from those of today.

    If you want to look strictly at the representation of the body in video games, I would suggest a couple of angles.

    1. Many of these blockbuster videogames allow players to customize their characters. They can choose to be male or female; they can change the color of their skin, hair, eyes, etc.; they can modify their body shape and face.
    2. There are indie games that might be more analogous to indie films in terms of being experimental and/or presenting non mainstream themes.
    3. There are some games, (e.g. Skyrim and Mass Effect 3) that give players the option of entering into same sex relationships as part of the story line. These are fairly minor elements of the overall plots of these games, but it does represent a real departure. It seems like you are focusing on the images of the bodies, but I thought I’d mention that.

    Posted by Alex Reid | June 22, 2013, 7:56 am
  2. What I mean by mainstream is, basically, nearly-universal societal acceptance. From what we have read and my own understanding of how others perceive the gaming industry, it still appears that video games are not the widely recognized and accepted media that film has come to be. Video games may attract a large percentage of the population but they have not reached, or been given, a similar to status to ‘traditional’ media. Bogost, McGonigal, and Nardi all made suggestions that if and only if video games are more widely accepted and used as a legitimate media, then they can reach their full potential. With the ideals of the 1950’s I simply meant rigid ideals that dominated pop culture. Certainly ‘the body’ of the 1950’s is not ‘the body’ of today, there were rigid definitions of femininity (i.e. Heloise’s books) and masculinity (i.e. Playboy [perhaps my timing is a bit wrong?]), just as there were in every decade, era, etc.

    I do think looking at the depiction of sexuality in video games would be interesting, but I have not come across too much in my searches simply on gender yet. I think what I am finding most intriguing are the moments of diversity in video games, whether it is gender, race, or sexual orientation. Those seem like the most promising moments – that a rather revolutionary media is taking society’s discomfort (obviously homophobia is still a rampant problem in the US) and forcing acculturation of it in the games. It seems to me that video games are a perfect experiment ground for pushing the boundaries of social acceptance, they just need to take hold of it.

    Posted by emmajani | June 22, 2013, 12:49 pm

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