Skillful or Incompetent? How a Video Game Character’s Sexualization Affects Their Perceived Skill

One of my over-arching research interests involves how the appearance of video game characters effects the player-experience, as well as how identification with game characters effects self-perception on social-psychological dimensions.

Last fall, I started a pilot study (think of it as a trial or test-run) for an experiment where college-age, self-identified women played a video game where the character was either dressed in a sexualized or in a non-sexualized outfit. Essentially, the pilot’s main purpose was to confirm that my experimental conditions were reliable, or to put it another way, perceived as consistent when multiple people did the study. Because I was interested in exploring the effect of a game character’s appearance on self-perception, I wanted to be sure that people would consistently rate the sexualized character as, well, sexualized, and that the same character dressed in casual attire was perceived as non-sexualized. Thankfully, my pilot study confirmed this, and I was able to launch the full experiment in January.

While I did eventually finish the full experiment in April, I’ve yet to actually sit down and examine the results (but soon, after I finish analyzing my character design interview data!). However, I did find a somewhat unexpected – but nonetheless interesting – outcome from the pilot that sheds some insight on how a sexualized appearance of a game character influences their perceived skill.


The Pilot Study

For my experiment, forty-three undergraduates played the game Resident Evil: Revelations 2. All participants self-identified as female and the majority identified as White/Caucasian (81%). The average age of players was twenty years old. Everyone in the study played the Story Mode portion of the game for fifteen minutes. Following game play, participants filled out a questionnaire about the video game and the playable game characters, Claire and Moira.

As mentioned above, the pilot tested whether my conditions were reliable. Each participant was randomly assigned to either play as Claire and Moira in their sexualized or non-sexualized attire. Resident Evil: Revelations 2 was perfect for testing these two conditions because the story can be played with either characters’ default or bonus costumes (the player can switch between Claire and Moira in the story mode, as they both appear onscreen at the same time). For the purposes of my study, their default costumes were used for the non-sexualized condition. Claire’s bonus Rodeo costume and Moira’s bonus Urban Ninja costume were used for the sexualized condition.


Left to right, top to bottom: Moira (default/non-sexualized attire), Moira (bonus/sexualized attire); Claire (default/non-sexualized attire), Claire (bonus/sexualized attire).

After game play, everyone was asked a series of questions about the characters. I wanted to ensure that the characterizations were consistent despite the changes in attire. The only difference I hoped to find in the study was for differences in sexualization between the default and bonus attire conditions (which I did find). In addition to several questions about the characters’ attire, both characters were assessed based on six adjectives using a 7-point semantic differential scale. The characters were rated on the following: attractive/unattractive; strong/weak; aggressive/submissive; violent/passive; skillful/incompetent; good/evil.

No significant differences between the two portrayals were found in terms of Claire’s and Moira’s attractiveness, strength, aggression, violence, and moral character. However, significant differences were found for Claire’s skill, in which participants rated sexualized Claire as more incompetent  (i.e. less skillful; Mean = 2.70, Standard Deviation = 1.75) than non-sexualized Claire (M = 1.63, SD = 1.01). This outcome was not the case for Moira.

This difference may have emerged because Claire is the main playable character who is capable of attacking enemies with a gun whereas Moira can only attack enemies with a crowbar. As such, most participants played as Claire for the majority of the time. The difference in Claire’s rated skilled by attire suggests that players may have deemed her sexualized attire as impractical for fighting zombies. This may have influenced Claire’s perceived competency as questionable given the game’s context in which a lack of clothing seems like poor judgement.


Costume and Context Matter

Although I was not anticipating any differences in Claire’s skill between the sexualized and non-sexualized attire conditions, differences did indeed emerge. What does this tell us? I think it stands to reason that the sexualization of female game characters as an expression of empowerment will not always hold for specific contexts. Given that Resident Evil: Revelations 2 is an action-horror game where the main characters are kidnapped and imprisoned against their will, seeing Claire in a state of relative undress likely enhances her vulnerability in the situation which could have an effect on her perceived skilled, or ability to handle the circumstance.

Claire’s sexualization had the effect of diminishing her perceived competency. Given that players were fighting zombie-like enemies in a run-down facility, her attire may have conveyed a lack of sensible judgement on her part. Given the outcome, I think it demonstrates the importance of considering how sexualization of a game character is interpreted within the context of gameplay. When a game presents a situation where a character is vulnerable and fighting for their survival, as with Resident Evil: Revelations 2, a sexualized appearance may influence whether that character is deemed competent enough to handle the situation. This is especially important for game designers to consider when creating a character they want to portray as skilled and competent, despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them.

Obviously, it should go without saying that a different game and a different character may produce different results. Furthermore, participants in this study went into the game ‘blind’ and were unaware that the sexualized Rodeo attire is a bonus costume not intended as the default attire worn by Claire in the game’s story mode. Her default attire in the story is non-sexualized, and it is a player’s choice which costumes they want Claire and Moira to wear in the game. Understanding this context, as well as enabling a choice of costumes, could also lead to different results. Expect more nuanced findings once I do the data analysis for the full experiment, in a few months!

Defining Strong Women in Media: Game of Thrones

I spent the last few days of my summer break catching up on HBO’s epic series Game of Thrones. I was an avid fan of the show during it’s first and second seasons, but fell behind in 2012 when I began my Master’s program at the University of South Carolina. I completed Season 4 a couple of weeks ago.

I do not have time to complete the novels (albeit, I did read the first one and thoroughly enjoyed it) but I hunger for the background lore that fleshes out the show’s settings and characters. As such, I occasionally lurk online wikis dedicated to A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, and other popular message boards and forums, like the one offered at IMDB. I noticed from reading conversations online among fans that the show’s female characters are a popular topic of discussion. Fans praise the attributes of many of the depicted women, particularly the strength of characters like Brienne, Arya, Daenerys, Ygritte, Catlyn, and Sansa.

What I think is interesting about these female characters is that they are strong in many different ways. Arya and Brienne are physically strong; a lot of their featured screen time on Thrones involves sword fighting, blood-letting, and challenging conventional notions of women in combat. They also standout because they forego traditional attributes of femininity. Arya and Brienne frequently wear armor, pants, and have androgynous short hair, in contrast to other members of the female cast who have long hair, adorn themselves in beautiful brocade dresses, and elaborate jewelry.

Brieene of Tarth & Arya Stark.

Brienne of Tarth & Arya Stark.

Ygritte and Daenarys boast not only physical fortitude, but also fierce conviction. Daenerys’ growth in the first season from the reluctant wife of Khal Drogo to the unyielding Mother of Dragons was an inspiring and captivating story arc. It also earned her a legion of fans and admirers. Ygritte’s love for Jon Snow did not waiver her dedication to the Free Men’s cause (or vice versa). These two women, in particular, are fierce and live to not only see change, but to make it happen by their own hands.

Less blatant than the physical toughness of Brienne and Arya or the strong leadership and minds of Daenerys and Ygritte (but no less important) is the emotional strength and perseverance of Catelyn and Sansa Stark. Emotion, generally considered the realm of women and a sign of weakness, is the weapon of choice wielded by the matriarch of the Stark clan and it’s eldest daughter. Mother and daughter alike find themselves in desperate situations, but rarely do we see them despair. Catelyn perseveres to protect her family after the death of her husband. Sansa, while timid and naive early in the series, emerges as a shrewd and cunning survivor at the end of season four.

My brief analysis of these characters highlights how Game of Thrones demonstrates a range of female archetypes with different attributes of strength. The show is wildly popular for many reasons: a rich, captivating fictional world; abundant plot twists and cliff-hangers; dimensional characters that keep audiences guessing what happens next… and the female characters, especially, standout to viewers because they realistically demonstrate strength in unique ways.

I contrast these characterizations to other “strong” female characters in mainstream media, especially many commercial video games, that equate strength with sex appeal. Many (but not all) female characters in video games certainly kick ass and look amazing, but tend to do so at the expense of deep personality and realism. It is true that this trope is starting to change; increasingly, videogames feature strong female protagonists who are more than simply eye-candy (I’m looking at you, Uncharted and The Last of Us). However, even a cursory glance of the results page for  “female videogame characters” on Google image search favors a pretty face that also kicks ass. In contrast, Thrones showcases a range of personalities and strengths for female characters.

"Female videogame characters" on Google image search.

“Female videogame characters” on Google image search.

What inspired this blog post was my interpretation of the female characters on Game of Thrones, which led to subsequent observations of other, very different types of strong women in media (especially videogames). I can’t help but ask some broad questions here, about strong women in media, because I wonder if others observe the same patterns that I have discussed above. What characteristics establish a female character as strong as opposed to weak? I’ve outlined what I believe are some of the strengths of the female characters on Thrones, and contrasted these characterizations with a common trope in video games. Do others share a similar observation, or a different one? What patterns do others observe about the variety (or lack thereof) of strong women characters in all media representations? In what ways are they realistic or not?

Why do we, men and women, need to see strong women in media? Why is it important? Do different portrayals of strong women in media affect the real women who watch? If so, how?

These are the types of questions I think about as I consume and enjoy media.