This past week, I was fortunate enough to attend the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) as an Xbox Women in Games ‘Game Changer.’ I was able to connect with a lot of amazing folks in the video games industry, including the various researchers, analysts, and data scientists associated with the field of games user research. Since my own research in academia overlaps with the field, I attended the annual U.S. Games User Research Summit, held on the Tuesday of GDC, where I also presented a research poster showcasing the results of a gameplay experiment.
I’ve elaborated on the pilot study results in this blog post, which highlights the implications for how female game characters are perceived by female players when the same character is portrayed in sexualized clothing or non-sexualized clothing. In a nutshell, the same character portrayed in sexualized clothing was perceived as more incompetent than her non-sexualized portrayal. This finding was found in an action-horror game where female users played the same level of the same game for 15 minutes each. Using the same game character within the same video game (and game level) helps to minimize any confounding variables introduced by varied gameplay strategies and enemy encounters, which have not always been avoided in other similar studies (e.g. Behm-Morawitz & Mastro, 2009).
The second study outlined in the poster utilized the same female characters (but a different set of female participants) and asked questions about the player’s self-perception following gameplay. Participants completed a 2 x 2 (sexualization x game difficulty) experiment. Before participants arrived to complete the experiment, they were randomly assigned to the sexualized or non-sexualized character attire and a casual or normal game difficulty. In short, no differences were found between any of the four conditions with respect to player’s self-esteem, self-efficacy, and body image. You can view the full findings (in condensed poster format), as well as my thoughts on the study’s implications, in the below PDF version of my poster.
Admittedly, this poster is a condensed form of a research project where I measured additional variables (e.g., user’s self-discrepancy; identification with game characters), yet the additional variables did not change any of the outcomes. As such, I focused on the variables most likely of interest to an audience largely embedded in the video games industry. If you’d like to read the full paper, feel free to get in touch and I can send you a copy.
Since the study produced null findings, I will likely conduct a follow-up study with a different game and different characters to see if I can replicate the results (or not!). Either outcome would be interesting to discover.
If you’re curious as to why I limited the sample to self-identified female players (which I was asked about a couple times at the Summit), that is simply because I’ve been interested in women’s experiences with digital games as part of my broader research agenda as a PhD student.
Behm-Morawitz, E., & Mastro, D. (2009). The effects of the sexualization of female video game characters on gender stereotyping and female self-concept. Sex Roles, 61(11-12), 808-823. doi:10.1007/s11199-009-9683-8