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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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I’ll have the Jill Sandwich, Please: An Experience & Review of the Capcom Café

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I recently returned from an amazing fifteen-day adventure in Japan. I visited video game bars and ramen stalls in the scrawling cityscapes; feudal castles, holy shrines and peaceful temples amidst the urban landscapes; and historic cemeteries and memorials to fallen warlords among the cool and serene mountainsides.

As a longtime gamer and fan of Japanese media, especially of Capcom’s Resident Evil (RE), my trip to Tokyo was exciting with the prospect of visiting the electronics district, Akihabara, alone. When I heard about the creation of the Capcom Café about 6 months ago I was interested but not quite sold on a visit. You see, the café circulates different themes that center on Capcom games and when it was first launched the theme was Monster Hunter – a game I’ve not played and actually know very little about. However, when the RE theme was set from March to the end of June of this year, I scheduled it for my itinerary without a second thought. I mean, how many other times would I be in Japan and have the chance to dine on themed food and drinks from a favorite video game series?

But why not visit the more famous and popular Capcom Bar in Shinjuku? Well, for one, there’s the issue of needing a reservation in advance to attend the Capcom Bar which was problematic for my rather hectic schedule. Additionally, the Capcom Bar focuses on all Capcom games broadly, and the appeal to the café’s RE theme during the 20thanniversary of the franchise was just too good to pass up. It may help to back up my fanaticism with some data: I am probably one of the few people who purchased the Collector’s Edition of RE5 – so yeah, I’m that kind of shameless RE fan who loves the series to pieces, even when it’s been less than stellar in recent years (with the exception of RE: Revelations 2, in my humble opinion).

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Anyway, my first visit to the café occurred on June 8th around 5 PM which was my second day in Japan and Tokyo. Additionally, I returned for a second visit on June 19th, a couple days before I left the country, because a new item was added to the menu just after my initial visit – more on this later.

First, the café itself is relatively easy to find – if not a convenient location within Tokyo – as long as you do your transportation research.  The café is located at Aeon Mall, just off of the Koshigaya Laketown stop on the metro’s Musashino line, which is nearly an hour from Tokyo’s central station. From my accommodation in Ekoda it took me about an hour to arrive at the Aeon Mall with transfers at two subway stations. It’s not the quickest commute, especially around evening rush hour, so keep that in mind if you plan a visit yourself. Once at the mall, I stopped immediately at an information desk and asked for the Capcom Café and was quickly pointed to the third floor.

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My first impression was that of merchandise… overpriced merch, everywhere. For reference, these acrylic keychains are priced at 1,000 yen – that’s close to $10.00 USD, with tax. Impressively, Ada was completely sold out (looks like we know the #1 Resi waifu in Japan!). Needless to say, I passed up on the adorable keychains, and instead purchased a slightly more practical mug, since I love coffee and tea. Even that was about $13.00 USD and it only comes in black and white coloring. Still, the character images are cute and I like that it references the 20thAnniversary of RE, so I think it makes for a good souvenir. There were many more items on display, including zombie cookies, character-shaped candy, pens, notebooks, tote bags, badges, t-shirts and hoodies… even small backpacks and T-Virus perfume! But I didn’t buy those at a high price, strangah. Also available was plenty of merch from other franchises such as Mega Man, Monster Hunter, and Sengoku Basara.

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Aside from being bombarded with game merchandise, the atmosphere was eccentric and fun. A game console was available with RE: 0 remastered edition, a TV showcased cut scenes and game trailers in the dinning area, and a large mural depicted chibi RE characters in the Spencer Mansion. Aside from the spectacle, however, the shop and café was rather quiet and devoid of customers. This came with costs and benefits – I had looked forward to mingling with other Capcom/RE fans but at the same time I probably received the best service the café had to offer. I made small talk with my waiter about RE and other games and my food arrived promptly.

I’ll admit I ordered the cheapest item on the menu but mostly for practical reasons since I already had dinner plans later in the evening. The Raccoon City Set features four RE-themed sweets with a drink for about $9.00 USD which is actually a good deal among the café options since the fancy drinks alone cost about $6-7.00 USD. For the drink I ordered the “Jill Valentine” which tasted fruity and included a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. The dish delightfully featured RE characters as their cutest food forms imaginable. It included more ice cream, dollops of chocolate and vanilla cream served with a Jill cookie and marshmallow-like poof with an adorable rendering of Nemesis. Particularly (4 itchy) tasty was a stawbarry cream cake – see what I did there? – with a mini-flag reading “Welcome to Raccoon City.” Overall, the Jill drink was probably the tastiest of the items but everything was sweet and enjoyable. For ordering a fancy drink, you receive a coaster with an adorable chibi character (I got Leon) but you will not receive the coaster if you only ask for water. The paper placemat is also yours to keep but it’s not particularly thick or durable. I was able to preserve mine by rolling it up and I plan to eventually frame it because it’s so gosh darn cute.

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When my food arrived I wanted to have a very memorable and unique photo-op. For Halloween last year I put together a Jill Valentine cosplay – I had decided to pack the essential components along and wear them at the café – and that’s exactly what I did. The employees were very responsive to me when I explained in broken Japanese that I brought along “kosupure” and a girl employee was excited to take my picture for me. Needless to say, this portion of the experience was half my reason for going!

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I left the café with my pockets a little lighter, my curiosity satiated, and several very memorable pictures. I was content with my visit but towards the end of my itinerary – the day before I returned to Tokyo prior to flying back home – I discovered a revelation on the Capcom Café’s Twitter account… A day after my initial visit an official “Jill Sandwich” was added to the menu! [Watch the linked video if you’re unaware of the self-referential game humor]. It was not even listed in the café offerings the day prior. I was definitely a little heartbroken, but with a day and half left in Tokyo, I decided to make the pilgrimage one last time on a Sunday evening around 7:30 PM.

Once more, I was the sole diner, which was slightly disappointing. A few people lingered around the merchandise while others played RE: 0 and a couple looked at the menu on display, but when I sat down at a table I was the only one in the dining area. However, the staff were very friendly and made a sincere effort to talk with me as I didn’t have any companions. I was actually informed that the Jill Sandwich was very popular and, in fact, the waiter claimed he had 20 people order it in a single day. This may have indeed been an exaggeration, or perhaps the café is far more popular around lunch time. From my experiences the café seems to be relatively dead in the evenings – which makes sense as most of the food is suitable for smaller meals and snacking.cap-cafe-8

For those who are curious the Jill Sandwich costs a little over $6.00 USD and is a typical egg salad sandwich that is topped with a slice of ham and tomato. It includes a very small side of potato wedges (serving sizes in Japan, from what I saw, are much smaller on average than we have in ‘Merica). In short, it’s a relatively plain, but yummy, sandwich. The wooden tray that it was served on was decorated with a cocoa powdered effigy of Jill which I nearly smudged the second it was handed to me. The chef was even kind enough to doodle an image of anime Jill on the receipt, which I thanked her for and kept as a keepsake. And of course, I just had to pose with the Jill Sandwich because it’s so meta.

Overall, I enjoyed my two trips to the Capcom Café – but I’ve very likely had my fill if I ever return to Tokyo again (which I plan to do, one day). I can suggest this excursion to diehard Capcom fans, especially so to fans of the games that are presented as the current café theme. FYI – the theme just changed to Sengoku Basara. But for everyone else, because the location is not particularly quick to get to if you’re staying somewhere in central Tokyo, you’d probably be better off checking out the Capcom Bar in Shinjuku if you’d like to have a similar experience – especially if you want to play games while you eat/drink, as this is not an option at the Capcom Café. Moreover, the bar might be a more social place to interact with other diners/players while you wait for your food in the presence of said video games.

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Although I can only recommend this café to the big Capcom fans out there, I will say that I enjoyed my visits very much and commend the staff for taking the time to talk with me and take photos – I am certainly glad to have these memories!

Originally posted to personal Destructoid Community Blog.