Stereotyped-bodies of male and female video game characters affecting body self-image (Barlett & Harris, 2008)

I meant to post this three weeks ago, but a lot of things happened since the last post: my first restaurant job (Last week was full of crap), volunteering in a second lab, juggling my lab time with the first lab, preparing the logistics for my independent research project, researching potential advisors for my second try at graduate school, budgeting my finances and playing X3: The Reunion (addictive space sim). I’m so stressed because of work, it’s really draining and the pay is waiter’s pay because I receive tip.

So, here’s an article by Barlett and Harris who wanted to see how playing video games that portray gender-stereotyped bodies might affect participants own body satisfaction or body image.

Abstract

Two studies were conducted to determine if playing a video game that emphasized the body would increase negative body-image. Both studies [study 1 (N=51); college-aged males from the Midwestern USA; and study 2 (N=32); college-aged females from the Midwestern USA] had participants complete body image measures, play a video game that displayed muscular or thin characters for 15 min, and then complete post-game body image measures. Results showed that participants in both studies had significantly lower body esteem after video game play. Further, these findings were independent of the time spent playing video games and body mass index. This suggests that video games have a negative influence on the body-image of players.

If anyone is reading this, could someone explain why reading journal articles induces sleepiness?

Let’s start with the female body, I suppose the media exposure and public awareness on weight, especially in North America, has given everyone an inkling of how media, peer pressure and even family can affect women’s self-image into all sorts of outcomes, ranging from the awkward question of “Does this dress makes me look fat?”, anxieties of not fitting into old clothes or favorite dress, self-esteem issues to full blown eating disorders. Giving examples of each factor from what I know: Media (models, thin-strip celebrities, Bratz, bishoujos, women’s magazines); Peer pressure (female teasing, school norms, thin and popular girls, social ladder climbing); Family (overcontrolling and unrealistic parents, siblings as a role model, I think). Well that’s all I’ll say about media portrayal of the female body and women. If you want to know more, you can start with wikipedia or check your local library. But it’s not just the female body that the media is focusing on, let’s not forget the male body.

According to the authors, there’s not much focus on men and their body satisfaction in comparison to the dramatics surrounding women. IMO, it’s because of the constant Hollywood focus on female celebrities with anoerxia or bulimia (I used to like Lindsay Lohan, but now…). So what makes men feel bad about their own body? Muscles or rather men’s attitudes about muscles and their desires for muscles. Well, one of the factors, but I don’t know what else, maybe facial hair or chest hair. Of course IMO, what kind of muscles is subject to individual interpretation, some might desire for Alex Louis Armstrong’s physique or the bishounen physique of which I prefer. Men who watched media portrayal of muscled men do exhibit the same type of responses as women do. In general, we humans desire to have an idealized body to show others and ourselves that we are healthy and beautiful.

The theory behind this is called the tripartite influence model that we compare ourselves to others based on the three factors mentionned earlier (family, peers and media). Of course, it is not only comparing others’ bodies to our own that has an effect, cultural standards of an ideal body is also an important factor. (musn’t forget the bishounen!) An interesting note is that the authors found that there were no biological factors in the tripartite influence model. I don’t recall where I got my source (guessing it has to be from a textbook), but body image is mostly a social phenomenon and I don’t think certain biological factors (such as weight, age or puberty as they suggested) have significant bearings on it, but who knows. In evolutionary terms, that seemed logical where the need to be healthy is necessary for reproduction, but that’s something common in all of us. So I argue that further efforts for beauty beyond the need to compete for mates is a sociocultural phenomenon. If we specifically look at eating disorders, (I’m a bit weak in this, so double-check this information) the current ideal of thinness arose in the 1960’s, which coupled with the sudden rise of eating disorders among women. In any case, go back to the abstract and that’s all there is to it.

Study 1

This study looks at how male-stereotyped video game characters affect male participants’ body satisfaction.

Participants: 51 male undergraduates. Average age 19 years old. Mostly white, first- or second years and average video game play time is 6.56 hours per week. Using BMI, half of them are classified as normal weight, 35% are classified as overweight and 8% as obese. A peculiar aside, as an undergrad, is that I don’t see many obese or overweight undergraduate students as I see them in high school or in public places. Perhaps a person’s weight is an indicator of their academic success or perhaps general efficacy, such as job prospect, social life or stress management. I better look for articles to see if there are statistical discrepancy between the average weigth of university students and people of the same who don’t go to university.

Measures

Body Esteem Scale: 33 questions answered on a 5-point scale. Measures for body esteem. There are categories within the scale that deals with different parts body esteem, such as the upper body or physical attractiveness. IMO, this is a good measure because you might have someone who might only care about certain parts of his or her body. So it would be possible to see if there are specific effects rather than a general scale, which would give us a vague idea, which we don’t want.

Swansea Muscularity Attitudes Questionnaire: 20 questions on a 7-point scale. This one assesses for participants’ drive for muscularity and attitudes towards muscularity, but the way it’s scored is causing great confusion on my part when I read the results section. Funny how the name Swansea reminds me of Joe Swanson of Family Guy whose also muscularly-obsessed.

Male body image and esteem scale: 20 questions on a 7-point scale. Measures for body esteem, feelings about one’s own body and includes a trait and state subscale.

Demographics: age, ethnicity, year in school and BMI. Nothing special.

Suspiciousness questionnaire: Because video games is on the spotlight for its effects on aggression, people will start giving erroneous results if they knew that the experiment is looking for. I doubt a suspiciousness questionnaire, which consist of 2 questions, allow the experimenters a safety net that the participants did not know what the experiment’s true intent is about before debriefing. They could lie you know, something called the social desirability effect or maybe they act dumb so their data can be used.

Video game used: WWF Wrestlemania 2000 for the Nintendo 64. Why such an old game you say? No brains for games or not enough money to buy a better-looking game? Not even close. The authors wrote detailed reasons in choosing that game and I am convinced of their choice. First, the cameras move and pan that gives a lot of exposure on the wrestlers’ physique, ensuring that participants are sure to look at those muscles. Second, this is a first for body satisfaction research, so a psych student would have less of clue of finding out. Third, it’s a wrestling game what other game can you think of that shows the most of the ideal male body? Lastly, character customization allows experimental control. So you’d obviously have a character that’s obviously muscle-bound and not something ambiguous. However, the authors can create a muscled one (muscular) and an obese one (non-muscular), they can’t create a thin character because the thinnest one in the game still looked muscled.

Procedure

Participants complete the sets of body image questionnaire, then they are randomly assigned to fight either a muscular computer opponent or a non-muscular computer opponent. Before playing, the participants were told to create a character that resembles them the most and using their name to name that character. The authors noted that it is to increase immersion with the game, IMO to increase participants’ attention and getting into the game. But the caveat is that they didn’t measure if immersion would mediate such effect. So if we found out that immersion has nothing to do with body image satisfaction. Then creating one’s own character would be meaningless. However, previous research seems to justify the decision and IMO, it doesn’t hurt to do it. Although, IMO, the effect would have been greater if the participants were to play a muscular or non-muscular avatar, perhaps making them more self-conscious. Another thing that bothers me is the multiple body image assessments, although it makes sense to see before and after effects. However, it also increases the chances that participants would find out the true purpose of the experiment, despite using the suspiciousness questionnaire with the reasons I mentioned.

I am not sure how they worded the amount of time participants play, it seemed they said 15 minutes. But, it could be less than that since they said and I paraphrase “play the remaining time after creating their character.” After that, they are given to complete a second set of body image questionnaire and the rest, and they were debriefied on the true nature of the experiment.

Results

Looking at the results from each questionnaires.

Body Esteem Scale: A general decrease in body esteem scores. According to wikipedia, the effect size used is partial eta squared and the number indicated that it has a large effect size. Furthermore, there’s an interaction effect in one of its subscales, physical condition, where participants who played with the muscular opponent had a score decrease whereas those with the obese opponent had a score increase. That sounds about right, since playing against a fat opponent makes you feel comfortable about your own weight in contrast to a muscled-pro wrestler.

Male body image and esteem scale: The only significant difference found is in the state subscale in that those who played against the muscular opponent had a lower score after play.

Swansea muscularity attitudes questionnaire: I’ve been trying to understand this part, but because the way how it’s scored it caused a lot of confusion between the numbers and what the authors are saying in the introduction, methods and discussion section. So I ask anyone to help clear the confusion for me.

BMI, video game experience and player-created characters: no significant differences found, which is kind of good news for those who were playing video games for a long time. According to the authors, this means that everyone is affected by negative body stereotypes by the media. But, I would abstain from saying about the BMI results since not many male participants are overweight.

Study 2

The second study does the same thing, but this time for women and thinness.

Participants: 32 female participants. Average age is 19 years. Mostly white, first-years and average video game play time is .87 hours per week, so not many girl gamers. BMI classifications reads that most are within the normal weight range, few are overweight and fewer are underweight. Again, it brings to mind whether there are statistical discrepancies between university students and general population.

Measures

Body Esteem scale: relatively the same as in the first study, except different subscales are used for women, specifically it included sexual attractiveness and weight concern.

Body Shape Questionnaire: 24 questions that is answered on a 6-point scale. This one measures for body satisfaction.

Demographics and suspiciousness questionnaire: the same as the first study.

Video game used: Extreme Heat Beach Volleyball for the Playstation 2. The authors had trouble finding a game that had the customization capabilities from the first study and that game had muscled female wrestlers, but not thin ones. I understand why they chose a volleyball game since the female characters expose a lot of skin, thin and had huge breasts. The game also had cameras that zoom in on the female characters as much as in the first study. No point in using a Barbie game or Dead or Alive, since it’s age inappropriate and unrealistic, respectively IMO. Of course, this does not allow the authors to compare thin and non-thin female characters and see if there are significant differences.

Procedure

Much like the first study, so I’ll write in few words: complete the questionnaires, play for 15 minutes, complete the questionnaires, debrief and thank you for your participation. The end.

Results

Body Esteem scale: A significant difference was found that participants had lower body esteem scores after playing the video game. A large effect size in partial eta squared but is smaller than the first study, probably due to the smaller sample size. A marginal decrease in the sexual attractiveness subscale was found, but the average score difference is under 1 point.

Body Shape questionnaire: No significant differences were found in female participants’ body satisfaction. I’m thinking the number of participants may be a factor in this non-significant result.

BMI and video game experience: no significant results found. So it means gamers and non-gamers are affected the same. Although, I would caution about the BMI results since there aren’t many participants who are overweight.

Discussion

So stereotyped male and female bodies depicted in video games have similar effects as shown in other media, such as movies, magazines and television. One point of debate by the authors is which medium would have a greater effect than others? A single case for video games to have a greater effect is the immersion factor. Although, the authors failed to find any moderating effect from the first study, that doesn’t mean we should stop looking. We’ll stop looking after we beat the question until it has no more lives point. IMO, someone else might have added the interactive nature of video games, but I guess it falls under the immersion factor, so it’s probably included anyway, just want to write it out.

It would’ve been better if the participants had to play muscular or non-muscular avatars, I’m sure the results would have been higher. Especially if participants would have strongly identified with their avatars, think of all those who want cosplay like their favourite character.

I believe Nick Yee had some research on character creation, although I don’t remember which article. But he argued that most players would create an idealized image of themselves, but an image that doesn’t stray too far from their current body image. An interesting idea would be to see how individuals with eating disorders or people with problematic body self-image might build their avatars, how thin an avatar is thin for them?

Another interesting point to mention is the video game experience of the participants. It doesn’t seem to have any bearing, but video game experience is just a general measure and it doesn’t tell us how much they’re exposed to body stereotyped depictions in video games. Who knows, you might have someone who plays a lot of Halo and sports games where there isn’t much body exposure in contrast to someone who plays a lot of wrestling game. So, a more relevant measure of video game experience in the context of body image research would be the amount of exposure of body stereotypes in video games.

However, if you take a random look at video games and you would see that many video game characters are beautiful and sexy. Fortunately, there are video game characters that enjoy immense popularity without the need for sexiness, such as the Master Chief, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mario, the Half-Life cast and more. Using the Master Chief, by rendering a hero an ambiguous physical body with a suit of armor, a wide range of people don’t feel threatened by his physical prowess and may imagine the kind of body he may be, bishounen, muscled or regular. This makes the Master Chief to receive wide appeal from many players because of this ambiguity, but then he’s a genetically engineered human. Anyways, I guess a good solution in this body image dilemma is that the video game industry and consumers should mature beyond the male teenager demographic into aesthetics that can survive the test of time.

Barlett, C. P., & Harris, R. J. (2008). The impact of body emphasizing video games on image concerns in men and women. Sex Roles, 59(7), 586-601.

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7 thoughts on “Stereotyped-bodies of male and female video game characters affecting body self-image (Barlett & Harris, 2008)

  1. Hi — Lotta great stuff in your summary.

    I got a laugh out of your question about falling asleep while reading journal articles and even though that was just an aside, you’ve inspired me to share.

    One of my favorite headlines was from this APA monitor story:

    “The turgid prose of some journal articles may curb their influence”
    http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov01/turgid.html

    As a professor, I plead and beg with my grad students to reduce the length of their sentences, avoid acronyms and arcane or obscure vocabulary.

    One student triumphantly brought me a paragraph from an article written by my department chairman, completely studded with acronyms.

    My answer: “Just because other people do it doesn’t make it right!”

  2. After reviewing many news websites’ reactions about this study and I wish I knew which forums to look for from readers’ reactions. The reactions are negative, some ask why they are stating the obvious and some question its validity based on the dated game used (which by the way, there are good reasons for it). Incidentally, when it comes to topics that are obvious to them and that comforms to their beliefs, they react positively. So much for open-mindedness.

    That brings up the topic of homophobia and the use of homophobic utterances in gaming. I know gaygamer.net was attacked by hackers…. (mumbling)

    http://www.g4tv.com/attackoftheshow/blog/post/692084/Gamers_Affected_By_Body_Image_in_Video_Games.html?utm_source=g4tv&utm_medium=rssfeeds&utm_campaign=AOTB

    http://purenintendo.com/2008/12/29/study-video-game-physiques-can-affect-self-esteem/

    http://www.videogamenews.com/Home/tabid/36/ctl/ArticleView/mid/625/articleId/1169/Study-Gamers-self-conscious-to-extreme-body-types.aspx

    http://www.endsights.com/?p=464

  3. I don’t have a copy of the study itself, and none of the articles available seem to mention this –
    Was there any attempt to have a group of students answer the questions before and after doing something *else* for 15 minutes? It seems like there would need to be a control for the fact that after filling out a questionnaire about body image, I might be thinking a lot about my body image for the next 15 minutes.
    In fact, it might only have occurred to the subjects to compare their bodies to those on screen *because* they were just asked about their bodies.
    And while it sounds from your summary above that the game selected for the men was a heavily-considered factor, it still seems to me to be a poor choice because it evokes another form of media; it’s a wrestling game specifically designed to simulate something on television. This clouds the results – it’s unclear which medium (video games or television) is actually causing the psychological impact (if any).

  4. @ E.Z.

    You made very good observations, your first question also applies to other similar situations, including advertising and political campaign ads. The effect is called priming or cognitive priming.

    Doing something else for 15 minutes is called a filler task. However, you’ll have to consider which is an appropriate filler task, what if this filler task actually decreases or increases the video games’ priming effect?

    It’s certainly possible that directly measuring muscularity attitudes would influence their responses just because they were asked about it. An alternative method would be an indirect measure, however academic reviewers (the gatekeepers of which studies get published and don’t) might complain about such indirect measures since we don’t know how much does it relate to whatever concept we’re looking. Unless, this indirect measure has been proven. But it looks like the authors haven’t found such acceptable alternative method. So, it’s matter of balancing between the pros and cons of each method.

    It would be interesting to see how long this priming effect would last, but I believe there’s an answer if we look at other media studies (say television). I’d say whatever answer they have would probably the same for video games. I just don’t know.

    As for the game’s selection, many reactions were mostly on its dated graphics and such, and yet the researchers still found significant results. Your comment is very observant, it might’ve been participants’ existing knowledge about wrestling that might’ve clouded the results. That is they watched wrestling on television first and this forms their concept of wrestling in their minds. Very interesting…

    But then again, there are many similarities between video games and television nowadays, Call of Duty 4 plays like a modern day Hollywood movie, RPG-games finally got their short-lived movie genres, etc. (mumbling)

    Well, if anyone wants to replicate (and improve) this study at your own expense for the next 8 months, give a shout.

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