The cognitive effects of playing a sexually-explicit video game (Yao et al., 2010)

My poster submission for CPA 2010 got accepted, it’s a project that I collaborated with Douglas Gentile and Christopher Barlett last year (will not provide details, come to the convention). That means I’ll be in Winnipeg in the first week of June.

Larry in the wrong game

My previous post reviewed a study that investigated the effects of women playing a sexualized heroine. This study will look at men playing a sexually-explicit video game. If you recognize the male character in this image, then you know what video game we’ll be looking at. Tangential comment: this study is co-authored by one of my potential grad advisor: Chad Mahood (The Ohio State University).


The present study examines the short-term cognitive effects of playing a sexually explicit video game with female “objectification” content on male players. Seventy-four male students from a university in California, U.S. participated in a laboratory experiment. They were randomly assigned to play either a sexually-explicit game or one of two control games. Participants’ cognitive accessibility to sexual and sexually objectifying thoughts was measured in a lexical decision task. A likelihood-to-sexually-harass scale was also administered. Results show that playing a video game with the theme of female “objectification” may prime thoughts related to sex, encourage men to view women as sex objects, and lead to self-reported tendencies to behave inappropriately towards women in social situations.

Japan is known for their sexually-explicit multimedia and the related antics that happen there. I also heard Germany has a healthy market in that area. Please see Daniel Floyd’s youtube video on sex in video games.

A general descriptor, using the ESRB rating system, of a sexually-explicit video game would have strong sexual content (Explicit and/or frequent depictions of sexual behaviour), nudity and possibly mature humor and strong language. These descriptors are to inform parental purchasing decision for children. Nevertheless, they do not address the complexity of sexual themes that adults are familiar with, from aesthetics to narrative element to interactive porn. Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins (haven’t play them) are less than sexually-explicit (IMO), but more like mature and sensitive narratives since the directorial use is to enhance the overall experience of the video game (not in the pants, but emotionally as you would read from romance novels) and I hear that it takes untold hours just to get there and by then the characters would have developed romantic interests as directed by the player.

The Leisure Suit Larry series and the Guy Game (will never play them) are sexually-explicit video games which is the study’s focus. These games would be immediately classified as raunchy with no redeeming value in the eyes of a gamer-artist critic. Sex is the main focus, plot is a just an afterthought, they have flat characters which lessens players’ enjoyment, female characters are sexualized (huge breasts, impossible proportions and shallow personalities) and sex is used as a form of reward of the cheapest kind (i.e. like they’re a dime a dozen). These games contain female “objectification” content among male players, so say the authors.

The concern is quite simple, past research on older media has found that men exposed to sexually-explicit materials where women are treated as objects and are receptive to sexual advances developed negative attitudes towards women. The same argument, the authors contend, should be tested with video games. The theoretical models are that sexually-charged material would prime individuals (in this case, men) to think more sexually-oriented thoughts. Repetitive exposure of such kind would eventually lead gender stereotyping to the point of crystallising sexually-oriented thoughts with the mental concept of women, i.e. if you think a woman, other thoughts related to woman would be negative gender stereotypes that your mind picked up from all that media consumption.

The authors went further with behavioural consequences (on paper), in that if we ask men if they were likely commit actions considered sexist behavioural tendencies towards women. Given video games’ interactive nature and feedback system, it is likely men would respond (on paper) to sexually harass than someone not exposed to sexually-explicit video games.


Participants: 74 male participants from a university population, average age is 20.97 (SD = 3.55).


Sexual thoughts: The Lexical Decision Task is the measure of choice regarding sex-related cognitive tests. “In a typical lexical decision task, participants are presented with a mixture of words and nonwords. Participants are asked to determine as quickly as possible whether a letter string is or is not a word by pressing a button.” The study has 16 sexual words (e.g. penis), 10 words that are sexually-objectifying descriptions of women (e.g. slut), 10 neutral words that are neutral descriptors of women (e.g. sister, caregiver), and 16 neutral words (e.g. bank). In total, the LDT has 104 letter strings.

Sexual harassment behaviour: The Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale is a self-report questionnaire. Participants read 10 scenarios depicting sexually-exploitive opportunities. Participants answer on a 7-point scale whether they would likely take advantage of the situation. I have my doubts of this measure, but I hope this measure has been vigorously tested with different populations (e.g. sexual convicts to average persons).

Video games used: Three video games are used in this experiment. I am pleased of their selection revealing their deep understanding of the formal features of video games and its genre-specific characteristics. The sexually-explicit video game is Leisure Suit Larry: Magna cum Laude. In one sentence, the game’s narrative, conversations, mini-games goals, characters are all sexually-charged. Two video games are used as controls: The Sims 2 (PS2 version) is used to control for the social interaction and character design components. Anything with sex in the game has been locked out. PacMan II is used as a true control for the presence of human characters, social interaction and sexual imagery. This is how it’s done!


Participants complete general demographics, then are randomly assigned to one of the three video game conditions, the sex video game (Leisure Suit Larry, n = 24), the non-sex video game (Sims, n = 25), Pacman game (n = 25). They were given a brief tutorial and played for 25 minutes. After that, they do the lexical decision task. They do 10 practice trials (e.g. letter string) with words not related to the study. Afterwards, they do the 104 experimental trials (e.g. those 104 letter strings). They then complete the Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale and were debriefed.


They calculated reaction time from the Lexical task using harmonic means to take the skewed reaction time data into consideration giving the analysis more power (hmmm… okay). At least, I understood they’re using a three-way MANOVA for their analysis.

So how were the three groups’ reaction times to the lexical decision task? The sex group reacted faster (M = 561.75 ms) to sexual words than the non-sex (M = 663.29 ms) or Pacman (M = 645.98 ms) groups. As for sexually-objectifying words, the same results are there. Sex group (M = 571.42 ms) faster than non-sex (M = 655.56 ms) and Pacman (651.39 ms) groups.

The sex group also scored significantly higher on the Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale (M = 105.37) versus the nonsex (ΔM = 22.5) and Pacman group (ΔM = 14.3). What’s with the delta?

So there you have it: playing sexually-explicit video games makes you think negatively of women as sex objects. A mere 25 minutes of playing Leisure Suit Larry and men are primed to see women as sex objects (not outright, but to a higher degree). However, these are short-term effects and they may fade away after some time. The next step would logically be the long-term effects of playing sexually-explicit video games, repetitive experiences on players’ cognition, affect, attitudes and behaviours, expanding to other sexually-explicit video games and to investigate who plays these games.

Fortunately, Western gamers are rather prude when it comes to sex. So I’m less inclined to believe that gamers are sexists from these video games since they’re not part of a typical gamer collection. However, the sexism still exists due to the machismo that permeates video gaming culture which is likely alienating girl gamers and those annoying

Rachel's (Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2) breasts are controlled to jiggle

13-year old boys asserting their manhood online. In addition, there’s the game design side of female characters, the choices made by designers in non-sexually explicit games can potentially influence sexual objectification. For example, female depiction (visually and narratively), breast physics or breast jiggling.  Hence, there’s the need to study players’ exposure (selective or otherwise) to sexual content in terms of games’ selection and choices made during gameplay.

The authors suggested future studies examining actual behavioural consequences of playing sexually-oriented video games. This could be done with a beautiful female research assistant; I vaguely recall some experimental paradigms that can measure sexual harassment. The live experiment would complement the paper-based limitations of the Likelihood to Sexually Harass Scale. I suggest an online alternative (albeit, I suspect that it’s already underway) through MMOs, given the general sexual characteristics of female avatars. I heard that female avatars get a lot of attention from male players, despite the possibility that a male player is controlling the female avatar. It’s probably the off-chance that there’s really a female player playing the female avatar. Evolution at work…

A screenshot from the game Real Kanojo

One interesting note is that it is posited that “long-term consumption of nonviolent sex materials would lead to a modification of viewer taste in favour of less common sexual depictions.” (they didn’t come up with this idea). Hentai popped up at first. It’s a huge genre by itself with a wide range of sexual situations from school romance to guro to loli. And yes, there are hentai video games, Real Kanojo is one creepy example. It makes me want to study hentai’s effect on both Japanese and Western audiences. I’m pretty sure there are psychological studies on hentai, but it’s probably available in Japanese only.

Alternatively (IMO), more sensible and mature video games would present a positive outlook on sex in video games and in real life. I take the example of the visual novels, popular in Japan, where players can form a relationship, through interactions and correct narrative choices, with one of many female heroines. In Katawa Shoujo, for example, players choose one of the heroines (in my case, Rin) to nurture a romantic relationship, visual novel players would call it as taking the “Rin route”. Players’ cognitive schemas in terms of sex or relationship are modified due to the connections with the gaming schemas, i.e. they will view relationships as games. They will still take it seriously, but will use and think in gaming terms.

Yao, M. Z., Mahood, C. & Linz, D. (2010) Sexual priming, gender stereotyping, and likelihood to sexually harass: Examining the cognitive effects of playing a sexually-explicit video game. Sex Roles, 62, 77-88. doi:10.1007/s11199-009-9695-4

11 thoughts on “The cognitive effects of playing a sexually-explicit video game (Yao et al., 2010)

  1. That study, of course, is completely and utterly useless. Why? Simple: the wrong controls were used.

    Good controls would have included interaction with an attractive female (instead of playing the game), viewing pornographic images and masturbation ending before ejaculation.

    After all, the thing one really wants to test is not whether sexual imagery provokes a specific reaction but whether playing games with sexual imagery in particular has an effect that is different from the normal behavioral response to sexual arousal.

    In my view, it is quite likely that this study did not succeed in testing the actual hypothesis, but rather touched on two other hypotheses: 1) sexual imagery in video games causes some degree of sexual arousal in men and 2) sexual arousal in men, regardless of cause, has an effect on behavior.

    • @ Thomas

      The purpose of this study is to investigate sexually explicit imagery in video games among male players and their likelihood to sexually harrass the opposite sex. If you want an experiment with an interaction with an attractive female or viewing pornography, you’ve looked at the wrong study, there are other studies of this kind in the literature. For examples see Ariely and Lowenstein (2006). I don’t think masturbation would be a good idea in an experiment, even if participants were told they are free to masturbate, they would feel uncomfortable with the potential of an observer looking from the ceiling.

      I’m not sure if you’re making sense in your second paragraph. The authors did the research and determined the most likely reactions and that’s the reason why they looked at it. Another problem is what can you define “normal behavioral response” to sexual arousal. If you ask 100 people to define what is “normal”, you would find there’s little consensus.

  2. @ Wai

    To accurately describe the effects of video games with sexual imagery, one needs to not only control for video games without sexual imagery but also for sexual imagery without video games.

    The hypothesis being tested contains not one but two basic variables: sexual imagery and video games. To test the hypothesis, one needs to control for both variables.

    That means testing at least the following situations:
    A – no video game, no sexual imagery
    B – no video game, sexual imagery
    C – video game, no sexual imagery
    D – video game, sexual imagery

    It is essential to know whether the effect of sexual imagery in video games is stronger than, weaker than or similar to that of sexual imagery in other media.

    The reason why knowing that tidbit is essential is quite easily found in your own review of this study. You say that “fortunately, western gamers are rather prude […]”.

    However, the findings of this study would be fully compatible with a hypothesis that would make this unfortunate rather than fortunate – the findings of this study would be the same if sexual imagery in video games had an effect that was larger than that of video games without sexual imagery but far *smaller* than that of sexual imagery in any other medium.

    That alone is enough to make this study mostly useless. It gets worse, however.

    The “sexual imagery” variable possibly has an indirect effect: it may be that it merely affects behaviour through an effect on sexual arousal. Therefore, it needs to be split up into two separate variables: sexual imagery and arousal. (the latter could be incorporated through sexual fantasies)

    Likewise, the “video game” variable may or may not cause an increased effect on behaviour in combination with other variables, but if it does, it is possible that it merely has an indirect effect because it includes interactivity. So it too needs to be split up into two separate variables: video game and interactivity. (the latter could be incorporated through real life interaction)

    So, a truly meaningful test would take into consideration the following variables:
    Q – sexual imagery
    R – video games
    S – sexual arousal (probably as a dependent variable)
    T – interactivity

    Only then could meaningful conclusions be reached about the comparative effects on behavior of sexual imagery in video games.

    As for what´s “normal”: normal is commonly defined as a lack of a significant deviation from the mean.

    So, if sexual arousal induced by sexual imagery in video games had similar effects on behavior as sexual arousal induced by sexual imagery in other media and/or sexual arousal induced without sexual imagery, the behavioral response could be considered normal.

    If, on the other hand, there was a significant difference between the behavioral response to arousal caused by sexual imagery in video games and the mean behavioral response to sexual arousal achieved through other means, the response could be considered abnormal.

    To summarize, a meaningful study would help in determining if porn games have an effect that is significantly different from the effect that extremely common behavior like fantasizing about sex has.

    This study, on the other hand, does not help us determine if there is any difference in behavioral response between being exposed to sexual imagery in video games, sexual imagery outside of video games, and sexual arousal without the presence of sexual imagery.

    • Impressive.

      Want to do this experiment? Perhaps you might email the first author of the study (mike.yao[at] about your study and see if he’s interested. It might lead to a publication.

  3. Pingback: Psychiatrist cites her sources to assert claim that violent videogames is linked to rape « VG Researcher

  4. Pingback: Self-objectification by embodying sexualized virtual selves (Fox et al., 2013) | VG Researcher

  5. And what about female playing videogames with good looking, muscular male heroes? I think is the same.
    It has no sense to test only a part of humanity (in this case men) to take a conclusion.

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