The Research Behind Sarkeesian's Claims

Yesterday, I wrote up a short post about the latest episode of Anita Sarkeesian's "Tropes vs Women" video series. The thing took off in a way I wasn't fully prepared for, new guy that I am here at Kotaku. As a result, I had to work pretty hard after the post went live moderating the comments section to keep a lot of bad stuff out. That is to say: I spent a lot of time trying to keep out the worst kind of material from overwhelming an otherwise healthy and vibrant discussion.

I want to address one point that critical commenters raised now that things have settled down a bit. Many people were doubtful about the validity of the research Sarkeesian pointed to in her video, particularly in the section I quoted in which she said that after "long term exposure to hypersexualized images, people of all genders tend to be more tolerant of the sexual harassment of women, and more readily accepting of rape myths."

I have not communicated with Sarkeesian about her work on this video. But the language she used in this section of the video mirrors that of an academic paper that I reported on last October for my last job. Here is a relevant passage:

The common defense marshaled in favor of such inequitable treatment is to say, "It's just a game." That may be true, but a research paper published this summer in the journal "Computers in Human Behavior" suggests that a virtual gender imbalance could have real-world consequences.

The study found that women who played as characters dressed up in skimpy outfits seemed more likely to objectify their own, non-virtual bodies in a similar way. These women also appeared to be more accepting of so-called rape myths — believing that women who are victims of sexual assault have themselves to blame.

In researching for their article, Jesse Fox of Ohio State University and Stanford's Jeremy Bailenson gathered 86 women between the ages of 18 and 41 and placed them in a virtual-reality simulator. The participants were assigned different female avatars in the virtual world, some of which were "sexualized" — meaning that the avatars were dressed in provocative clothing. The researchers also created a representation of the participant's face for some of the avatars, to test if one's likeness to their virtual counterpart had any bearing on their self-perception when "wearing" the avatar.

The participants were then given a list of questions that asked them to rank their reactions on a five-point scale (from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree") to statements like, "In the majority or rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation."

Fox and Bailenson found that the women who had played as the salaciously dressed avatars and had their own faces attached to the avatars were more likely to "agree" or "strongly agree" to these rape myth statements than those who had played as conservatively dressed avatars with a different face.

The women in the study were also asked to "free write" their own responses after the study was completed. The researchers found that the participants with sexualized avatars were more likely to self-objectify — i.e. expressed more thoughts and concerns with their physical appearance — than their primmer counterparts.

Now: just because something was published in an academic journal doesn't mean that it's true or established as scientific fact. In last year's article, I went on to quote another psychologist who has researched similar issues on the real-world effects of playing video games. He was pretty doubtful of the findings in the Computers in Human Behavior paper, and the conclusions that the researchers drew from those findings.

One could argue that Sarkeesian was leaning too heavily on this paper or others that have come to similar conclusions, therefore. But that's a very different statement than simply saying she was making baseless charges without doing her homework.

She's clearly delved into the topic at length, drawing from many primary sources (the games she shows in this video and her past work) and secondary ones like academic papers on media psychology. I'm not sure why else she'd be giving so much time to producing an extending video series on it.