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I went to my first live LoL tournament in February of 2014. Little did I know, even though I didn’t dedicate any fellowship to any particular team or player prior to this event, I was still fangirling the whole time I was there. It was such a strange experience, getting excited and taking pictures with people I didn’t know that well, and I felt really connected to the community as a whole. After the initial excitement, I had lots of questions in my head regarding my experience in a live gaming event. I shared these thoughts with a good social psychology professor of mine, and then my question bubbles exploded into a form of pride; I was proud of LoL, and I was proud of being a part of this community (even if I don’t really comment on any Reddit thread). I even put together a slideshow overviewing the growth of this game and the impact of e-sports, explaining to professors why this topic should be studied. Before I knew it, I was proposing research topics on video games and e-sports, and I was determined to incorporate my favorite game into this research. I genuinely love LoL, and I genuinely believe in the impact of video games on people’s lives.
While I was searching for limited e-sports psychology studies, I watched the documentary Miss Representation as a part of my all-campus Residence Life leader training in August. The entire documentary was moving, and the topic that resonated with me the most was sexualization of females in media. Reflecting back to the online harassments female gamers often encounter (in fact, a team’s official Instagram account shared a photo of my friend and I taking picture with a professional gamer, and almost all of the comments were sexual jokes), and a panel of very similar female character figures, I began looking into hypersexualization and sexism within the video game industry. Based on my initial literature review, there were lot of research illustrating the connection between sexist attitude and sexual content in video games, demonstrating the negative effect of hypersexualization on female’s self-esteem in media advertisements. In one particular study, females who played as hypersexualized female characters reported lower self-efficacy than those who played as neutral female character (Behm-Morawits & Mastro, 2009). This was intriguing, I wondered if playing certain characters would make people feel certain way about themselves, especially among us females. Would I feel less about myself if play Ahri instead of Annie? What’s the difference between wearing head-to-toe armor and bikini-style custom? Would playing a sexy female hero empower me or would it make me feel insecure?
Within a week, I received departmental approval to complete a 2-year honors program within a year, persuaded one of my favorite professors to be my advisor for the year (the same processor who I initially discussed my fangirl experience with), and started my journey researching my favorite video games and social justice. While the initial hype lasted couple of weeks, the frustration about designing an efficacious and effective experiment soon arrived. Researching and finding related studies online, electing champions for exposure, choosing types of measurement, determining how long the exposure should be, deciding interaction period length between subjects and games, eliminating variables, editing instruction scripts, recruiting subjects, running subjects...let’s just say the process was a bit stressful at times. I remembered distinctly that shortly after I drafted the experiment scripts and put together experiment materials, Riot (LoL’s company) changed some of their champion splash art and announced a new patch updating game visuals. This of course impacted my study progress, as I didn’t want to there to be any changes within the game halfway through my research. But disregarding all the challenges and frustrations, I knew for sure that this adventure was something I really wanted, so I’m going to finish it.
My study investigated the effect of hypersexualization of female video game avatars on player’s self-regards. Subjects entered the study with the impression that the study looks into personality type and character enjoyment: they were first instructed to view a panel of characters (hypersexualized vs. neutral), then played either a hypersexualized character or a neutral character for 20 minutes with simple instruction in a single player mode. After the interaction phrase, they answered a series of question regarding their experience playing the character, followed by measurement measuring how they feel about themselves. In my study, I had 28 male participants and 45 female participants, and five areas of self-regards were measured: performance state self-esteem, social state self-esteem, appearance state self-esteem, overall state self-esteem, and self-perceived mating value (how sexually attractive people think they are). After initial analysis (a 2x2 ANOVA for those who are interested in stats) and follow-up analysis (contrast test), female participants who were exposed to hypersexualized characters reported to have significantly lower self-perceived mating success than neutral characters, which is a finding consistent with many previous studies.
My study wasn’t perfect of course, I wished I had another year to polish the design and increase sample size for stronger statistical significance. Although the research process was at times frustrating, and in a way temporarily decreased my desire to play LoL (repetitiveness sometimes makes things very boring), I am proud of myself: not only was I completing a 2-year honors program within a year, I was researching my favorite game on a topic that really hits home. In the end, this was more than just a school project, it was a personal accomplishment motivating me to combine my scholastic interests with everyday hobby, a challenge demonstrating my potential and capability through the heart of a researcher and a gamer.
In terms of personal reflections, there were two ideas that stood out to me the most in this experience: to ask questions, and to find answers. I will never forget how my mind was full of wonders after that tournament event, I had so many questions about my feelings, myself, the community, the experience, and underlying social theories. Thankfully, my advisor listened to my questions and enlightened me to ask more. Because this was what psychology about, it’s to study and question our behaviors and minds.I will also never forget how my heart was full of empowerment after Miss Representation, I wanted to become a part of this narratives, this movement, and this awakening call. Because we deserve better. I want to see more diversity in female figures in video games, I want to see less body objectification in video games, I want to see more female leadership in video game industry, and I want to see less harassment and sexual comments being aimed at female gamers.
And maybe, just maybe, I can be a part of this awareness movement on hypersexualization in video games, one game at a time. I can contribute to the improvement of my favorite game, one research project at a time.
Guicheng “Ariel” Tan is a new professional working in student affairs for almost a year now! She graduated UC San Diego in 2015 with distinction in psychology, and researched on the effect of hypersexualization in video games. Since she finished college in three years, Ariel decided to make her 4th year a “practicum year” by working for graduate and family housing department at her institution. She currently serves as the Leasing Consultant, providing residential life services and community programs for her residents. Ariel’s passion within the geek culture is combined with her social justice interest, she is interested in the effect of entertainment media on people’s self-perception and identity formation, as well as the impact of online community on real life community in this digital age. While her favorite anime is Sailor Moon, Naruto and Detective Conan (although that series is getting way too long), her favorite game is League of Legends and Chinese Paladin (a classic RPG in China). Connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn!