Body Image – The Internet and Video Games

Digital media such as the Internet and video games have become increasingly important in the lives of children and youth. Even when young people are consuming other media, such as TV, music and movies, they are likely to be doing it through the Internet. As well, nearly all the media they consume, from TV shows to toys, have Web pages, virtual worlds, video games or other digital spinoffs associated with them.

Virtual Worlds and Avatars

Virtual worlds are among the most popular online activities. The most successful are those aimed at young children, such as Club Penguin, but these online environments are popular with older children as well: in 2010 nearly half a billion youth ages 10 to 15 used virtual worlds. [1] In addition, many older teens enjoy playing massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs, which straddle the line between video games and virtual worlds by letting players engage in video game play within a continuing virtual environment.

Avatar selection exampleOne feature common to all virtual worlds is an avatar, a character that represents the player within the world. In nearly all worlds the appearance of these avatars can be customized (though often this is only possible for paying users, while those who use the free version are stuck with the “default” versions). Unfortunately, players can be just as insecure about their virtual bodies as they are about their real ones: as one writer puts it, “instead of providing an escape from our bodies, virtual worlds have tended to encourage a meticulous scrutiny and obsessive fascination with our bodies.” [2]  While the virtual worlds appealing to the youngest children, such as Club Penguin and Poptropica, have either non-human or extremely cartoony avatars, those aimed at slightly older children like Stardoll and BarbieGirls typically provide a narrow range of avatar options which reinforces cultural values of attractiveness. As academic Sara Grimes put it in her essay “I’m a Barbie Girl, in a BarbieGirls World”, “most avatars end up looking eerily alike - thin, youthful females… with large heads and delicate facial features.” [3]

Avatar - maleEven in virtual worlds where avatars are fully customizable, such as Second Life, research has shown that players make their avatars fit mainstream standards of attractiveness: [4] girls choose to make avatars that look like “myself [but] taller and thinner” while boys make theirs look like “myself [but] taller and muscular.” [5]

People respond to physical characteristics in avatars just as they do in real life – seeing taller, more attractive avatars as being more likeable or persuasive, for example – and will even change their behaviour based on their avatar’s appearance, becoming more confident and sociable if their avatar is made more attractive. This may well be the reason why people with low body satisfaction or who consider themselves unattractive are more likely to want to become someone else and to spend more time using virtual worlds. [6] While this can have positive effects - people who are overweight can be motivated to exercise and change their diet by creating an avatar that resembles a thinner version of themselves [7] – more often than not, however, the images of underweight avatars will simply make average- and overweight women feel bad about their bodies. [8] The narrow range of avatar customization available in the most popular virtual worlds, along with the pressure from oneself and others to create an “improved” avatar, means that the freedom to customize one’s appearance in virtual worlds mostly results in even more insecurity about appearance and body size.

Social Networks and Online Communities

Social networks such as Facebook, as well as blogs and online forums, provide little or no content: instead they give users an opportunity to post their own content online, and for youth that content is most often themselves. While social networks allow you to post a wide variety of things, from videos to random thoughts, one of the most commonly shared items among young people is photos. (This is particularly true since cameras in cell phones became nearly universal.) As with virtual worlds, there is a strong pressure to make those photos (particularly profile photos, which are visible to all the other users one interacts with and are fully public on the Web) look as attractive as possible – in this case, through the use of flattering camera angles and image-manipulation software such as Photoshop. [9] The combination of Facebook and Photoshop takes image-improvement techniques that had traditionally been the preserve of models and celebrities, such as staging, manipulating, and editing photos, and makes them available to everyone who is concerned about their appearance. [10] Perhaps not surprisingly, people who base their self-esteem primarily on how they are seen by others – including how they see their appearance – share photos more than those whose self-esteem is based on factors such as intelligence or achievement. [11]

While youth primarily use social networks to keep in touch with their offline friends, online communities facilitate contacting people around the world who share the same interests. While this can often be very positive, particularly for those who live in small or isolated communities, these online communities can also reinforce negative attitudes towards body image. Most notorious are the so-called “pro-ana” communities, which consist of websites, blogs and blogrings (blogs linked by a particular topic) and even discussion groups on virtual worlds such as Stardoll and which provide photos, tips, testimonials and sometimes videos encouraging eating disorders. (While most of these sites are aimed at women, some are geared towards boys as well.) [12]

Video Games

Video games are an almost universal part of modern childhood: research has shown that nearly all Canadian youth, both boys and girls, play them at least occasionally. [13] Like most media aimed at youth, the characters represented in video games – both games themselves and advertising and other associated materials, such as gaming magazines – present unrealistic body types. Both men and women are portrayed unrealistically, and both have their ideas about body image affected by exposure to games: a 2008 study found that young men and women experienced lower body satisfaction after fifteen minutes of playing a game where the characters were muscular (in the case of boys) or thin and attractive (in the case of girls). [14]

These portrayals of men and women are far from unusual in video games. The majority of female characters in video games are portrayed in a highly sexualized way, being both thin and curvy. [15] Interestingly, games with more realistic graphics have even less realistic female characters, many of whom have Barbie-like proportions. [16] Boys, on the other hand, encounter such heavily muscled characters that six- to ten-year-old boys who read gaming magazines for a year reported greater body dissatisfaction than those who read fashion, sports or fitness magazines. [17]

 


[1] Watters, Audrey. “Number of Virtual World Users Breaks 1 Billion: Roughly Half Under Age 15”. ReadWriteWeb, October 1, 2010.
[2] Yee, Nick et al. The Tyranny of Embodiment. Artifact, Vol. 2, 2009, 1-6.
[3] The Escapist, 165, September 2, 2008.
[4] Vasalou, A., Joinson, A. 2009. Me, myself and I: The role of interactional context on self-presentation through avatars. Computers in Human Behavior, 25, 510-520.
[5] Boss, Suzie. “Avatars Teach Teens About Self-Image.” Edutopia, May 27, 2009. http://www.edutopia.org/avatars
[6] Becerra, Enrique P. and Mary Ann Stutts. Ugly Duckling By Day, Super Model by Night: The Influence of Body Image on the Use of Virtual Worlds. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 1:2, November 2008.
[7] Blackman, Christine. Can Avatars Change the Way We Think and Act? Stanford Report, February 25, 2010.
[8] Dirk Smeesters, Thomas Mussweiler, and Naomi Mandel. “The Effects of Thin and Heavy Media Images on Overweight and Underweight Consumers: Social Comparison Processes and Behavioral Implications.” Journal of Consumer Research: April 2010.
[9] Salt, Bernard. Sorting the Real You from the Unreal You in Social Media. Ipsos McKay, 2010.
[10] Stefanone, Michael et al. Contingencies of Self-Worth and Social-Networking-Site Behavior.  Cyberpsychology, Behavior, And Social Networking.14:1-2, 2011.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Cohen, Alex. Countering the Online World of ‘Pro-Anorexia’. Day to Day, February 27, 2009. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101210192>
[13] 2011 Essential Facts About the Canadian Computer and Video Game Industry. Entertainment Software Association of Canada. 2011.
[14] 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.
[15] Dill, Karen E. & Kathryn P. Thill. (2007) Video Game Characters and the Socialization of Gender Roles: Young People’s Perceptions Mirror Sexist Media Depictions. Sex Roles, 57:11-12, 851-864.
[16] Martins, Nicole et a. A Content Analysis of Female Body Imagery in Video Games. Sex Roles, 2009.
[17] Dingelfelter, S. Video game magazines may harm boys’ body image. Monitor on Psychology October 2006, 37:9.