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Critical Media Literacy
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Sexual Content


  • Hypersexuality in video games is defined as: a video game character in sexually revealing clothing, a character performing overtly sexual behavior, displays of nudity, and/or the use of sex as a reward for game play. The use of sexual content may be a calculated attempt to lure the most avid game players-adult males-yet many of these games are played by children; thus, parents may want to be aware of the ratings system and consider video game reviews before making a purchase. 1
  • Video games portray graphic sexual images and content. Children begin to develop attitudes toward body types between the ages of six and seven years. As children get older, these attitudes become stronger (Spitzer, Henderson, & Zivian, 1999); thus, parents may want to be cautious of sexual content in games and monitor their child's video game play time.2
  • Women are less likely to appear in video games than male characters, and when females are present, they are often depicted as helpless, weak, and in need of saving. Women are also more likely to be portrayed as sex objects, with unrealistic and disproportionate bodies, and substantial amounts of exposed skin and/or nudity; thus parents may want to talk to their child about character appearances and gender stereotypes in video games.3

Footnotes

1. Tomb Raider's Lara Croft and Dead or Alive's Helena are examples of unrealistically proportioned female characters that battle and compete in skin-tight, provocative attire. The national organization, Children Now, referred to these voluptuous, disproportionately sized characters as hypersexualized.

ESRB regulations are character focused, revolving around different levels of nudity and references to sex and sexuality (Entertainment Software Association, 2004). However, a content analysis revealed that hypersexuality is prevalent in Mature-, Teen- and Everyone-rated games (not just Mature). Females are represented the least in E games, and they are hypersexualized the most on Microsoft Xbox console games (Downs & Smith, 2007).

A study of clothing as an indicator of gender stereotyping in games rated E, T, and M was conducted on 47 Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation games. Of nearly 600 characters examined, less than 14% were women. Female characters exposed more skin than males, and out of all female portrayals, nearly 41% were defined as "voluptuous". Most importantly, however, of the 41% of voluptuous women, 31% were featured in video games with an ESRB rating of "E"for everyone (Beasley & Standley, 2002).

In 2005, there was an explosion of controversy surrounding the popular game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The Hot Coffee Mod within the game allowed players to unlock and access the uncensored, interactive sex-games with their virtual girlfriends, despite it being rated for ages 17+ rather than for Adults Only. Following this debacle, the US Federal Trade Commission announced in 2006 that they reached a settlement with Grand Theft Auto publisher Take-Two after months of investigating the Hot Coffee Mod scandal. Under the terms of the settlement, Take-Two agreed to properly label its games in the future and not to hide age-inappropriate content.

2. Differences and variations between female body sizes in the media and actual body sizes have been linked to eating disorders (Field, Cheung, & Wolf, 1999), body dissatisfaction (Harrison & Cantor, 1997), low self esteem (Polce-Lynch, Myers, Kliewer, & Kilmartin, 2001), feelings of objectification (Frederickson & Roberts, 1997), and to the belief that the female body is a project that needs to be worked on and fixed (Brumberg, 1997; Murnen, Smolnak, Mills, & Good, 2003).

Hypersexuality in video games also affects males. Media portrayals of muscular and powerful males may contribute to body dissatisfaction among men, and to dangerous and risky behaviors like steroid use (Labre, 2002). Sexualized portrayals of females in the media are linked to objectification, leading some men to regard women and their bodies as possessions (Frederickson & Roberts, 1997). Additionally, exposure to sexually explicit material, such as pornographic images, has been connected with poor evaluations of sexual partners and increased sexual aggression (Jansma, Linz, Mulac, & Imrich, 1997).

Moreover, a self-report survey administered to 153 sixth through twelfth graders revealed that there is an inverse relationship between playing video/computer games and self-esteem scores (Fling, Smith, Rodriguez, Thornton, Atkins, & Nixon, 1992). That is, playing video games is linked to low self esteem and reduced feelings of self worth.

3. A content analysis was conducted on sixty of the top selling video games across three of the most popular consoles (Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation 2, and Nintendo GameCube). A total of 489 characters with identifiable genders were used in the study. Female characters (n=70) were largely underrepresented in comparison to their male counterparts (n=419). That is, female characters are far less likely to be shown in video games than are males (14% vs. 86%) (Smith & Downs, 2007).

The same study also revealed that females are significantly more likely to be partially nude, featured with unrealistic body images and shown wearing sexually revealing, inappropriate, and explicitly provocative clothing. That is, females are more likely to be hypersexualized than males.

An additional content analysis of 33 of the most popular Nintendo and Sega Genesis video games revealed that almost half of the games were devoid of female characters. When women were represented, 21% of the time they were depicted as "damsels in distress"or as "visions of beauty", and most importantly, 28% of the games portrayed the women as sex objects (Dietz, 1998).

Furthermore, 70 of the top selling games across 6 game consoles (Game Boy Advance, Game Boy Color, PCs, Sony PlayStation 2, Nintendo 64, and Sega Dreamcast) were assessed for violence, gender, hypersexuality and racial diversity. Of the 874 characters examined, 73% were male and only 12% were female. Users of the video games had more chances to choose non-human characters (e.g., robots, animals, etc.) than a female character. Of the women portrayed, 20% had disproportionate bodies, 21% exposed their breasts, 13% revealed their derrire, and 20% bared their midriff. Overall, females were twice as likely as male characters to be shown in provocative clothing (Children Now, 2001).

A final content analysis revealed that 27% (22) of 81 T-rated games contained sexual themes, and females were significantly more likely than males to be partially nude or engaging in sexual behaviors. This study defined sexual themes as""behaviors or dialog related to sex, as well as depictions of exposed breasts, buttocks, or genitals. Given the ESRB definition of Suggestive Themes ("Mild provocative references or materials"), we did not otherwise count pronounced cleavage, large breasts, or provocative clothing as sexual themes, although we separately noted the presence of this content. We noted whether each game contained sexual themes, the type of sexual themes observed, and the gender of characters involved"(Thompson & Haninger, 2001).


Works Cited

Beasley, B. & Standley, T. C. (2002). Shirts vs. skins: Clothing as an indicator of gender role stereotyping in video games. Mass Communication and Society, 5, 279-293.

Brumberg, J. J. (1997). The Body project: An intimate history of American girls. NY: Random House.

Children Now. (2001). Fair play? Violence gender and race in video games. Oakland, CA: Children Now.

Dietz, T. L. (1998). An examination of violence and gender role portrayals in video games: Implications for gender socialization. Sex Roles, 38, 425-433.

Downs, E. & Smith, S. L. (2007). Keeping abreast of hypersexuality: A video game character content analysis. Manuscript under review at Sex Roles.

Entertainment Software Association. (2004). Top ten industry facts. Retrieved on April 15, 2008 from http://www.theesa.com/pressroom.html.

Field, A.E., Cheung, L., & Wolf, A.M. (1999). Exposure to mass media and weight concerns among girls. Pediatrics, 103, 36.

Fling S., Smith, I., Rodriguez, T., Thornton, D., Atkins, E. & Nixon, K. (1992). Video games, aggression, and self-esteem: A survey. Social Behavior and Personality, 20, 39-46.

Fredrickson, B.L. & Roberts, T-A. (1997). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women's lived experience and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 21, 173-206.

Harrison, K. and Cantor, J. (1997). The relationship between media consumption and eating disorders. Journal of Communication, 47, 40-67.

Jansma, L., Linz, D., Mulac, A. & Imrich, D. (1997). Men's interactions with women after viewing sexually explicit films: Does degradation make a difference? Communication Monographs, 64, 1-24.

Labre, M. P. (2002). Adolescent boys and the muscular male body ideal. Journal of Adolescent Health, 30, 233-242.

Murnen, S. K., Smolak, L., Mills, J. A., & Good, L. (2003). Thin, sexy women and strong, muscular men: Grade school children's reactions to objectified images of women and men. Sex Roles, 49, 427-437.

Polce-Lynch, M., Myers, B., Kliewer, W., & Kilmartin, C. (2001). Adolescent self-esteem and gender: Exploring relations to sexual harassment, body image, media influence, and emotional expression. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 30, 225-244.

Spitzer, B.L., Henderson, K.A., & Zivian, M.T. (1999). Gender differences in population versus media body sizes: A comparison over four decades. Sex Roles, 40, 545-565.

Thompson, K. M., & Haninger, K. (2001). Violence in E-rated video games. Journal of American Medical Association, 286, 591-598.