Lara Croft in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend is known as much, or more so, for her hyper-sexualized body as for her skills and adventures. This is often the norm for female characters in video games, saysElizabeth Behm-Morawitz, Assistant Professor of Communication at MU. Having recently finished her first year at MU, Behm-Morawitz actually began studying video games as a doctoral student at the University of Arizona. “Seeing these hyper-sexualized images of women caught my attention,” she recounts.
Behm-Morawitz’s research focuses on the effects video games can have on college students: “This is a stage of life when you’re on your own for the first time. You’re doing a lot of identity exploration, making sense of the world, coming into your own. So, this is a time when media images might have an impact on how you think about gender and how you think about yourself.”
Behm-Morawitz talks about how hyper-sexualized female characters are represented in video games. She explains that the graphics of these characters are getting so good that even Playboy Magazine has featured spreads of nude video game characters.
Behm-Morawitz describes her research into the effects of racial and sexual stereotypes in the media. Her most recent endeavors center around video games, specifically hyper-sexualized characters. “Video gaming is becoming much more mainstream,” she says. “You are seeing the profile of the gamer shift a bit and seeing the gaming industry itself really take off.” This research started for Behm-Morawitz at the University of Arizona, where she had groups of students play sexualized and non-sexualized levels of the video game Tomb Raider: Legend.
In her research, Behm-Morawitz found that female players judged other women after playing a sexualized level of Tomb Raider: Legend.
Behm-Morawitz also studies video game advertisements that promote certain racial and sexual stereotypes. The graphic art in these ads, she explains, is so advanced that some of her students had trouble identifying whether an animated character was real or not.
Some games, such as The Sims, are representations of real life, where the player can live in a community or interact with other characters. Players can also personalize their characters to match themselves. Behm-Morawitz will be studying such games associated with “real life” in order to find out how players represent their identities when given multiple options.
Behm-Morawitz recently received a grant to replicate the study she did with Tomb Raider: Legend, this time with additional video games to determine that it is not just one game that can influence players’ perceptions of women. She will also examine stereotypical depictions of African Americans in video games.
Behm-Morawitz discusses how her investigations into video games and the media may affect other research studies.
Behm-Morawitz’s research with media extends beyond video games. When she is teaching, she tries to make sense of the different types of media effects she observes, an approach that she hopes will advance students’ critical thinking and viewing skills.