In the last couple of years there has been an intense discussion regarding the presence of sexist content in video games. Critics have pointed out, for example, how there aren’t enough avatars designed towards women. They have also accused developers of using female characters to make the male protagonist look strong and brave, provide sexually arousing stimulus or even satisfy fantasies about overpowering and harming women. The most common argument against this type of content, however, is based on the belief that it can have long term effects on how the players think and behave. Something that could end up increasing discrimination and even violence against women. But is there any scientific basis for these claims? Can video games make you sexist?
Despite some references to research, studies about sexist games are mostly ignored.
Researchers have been studying the negative effects of media for decades. But while there are probably hundreds of papers about the link between video games and violence, works that focus on the effects of sexist game content are relatively scarce. In spite of this, however, researchers have been able to obtain some interesting results. Let’s take a look at correlational studies, for example. In this type of work, researchers collect two pieces of data from each participant. Then they analyze if an increase or a decrease in one variable is followed by a change in the other. If this happens so frequently that it can't be attributed to chance, then it’s safe to assume there is some sort of relationship between them. So, is there a relationship between playing video games and sexism?
Well, studies have found no correlation between video game usage and general sexist beliefs (“men should be in charge”) (Breuer, Kowert, Festl, & Quandt, 2015). They did found a connection, though, with hostile forms of sexist attitudes (“women want to take control away from men”) as well as irrational beliefs about sexual violence (“women in a revealing dress are asking for it”) (Fox & Potocki, 2015). On the other hand, playing violent video games has been associated with negative attitudes toward women (Dill, 2009), a lower tendency to interpret unwanted sexual advances as harassment (Dill, Brown, & Collins, 2008), and acceptance of myths about rape (“woman refuse to have sex, even though they want to) (Dill, 2009; Dill, et al., 2008). In other words, there seems to be a link between video game usage and both negative attitudes against women and tolerance towards sexual violence against them.
There seems to be a link between video game usage and at least some forms of sexism.
Now, some people might see this as proof that video games promote sexism, but the truth is a bit more complicated than that. While correlations are an excellent way to find connections, they don’t tell us what type of relationship there is. Results could indicate that games make people sexist. But it could also mean that sexist individuals prefer video games over other kinds of media, especially those with violent content. In order to solve this problem we have to find out if there is a causal relationship between playing video games and sexism, and that’s something only experiments can tell us.
Visit us in two weeks for the second part of this series, when we will analyze experiments that test if exposure to sexualized female characters or sexist behavior can change the way people think.
Breuer, J., Kowert, R., Festl, R., & Quandt, T. (2015). Sexist Games = Sexist Gamers? A longitudinal study on the relationship between video game use and sexist attitudes. Cyberpsychology, behavior, and social networking, 18(4). doi: 10.1089/cyber.2014.0492
Dill, K. E. (2009). Violent video games, rape myth acceptance, and negative attitudes towards women. In: E. Stark and E. S. Buzawa (Eds.), Violence Against Women in Families and Relationships: Volume 4, The Media and Cultural Attitudes (pp. 125-140). Westport, CT: Praeger.
Dill, K. E., Brown, B. P., & Collins, M. A. (2008). Effects of exposure to sex-stereotyped video game characters on tolerance of sexual harassment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 44(5). 1402-1408. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2008.06.002
Fox, J., & Potocki, B. (2015). Lifetime video game consumption, interpersonal aggression, hostile sexism, and rape myth acceptance: A cultivation perspective. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. DOI: 10.1177/0886260515570747