Together with traditional media, video games often fall victim to a criticism based on their negative impact on players. Heaps of research studies were dedicated over the years to checking whether that's true. So far, the results have been mixed – while some studies found out that games increased aggression (Anderson & Bushman, 20012005), others clearly pointed to the fact that games had this impact exclusively on male players (Shibuya et al, 2008). Naturally, some studies claimed that there's no link whatsoever between gaming and violence (Williams & Skoric, 2005; Ferguson, 2007). Here are a few key recent findings which shows the relation between violence and gender representation in games and player communities all over the world.
Games and violence – research challenges and outcomes
There are at least a few challenges which researchers face when trying to measure that impact of video games. One of them is the problem of genres – there are simply too many types of games, and results for one genre might not translate into another. A different challenge is the realism of games which depend on interactivity with the game world and characters – there's simply not easy way to measure game realism and its impact on player exposure.
How did researchers try to measure the impact of games on players? One study coded for aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in game meta-analysis. It found out that exposure to violent video games is associated with increased levels of aggression in young adults and children – a smashing 46% of coded participants were under 18 years old. Games had the same effect on male and female players. (Anderson & Bushman, 2001)
How violence relates to gender representations
Another study from 2007 revealed that all participants (male and female) viewed violent images of male aggressive behavior and sexually exploitative images of female attire as wrong – they realized the potential negative influence these might have on players’ attitudes and behaviors. But at the same time, they also undermined the impact of such images, claiming that players aren't likely to imitate these behaviors. This was true especially for male players and avid gamers, who condoned stereotypical images and were less critical of negative ones. Essentially, this study showed that gamers might be more accepting of aggression. (Brenick et al, 2007).
Another study which brought mixed results found gender differences in 5th-6th grade Japanese participants. The study found that playing violent video games increases hostility for boys but not for girls simply because boys were more likely to be exposed to violent video games. Girls were found out to perceive violent scenes more critically – exposure to specific contexts of violent scenes was found out to make girls less aggressive than boys. The same study pointed out that games also teach cooperation and respect towards others. (Shibuya et al, 2008)
Female gamers and exposure to violent games
Needles to say, there have also been studies conducted specifically on the under-represented female population and its exposure to violent video games. One study compared women who played computer games and those who used the computer but didn't play any computer games, showing that female gamers had higher aggression scores than women who didn't play. This research measured differences in levels of anger, as well as physical and verbal aggression. Interestingly, the study found out that female gamers experience less sexual harassment online. (Norris 2004)
A different study concentrated on female violence was based on avatar gender, opponent gender and type of player (human or computer). Women playing female characters experienced greater aggression compared to situations when they were playing male characters. Moreover, playing against a human opponent was found out to also increase aggression. When females played against male human opponents or male computer avatars, the study noted an increase in aggression. On the other hand, females playing a male character would experience increased aggression when paying against male computer avatars – their level of aggression would, however, decrease if the computer opponent was female. When playing with a male avatar, female players were found out to conform to social values which inhibit aggression toward women. Why the increase of aggression when playing against male avatars? It might be just competition, or perhaps females were compelled to be more masculine in such a setting. (Eastin, 2006)
What other effects do video games cultivate?
The blatant sexuality of many video games has been considered by researchers as well. One study found out that male players are less critical of stereotypes than female. Female stereotypical images were generally considered in a positive light by male participants. Recent research shows that playing a sexually-oriented video game portraying women as sex objects leads to 'increased accessibility of negative female stereotypes, and a self-reported behavioral tendency to engage in sexual harassment [in males 18-47]' (p. 85). Playing sexually-oriented video games decreases male reaction times towards sexual words, increasing their accessibility to 'a negative gender schema of the female sex'. (Yao et. Al, 2010)
It's clear that current Western culture focuses on media consumption which is full of images representing sex and violence, all of which impact the social acceptance of specific – often stereotypical – gender representations. This is especially true for video games, which offer an excellent point of departure for a discussion about gender-related violence and the origin of such behaviors in our culture. After all, these games are popular for a reason.
References and further reading:
Anderson, C., & Bushman, B. (2001). Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and Prosocial Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Scientific Literature. Psychological Science 12(5).
Brenick, A., Henning, A., Killen, M., O'Connor, A., & Collins, M. (2007). Social Evaluations of Stereotypic Images in Video Games. Youth & Society, 38(4).
Eastin, M. (2006). Video Game Violence and the Female Game Player: Self- and Opponent Gender Effects on Presence and Aggressive Thoughts. Human Communication Research, 32(3).
Norris, K. (2004). Gender Stereotypes, Aggression, and Computer Games: An Online Survey of Women. Cyber Psychology & Behavior, 7(6).
Ferguson, C. (2007). The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: A Meta-analytic Review of Positive and Negative Effects of Violent Video Games. Psychiatric Quarterly, 78(4).
Shibuya, A., Sakamoto, A., Ihori, N., & Yukawa, S. (2008). The effects of the presence and contexts of video game violence on children: A longitudinal study in Japan. Simulation & Gaming, 39(4), 528-539.
Williams, D., & Skoric, M. (2005). Internet Fantasy Violence: A Test of Aggression in an Online Game. Communication Monographs, 72(2).
Yao, M., Mahood, C., & Linz, D. (2010). Sexual Priming, Gender Stereotyping, and Likelihood to Sexually Harass: Examining the Cognitive Effects of Playing a Sexually-Explicit Video Game. Sex Roles, 62(1/2).
The content of this article was consulted with Kate Bones - a great gaming fan and expert who works as a gamification manager at checkdirector.co.uk.