A recent multi-year study of German gamers might cast doubt on the idea that sexist content in video games can affect sexist attitudes in gamers. But the researchers behind the study caution that their findings shouldn't be oversimplified.
"There are often discrepancies between what a study actually found and how people interpret it," the two lead researchers, Johannes Breuer and Rachel Kowert told me in an email interview this week after I contacted them about their 824-person study which compared gamers' and non-gamers' responses to a trio of questions about women's place in society over the course of two years.
"We found that the amount of overall video game use at time 1 was not predictive of sexist attitudes/beliefs about gender roles at time 2 (i.e. 2 years later) and that (sexist) beliefs about gender roles at time 1 were equally not predictive of video game use at time 2 (for sample of German players aged 14 and older).
"Some people seem to think that this is proof that sexism is not an issue in games and gaming culture, which is something that we neither found, nor say (nor examined, really) in our study."
The researchers would go on to tell me that they think sexism in gaming is still a potential problem in terms of excluding female gamers, influencing thoughts about body image and other factors. They also suggested that people might overestimate the impact that games have on people while underestimating the impact that gamers may have on each other.
Breuer and Kowert's work had caught my eye last week, first from the press and social media attention the release of their study got and then from Kowert's reaction to that attention on her website.
I saw claims from the usual Gamergate quarters that this disproved anything gaming's feminist critics have said about games. And I saw claims that this research surely had to be flawed or didn't apply because of the age and nationality of the people studied or because it was too general. And so on..
The study is called "Sexist Games=Sexist Gamers? A Longitudinal Study on the Relationship Between Video Game Use and Sexist Attitudes." (Longitudinal means it was done over an extended period of time, rather than a cross-sectional study that would be taking one statistical snapshot). A summary of the study laid out both the context for the research and the key finding, bolded by me for emphasis:
From the oversexualized characters in fighting games, such as Dead or Alive or Ninja Gaiden, to the overuse of the damsel in distress trope in popular titles, such as the Super Mario series, the under- and misrepresentation of females in video games has been well documented in several content analyses. Cultivation theory suggests that long-term exposure to media content can affect perceptions of social realities in a way that they become more similar to the representations in the media and, in turn, impact one's beliefs and attitudes. Previous studies on video games and cultivation have often been cross-sectional or experimental, and the limited longitudinal work in this area has only considered time intervals of up to 1 month. Additionally, previous work in this area has focused on the effects of violent content and relied on self-selected or convenience samples composed mostly of adolescents or college students. Enlisting a 3 year longitudinal design, the present study assessed the relationship between video game use and sexist attitudes, using data from a representative sample of German players aged 14 and older (N = 824). Controlling for age and education, it was found that sexist attitudes — measured with a brief scale assessing beliefs about gender roles in society — were not related to the amount of daily video game use or preference for specific genres for both female and male players. Implications for research on sexism in video games and cultivation effects of video games in general are discussed.
Later in the week, here's what Kowert wrote on her blog:
This article has received quite a bit of buzz from the press and Twitter, as some believe that this study is evidence that sexism is not a problem within the gaming culture. This could not be further from the point. As described by succinctly by Wai Yen Tang of the VG researcher blog:
"this study is analogous of taking photographs from a tall skyscraper down into the streets at three different time periods. You get a beautiful view of a lot of things, but not very clear if you try to focus on a single thing. This means we need a high resolution camera focusing on the most relevant aspects for sexist attitudes."
There's a continuum for this research. Scientists have studied the potential effects of games on gamers for many years, though they have primarily focused on the question of whether violent games make kids violent.
In 2010, the State of California tried to convince the US Supreme Court that the research was there to justify banning the sale of games to kids, treating games less like art and more like alcohol and tobacco. The court was unconvinced and the preponderance of video game violence studies have not found any strong evidence that playing violent video games will make you more violent.
The arguments about the impact of sexism in games — be it sexist imagery, sexist interactions, and so on — has been more complicated and subtler. Sure, some people may think that simply playing games makes you more sexist, but you'll see plenty of other arguments: that sexist content can alienate some girls and women from even playing games, may reinforce negative societal values or may simply result in less interesting games and game stories.
To make things even a shade more confusing, Breuer and Kowert had noted that their own study might appear to conflict with some other gaming and sexism studies, though there are key differences among the research. In their own paper, they wrote of their results:
"These findings conflict with the results of previous cross-sectional and experimental work that found some evidence for links between sexist video game content and benevolent sexism and tolerance for sexual harassment. However, these studies were either cross-sectional or looked at short-term effects. They also focused on very specific games and types of sexism, whereas the present study was longitudinal and looked at general beliefs about gender roles in society and overall use of video games. Both the design of the current study and its main findings are more in line with previous cultivation studies on violence in video games that found no or only very limited evidence for cultivation effects."
So what to make of this new study and how it fits into these arguments? I emailed Breuer and Kowert to get their take. This is what we discussed:
Stephen Totilo, Kotaku: What arguments would you say the study is debunking?
Rachel Kowert (Dept. of Communication, University of Munster) and Johannes Breuer (Dept of Psychology, University of Cologne): We would be careful in saying that the study debunks any arguments. It provides some evidence that there are no broad cultivation effects of games, meaning that video games alone do not make anyone (more) sexist (in terms of endorsing traditional gender roles; see also our comment about the quote above).
Totilo: What arguments is it not debunking?
Kowert and Breuer: Again, we would probably not say "debunk" here. However, we want to make clear that our study does not show that sexism is not an issue in/for games and gaming culture. There are many content analyses of popular games that show that female characters are underrepresented or presented in an overly sexualised manner and there is also ample evidence that many players, particularly female, have experienced sexism in their interactions with other players.
Totilo: What impact do you think sexism in games actually has on gamers?
Kowert and Breuer: At the very least, we would say that it can be off-putting to many players (especially female players) and, therefore, can cause exclusion. While sexist game content can sometimes just be ignored or players can choose to turn to other games, personal experiences with sexual harassment or strong (sexist) insults by other players can have a serious negative impact on players, such as emotional distress. Over time, it can also drive players away from certain games or gaming altogether.
Totilo: Maybe even more fundamentally, what actually do you even consider to be examples of sexism in games?
Kowert and Breuer: As we said before, there are two main levels on which sexism can happen: in the content of a game (e.g., hypersexualised representations of female characters, such as the infamous "jiggle physics" in Ninja Gaiden) and in the interactions with other players. The latter can be expressed in various ways, such as exclusion, active discrimination, and/or active harassment (such as those documented on the aforementioned websites; e.g., Fat, Ugly, & Slutty)
Totilo: What do you make of people who are comparing both the arguments and studies regarding the impact of video game violence on gamers to research about the depiction of women in video games on gamers? Are they the same thing? Fundamentally different?
Kowert and Breuer: We would say that there are parallels here: In both cases, people seem to overestimate the effects of video game content. There are other, much more influential factors that impact aggression and sexism - most notably, family and peer influences.
We would also say that for any kind of media effects research (e.g., sexism, violence/aggression, etc) we should be starting to focus on the interactions between players rather than the content of the games themselves. That is something that has already begun for research on aggression with studies, e.g., looking at differences between cooperative and competitive play (there is a really good article by ICA Game Studies Interest Group Chair James D. Ivory (Virginia Tech) about the need to focus more on interactions between players).
Totilo: Do you plan to do more research on this topic? And, if so, what are you planning?
Kowert and Breuer: This article came out of a larger panel study on the uses and effects of digital games in Germany, which ended in December 2014. Since then, the members of the team have moved on to new projects and jobs. As such, there is not much more that can be done in terms of this particular dataset and sample. Although, we have composed a theoretical article discussing the potential cyclical nature of sexism and exclusion in video games content and culture, which should be published in an edited volume later this year/early next year.
We are also currently running a somewhat related project - a cross-cultural experimental study with partners from the US, Germany, and the Netherlands, assessing players' evaluation of "problematic" content in games (namely, violent and sexual content). The assumption here is that there are cultural differences in how violent and sexual content are perceived and evaluated and that personal moral views also play an important role in this process.
I'm intrigued by Breuer and Kowert's desire for people to study how players interact with each other. I look forward to seeing what researchers come up with.
What good is any one study? Depends on what you make of it, and, most likely, how much it conforms to your expectations. This new one adds to the discussion about how women are portrayed in video games. It both pushes against a certain model of cause and effect and exposes the limits of scientific study in a cultural debate. Even as it argues against gaming generally making people more sexist, it tells us nothing about, say, what gaming reflects about our society or how games influence how we think of women's bodies. There's certainly more to argue about. Lucky us!
Be suspicious, of course, of any simple conclusions — a handy motto to utter at least once a day.