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By now you have probably all heard the news that Cologne University has released the findings of their study which tests if playing  video games causes an increase in sexist attitudes. Just like all those studies in the 00’s which tried to find a link between violent video games and subsequent violent behavior, it should be obvious that they found no correlation between the two.

The idea that media such as television, books, films and of course video games create real world consequences is a theory called “cultivation theory” which while popular with some psychologists is controversial and often debunked. This theory posits that media has a long term effect on our perceptions of reality. Studies such as Karen Dill’s have shown that media can have short term effects on people’s acceptability of violent or harassing behaviors; however, these effects usually only last a few minutes and have no effect on long term perception. In fact the only thing any of these studies seem to agree on is that gaming increases benevolent sexism towards females in males – or in other words increases white knighting.

In fact when a similar long term study looked at cultivation theory relating to violence in video games, they found that violent crimes decreased around the time of murderous AAA releases. The author suggested that violent individuals used video games as an outlet for their behaviors. When lawyers point to popular video games as the cause for violent assaults, we should always remember the critic who stated “finding out that a young man who committed a violent crime also played a popular video game … is as pointless as pointing out the criminal also wore socks.”

Sexism in video games is a hot topic at the moment and this study is the first to take a longitudinal look at the correlation between the two. The study relies on the basic assumption that video games are a sexist medium. While I believe the situation is more nuanced than this, we have to take this as true in order to progress with our analysis. When explaining what they consider sexist about video games Breuer et al point to the sexualized women of the Dead or Alive series, the damsel in distress trope from the Super Mario Brothers series and the fact that of all video game characters less than 20% are female.

The group for the study consisted of 824 randomly selected participants (56% male) over the age of 14 (average = 38) who are considered “active gamers”. This definition included those who played 10 seconds a day all the way to 8 hours with 50 minutes being the average. When asked how much they liked the FPS, RPG and action genres, RPG came out on top but was still generally disliked. This suggests these gamers preferred other genres to those listed.

In order to test sexist attitudes gamers were asked how much they agreed with three statements once a year  for three years. Predictably the answer to all of this statements was almost always “not at all”.

The statements were:

“The man should be responsible for all major decisions made in a family”

“In a group of male and female members, a man should take on the leadership role”

“Even if both partners work, the woman should be responsible for taking care of the household.”

Like all studies this one is flawed in several aspects. There is no control group to test whether these gamers are more or less sexist than non-gamers. There is no measure of how sexist the games consumed are  with everything from Candy Crush to Dead or Alive Xtreme included in this wide net, with the basic assumption that they are all sexist. The fact that only 25% of participants admitted that they play more than a minute of video games a week, shows how niche this hobby still is. Finally, when asked statements almost as blatant as “Are you a misogynist?” even the most hardened sexists are going to say no. While a study this flawed doesn’t really amount to much, it seems to correlate with so many other studies which show that media does not effect our long term perceptions, and more positively that we as a society do not generally harbor extreme sexist thoughts.

Despite everything, I still believe the question “Are video games sexist?” is one that should be openly discussed. In all of video gaming’s history less than 20% of games featured playable female protagonists, where as a study in 2008 recorded the number as 50%. Every year the industry brings us more interesting, unique and fully functional female characters and that is all because of gamers. The consumers are the reason games get better every year so keep the discussion going you crazy, beautiful people.

What are your thoughts on cultivation theory concerning sexism and video games?

Georgina Young


British girl, currently in Japan. Surviving on a diet of retro games. Worshiping the god that is the Sega Megadrive. I like Nintendo.