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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.

  • Yonan

    Great article! As you say, there’s nothing wrong with having the discussion. The problem comes with making the argument with no facts, insulting people and shutting down the discussion so only your (unsupported) view gets heard.

  • I think the cultivation theory has no clout and should be treated as such until credible studies can prove otherwise. Certainly the games industry could use some improvement in terms of diversification. More female developers + more female perspectives = different stories to experience. But as to whether the medium causes sexism or violence, well, there’s never been any proof of that.

    Every medium seems to go through the same trial by fire, yet television is not the apocalypse box we were lead to believe, Rock & Roll was not trying to tempt its own fans to suicide, and Dungeons & Dragons was never a haven for satanic cults.

  • Unsafe Ideas

    If gaming really increases white knight-ism, then industry really should do something about it. Those white knights then to be seriously annoying.

  • justathought05

    I think there are parties that for some reason need cultivation theory to be categorically proven as a basis for introducing gamification institutions, with limited factors and stimuli to modify the behavior of many.

    We are swath with a lot of propaganda that attacks media heavy with fantasy sexual and violent content.

    I think their issue is that fantasy sex and violent content reaffirms the 4th wall between the fictional and the real world for the avg person who knows the rules are different but seeks merely pleasure and a counter to reality.

    But propaganda seeks to interpret ones reality. It demands gullibility, and limited ability to analyze the world around oneself , or freedom from specific biases or perspectives. Its never just games or fun to a propagandist, thats why this and peer pressure are far greater human influencers than entertainment media.

  • Niwjere

    “More female characters” is nothing worth celebrating, any more than “more male characters” is. “More well-written/interesting characters” is worthy of note. Seriously, this gender divide needs to shut up and go away.

  • Niwjere

    You have puritans and change-resistant codgers to thank for every single one of these “trials by fire”. Keep in mind that you too will probably be old one day — don’t do what your parents did.

  • Maniate

    I think it was Liana K who explained cultivation theory fairly well on metaleater. It stems from a study of television in the 70s and can only safely be applied to 70s tv.

  • Mark Andrew Edwards

    I can’t think of a less sexist genre than video games. But then I say that cheescake and sexuality does not equal sexism. Third Wave feminists rarely agree.

    Honestly, I’d like to see a truly sexist video game. I’m curious what it would look like. Outside of some JRPGs, I can’t think of any ‘get in the kitchen, woman’ settings or plots.

  • FlamingoJet

    Load of bullshit, all of it. Games are not inherently sexist and the Cultivation theory is a load of BS..

  • Erthwjim

    Wait a second, you mean the reason I’m in a Satanic cult that wants to commit suicide by means of an exploding TV has nothing to do with having consumed those various forms of media? Damn it, the media has been lying to me for so long.

    But in all serious I think if there’s any correlation between the entertainment industry and the activities and behaviors people like to participate in and display in real life, it’s with the press and how they report things, because many people are still under the impression that they report the facts and don’t skew things to some agenda. I know gamergate is about ethics in journalism and the gaming industry specifically, but the issues in gaming journalism are indicative of a larger problem in journalism in general.

  • George on the Go

    Still only about 50% of games have a female player whereas about 90% have a male. Really greater choice is always a good thing. Personally, the closer both number are to 100% the better.

    Then again I agree that I will quickly take an interesting male character over a dull female one.

  • dsvw56

    “Personally, the closer both number are to 100% the better.”

    Ummm . . . no. That’s a terrible idea. Creators should put in the characters they want that meets the vision of the world they want to create without being pressured to meet vagina, LGBT, and PoC quotas. Tokenism never helps anyone.

  • I think the notion sexist games = sexist gamers is fatuous. But actually… I also don’t care one iota if a game is sexist.

    I am quite willing to try a game where I play as an Islamic suicide bomber blowing up kuffir, or a KKK member trying to burn crosses, or a member of the Khmer Rouge seeking to liquidate class enemies, or Reinhard Heydrich re-imagined as a vampire hunting FPS or Eliot Ness investigating UFO sighting in prohibition era Chicago, or … you get the picture.

    And I am quite sure playing those games will not make me a Muslim, a Racist, a Communist, a Nazi or an American Cop.

  • Kev Lew

    good breakdown and additional links are always appreciated 🙂

  • drachnon

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

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

    New headline: “Gay hating researchers assume that all families consist of a man and a woman!”
    Get out your torches and pitchforks.

    I can never take these types of research seriously.

  • chizwoz

    I’d say the truth lies between what the 2 of you have said. Developers should try and include as many different playable characters (male/female, black/white etc) AS LONG AS it doesn’t conflict with the vision for the game.
    If they’re writing either a single player adventure, a story game or RPG centered around a particular main character, that’s really not a place where you want to feel pressured to meet some kind of quota cos it’ll fundamentally restrict the types of narratives you can have. Whereas in games with many playable characters, or games where you customise your character, then they absolutely should have as many options as possible.

  • chizwoz

    The people who propagate these sorts of narratives aren’t particularly scientifically minded so it’s dubious that this will particularly affect them either way. The whole point of the scientific method is that any specific claim needs to be assumed false from the outset. You then make predictions to try and disprove it as much as possible. If it survives those predictions repeatedly, it statistically tends towards this “truth” thing.
    These people constantly do the exact opposite. They assume things are true from the outset and just jump straight into acting as if they are.