Video Games as an Agent of Gender Socialization
Without a doubt playing video games is in the top five favorite activity of the majority of the children and teenagers. In fact, it was ranked as the second most popular type of media in the 2015 Common Sense Census. The survey showed that 56% of the American adolescents between ages 13 and 18 spend an average of two hours and 25 minutes every day playing video, computer, or mobile games. With such a high level of popularity among them, video gaming became a strongly influential source of gender socialization that shapes the believes and thoughts of young minds. However, by supporting the of the “real” man, who gains power and control using violence and resembles Hulk in his appearance, and objectifying women through sexualized portrayal, video games spread gender inequality and result in gender discrimination.
First of all, women are still underrepresented in video games, just like they are in every other field dominated by men. According to the 2009 video games content analysis done by Williams, Martins, Consalvo, and Ivory, 40% of the studied games do not even have a female character and when women appear on the screen, they are presented as sexualized—with their over exaggerated body proportions and covering-close-to-nothing outfits—and secondary of importance.
The consequences of such appearance can be explained by the cultivation theory developed by George Gerbner and Larry Gross in 1976. As Cohen and Wellman described it in their study: “The primary proposition of cultivation theory states that the more time people spend ‘living’ in the television world, the more likely they are to believe social reality portrayed on television.” Although, it examines the long-term effects of television, the objectifying narrative used in both television and video games—influencing one’s thoughts and reinforcing gender stereotypes and gender roles—is basically the same. Additionally, playing video games require a higher level of engagement than watching television, so the influence of this virtual reality is even stronger.
Since playing video games are commonly perceived as something created for men by men, the repeatedly seen image of a weak and hopeless women affects men’s attitudes toward women in real life. As the 2016 study conducted by Gabbiadini, Riva, Andrighetto, Volpato, and Bushman show, boys who play these kind of video games—where women are background/secondary characters and are used as sexual objects by players—demonstrate a lower level of empathy toward female violence victims. For the purpose of this research, the authors randomly assigned male and female high schoolers to play one of the three types of games: 1) video games containing both violence and sexism, 2) video games with violence but without sexism, and 3) video games without violence and sexism. After playing the game, the participants were, among other things, shown a picture of a young girl beaten up by a teenage boy and asked how compassionate they felt towards her. The results show that boys who played the first kind of video games, reported identification with the played character and a lower empathy level towards the pictures of the female victim.
In his research, Mike Yao showed that video game with the theme of female ‘objectification’ may encourage men to view women as sex objects, and lead to self-reported tendencies to behave inappropriately towards women in social situations.
However, women are not the only ones who have been victimized by video games. According to the research analysis done by Karen Dill and Kathryn Thill, 82.6% of male characters in games are more likely to be portrayed as aggressive as opposed to 62.2% of female characters. On the other hand, as Table 1 below shows, only 0.8% of male characters are sexualized, unlike the 59.9% of female characters. But a relatively high percentage of those male characters were also identified as hypermasculine, meaning as exaggeration of traditionally masculine traits or behaviors like physical strength, aggression, and sexuality.
These steroid-fed-looking macho male characters are damaging to a boy’s self-image. Studies have proven that muscularity concerns highly influence the construct of male body image. Using the identification theory, which states: “While identifying with a character, an audience member imagines him- or herself being that character and replaces his or her personal identity and role as audience member with the identity and role of the character within the text,” Klimmt, Hefner, Vorderer, Roth, and Blake analyzed the influence of video games on self-perception. For this experiment, the participants—all male college students aged between 19 and 31 who played video games at least “sometimes”—were asked to play a first-person shooter game and a racing game. The researchers measured the level of association the players displayed between the video game characters and themselves. The findings supported previously done research showing that enacting a character or role in a video game affects players’ identity state. The Table below presents their findings which prove that young boys identify themselves with the character they are playing with. They think this is what a real man is. And if they do not meet these expectations, it will only result in a lowered self-esteem.
Video games are a highly interactive medium, which allows the users to enter a completely different world and immerse in it. In order to do so, the players should be able to relate to the characters or events in the game in some way. But because of this specific way of male and female virtual characterization, video games support the common gender stereotypes spreading gender inequality in real life, which results in, among others, negative gender socialization.
Cohen, J. (2001). Defining identification: A theoretical look at the identification of audiences with media characters. Mass Communication and Society, 4,245–264
Cohen, J.; Weimann, G. (2000). "Cultivation Revisited: Some Genres Have Some Effects on Some Viewers". Communication Reports 13(2): 99–114.
Common Sense. The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens. 2015.
Dill, K. E., & Thill, K. P. (2007). Video Game Characters and the Socialization of Gender Roles: Young People’s Perceptions Mirror Sexist Media Depictions. Sex Roles, 57(11-12), 851-864.
Gabbiadini, A., Riva, P., Andrighetto, L., Volpato, C., & Bushman, B. J. (2016). Acting like a Tough Guy: Violent-Sexist Video Games, Identification with Game Characters, Masculine Beliefs, & Empathy for Female Violence Victims. PLOS ONE PLoS ONE, 11(4).
Klimmt, C., Hefner, D., Vorderer, P., Roth, C., & Blake, C. (2010). Identification With Video Game Characters as Automatic Shift of Self-Perceptions. Media Psychology, 13(4), 323-338.
Tylka, T. L. (2011). Refinement of the tripartite influence model for men: Dual body image pathways to body change behaviors. Body Image, 8(3), 199-207.
Yao, M. Z., 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), 77-88.