Video games are considered largely by society, and especially within the industry in general, as a “man’s world.” We have talked about this in class, and we have also talked about how, despite these conceptions, there are still almost as many women players as there are men – and the percentage is rising in areas of games like MMOs. We have talked about hostility towards women in such a masculine environment, talked about the effects that this has on women and girls wanting to enter the gaming world, and we have talked about ways to potentially fix these effects.
(This is one of the more ridiculous images from Fat, Ugly or Slutty, a blog where women pots their experiences online. Others are hurtful, hateful, and combative.)
We have talked about the effects of this ‘man-based’ gamer world, and have talked around the bush conspicuously labeled “gendered gamer world,” but despite our best efforts in class, a conclusive decision on the cause of this hyper-gendered atmosphere has yet to be determined. I do not think it is possible to point at three things and say, “These are the only reasons, and this is how to fix them,” and I do not think anyone can do that – presumably because they would have done it already. It is easy to point to numerous explanations for the hostility towards a realm of gaming that is not so traditionally masculine, but my goal is to expand on some ideas we have talked about in class, and add in some empirical data that we have been craving. The issues we have not discussed at great length, but that I think are the most important in understanding this ‘men’s club’ of a video game world, are hegemonic masculinity and competition, and how the interactions between men and women in place are constantly reaffirming the negative effects they produce.
I wanted to first address a common mistake that we make when discussing video games – and it is that we discuss ‘video games’ as an entity. We take a huge industry of game developers, consumers, and players, amateur and professional, and often try to claim sweeping generalities about them all. Ironically, it is that exact behavior that begins to contribute to the overall gendered problem, but I will come back to that idea later. I just wanted to make sure we were all on the same page, and we knew that there are different categories of games and different types of players. In this analysis, I will be focusing on multiplayer games and games that include some form of competition, because that is where the most prominent gender issues occur.
Let’s start with a definition of hegemonic masculinity:
Hegemony…is about the winning and holding of power and the formation (and destruction) of social groups in that process. In this sense, it is importantly about the ways in which the ruling class establishes and maintains its domination. The ability to impose a definition of the situation, to set the terms in which events are understood and issues discussed, to formulate ideals and define morality is an essential part of this process. Hegemony involves persuasion of the greater part of the population, particularly through the media, and the organization of social institutions in ways that appear ‘natural,’ ‘ordinary,’ ‘normal.’ The state, through punishment for non-conformity, is crucially involved in this negotiation and enforcement. Donaldson 645
Beginning with the first aspect of this definition, hegemonic masculinity asserts that domination and power are inherently male. In society, these traits are affirmed as masculine, and often are not associated with women or femininity. This is an institution created from a young age, with things like ‘girl games’ and ‘boy games’ that include themes of conflict solving for girls and war/action themes for boys. A study was done on a group of fourth and fifth grades on their feelings towards video games, and the study concluded that “boys have heightened feelings of reward related to success in games” (Hamlen 304). This would indicate that, more so than girls, boys are expected to be more driven by achievement. Using T.L. Taylor’s work Play Between Worlds, another study looked at how “gender role theory suggests that women are encouraged to be social and caring, and to maintain relationships, but also to avoid activities portrayed as masculine. And from what we know of MMOs and video games, these spaces remain heavily focused on achievement and competition, and often have sexist imagery within them” (Williams et al. 703). The study also concluded “significant gender differences for both physical and verbal aggressiveness…males were significantly more physically aggressive than females…male players were almost more verbally aggressive than female players” (William et al. 712).
The second part of hegemonic masculinity is the other thing I want to focus on, which is this idea that deviating from a norm is bad or “punishable.” While it is not the specific focus of this essay, it is worth noting the struggle of gays in the video game world as well, and especially being a male who is not seen as that typical picture of masculinity.
Heterosexuality and homophobia are the bedrock of hegemonic masculinity and any understanding of its nature and meaning is predicated on the feminist insight that in general the relationship of men to women is oppressive. Indeed, the term ‘hegemonic masculinity’ was invented and is used primarily to maintain this central focus in the critique of masculinity. A fundamental element of hegemonic masculinity, then, is that women exist as potential sexual objects for men while men are negated as sexual objects for men. Women provide heterosexual men with sexual validation, and men compete with each other for this. This does not necessarily involved men being particularly nasty to individual women. Women may feel as oppressed by non-hegemonic masculinities, may even find some expressions of the hegemonic pattern more familiar and manageable. Donaldson 645
Later, Donaldson goes on to write that “homosexuality is associated with effeminacy,” so it must be considered counter-hegemonic (648). These ideas of hegemonic masculinity are suggesting ideas of a sort of biology in men and boys, where they have these natural instincts and inclinations, and there have been multiple surveys over the past decade that demonstrate these core principles – sexualizing women is good, and non-masculine is bad.
During her talk “Athletes, Geeks, and Gamers: Exploring Gender and Professional E-sports” at the University of Oregon, T.L. Taylor spoke about difference types of masculinity and their representation in the video game world. ‘Geek’ and ‘jock’ type masculinities create an even greater hierarchy of hegemonic masculinity, because not only is the comparison on masculine and feminine, but how masculine a person can be. In the professional gaming world, this is particularly prevalent, and often leads to overcompensation in the interest of putting up a more dominant front. This in itself is also an issue worth long discussion, but I felt it should be mentioned here at least briefly.
Based on a 2002 Kaiser Family Foundation study, “girls aged 8-18 spent less time per day than boys with the combination of media surveyed. Boys spent more time with TV, video games, and computers than did girls who spent more time with music media and print materials (Sanford and Madill 288). Kaiser Family Foundation did another study in 2009 that showed an increase in media exposure all around, with boys “exposed to almost an hour more of media each day than girls, with most of the difference coming from console video games” (11). The most exposed demographic were 11-18 year olds, taking in up to 12 hours of media a day. With console gaming, boys were surveyed at spending almost an hour per day on average and girls were just under fifteen minutes (25). This might be stating the obvious, but that fact still holds true that men and boys are more inclined to play video games, and women are less likely to. As the demographic gets older, and in certain areas such as MMOs, gender distribution is almost even. But the demographic playing the most video games is on average a 13 or 14 year old boy, and this is an extremely important time for him developmentally, which means that any negative attitudes or behavior asserting at this time could stick for much longer afterward.
A study was done on sexual and gender related perceptions and attitudes among male players, and during the study it was acknowledged that “very little research has been conducted to test the effects of exposure to overtly sexual content in video games” (Yao et al. 79) To try and add information to that conversation, the study used the general learning model (the GLM) and self-reporting to see what affect sexually explicit video games would have on themes of female objectification.
In its most basic form, the GLM proposes that variables related to the person interact with variables related to a given situation to influence one’s internal state. Changes in internal state are then associated with changes in subsequent appraisals, decisions, and behaviors…in the present research we rely on the GLM and its sub-theories to examine the influence of playing sexually-explicit video games with female ‘objectification’ content (a situation variable) among male players (a person variable) on their short-term cognitions (an internal state variable). Yao et al. 80
The study was done on a group of 74 males age 18-47, and the empirical evidence from this study suggests that “players of sexually-explicit video games in so far as it portrayed women as sex objects would be primed with thoughts about women as sex objects…male players responded significantly faster to sexually-objectifying descriptions of women” (Yao et al. 85). Furthermore, another of their hypotheses “predicted that individuals who played a sexually-charged video game with female characters as sex objects would display an increased self-reporting tendency to sexually harass…scores revealed a significant effect” (Yao et al. 85).
This is an important idea to the hegemonic masculinity in the video game industry, because sexualizing women, harassing, and objectifying them is a form of dominance, and it is a form of dominance that simultaneously shuts women out or makes them less meaningful then men. If these are the types of images and exposure young men are getting, then it is creating a culture that excludes women pretty easily. Adding in other studies that show likeliness of aggressiveness in males, and that adds to the dominance of hegemonic masculine theme.
This kind of behavior is just the start of a self-fulfilling process of gendered games that create negative connotations with feminine characteristics, which then creates a greater lack of women in the video game world, and thus women are less likely to create games that could potentially change this atmosphere, and so on. A survey of young adults asked them to describe a typical male video game character and a typical video game character. For men, the most common characteristic was “muscular” and for women it was “big boobs” (Dill and Thill 860). Descriptors used for females but not males included, “helpless, victim, subservient, polite, pretty and bitchy,” while descriptors used for males but not females included, “warrior, superhero, rage, asshole, and cool” (860). Another study tried to determine the effects of characters and character identification on the gaming experience, and concluded that “identification could be described as ‘feeling like’ or as creating the illusion to ‘become’ a key person within a computer game’s universe; it is argued to be an essential element of game enjoyment” (Hefner et al. 40). The lack of available options for female characters could affect the enjoyment and desire of women to play video games, but I think the more effectual issue is that the male characters are positively affirming hegemonic masculine tendencies. Especially when relation to the game becomes such a large part of gameplay, these depictions make a difference.
Other studies are showing that people performed to their gender expectations when their gameplay was examined (Williams et al. 720). This study took the collective characters of a player’s one account and sort of combined them into one meta-character for statistical data, using EverQuest II as its game. While this is somewhat avoidable – there is no reason for women to feel ashamed because she likes to hone her baking skill in a game, or for a man to feel bad because he wants to be strong – it is something that nevertheless perpetuates these ideas that we should try to avoid. An almost impossible feat, but one that media stereotypes reinforce; “for example, few real men look or act like a prototypical muscle-bound, weapon-toting video game character – but rather construct a stylized view of masculinity and femininity that influences the beliefs, feelings and actions of members of the culture” (Dill et al. 1403).
(An example of the reinforcing of stereotypes by those in the industry themselves. Just like any other joke or parody, sometimes the desired effect isn’t quite reached.)
I do not know about anyone else, but I would much rather be even an asshole superhero than a bitchy, subservient victim. In our culture there is an underlying presence of these ideas, but often I think people are afraid to acknowledge the true problems we are experiencing because it seems like we should not be experiencing them. I imagine how easy it would be to respond to a study and say that, on average, the typical female character is much weaker than a male character, and use language that was unintentionally sexist. I also can imagine that some of the men who might be perpetuating these stereotypes in studies like this do not realize it – they might think they are feminists or that feminism is over, because we have solved the problem of gender equality. That is exactly the problem – we haven’t. According to Ambivalent Sexism Theory, “many societies view men as aggressive and self-serving, but ultimately as superior to women because the traditionally masculine characteristics of dominance and instrumentality are widely valued. Females, in contrast, are ‘wonderful but weak,’ in other words, women are more likeable, but clearly subordinate. Across a variety of cultures, being male is equated with social status, and this fact leads to real gender inequality” (Dill et al. 1403).
In our class we had a large discussion about where the problem of a gendered gaming world came from; something akin to our “chicken and the egg” dilemma. Many of my peers argued that the behavior being perpetuated was not inherent to the video game industry, but it was inherent to assholes. I would say I disagree, that the industry is to blame for this culture that is so accepting of such behavior, and that a lack of belief in that also contributes to the problem. Donaldson wrote that the most influential agents in making a masculinist sexual ideology are, “priests, journalists, advertisers, politicians, academics, coaches, and sportsmen. They are the ‘weavers of the fabric of hegemony’…its ‘organizing intellectuals.’ These people regulate and manage gender regimes; articulate experiences, fantasies, and perspectives; reflect on and interpret gender relations” (646). I would like to add the video game industry to this list, and challenge the assumption that it is something that will get better on its own.
The study mentioned above showed that exposure to specific types of media increased tolerance of sexual harassment, which would stand in the way of making real change (Dill et al. 1406). There are other incidents happening like this:
Penny Arcade, a webcomic and blog that has arisen as a dominant voice in video game culture, published a series of comics on rape that started a controversy. A rape survivor explained her intention to boycott the major gaming event Penny Arcade Expo because of the sale of ‘Dickwolves’ t-shirts. The comic creators responded by mocking the boycott, suggesting that the right of rape survivors to respond to the rhetoric of aggressive gendered discourse within the gaming community was itself laughable, and further inciting the community to try to silence the protest with threats created under a veil of anonymity. This furthered the othering of female participants in a male-dominated space and extended the discourse from the virtual to the physical world. Salter and Blodgett 401
(The original ‘Dickwolves’ comic)
(Response to ‘Dickwolves’ criticism)
And in general, different studies are showing that players are learning and can learn stereotypes through game play (Downs and Smith 721). Studies like this determined something that we already know, and except as fact – women are more sexualized, and not included as often in a serious capacity. All of these factors put together creates a group of male video game players who have had numerous exposures to sexualized women and tolerance of sexual harassment, and it has created an environment in the video game world where such behavior isn’t challenged. In almost every multiplayer experience there is an overbearing attitude of sexism and discrimination, unless you purposefully seek out spaces that have been designated as resistant to that standard. It would pain me to say that these males do not know why it is so wrong, but I cannot take so much of the burden off their shoulders. I do think, however, that problem stems from a larger, industry problem, rather than the individuals themselves, because it is incredibly difficult to stand up to the majority in a world where dominance and power are so pertinent. That does not negate the fault of those who stand by or accept it through their own silence – you can be an accessory to a crime without intentionally being the perpetrator.
In Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat there are many women who share their experiences as developers in the game industry and who offer suggestions on how to fix some of the thing happening to gamers:
Why are boy games even necessary? They are violent. They chase an increasingly narrow demographic. They require a lot of energy, time, and skill to learn how to play and offer a limited range of emotions. They copy one another and hog shelf space, limiting new types of player experience. While they are enjoyed by millions of players around the globe and rival Hollywood for revenue and media attention, their narrow range of offerings attracts a smaller audience than possible. Lazzaro 199
Something interesting to me about this sentiment is that the idea is to not target gendered audiences, but in acknowledging this practice there has to be acknowledgement that there is a difference between ‘boy games’ and ‘girl games.’ Boy games, of course, include those that focus on action and fighting, while girl games are those that focus on relationships and emotions. Unfortunately, ideas like this can be well intentioned, but ultimately result in perpetuating that cycle of sexism and discrimination that I stated earlier, creating the male gender as the centerpiece of this larger community. And this idea behind target gender audiences is part of that cycle that fulfills itself in creating more negative attitudes, because the more games we determine are ‘for boys’ the more women and girls will be unwelcome. This attitude then travels up the assembly line to the development industry, where developers are making games they want to play, and most of them are male – with a lack of a base for ‘girl games’ or that sort of sentiment, there seems to be a correlation with lack of women game developers.
There are efforts to change these cultural norms that should not be ignored, and these efforts are not necessarily useless. “Change is always something that happens to sex roles, that impinges on them. It comes from outside, as in discussions of how technological and economic changes demand a shift to a ‘modern’ male role for men. Or it comes from inside the person, from the ‘real self’ that protests against the artificial restrictions of constraining roles. Sex role theory has no way of grasping change as a dialectic arising within gender relations themselves” (Connell 521). Change can happen and should happen, but it will happen over time and in order to make truly progressive gains we must accept the facts of the situation. Mia Consalvo wrote in her essay “Confronting toxic gamer culture: A challenge for feminist game studies scholars” that there is an increase in the frequency of ugliness in video games culture that our world is seeing (à la Fat, Ugly or Slutty or similar sites). Putting it out in the open is the first steps toward acknowledging this is a serious problem, and that there are reasons why men are dominating this space.
I will acknowledge again how difficult it is to pinpoint the exact issues at ‘play’ here. Any empirical data on video games is never completely up to date; the video game industry is something so dynamic things that were true even a year ago may not be true today. The problem of gender has persisted, however, and the problems that the empirical data demonstrate still exist. The ways to deal with it deal every day, but finding the root of this problem is where the process should start. The idea of hegemonic masculinity is a great explanation for a large part of the institutionalized sexism against women in the video game world, because the quest for dominance and power is an integral part of competitive gaming in this ‘men’s world.’
In terms of the issues with a male dominated video game world, that sums up the long of it. The short of it is this: we are capable of change, but we have to realize the institutionalized ideals that are creating such an environment. It will take persistent, little steps and eventually more temporary, monumental steps to create a new space that is inclusive and equal for all, regardless of gender identification. The psychology of a male mind to be predisposed to competition or to feed off of cultural indicators that suggest dominance is a necessary trait may never go away, but those types of ideas and barriers have been presented before and we have made progress despite it. That is the important thing to keep in mind, is that progress can be made, and that this is not the reality we have to accept. We will have work to do, but we can reject the premises of hegemonic masculinity to come to a conclusion that is more in alignment with the ideals we want to perpetuate in the future – we do not have to be held back by our past.
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