Gaming the Studies – A Prelude in Defence of a Messenger
The outbreak of the Great Gaming Flame War of 2014 (a.k.a. #gamergate) has caused the intersection of gaming, on-line harassment, ethics and sexism to become a popular focus of discussion. As someone with a strong interest in both gaming and gender politics, this focus has re-energised my interest in writing on this blog. However, I wanted to write something that was a little more than simply adding a ‘me too’ to cacophony of voices already echoing across the internet.
To that end I decided to focus my energy on writing a review of the pay-walled academic studies that have been cited in by the FeministFrequency Tropes vs Women in Video Games series. These studies have been used to support the claim that sexist and/or sexual gaming content is propagating sexist view and conduct within the gaming community. However, given the on-going hostile context surrounding this topic I thought I’d start by saying some positive things about the video series (even though it’s not really in my nature) before moving onto reviewing the studies.
FeministFrequency – Before Video Games
I’m going to start this by pointing out I was something of a ‘fan’ of the FeministFrequency series before it gained in popularity during the Kickstarter campaign. The videos that stick out most in my mind are the ones covering the way Lego has been marketed. Although my own opinions often vary significantly from common feminist viewpoints, the videos are a great vehicle to critically reflect on popular culture and its potential for significant social impacts.
When judging the series it’s important to remember that Antia Sarkeesian is presenting herself as a feminist pop-culture critic. Sarkeesian is not presenting herself as some great feminist philosopher presenting novel insights into modern society. Nor is she presenting herself as an astute sociological researcher who is capable of backing feminist ideals with bountiful evidence. It is not fair to judge the video series (or Sarkeesian herself) on the basis that the videos need to achieve either of those things.
The purpose of the videos is to use established feminist ideals and concepts to critique patterns within the broad subject of popular culture. Their intended outcome is to bring considered attention to patterns (‘tropes’) that might otherwise be uncritically accepted as simply ‘the way things are’. One does not necessarily need to agree with the feminist perspective or the videos’ conclusions to see the validity of such an approach to critique regardless of medium.
The quality of the videography is one of the key draw cards of the series. The audio-visual format offers a more convenient way to engage in the topic than reading long written articles. Additionally the videos were a step above a lot of the basic vlog-into-a-webcam or faceless-rant-over-powerpoint-slides style videos that are quite common on YouTube. The combination of consistent lighting, quality sound and the quality editing made the videos easy to watch. The articulate and well-enunciated vocal commentary and inclusion of supporting multimedia content greatly lowers the barriers to engaging in what is often a fairly abstract and complex topic.
Numerous links are provided with each video posting on the FeministFrequency website. Consistent with the series’ purpose, these provide the sources for the ideas presented in the videos along with opportunities for further reading. It’s only recently that links have started to referencing academic journal articles and it’ll be these articles that are the focus of my subsequent posts in this series. It’s a little surprising that this detail is neither included nor directly linked from the YouTube description, however given the FeministFrequency address is regularly provided at the end of each video the information is not that difficult to locate particularly for anyone dedicated enough to actually read the linked content.
FeministFrequency – The Kickstarter
The Tropes vs Women in Video Games series was an ideal project for crowd sourced funding. The proposal was put forward by someone with an established record of quality content creation. The project represented a modest increase in scope over previous works. The initial budget was reasonable and could be easily justified by the cost outlay for software and hardware, as well as possibly some modest compensation for the time required to make the videos. The only criticism I’ll make is that the original completion time frame of 6 months was perhaps overly optimistic for reviewing “100’s of games”, and was possibly based on the previous experience of producing videos covering less time consuming media.
The Kickstarter campaign gained a fair amount of notoriety and with that came a fair amount of criticism. From all that I’ve read on the topic, I’ve not seen one major criticism of the way the Kickstarter was run that can be reasonably justified. The fact that the campaign reached 26 times the initial funding goal, and 6 times the highest stretch goals is quite significant. This entirely justifies a substantial increase in the scope of the project and the consequential delays.
To the extent that this funding outcome was inspired by the media coverage of the harassment and threats is in no way inconsistent with the underlying feminist principles on which the project was founded. Neither would the promotion the feminist views of the project through other means, such as attending and speaking at gaming conferences, be an unreasonable use of any excess funds (I’m not assuming this is happening).
There is perhaps some reasonable criticism in the way the rewards have been handled. Despite the promises made to most categories of supporters, I haven’t seen a single Kickstarter supporter named on either the FeministFrequency videos or website. However, given the well published harassment going on it is perhaps reasonable to not deliver on this promise for the time being. Other rewards cover physical goods, including DVDs of all the videos. Given production of the videos is still in progress, it is natural that the physical rewards have not yet been delivered.
Contrary to the sceptical predictions from some observers, Sarkeesian has managed to deliver 5 videos in the project to date. The videos are of a quality and format consistent with both the previous publications and the details of the proposal. The scope of each proposed video is greatly expanded. The new videos encompassing multiple parts of 20-30 minutes each in comparison to the much shorter 5-10 minute videos previously produced. My all reasonable measures, the outcome so far has been entirely consistent with expectations which stands in contrast to many other Kickstarter projects.
FeministFrequency – Existing Criticism
It’s worth briefly noting some of the substantive criticism directed at the substance of the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series. Youtuber KiteTales has posted a reasonable response to the videos on the Damsel in Distress trope. For the videos on the Women as Background Decoration trope, some people have observed that the games might be being misrepresented. However, at least one video game producer has come out and acknowledge the criticism of their game had merit.
There have also been accusations made that the FeministFrequency videos includes fanart and let’s play footage without the source being notified, linked or provided consent. While this might be an important issue, I won’t be addressing it here.
FeministFrequency – The Claims & Sources
“So why does any of this matter?”
“…the effects on people of all genders are quite clear and serious.”
In part one of the Women as Background Decoration episode, a number of claims were made that went beyond observations of the content of video games and began to comment on the impact the videos games on individuals and society. Accompanying the video on the FeministFrequency website is a list of sources that include a number of academic journal articles reporting on social psychology studies. The fact that these studies are behind a pay-wall does seem to be a source of frustration for critics.
However, I think it’s a positive step for the research that underlies various claims to be linked from online discussions. It has the potential to both lift the quality of online discussions of contentious political or ideological issues, and possible also shift the focus away from personal ad hominem attacks and towards a debate on the substance of the issue.
Given I have access to the journals I thought I would review the studies to see how well they support the claims made in the video. If feminists are going to advocate that gaming communities and the gaming industry ought to reshape itself in response to these claims, then I think it’s important to understand the basis for the claims and ensure such a response is justified.
The studies cited are listed below:
- Steve Loughnan, et al. (2010). Objectification leads to depersonalization: The denial of mind and moral concern to objectified others. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(5), 709–717.
- Laurie A Rudman & Eugene Bordgia (1994). The Afterglow of Construct Accessibility – The Behavioral Consequences of Priming Men to View Women as Sexual Objects. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 31(6), 493–517.
- Karen E. Dill, et al. (2008). Effects of exposure to sex-stereotyped video game characters on tolerance of sexual harassment. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(5), 1402–1408.
- Mike Z. Yao, et al. (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), 77-88.
- Jesse Fox, et al. (2013). The embodiment of sexualized virtual selves: The Proteus effect and experiences of self-objectification via avatar. Computers in Human Behaviour, 29(3), 930–938.
- Jesse Fox & Wai Yen Tang (2014). Sexism in online video games: The role of conformity to masculine norms and social dominance orientation. Computers in Human Behaviour, 33, 314–320.
The studies are all published in reputable journals which means it is not surprising that they are behind a pay-wall (even if it is frustrating). About the only point worth noting is that the Sex Roles journal is limited to articles written from a feminist perspective. I would expect there would be a certain ideological focus to the discussions in these studies but I would not expect that the methodologies employed would be any different.
Five of the links for the Women as Background Decoration video are not original research. I do not have access to the “How Fantasy Becomes Reality” book. I have read the other articles and watched the video, however I will only be commenting on the directly studies published in academic journals.
In the table below I have listed the various claims and attempted to match them with statements made in the conclusions of the studies.
|FeministFrequency Claim||Quote from Citation|
|exposure to [sexually objectifying] images||negatively impacts perceptions and beliefs about real world women||Loughnan – “The main effect of objectification emerged for all comparisons with objectified targets denied both mind and moral status. …objectification diminishes a second aspect of personhood, perceived moral status”|
|reinforces harmful myths about sexual violence.||Dill – “Detailed analysis revealed that males who saw the sex-typed images were most tolerant of sexual harassment when judging a real-life case of sexual harassment between a female college student and her male professor.”|
|after having viewed sexually objectified female bodies, men in particular tend to||view women as less intelligent||Loughnan – “Objectification leads to people being viewed as lacking mental states…”|
|view women as … less competent||Rudman – “subjects [who viewed sexual advertisements] … (4) judged her as significantly less competent”|
|express less concern for [women’s] physical well being and safety||Loughnan – “objectified targets [were] given more [pain inducing] tablets than non-objectified targets”
Loughnan – “Objectification leads to people being viewed as … being less deserving of moral status.”
|these sexist attitudes carry over to perceptions of all women … regardless of attire, activities or profession||–|
|after long-term exposure to hyper-sexualized images, people of all genders tend to||be more tolerant of the sexual harassment of women||Dill – “those with more reported long-term exposure to violent video games increased tolerance towards sexual harassment”|
|more readily accept rape myths||Dill – “Subjects with higher violent video game exposure showed greater Rape Supportive Attitudes”|
|Viewing media that frames women as objects or sexual playthings, profoundly impacts how real life women are perceived and treated||Rudman – “subjects [who viewed sexual advertisements] … sat closer to [the woman], display more dominance during the interview, and behaved in a more sexualized manner.”
Yao – “the present study found that playing a sexually-charged video game for merely 25 minutes might increase a self-reported tendency to engage in inappropriate sexual advances”
|women internalise [sexually objectifying] images and self-objectify.||Fox – “this study has demonstrated that women can be affected negatively by the avatars they wear. Women may be at risk for experiencing self-objectification and developing greater rape
|[viewing sexually objectifying images] results in all kinds of social issues, everything from||eating disorders||–|
|habitual body monitoring||Fox – “Women in sexualized avatars reported more body-related thoughts than women in nonsexualized avatars”|
|decreases in self-worth||–|
|decreases in … life satisfaction||–|
|decreases in … cognitive functioning||–|
|those who most strongly believe that media is just harmless entertainment are also the ones most likely to uncritically internalize harmful media messages.||–|
A number of the claims do not appear to be directly supported by the cited studies. It’s possible that support for this claims is contained within the book “How Fantasy Becomes Reality”. The background commentary in the studies I have read did include references to similar claims, so it is likely that supporting studies do exist. However, I do not plan to address these claims as I am focusing on the directly cited studies.
A surface level check of the studies does show clear support in the concluding discussions for most of the claims made in the FeministFrequency videos. Coupled with how they are described in the “Spillover Effect” effect article on the Psychology Today blog, it would seem their use by Sarkeesian is reasonable. However, being something of a sceptic I will be exploring the details of these studies before considering accepting the claims. To achieve that my next post leaves the pop-culture critic behind and enters the world of social psychology studies.