Video Game Effects on Gender

Video games, along with traditional media, are often criticized for their negative, and often violent, effects on those who play them. Studies over the years have tested to see if video games do, indeed, cultivate violence and aggression in those who play them. Results have been mixed, finding that video games increase aggression (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Carnagey & Anderson, 2005), increase male aggression but not female (Shibuya, Sakomoto, Ihori, & Yukawa, 2008), and no link between aggression and video games (Williams & Skoric, 2005; Ferguson, 2007). Part of the challenge, as mentioned earlier, in studying cultivation effects in video games is their broad range of genres. Other aspects that make it a challenge include games’ realism, and that many games largely depend on interactivity with the game world and characters (both computer and player controlled).

Supporting the idea that violent video games increase aggression is the meta-analysis performed by Anderson and Bushman (2001), in which they coded for aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Their results may be seen as alarming or frightful, considering “every theoretical prediction derived from prior research and from GAM [General Aggression Model] was supported by the meta-analysis of currently available research on violent video games” (Anderson & Bushman, 2001, p. 358). These supported predictions were that exposure to violent video games is “positively associated with heightened levels of aggression in young adults and children [46% of coded participants were under 18]…and in males and females” (Anderson & Bushman, p. 358). Possibly even more alarming is the statement, “these results clearly support the hypothesis that exposure to violent video games poses a public-health threat to children and youths, including college-age individuals” (Anderson & Bushman, 2001, p. 358). Further support for the video game-aggression link is found in Carnagey and Anderson’s (2005) study, who found that “rewarding game violence increases game violence” and that “people who play a video game in which violent actions are rewarded exhibit increased aggressive behavior” (p. 887). This may seem intuitive, considering that the goal in many games is inherently tied to violence, but their study also found that

playing a violent video game, regardless of whether the game rewards or punishes violence, increases aggressive affect relative to playing a nonviolent video game. However…playing a game in which violent actions are punished does not produce significantly more (or less) aggressive thought or behavior than playing a nonviolent version of the same game (p. 887).

In Brenick, Henning, Killen, O’Connor, and Collins (2007), they note that “On one hand, all participants, male and female, viewed violent images of males’ aggressive behavior and sexually exploitive images of females’ attire and poses as wrong because of the negative influences that these images can have on players’ attitudes and behavior” (p. 411). Brenick et. al also observe that “participants’ notions about how video game playing influences attitudes and behavior were fairly literal—that is, participants stated that video game playing has little negative effect on players’ attitudes because players do not often directly copy or imitate the behavior observed (e.g., “Playing is okay because it’s not like he’s going to go out and shoot someone tomorrow.”)” (p. 411-412). Their results present an interesting contradiction to participants’ notions: “males were less likely than females to view the violent game as negative or as having a negative consequence on players’ behavior and attitudes” and that “individuals who play video games with high frequency, particularly males, were more likely to condone negative stereotypic images, to be less critical of negative images, and to view that game content should not change than were individuals who play video games with low frequency” (Brenick et. al, 2007, p. 412). Their findings are important to note because, aside from increasing aggression in high-frequency players, they may “also be more accepting of such increases in aggression” (Brenick et. al, 2007, p. 412).

Contradicting these findings is Williams and Skoric’s (2005) study, who found no link between video game play and aggressive thoughts and behaviors. Their study also took into account time played and the participants’ preference for graphic violence, neither of which significantly affected their results (Williams & Skoric, 2005). They do note, however, that their results “[suggest] that older participants in the experimental group were perhaps more strongly influenced by game play and argued with friends more than their younger counterparts” (Williams & Skoric, 2005, p. 226). They provide possible explanations, citing that “the effects may stem simply from age,” or that

they may stem from being part of a generation that did not spend a large portion of its youth playing video games. While not disputing that adults’ cognitive structures are less prone to change than children’s, it is also possible that a video-game experience may be more intense and overwhelming for Baby Boomers than it would be for their younger counterparts 10–20 years from now (p. 230).

Williams and Skoric (2005) also address the previous finding that short-term exposure to violent video games causes an increase in aggression, however temporary (as mentioned in Anderson & Bushman, 2001). Video game-aggression research has been found lacking in longitudinal studies; Williams and Skoric (2005), through their one month longitudinal study, ask “What happens when players participate in video-game violence for longer than 1 or 2 hours?” to which they reply, “Our study duration of 1 month is the longest by far to date, and so offers new insight into the duration of effects. If the effects of some games wear out after an hour, and disappear (or remain very small) after a month, the duration of strong effects becomes suspect” (p. 230).

Furthering the findings of no link between video games and aggression is Ferguson’s (2007) meta-analysis. However, besides supporting the nonexistent link between video games and aggression, Ferguson (2007) points out that findings supporting the video game-aggression link are often heavily biased, and that there are also positive findings to look at as well as the heavily-studied negatives.

One example of mixed results is Shibuya et. al’s (2008) one year longitudinal study, who found significant gender differences in their 5th-to-6th grade participants. Their study found that “playing violent video games increases hostility for boys but not for girls,” with reasons being that “boys are more likely to be exposed to violent video games than girls are” and “[g]irls are more likely than boys to perceive violent scenes critically, and exposure to particular contexts of violent scenes is likely to make girls less aggressive than boys” (p. 536). Further male-increase/female-decrease differences were found in the variables of attractive perpetrators (who are more likely to be male), possibly because “girls may not identify with attractive male perpetrators;” and justification of violence, which “often involves prosocial features (e.g., protecting society or others), which might affect girls more powerfully than boys, helping to strengthen their normative structure about violence” (p. 537). Other increasers of aggression in boys were “[i]nteractivity[, which] is likely to weaken the antiviolence norm for boys” and “unjustified violence and depicted pain or indication of harm, as consequences of violence” (Shibuya et. al, 2008, p. 536). Furthermore, they identified “[c]lose-ups, blood or gore (graphicness), reality, and rewards [as] likely to increase aggression” (Shibuya et. al, 2008, p. 536). Shibuya et. al’s (2008) study also identified possible decreasers of aggression, citing that “humor might distract player attention from violence by inducing emotions incompatible with aggression and so facilitate players’ interpreting violence as fictional or unrealistic behavior” (p. 536). The extent of violence in games may decrease aggression in girls, especially multiplayer games, possibly because “[t]hese real social interactions among peers might help reduce aggressive behavior in a real setting. Extensive violence might also be easily perceived by players as being socially unacceptable, especially for girls” (Shibuya et. al, 2008, p. 536). Lastly, role-playing is likely to decrease aggression in girls because of the possible prosocial features of naming and building characters: “Players often control multiple characters with different strengths and weaknesses, and so children might learn cooperation and the importance of others through role-playing games” (Shibuya et. al, 2008, p. 536). One point to note, however, is that Shibuya et. al’s (2008) study was conducted in Japan, and what may be true of another culture may or may not be true of American culture.

There have also been studies performed specifically on the under-represented female population in regards to violent video games. Kamala Norris (2004) focused on differences between women, comparing those who played computer games and those who used the computer but did not play computer games. Norris (2004) found that “women who play computer games at home have higher aggression scores than women who do not play computer games” (p. 723), and also found that “[h]aving an aggressive personality was related to gaming behavior. Women who played games, played them longer, or played games for more mature audiences were more aggressive. In particular, differences were found in levels of anger, physical aggression, and verbal aggression, but not in hostility” (p. 725). Another finding of interest is that “women who use the computer to play games experience less sexual harassment online than those who do not, but they find less friendship online the more they play” (Norris, 2004, p. 725). Possible explanations for these possibly contradictory results were that women who experienced sexual harassment did not return, that women who play computer games are more technologically skilled or familiar with online environments and thus are better able to avoid harassment and find friends, or that some women simply aren’t seeking friendships through gameplay (Norris, 2004). Norris (2004) also noted that “[w]omen whose favorite game was for a more mature audience also experienced less sexual harassment online, but in addition reported a more friendly online environment than women whose favorite game was for a less mature audience,” with possible explanations being, “[w]omen who play more mature games may be avoiding sexual harassment by making friends with other people online, or there may be a different online culture in more mature games [intended for those 17 and older]” (p. 725). Personal experience would support both explanations in regards to playing more mature games, and I would consider this especially true of MMO’s, where many aspects of the game are driven by social interaction. Most of the people I play with in WoW are in their late teens or early twenties, with many members 30 and older; considering the primary social unit in the game is the guild (which may consist of a group of players anywhere from a small handful to a hundred or more players), and that guild members are required to work together to advance in the game, it makes sense that close bonds and friendly environments would be formed. That isn’t to say that sexual harassment doesn’t exist, though, inside or outside of guilds.

Another study that focused on women was Matthew Eastin’s (2006) analysis on female violence based on avatar gender, opponent gender and type (human versus computer player). Eastin (2006) found that women playing female characters experienced greater aggression compared to when they were playing male characters, and that playing against a human opponent regardless of player avatar also increased aggression. Other results of interest were that when females played against both male human opponents or male computer avatars, aggression increased, and that females playing a male character experienced increased aggression against male computer agents, but decreased if the computer opponent was female (Eastin, 2006). A possible explanation for why females playing male characters are less aggressive toward female characters is that “when playing with a male avatar, female players conform to social values that inhibit aggression toward women” (Eastin, 2006, p. 359). Why is female aggression increased against human opponents, especially male? Perhaps it is the natural feeling of competition, or perhaps it is that females feel the need to be more masculine in a traditionally masculine setting.

While violence in video games has been widely studied, what other effects do video games cultivate? Addressing this is research that has focused on the blatant sexuality found in many video games. Returning to Brenick et al.’s (2007) study, they also found that “males [are] less critical of stereotypes than females and…female stereotypic images [are] viewed more positively by male participants than by female participants” (p. 414). Recently, Yao, Mahood, and Linz (2010) investigated “the tendency for sexual thoughts, increased accessibility of negative female stereotypes, and a self-reported behavioral tendency to engage in sexual harassment [in males 18-47] as a result of playing a sexually-oriented video game portraying women as sex objects” (p. 85). As Yao et al. (2010) predicted, playing sexually-oriented video games significantly decreased male reaction times towards sexual words and words that sexually objectified women compared to neutral and non-objectifying words, they state that “this is clear evidence that playing a sexually-oriented video game primes sex-related thoughts and increases accessibility to a negative gender schema of the female sex” (p. 85). Additionally, they found “playing a sexually-charged video game for merely 25 minutes might increase a self-reported tendency to engage in inappropriate sexual advances” (Yao et. al, 2010, p. 85).

Focusing on the effects of technology, including video game use, on youths, Jackson, Yong, Witt, Fitzgerald, von Eye, and Harold (2009) found that “[b]oys, regardless of race, played video games far more than did girls” (p. 440). More importantly, they found that “[v]ideo game playing was associated with a lower behavioral self-concept and lower self-esteem” (Jackson et. al, 2009, p. 440). These negative findings open the question as to why video games negatively affect self-concept and self-esteem in youths; is it due to the highly sexualized nature and body image ideals that kids are unable to match? Is it that kids do not have the same powers and abilities as their video game counterparts do?

Despite the numerous studies surrounding the negative effects of video games, there has been some focus on the positive aspects of video game playing. Olson, Kutner, and Warner (2008) found a variety of positive effects that video game playing had on boys: “playing realistic sports games influenced the amount and variety of their physical activity,” “given the role of video game play in starting and maintaining friendships, there is potential for games to help socially awkward children gain acceptance and self-esteem,” and, “particularly for role-playing games, [boys reported] motivation and encouragement to think creatively to solve problems” (p. 70). Given the social aspects of video game play, both face-to-face and online, it seems intuitive that video games may affect social abilities positively and provide other instances for players of any age to learn or maintain social norms. One highly social example are MMO’s (Massively Multiplayer Online games), where players often must cooperate with one another to achieve common goals, advance their characters, and advance through the game. Another social example of gaming are LAN (Local Access Network) events where players will bring their computers to a designated location to play online and face-to-face.

Social aspects aside, research has also found that video game play can affect visuospatial cognition and mental rotation skills (Ferguson, 2007; Cherney, 2008). Ferguson’s (2007) meta-analysis notes that playing violent video games increases visuospatial cognition, which provides an opportunity to use video games for their positive effects, such as in education. One of the games in Ferguson’s (2007) meta-analysis, Re-Mission, “has been demonstrated to lead to greater treatment adherence, quality of life, cancer knowledge and self-efficacy in youths with cancer who were randomized to play the game in comparison to youths who did not play the game” (p. 315). The study by Cherney (2008) mentions cognitive gender differences, and that “women perform better on verbal tests, whereas men demonstrate greater visuospatial capabilities,” and that men also “typically outperform females on certain tests of mental rotation… and spatial perception” (p. 776). Cherney’s (2008) results demonstrate that “even a very brief practice [4 hours] in computer game play does improve performance on mental rotation measures. In general, practice with computer games improved both men’s and women’s performance, but women’s gains were significantly greater than men’s” (p. 783). Furthermore, Cherney (2008) states, “Although women’s gains were larger than men’s, their posttest scores did not reach the level of men’s scores. Thus, men benefited from practice as well” (p. 783). To help close this gap, Cherney (2008) found that “[p]laying an action video game for 10 [hours] eliminated gender differences in spatial attention and also decreased the gender difference in mental rotation ability whereas playing a non-action game did not eliminate the gender difference” (p. 784).

After researching the positive and negative effects of video games, I find myself drawn to the positive social effects the most. I can attest to the high socialization factors that online gaming can provide; considering that I attended seven schools all over California and even in Guam throughout my K-12 education, I can say that having the ability to log onto a game and socialize with pre-existing friends in a familiar environment helped make transitions easier. It may also be important to note that a small handful of those friendships still exist today. This isn’t to say that I haven’t been affected negatively by video games such as acceptance of stereotypes or wanting to match the large-busted thin-ideal portrayed in them, but it might be hard to measure in oneself. The current culture in America is certainly highly focused on media consumption that abounds with sex and violence, especially in video games, but this also opens up the discussion that there is such a broad range of games available, and findings may not be generalizable to all games, or even to multiple genres.