The way women are portrayed in many video games — attractive, scantily clad, performing limited roles — sends a powerful message to gamers, making them more subjective to sexism.

Playing video games might make teens a bit more sexist. Image credits: R Pollard.

Douglas Gentile, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, followed some 13,000 adolescents aged 11 to 19, who spent approximately three hours a day watching TV and nearly two hours playing video games, on average. He found a very small, but significant connection between video games and sexism.

However, it’s not like video games are ruining the pristine minds of teenagers — “traditional values” do much more harm in this case. Gentile didn’t only look at the video games, he also studied the impact of television and religion, finding that religion was three times more likely to make teens sexist.

“Many different aspects of life can influence sexist attitudes. It was surprising to find a small but significant link between game play and sexism. Video games are not intended to teach sexist views, but most people don’t realize how attitudes can shift with practice,” Gentile said. “Nonetheless, much of our learning is not conscious and we pick up on subtle cues without realizing it.”

To measure the impact, researchers asked participants how much they agree or disagree with the following statement:

  • “A woman is made mainly for making and raising children.”

GTA is a game where women are particularly sexualized.

Participants who spent more time playing video games were more likely to agree, and participants who were religious were even more likely to agree. The fact that religion is much more impactful in terms of sexism is really worrying, though this was not the central focus of this study. Another interesting finding was that sexism was also connected with lower social economic status in teenagers.

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Repeated exposure to media also changes our perception, and there’s a lot to be improved with how women are represented on television as well. Basically, it’s not necessarily that video games are sexist in nature, it’s more that they are another type of media where women are misrepresented. This is the so-called cultivation theory, which states that the more people watch TV, the more likely they are to believe that the reality presented on TV is the real reality. In this sense, a similar thing could be applied to games, especially role-playing games where players pick a character and walk through his or her decisions.

“If you repeatedly ‘practice’ various decisions and choices in games, this practice can influence your attitudes and behaviors outside of the gaming world,” Gentile said.

These findings go against those of a previous study, conducted in Germany. In 2015, researchers found no connection between video games and sexism. The fact that this new study was conducted in the US and the 2015 one was carried out in Germany, and they came up with different conclusions, might indicate that culture (and of course, religion) also play an important role. However, Gentile says the results are applicable across cultures because this study is focused on learning behavior, not on inherited traits. How we learn and adapt to cues is independent of culture, he argues.

Journal Reference: Laurent Bègue, Elisa Sarda, Douglas A. Gentile, Clementine Bry and Sebastian Roche — Video Games Exposure and Sexism in a Representative Sample of Adolescents. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00466

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