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Socialization can be defined as the process of learning to behave in way that conforms to societal standards and, in the modern era, it is evident that mass media is the most influential of its agents. Since the spawn of the video game industry in the early 1970s with the release of Atari’s Pong, video games have have risen to become one of the most popular forms of media in the world today, generating just shy of 135 billion dollars in 2018 alone. The rise of video games can be linked to advancements in technology, each year bringing more compelling and lifelike portrayals of reality in the virtual world to consumers (Dill and Thill, 2007). This, however, begs the question as to which version of reality do video games aim to emulate. This inquiry has lead scholars in psychology and sociology to explore video games as potential sources for influence on society’s gender behaviors and attitudes. The following review of literature will summarize the work of researchers and scholars in psychology and sociology in investigating video games as a potential agent of socialization. Overall, scholars agree that video games, like other forms of mass media, have the capacity to influence socialization, particularly the aspect of gender role expectations. However, when regarding impact on violence and aggression, the discussion isn’t as one-sided.
An Initial Look at Video Games
Before video games began to hit store shelves by the masses, researchers had already began to recognize other forms of mass media as influences on child development. It was a shared belief among psychologists and sociologists that children were encouraged to internalize certain personality traits that can be deemed masculine and feminine. (Freeman, 1985) Regarding the link between mass media and child development, literature heavily focused on television, magazines and advertisements as potential sources for socialization and results generally showed that they had an influence on their consumers social behaviors. (Dietz, 1998) So when video games began to grow in popularity and accessibility, Dietz (1998) aimed to see if video games, like other media forms, were capable of impacting the identity of children. In one of the first content analyses of commercially successful video games, Dietz (1998) examined the portrayal of women and aggressive behavior in a sample of 33 commercially successful Nintendo and Sega Genesis games. Based on a variety of criteria regarding gender and violence such as whether or not female characters were portrayed as sex objects or prizes and whether or not violence was a main theme of the game, Dietz found that the portrayal of female characters in video games were overwhelmingly stereotypical, if they were even represented at all, and that males were constantly depicted in roles promoting violence and aggression. She determined that presenting females in terms of their sexuality and males in terms of their aggression which would be detrimental to boys and girls who may internalize these expectations of their respective genders. Further, the lack of female representation in video games will lead children of both sexes to believe that female contributions to society are inferior to those of their male counterparts. Dietz’s (1998) research served as the foundational piece for more scholars to take an in depth look at video games regarding both gender and violence.
Video Games and Gender
Much of Dietz’s (1998) findings may have to do with who the video games were intended for. Since their inception, the video game industry has largely viewed men as their target audience, which in turn has gone to influence the way gender is communicated through games. Building on Dietz’s (1998) findings further research regarding video games has touched base on things such as the proportional representation of male and female characters and the physical characteristics of the characters (Beasley and Standley, 2002; Scharrer, 2004; Summers and Miller, 2007; Burgess, Stermer and Burgess, 2007; Jansz and Martis, 2007; Williams, Consalvo, Martins and Ivory, 2009).
Male and Female Representation
Echoing the findings by Dietz (1998), further research has generally supported the phenomenon of men being significantly more represented than women in video games, despite the changes in genres and player demographics the video game industry has seen. (Summers and Miller, 2007; Burgess et al., 2007, Williams et al. 2009). Summers and Miller (2007) found that in the 49 games that were included in their magazine content analysis there existed a male to female ratio a little over 5 male characters to 1 female character, Burgess et al. (2007) found that males were twice as likely to be featured on video game box art as compared to females, and Williams et al. (2009) found that the percentage of males featured in video games far outweighed the percentage of females featured and particularly noting the stark contrast between game gender distribution to the percentages of males and females in the human population. However, despite males being significantly more represented than females in video games, some researchers how found that the overall number of female characters in more recent games far surpasses the number of those in earlier games. (Jansz and Martis, 2007).
When women are represented, however, research continues to show they are frequently displayed as attractive beings and sexual objects. (Dietz, 1998). Using a character’s clothes and physical characteristics like body build to determine their sexiness, scholars found that women were portrayed in a sexualized manner more often than men who were often just portrayed as being muscular (Summers and Miller, 2007; Jansz & Martis, 2007). Specfically, female characters wore clothing that revealed more of their skin when compared to men and had certain body parts like the buttocks and breasts be emphasized. (Jansz & Martis, 2007) In video game magazines, over 80% of the female characters displayed were categorized by Dill and Thill (2007) as either scantily clad, showing skin, sexualized, showing skin with provocative poses, or as a “vision of beauty.” In a content analysis of 47 randomly selected games from the Nintendo 64 and Sony PlayStation consoles, it was revealed that 71 out of the 82 females represented wore low-cut clothing that exposed their skin (Beasley and Standley, 2002).
Video Games, Violence, and Aggression
Dietz’s (1998) findings also served as a basis for research into the violence that video games depict. Dietz found that over three quarters of the 33 video games that were reviewed in her content analysis included aggression or violence as a core part of the gameplay. Dietz did admit that nearly quarter of these games had violence that was deemed “socially acceptable,” aggression in a controlled environment like a sports game, but nearly half included violence that was directed towards other characters and about 20% depicted violence directly towards women. Further research has shown that video games do tend to depict more violent images as opposed to non-violent ones, but research into direct links between video games and increased aggression towards women and others have produced mixed results (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Scharrer, 2004; Williams & Skoric, 2005; Dill, Brown & Collins, 2008; Fox & Tang, 2013).
- Beasley, B., and Collins Standley, T. (2002). Shirt vs. skin: clothing as an indicator of gender role stereotyping in video games. Mass Commun. Soc. 5, 279–293. doi: 10.1207/S15327825MCS0503_3
- Burgess, M. C. R., Stermer, S. P., and Burgess, S. R. (2007). Sex, lies, and video games: the portrayal of male and female characters on video game covers. Sex Roles 57, 419–433. doi: 10.1007/s11199-007-9250-0
- Dietz, T. (1998). An examination of violence and gender role depictions in video games: implications for gender socialization and aggressive behavior. Sex Roles 38, 425–441. doi: 10.1023/A:1018709905920
- Dill, K. E., and Thill, K. (2007). Video game characters and the socialization of gender roles: young people’s perceptions mirror sexist media depictions. Sex Roles 57, 851–864. doi: 10.1007/s11199-007-9278-1
- Near, C. (2013). Selling gender: associations of box art representation of female characters with sales for teen- and mature-rated video games. Sex Roles 68, 252–269. doi: 10.1007/s11199-012-0231-6
- Scharrer, E. L. (2004). Virtual violence: Gender and aggression in video games advertisements. Mass Commun. Soc. 7, 393–412. doi: 10.1207/ s15327825mcs0704_2
- Summers, A. and Miller, M. K.(2007). Gender differences in video game character’s role, appearance, and attire as portrayed in video game magazines. Sex Roles 57, 645–664. doi: 10.1007/s11199-007-9307-0
- Williams, D., Martins, N., Consalvo, M., and Ivory, J. (2009). The virtual census: representations of gender, race, and age in video games. New Media Soc. 11, 815–834. doi: 10.1177/1461444809105354
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