Are video games rife with sexism? And have you heard that most video gamers are now adult women—not teenage boys in the basement? A new study says so. Feminist tech writers have seized on the study as proof that the video industry has fallen behind the times: too many games, they say, perpetuate a culture of sexism and misogyny.
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When I took a look at the Entertainment Software Association study, I was a little surprised to find that yours truly, the Factual Feminist herself, counted as a gamer. I do not recall playing a video game since Pac-Man in a bar in Cambridge, Mass—in 1980. The study counted anyone who plays, however occasionally, simple smartphone games like Bejeweled or Angry Birds. I don’t fault the researchers for their findings. It’s great that the world of games is expanding and there are more women creating and playing games. But a distinction is in order. There are casual game players—and there are hard-core gamers for whom highly complex, competitive video games are a primary life passion. Adult women are not a key demographic here. Consider just one typical data sample: Researchers at UCLA have been studying the pastimes of college freshmen for more than 40 years. For incoming freshmen, 65 percent of girls but fewer than 19 percent of boys said they played no video games at all in a typical week. Among hardcore gamers who play more than 20 hours a week, the ratio of boys to girls is 7 to 1. This huge gender gap has persisted since the researchers first started asking about video games in the mid-1990s—and it looks like it’s here to stay. But are video games rife with sexism? Do they promote a culture of misogyny and violence that must be dismantled? My answer is no. As I looked into the literature on gaming, I discovered that gamers make a lot of people nervous. Not only are most of them male—but the games they like tend to be action-packed, competitive, and often violent. And they like to play them—a lot. Gamers have long faced disapproval from moms and teachers and—above all—researchers and politicians—concernocrats—both liberal and conservative. For years, games such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty were said to cause violence, even though no one was able to establish a clear correlation. Those concerns died down when Psychological Bulletin published a major article in 2010 declaring the video game scare “much ado about nothing.” One graph showed that as video games have surged in popularity, youth crime has plummeted. But now, gamers are dealing with a new army of critics: gender activists and hipsters with degrees in cultural studies. These critics are concerned that gaming is a largely hetero-patriachal capitalist pursuit. Why isn’t gaming more inclusive? Why must there always be male heroes? Why are the few females always portrayed as either Damsels in distress or sex objects? These critics have made some useful points about “sexist tropes and narratives.” But they ignore the fact that the world of gaming has become more inclusive. There are games that fit a vast array of preferences, and games with responsibly proportioned and appropriately garbed female protagonists. Yet the video game gender police have become harsh and intolerant. Many of them want more than more women on both sides of the video screen—they want the male video game culture to end. Male gamers, as a group, do evince a strong a preference for games with male heroes and sexy women. Could that be because they are—male? There is no evidence that these games are making males racist, misogynist, or homophobic. In fact, all the data we have suggests that millennial males—born and raised in video game nation—are far less prone to these prejudices than previous generations. Imagine if a group of gender critics attacked women-centered shows like Oprah or The View, or women’s magazines, for privileging the female perspective and treating men like “the other.”
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