AMES, Iowa — Bikini-clad, disproportionately attractive, or just created as characters lacking ambition, female characters in video games are often portrayed as secondary sexual objects — and gamers’ repeated exposure may be influencing real world sexual attitudes, a new study finds.
Researchers at Iowa State University surveyed 13,520 adolescents, ages 11 to 19, who spent approximately three hours a day watching TV and nearly two hours playing video games. The study authors acknowledge that video games are simply one medium that influences potential sexist attitudes, but that prolonged gaming increased exposure to the “subtle” messages that can alter social realities.
The study also looked at how religion and television affects the participants and found that the relationship between religion and sexist views was three times higher than that of playing video games. However, TV had little connection after the group was controlled for religion, which the study authors tied to an increasing variety of female roles in the past few decades.
“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,” says Douglas Gentile, a professor of psychology at Iowa State and co-author of the study, in a university press release. “Nonetheless, much of our learning is not conscious and we pick up on subtle cues without realizing it.”
The French research team working with Gentile measured sexist views by asking the study participants if “a woman is made mainly for making and raising children.” They found spent more time playing video games were more likely to agree with the statement.
The team also determined that more than a third of the characters in the games played fit the criteria of women as “sexualized, scantily clad or a vision of beauty,” cited by past studies as the indicator of sexist content.
Gentile noted the video game series, “Grand Theft Auto,” as one in which players have incredibly limited ways to interact with the female characters. “You can pay them for sex, you can look at them or you can kill them. This is an extremely limited view of the value of women,” he says.
Study participants attended schools in Lyon and Grenoble, France and when controlled for gender and socioeconomic status, sexism was measured higher among males in a lower socioeconomic level.
Although many studies have been conducted about violence in video games, the study authors note a distinction should be made between learned behaviors and cultural beliefs. A large part of similar studies is one’s ability to learn and detect subtle social clues.
This study was published in the March edition of the journal, Frontiers in Psychology.