Let's face it: the history of female characters in video games is not particularly woke. Whether it’s the classic Tomb Raider model with what appears to be a mantelpiece on her chest or the standard-issue chainmail bikinis of MMOs like World of Warcraft or Everquest, it could be argued that women have been given a raw deal when it comes to representation in games.
If you accept this premise, you might wonder: what effect does that have? Could this inundation with sexualized female bodies be a problem? Could it make society more sexist? Could it make girls and women less confident in their bodies? Could it lead to fanboys forgetting that women are, in fact, mammals?
Well, good news: according to a recent study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, playing video games does not lead to these negative outcomes: “[There’s] lots of hyperbole and moral outrage,” study author Christopher J. Ferguson told PsyPost, “but very little evidence that video games are causing any ‘harm’ to either male or female players.”
This isn’t the first study looking into the possible effects of video games on our views of women – the study cites at least 18 other papers that had already attempted to answer the question. Of those, 15 measured the link between gaming and anti-woman attitudes like sexism or misogyny, and 10 measured outcomes such as depression, body image, or anxiety.
But this one has an edge: it’s not a direct study, but a meta-analysis, meaning it takes all the findings and caveats of those previous 18 results and adds them up to find one overall conclusion. It’s a more powerful tool than individual studies for quite a few reasons – it reduces the effect of “personal moral opinions” which, Ferguson told PsyPost, “[some] scholars probably interjected […] into the studies, if unintentionally”, and it also allowed the researchers to account for different levels of rigor in different studies.
“The major caveat is simply that many of the studies just aren’t very good,” Ferguson told PsyPost. “The good news is that the higher quality studies were less likely to find evidence for negative effects than lower quality studies […] Granted it’s still a fairly small research area, but this initial data has been so underwhelming that I’m not sure there’s much to be mined here.”
So the final conclusion is slightly underwhelming, really. There’s no statistically significant link between video games and sexist attitudes or mental health – much like the hoo-hah about video games causing violence, the problem has turned out to be something of a nothing burger.
“Overall, the ‘moral panic’ over video games and sexualization is pretty much following the ‘paint-by-numbers’ pattern of the video game debate,” Ferguson said. But “as a purely ‘public health’ issue, this doesn’t appear to be much of a concern at all.”
Of course, there may be some of you out there thinking “well, that doesn’t make it ok!” – and the researchers aren’t saying it does. Instead, they’re just saying: be aware of what the problem you want to solve actually is.
“At least with fictional media, the evidence often reveals that we’re probably scapegoating media and fiction rarely causes social problems games,” Ferguson told PsyPost. “Again, to be fair, advocating for better representation of females in games can be a worthy cause even if the games don’t cause harmful effects. I support those efforts, just hope advocates don’t misrepresent the evidence as a part of their efforts.”