It has long been clear that many video games portray their few women characters in highly sexualized ways, and the gaming community includes an aggressively sexist subculture. But with most research centered on the link between violent game play and aggression, there has been little actual evidence linking game play to sexist attitudes.
A newly published study of adolescent French males fills in that gap. Researchers report heavy gamers are indeed more likely to express the belief that women should stay in their traditional roles. But they also find a far stronger link between this attitude and religiosity.
“Much of our learning is not conscious, and we pick up on subtle cues without realizing it, saidDouglas Gentile of Iowa State University, one of the paper’s authors. “Video games are not intended to teach sexist views, but most people don’t realize how attitudes can shift with practice.”
The researchers, led by Laurent Begue of the University of Grenoble, surveyed 13,520 young men between the ages of 11 and 19, all of whom attended school in Lyon or Grenoble. They were asked the number of hours they spent playing video games over the past week, as well as how much television they watched.
Religiosity was measured using two questions: how frequently they attend religious services, and how important they felt religion was to their everyday life (on a scale of one to four). To measure sexism, they were presented with the statement “A woman is made mainly for making and raising children.” They responded on a four-point scale, from “fully agree” to “fully disagree.”
The strongest correlation was the one between religion and sexism — which Gentile notes is no surprise given the fact many religions preach a traditional version of gender roles. When the researchers took religion out of the equation, they found no linkage between sexism and TV viewing.
However, they also found that “video game exposure was significantly related to sexism, irrespective of gender, age, socioeconomic status and religion.” In other words, even the non-religious were more likely to endorse the sexist statement if they spent a lot of time playing video games.
Writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers caution that their findings do not establish causality. “It may be that individuals with sexist orientations spend more time playing video games,” they note — although that raises question of what it is about these games that attracts such individuals.
They also concede that they did not measure the effect of specific games, and that their one-item measure of sexism hardly covers all facets of that mindset. This is a first-of-its-kind study, and more refined follow-ups are needed to confirm its conclusions.
Happily, a 2016 study found the tendency to sexualize female game characters reached its peak in the early 2000s and has decreased since, due in part to the fact that more girls and women are becoming gamers. If that trend continues, games may gradually lose their sexist undertones.
For the moment, however, this research offers unsettling news to parents: There’s a good chance your son will pick up some sexist attitudes Sunday morning — regardless of whether he dutifully goes to church or stays home and plays video games.