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Feminist Frequency and the Truth About Video Games

Since 2013, the Feminist Frequency series Tropes vs Women has been an important voice in examining and reshaping how female characters are portrayed in video games. Featuring executive director Anita Sarkeesian, who has been subjected to considerable online harassment for developing the series, Tropes vs Women highlights the stereotyped and often sexualized portrayal of female characters in video games. As an agent for change in diversifying and improving female characters, the influence of Tropes vs Women can’t be denied. But with their new curriculum, offered up for schools and community groups, Feminist Frequency runs the risk common to many good faith advocacy efforts: of going beyond the scientific data and risking the credibility of the advocacy goals they promote.

I’ve written on the topic of women and games myself, advocating for more games with positive portrayals of female characters. And I’ve generally admired the work Sarkeesian has done, particularly in the face of significant adversity. I play several of the Tropes vs Women videos in my own first-year class on video games. At the same time, I am worried about some of the claims of media effects that go beyond moral advocacy. Arguing that we need better representations of women in games because it’s the right thing to do and would attract more girl and women gamers is different from making sciency claims about increased sexism among players or body issues among women. At times, Feminist Frequency strays from the former into the latter, not always to their advantage.

The curriculum provided by Feminist Frequency is, not surprisingly, rooted heavily in the Tropes vs Women series. The series provides a lot of opportunity for thought, although the curriculum can, at times club the participants over the head with an ideological belief in the centrality of media in shaping both culture and individual behavior. For instance, in the very first module, the curriculum states, “In order to recognize how our thoughts and opinions are influenced by popular media it is beneficial to start by deconstructing the sources one frequents for enjoyment and make connections between personally held beliefs and how they are reflected in these media sources.”  Later, the curriculum suggests, “Teachers should make students aware of research done on the impact and influence of media on both individuals and groups as part of conversations around this activity.”  That’s a great suggestion, except it’s not clear that Feminist Frequency is aware that this research does not always support their larger narrative.

Activist groups selectively citing research is hardly an issue unique to Feminist Frequency. Anti-media advocacy groups have always historically distorted and exaggerated the evidence for the impact of media on behavior. Even professional guilds, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Psychological Association, have historically had problems with misrepresenting the research evidence. Many films and essays that highlight the supposed oppressive evils of the entertainment industry do so by failing to inform viewers or readers of research that might provoke a more nuanced rather than alarmist view.

To be fair, Feminist Frequency typically endorses a more cautious view of media effects than some. For instance, in the second installment of Tropes vs Women, Sarkeesian explicitly rejects a “monkey see/monkey do” vision of media effects (which, by contrast, appears to be the version of media effects endorsed by the AAP and APA.)  However, she does speak to media as having a “powerful cultivation effect” on cultural attitudes and opinions such as on issues related to sexism and violence toward women.

This can, at times, feel a bit like having one’s cake and eating it too. Linking violent video games to violence in society can feel like a simplified, rubbish belief, but it’s one that can be tested. Indeed, the very fact it has been proven untrue, has led to significant changes in how our society has come to view video game violence, with increasingly greater reluctance to blame mass shootings and other violence on games. But focusing on difficult to measure attitudes and beliefs, particularly when tied to historical culture, tends to produce great talking points, but less clear data.

Do Video Games Cultivate Sexist Attitudes?

Cultivation theory suggests that our beliefs and attitudes in the real world can be shaped by our engagement with media and popular culture. Because they address attitudes rather than behaviors, beliefs in cultivation are, indeed, subtler … and also harder to prove or—more importantly—disprove than other blank slate views that posit direct connections between media and mimicked behaviors. Feminist Frequency sometimes seems to suggest that popular myths or stories shaped attitudes toward women throughout history. There’s little doubt that misogyny has deep and troubling historical roots—but whether popular culture, in the form of myths, books, stories or religious texts, actually shaped people’s beliefs or merely mirrored them remains an issue of debate.

Relying on a believe in cultivation can create a situation in which fact-based claims are difficult to verify. Such claims often the form of video games don’t cause x, but they do influence cultural attitudes toward x. In effect, such claims dodge testable hypotheses, while still insinuating important, potentially public-health-worthy concerns, which are presented as factual rather than debatable.

In fact, the theory of cultivation, that our basic attitudes are shaped by popular culture, has had a rough road. It’s possible that, in the absence of any other data, some beliefs may be shaped by media, though news media may be more powerful than fictional stories. For instance, constant exposure to news stories of violent crime may cause viewers to believe that violent crime is increasing when, in fact, it has been historically decreasing. However, effects for news media haven’t always been clear. In one recent study I conducted with colleagues Derek Chadee and Sven Smith, exposure to news media did not influence fear of crime victimization, much to our own surprise.

Demonstrating cultivation from playing video games has specifically not fared well. One recent study found that playing militaristic games did not, in fact, cultivate militaristic attitudes. Research by the same group found that playing video games with potentially sexist content did not result in sexist attitudes among gamers three years later. One Italian study initially suggested playing Grand Theft Auto might be associated with decreased empathy for women among players, but a reanalysis of this data, conducted by psychologist Brent Donnellan and myself, revealed the conclusions to have been flawed, with little actual evidence for cultivation beliefs. Another study suggested that exposure to Grand Theft Auto might actually reduce rape myth acceptance in players. None of this is to suggest that the evidence either for or against effects is unequivocal. Some studies do suggest cultivation beliefs, although debate regarding the methodological validity of many studies both for and against cultivation continues. In a follow up to our reanalysis of the Italian study, we discuss some of the evidence both for and against effects. But presenting cultivation effects as an established truth rather than a point of debate is deeply misleading.

This is the difficulty for a group like Feminist Frequency. I don’t at all doubt the good faith of their efforts, nor the worthiness of their cause. In recent years, we’ve seen increased representation of positive female characters across game genres and I have little question that Feminist Frequency have played an important role in this process. But I do worry that, as they stray from pointing out the absurdity of how female characters are represented in some games into public-health-level claims of media effects, Feminist Frequency might invite credible criticism.

Don’t Create New Wars When You’ve Won the First

Activist groups often seem to have an unavoidable urge to overplay their hands, to lurch from good-faith appeals to our better natures into hyperbolic claims of urgency, and an inability to acknowledge a win and celebrate it. In failing to remain balanced, advocacy efforts can often implode under their most extreme voices and give credibility to the very backlashes they warn of.

The curriculum offered by Feminist Frequency addresses issues that are both important and interesting. But I do worry that the curriculum, with some admitted exceptions, misses opportunities for a nuanced discussion of many of the issues at hand. Rather than presenting evidence for and against beliefs in a balanced, objective style, it can seem as if the curriculum is at times indoctrinating participants into a particular ideological worldview based on a theory of cultivation that is, at best, controversial.

My concerns are not in opposition to Feminist Frequency’s goals, but rather largely because I support them. I appreciate the ability to play female characters in games such as Call of Duty: WWII, where they were previously uncommon. An increasing stable of games ranging from Portal to Tomb Raider, through Horizon Zero Dawn, Alien Isolation, Alice: Madness Returns, Mirror’s Edge and The Walking Dead video game series have highlighted strong female leads. The last high-quality census of female game characters occurred in 2009, so we don’t have a full view of how things have changed in the past ten years. But anecdotally, at least, games have improved. To be fair, Feminist Frequency does talk about positive female characters, particularly Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, but this feels a bit drowned out by the implication that female characters are most notable when they fit a social justice narrative, rather than focused on action-oriented game play. Acknowledging where things have improved and celebrating victories can promote goodwill and make activist causes feel balanced and generous. Failing to do so can make a good cause seem like a grinding stream of criticism, increasingly focused on pickier critiques and more rigid goals. Or, put another way, Feminist Frequency were right to call for more strong female characters, but the world is big enough for both Horizon Zero Dawn and Grand Theft Auto.

Mostly though, I blanch at some of Feminist Frequency’s sciency claims and worry that debates over these may undermine rather than support Feminist Frequency’s larger goals. I believe that a more nuanced discussion of the science behind media effects, including cultivation, would enhance rather than detract from the merit of Feminist Frequency’s advocacy. Then again, given that professional guilds, such as the AAP and APA, have had such difficulty faithfully representing science, perhaps one shouldn’t expect better from Feminist Frequency, who make no claims to represent science.

I hope that Feminist Frequency continue their efforts. But it may be time to reflect on the more extreme sciency claims they are making and how well these can actually be supported by good, replicable data. Naturally, I would be happy to consult on such effort, if I can find time away from the latest Tomb Raider installment.

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