A study titled “Effects of sexualized video games on online sexual harassment” looks to answer the question of how games that sexualize female characters may influence the behavior of those who play them. For many years now there has been an almost singular focus on whether or not video games cause real world violence.
Overall, studies seem to refute the claim almost entirely, but the overall answer remains inconclusive, as some studies exist on both sides contradicting one another as to the effect of games on violence, though they are fewer in number. This one shifts the focus to women, which is long overdue.
The study is being conducted by Jonathan Burnay of the University of Liege, Brad J Bushman of Ohio State University, and Frank Laroi of the University of Bergen. The study worked with 211 participants who all played the game Ultra Street Fighter 4 with customized female characters that were sexualized, while some were asked to play the same game with non-sexualized female characters. This is done easily by equipping different costumes, as character customization is a large part of these types of games. After completing these play sessions, participants were provided with the chance to send sexist jokes to a male or female partner.
Before seeing the results, the researchers hypothesized that those who played the sexualized characters would be more likely to sexually harass female partners than those who played the regular characters. The results in fact showed exactly that, indicating that sexualization of female characters in games could potentially be a condition to provoke online sexual harassment towards women.
Two other results came in that were surprising to the researchers. First, a greater quantity of sexist jokes was sent to men than to women. Second, researchers found that female participants sent “significantly more sexist jokes than male participants.”
Some caveats to consider for both the expected findings and the two surprising ones need to be considered as well. First, the pool of participants was limited at 200 people and could do with a future study of a far larger candidate pool. Second, the study needs to be replicated by other researchers to support or contradict the findings, again hopefully with a larger pools of candidates. Third, it would be useful to also know the proportional division of men and women in the study. Were there 100 of each, making them about half of the pool, or were there only 10 of one gender, meaning they only represented 5% of the pool?
Still, the initial study is of the utmost importance, because it kickstarts a conversation that should be occurring anyways. In the future, we hope that others will seek to make their own studies on the subject for us to have a greater understanding of online sexual harassment. There could also be other associated issues that may be related but not yet obviously known to us.
The entire study can be read here and is certainly worth a read as it sparks a new take on an old issue.