Video Game Characters and the Socialization of Gender Roles: Young People’s Perceptions Mirror Sexist Media Depictions

Abstract

Video game characters are icons in youth popular culture, but research on their role in gender socialization is rare. A content analysis of images of video game characters from top-selling American gaming magazines showed male characters (83%) are more likely than female characters (62%) to be portrayed as aggressive. Female characters are more likely than male characters to be portrayed as sexualized (60% versus 1%), scantily clad (39% versus 8%) and as showing a mix of sex and aggression (39 versus 1%). A survey of teens confirmed that stereotypes of male characters as aggressive and female characters as sexually objectified physical specimens are held even by non-gamers. Studies are discussed in terms of the role media plays in socializing sexism.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

References

  1. Adams, E. (2001). Eulogy, Time. Retrieved January 24, 2007 from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,139659,00.html.

  2. Agars, M. (2004). Reconsidering the effects of stereotypes on the advancement of women in organizations. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 28, 103–111.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Anderson, C. A., Berkowitz, L., Donnerstein, E., Huesmann, L. R., Johnson, J. D., Linz, D., et al. (2003). The influence of media violence on youth. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(3), 81–110.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A metaanalytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological Science, 12, 353–359.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Anderson, C. A., & Dill, K. E. (2000). Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 772–790.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. Media Psychology, 3, 265–299.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Bandura, A., & Bussey, K. (2004). On broadening the cognitive, motivational, and sociostructural scope of theorizing about gender and functioning: Comment on Martin, Ruble, and Szkrybalo, Psychological Bulletin, 130, 691–701.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bartholow, B. D., Dill, K. E., Anderson, K. B., & Lindsay, J. J. (2003). The proliferation of media violence and its economic underpinnings. In I. E. Sigel (series Ed.) & D. A. Gentile (vol. Ed.), Advances in applied developmental psychology: Media violence and children: A complete guide for parents and professionals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing.

  9. Beasley, B., & Standley, T. C. (2002). Shirts vs. skins: Clothing as an indicator of gender role stereotyping in video games. Mass Communication and Society, 5, 279–293.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Bell, P. (2002). Content analysis of visual images. In T. Van Leeuwen & C. Jewitt (Eds.), Handbook of visual analysis. London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Braun, C., & Giroux, J. (1989). Arcade video games: Proxemic, cognitive and content analyses. Journal of Leisure Research, 21, 92–105.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Brenick, A., Henning, A., Killen, M., O’Connor, A., & Collins, M. (2007). Social reasoning about stereotypic images in video games: Unfair, legitimate, or “just entertainment”? Youth and Society, 38, 395–419.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Brown, J. D., L’Engle, K. L., Pardun, C. J., Guo, G., Kenneavy, K, & Jaskson, C. (2006). Sexy media matter: Exposure to sexual content in music, movies, television, and magazines predicts black and white adolescents’ sexual behavior. Pediatrics, 117, 1018–1027.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Business Wire (2006). GamePro magazine sees record growth in readership according to MRI Fall 2006. Retreived February 6, 2007 from http://www.thefreelibrary.com/GamePro+Magazine+Sees+Record+Growth+in+Readership+According+to+MRI...-a0155610136.

  15. Carpenter, L. M. (1998). From girls into women: Scripts for sexuality and romance in Seventeen magazine, 1974–1994. Journal of Sex Research, 35, 158–168.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Computer Gaming World 2005 Reader Study (2005). Retrieved September 8, 2006 from http://gamegroup.ziffdavis.com/research/index.html.

  17. Connell, R. W. (1987). Gender and power. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Cowan, G. (2002). Content analysis of visual materials. In M. W. Wiederman & B. E. Whitley (Eds.), Handbook for conducting research on human sexuality. London: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Crawford, M., & Unger, R. (2004). Images of women and men. In M. Crawford & R. Unger (Eds.), Women and gender: A feminist psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Dietz, T. L. (1998). An examination of violence and gender role portrayals in video games: Implications for gender socialization and aggressive behavior. Sex Roles, 38, 425–442.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Dill, K. E., Gentile, D. A., Richter, W. A., & Dill, J. C. (2005). Violence, sex, race and age in popular video games: A content analysis. In E. Cole & J. Henderson Daniel (Eds.), Featuring females: Feminist analyses of the media. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Dohnt, H., & Tiggemann, M. (2006). The contribution of peer and media influences to the development of body satisfaction and self-esteem in young girls: A prospective study. Developmental Psychology, 42, 929–936.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Donnerstein, E., & Berkowitz, L. (1981). Victim reactions in aggressive erotic films as a factor in violence against women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 41, 710–724.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. E3 Censorship? (2006 January). Retrieved February 13, 2007 from http://www.igda.org/sex/archives/2006/01/e3_censorship.html.

  25. Electronic Gaming Monthly 2005 Reader Study (2005). Retrieved September 8, 2006 from http://gamegroup.ziffdavis.com/research/index.html.

  26. Game Informer Magazine 2006 Media Kit (2005). Retrieved September 8, 2006 from http://www.gameinformer.com/OtherPages/Corporate/Advertising.htm.

  27. GamePro Fast Facts (2005) Retrieved September 8, 2006 from Bob Huseby, VP Sales.

  28. Gerbner, G. (1999). The stories we tell. Peace Review, 11(1), 9–15.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The ambivalence toward men inventory. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 23, 519–536.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1999). The ambivalent sexism inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 491–512.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Glick, P., Fiske, S. T., Masser, B., Manganelli, A. M., Huang, L., Castro, Y. R., et al. (2004). Bad but bold: Ambivalent attitudes toward men predict gender inequality in 16 nations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 713–728.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Gutierres, S. E., Kenrick, D. T., & Partch, J. J. (1999). Beauty, dominance, and the mating game: Contrast effects in self-assessment reflect gender differences in mate selection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1126–1134.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Harrison, K. (2003). Television viewers’ ideal body proportions: The case of the curvaceously thin woman. Sex Roles, 48, 255–264.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Huesmann, L. R., Eron, L. D., & Yarmel, P. W. (1987). Intellectual functioning and aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 232–240.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Huntemann, N. (executive producer and director). (2000). Game over: Gender, race and violence in video games. [video]. (Available from the Media Education Foundation, 26 Center Street, Northampton, MA 01060).

  36. Hyde, J. S. (2007). Half the human experience: The psychology of women (7th ed.). New York: Houghton-Mifflin.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Kenrick, D. T., & Gutierres, S. E. (1980). Contrast effects and judgments of physical attractiveness: When beauty becomes a social problem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 131–140.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Kilbourne, J. (writer/editor) & Jhally S. (director/producer). (2000). Killing us softly 3: Advertising’s image of women [videorecording]. (Available from the Media Education Foundation, 60 Masonic Street, Northampton, Massachusetts 01060).

  39. Lanis, K., & Covell, K. (1995). Images of women in advertisements: Effects on attitudes related to sexual aggression, Sex Roles, 32, 639–649.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Lewin, T. (2006 July 9). The new gender divide: At colleges women are leaving men in the dust. New York Times. Retrieved May 22, 2007, from http://www.nytimes.com.

  41. Lugo, W. (2006). Violent video games recruit American youth. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 15, 11–14.

    Google Scholar 

  42. Magazine Publishers of America (2004). Teen market profile. Retrieved September 8, 2006 from http://www.magazine.org/Advertising_and_PIB/Ad_Categories_and_Demographics/index.cfm.

  43. Martin, C. L., & Ruble, D. (2004). Children’s search for gender cues: Cognitive perspectives on gender development. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(2), 67–70.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Mediamark Research Inc. (2005). Medimark Research Inc. releases its first-ever survey of children ages 6–11. Retrieved September 8, 2006 from http://www.mediamark.com/mri/docs/press/pr_11-21-05_KidsStudy.htm.

  45. Mikula, J. (2003). Gender and videogames: The political valency of Lara Croft, continuum. Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 17, 79–87.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. MPA (2007). Circulation. Retrieved February 9, 2007 from http://www.magazine.org/Circulation/circulation_trends_and_magazine_handbook/.

  47. Ms. Pac-Man (2007). Retrieved January 24, 2007 from Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ms._Pac-Man.

  48. National Television Violence Study (1998). National Television Violence Study (Vol. 3). Santa Barbara: University of California, Santa Barbara, Center for Communication and Social Policy.

  49. Official Xbox Magazine 2006 Media Kit (2005). Retrieved September 8, 2006 from http://futureus-inc.com/products/index.php?magazine=offic_xbox_mag.

  50. PC Gamer 2006 Media Kit (2005). Retrieved September 8, 2006 from http://futureus-inc.com/products/index.php?magazine=pc_gamer.

  51. Roberts, D., & Foehr, U. (2004). Kids and Media in America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

  52. Scharrer, E. (2004). Virtual violence: Gender and aggression in video game advertisements. Mass Communication and Society, 7, 393–412.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Scharrer, E. (2005). Hypermasculinity, aggression and television violence: An experiment. Media Psychology, 7, 353–376.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Signorielli, N., & Bacue, A. (1999). Recognition and respect: A content analysis of prime-time television characters across three decades. Sex Roles, 40, 527–544.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Smolak, L., & Stein, J. (2006). The relationship of drive for muscularity to sociocultural factors, self-esteem, physical attributes gender role, and social comparison in middle school boys. Body Image, 3, 121–129.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  56. Thomsen, S. R., Weber, M. M., & Brown, L. B. (2002). The relationship between reading beauty and fashion magazines and the use of pathogenic dieting methods among adolescent females. Adolescence, 37(145), 1–18.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  57. Tiggemann, M., & McGill, B. (2004). The role of social comparison in the effect of magazine advertisements on women’s mood and body dissatisfaction. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23, 23–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  58. Vega, V., & Malamuth, N. M. (2007). Predicting sexual aggression: The role of pornography in the context of general and specific risk factors. Aggressive Behavior, 33, 104–117.

    PubMed  Article  Google Scholar 

  59. Walsh, D., Gentile, D. A., VanOverbeke, M., & Chasco, E. (2002). MediaWise video game report card. Retreived January 15, 2003 from http://www.mediafamily.org/research/report_vgrc_2002-2.shtml (December).

  60. Ward, L. M. (2002). Does television exposure affect emerging adults’ attitudes and assumptions about sexual relationships? Correlational and experimental confirmation. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 31(1), 1–15.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgments

This research was supported by a research collaboration grant from Lenoir-Rhyne College. Great thanks to Dorothy Singer and Melanie Killen for comments on a previous version of this article. Thanks also to Craig Anderson and Melinda Burgess for helpful comments on a version just prior to publication. We acknowledge the support of the Lenoir-Rhyne College scholarship group (Beth Wright, Paulina Ruf, Bill Richter, Lisa Harris, Kathy Ivey, Gail Summer). Finally, thank you to our research assistants, Brian Brown and Michael Collins.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Karen E. Dill.

Additional information

Karen E. Dill and Kathryn P. Thill (formerly Kathryn L. Phillips), School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Lenoir-Rhyne College.

Appendix

Appendix

Operational definitions of terms for magazine content analysis

Aggression—behavior intended to harm another living being

Ex. pictures of aggression may contain weapons, injuries/blood, attacking postures and facial expressions showing intent to harm, cues in the situation (ex. explosions)

War—real, military, historical (ex. fatigues, tanks)

Fighting—any other combat; must show movement/action such as firing weapon, running with sword

Posing with weapon: picture of person holding weapon (ex. gun, knife, sword, ammunition belt. Not using weapon.

Armor—mail, metal armor, leather armor, shields

Sexualized (women)—showing skin, particularly cleavage, midriff and legs; large breasts, extreme proportions, provocative poses, postures or facial expressions

Sexualized (men)—showing skin, belly (six pack), provocative poses, postures or facial expressions

Scantily clad/showing skin—men who are shirtless, women showing cleavage, midriff, wearing short skirt. Tight outfits that cover most of the body do not fit this category.

Hypermasculine—distorted male characteristics. Ex. large muscles (often unrealistically so), very masculine facial features (chiseled face, stubble) signs of power and dominance

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Dill, K.E., Thill, K.P. Video Game Characters and the Socialization of Gender Roles: Young People’s Perceptions Mirror Sexist Media Depictions. Sex Roles 57, 851–864 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-007-9278-1

Download citation

Keywords

  • Video game
  • Stereotype
  • Sex roles
  • Violence
  • Magazine
  • Content analysis