The Double-Edged Sword of Online Gaming: An Analysis of Masculinity in Video Games and the Gaming Community

 

The purpose of this study is to understand what boys and young men are seeing and experiencing in the online gaming community.

 
Although women’s interest and participation in online gaming is on the rise, boys and young men are still the majority of those who participate in video games and online gaming in the US. What do boys and young men see and experience in online gaming in terms of relationships, violence, and ideas about what it means to be men? More recently, there has been a willingness to discuss and address ideas of toxic manhood and masculinity, as well as misogyny and the exclusion of women in the gaming community. To aid in these discussions, it is important we understand the way manhood is presented, discussed, and perpetuated in the gaming community. Given the amount of time many boys and young men spend in these spaces and communities, these are vital questions for promoting and sustaining gender equality and healthy masculinity.

This groundbreaking study examines masculinity and representations of different identities (gender, race, LGBTQIA+ individuals, disability, age, and body size) in the most popular video games and in the TWITCH online gaming community. The Oak Foundation has partnered with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and Promundo to examine representations of the aforementioned identities and masculinity in video games and gaming communities. Given pressing global concerns about the societal impacts of toxic masculinity and the ever-growing popularity of video gaming around the globe, alongside the COVID-19 pandemic that facilitated greater interest and participation in gaming, this work is more important than ever. This study contributes to the Global Boyhood Initiative, led by Promundo, the Kering Foundation, and Plan International, a new international effort to promote and support healthy boyhood.

Video games play an important role in the lives of young people in the US and around the world. Video game play has spiked 75 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the gaming industry earning $159.3 billion in 2020. According to a Nielsen gaming survey, 82 percent of global consumers played video games or watched video game play in March 2020, the height of pandemic lockdowns in the US. Over half (54 percent) of players are boys/men while 46 percent of players are girls/women. Prior to the pandemic, video games had become a mainstream form of entertainment, with 60 percent of Americans playing daily. Video games have an incredible reach into the lives of boys and men.

The purpose of this study is to understand what boys and young men are seeing and experiencing in the online gaming community. Overall, our results find that the experience is a double-edged sword for male gamers. On the positive side, streaming platforms are a vital space for connecting with male friends – these communities are a space where boys and young men can share their emotions and problems and be their authentic selves. But online spaces are also rife with identity-based prejudice, harassment, and bullying that are ultimately harmful to boys and young men, and also harmful because other community members who interact with this content may mimic or condone these behaviors online as well as offline. We offer a list of concrete actions in this report for parents and content creators to improve online gaming spaces for male gamers, and those female and non-binary gamers who also find a sense of belonging within the gaming community.

This study is the first-ever content analysis on a streaming platform (as opposed to non-streaming Representation in Video Games), of its kind. We not only analyze video game play, but the broader ecosystem of online gaming communities. The broader ecosystem of online gaming includes game play, as well as platforms for watching others play, gamer commentary, and chat features where viewers interact with one another. Therefore, we include in our analysis also user-generated content, such as the comments made by popular streamers during game play and comments posted by observers of this game play in the “chat” feature. This allows us to examine the ecosystem of streaming video game play to understand where and how masculinity is enacted. We combine this analysis with a survey of the experiences of boys, male teens, and young men in online gaming spaces aged 10 to 26. This research design allows us a more comprehensive picture of how the gaming community shapes the lives of young male gamers. All together, this study includes the following methodological components:

Our study is also the first systematic content analysis of U.S. Representation in Video Games since 2009. Much has changed in the media landscape in the last decade, so this study will serve as the new benchmark for gendered representations and specifically masculinity in video games. It is also the first study to analyze six major marginalized groups in US society, in gaming: women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals, people with disabilities, adults ages 50+, and people with large body types. Moving forward, this study will serve as the benchmark for representation of these groups and work to inspire content creators and researchers to expand their lenses of representation when it comes to character depictions in video games. This is a companion study building off of an analysis of masculinity applied to boys’ television, “If he can see it, will he be it?”

Lastly, this study is unique in its blend of automated coding and expert human coding to better understand representations in video games and experiences in online gaming spaces. By fine-tuning a state-of-the-art automated language analysis model, we were able to develop an algorithm to analyze more chat messages than is possible with just human analysis, in isolation.

 

Action Steps for Industry Leaders

  1. Create playable characters that reflect the broader population. Review how identities represented on screen (gender identities, races, sexual orientations, ability status, ages, and body sizes) match up to the broader population. Make sure that characters are not tokenized or stereotyped based on their identities.
  2. Avoid sexualization and objectification of female characters. Create playable female characters that are equal in skill and ability to their male peers. Female characters should be equipped with clothing and armor that fits their tasks. Avoid exaggerated body proportions.
  3. Boost and promote underrepresented streamers. Diversify the gaming ecosystem by helping underrepresented streamers reach broader audiences.
  4. Show male and female characters working together. Boys who have positive, female friendships are building relationships based on respect from an early age. Characters on-screen can model these positive relationships by working together.
  5. Allow male characters to express a full range of emotions. When the story allows, show male characters who display a full range of emotions, including joy, sadness, and vulnerability.
  6. Take moderation and reporting seriously. Strengthen platform moderation tools and enforce consequences for those who violate guidelines.
  7. Develop a corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. Market research shows that modern consumers are increasingly concerned with corporate social responsibility. Develop a CSR with attention to issues of diversity, inclusion, and in-game violence.
  8. Re-examine gaming depictions of gun violence. Consider how detailed depictions of weapons can serve as marketing for gun manufacturers. Given the prevalence of gun violence, it is imperative that the gaming industry examine its own relation to gun manufacturers.
  9. Get creative. The growing popularity of e-sports and interactive gaming illustrate the power of games to bring people together. Ask yourself, “How can we create engaging, competitive, team-focused games without the use of gratuitous violence?”
  10. Include awards for social responsibility at The Game Awards. The gaming industry should recognize and celebrate games, developers, and platforms that are succeeding at creating inclusive environments.

Action Steps for Parents

  1. Challenge your own expectations of how men and women should act, and model the behaviors you want to encourage. If you feel that boys really should or shouldn’t do a certain thing because they are a boy, ask yourself, “Why?” The best way to show your son how to grow up to be a respectful, healthy, connected person is to model those qualities.
  2. Call out harmful stereotypes when you see them. When you see narrow depictions of masculinity on screen, use it as an opportunity for discussion.
  3. Talk openly about your own fears, uncertainties, and disappointments. In age appropriate ways, make it clear that you believe everyone has the right to share how they are feeling. Parents can model how to share difficult feelings, in healthy ways, communicating permission to a boy to do the same.
  4. Acknowledge the particular challenges boys feel about being vulnerable, and the courage it takes for them to be open. In those moments when a child opens up to you, listen without judging, and help them to feel safe. Using phrases like “don’t cry” or “you have to be tough” can discourage boys from opening up in the future.
  5. Speak up when you hear disrespectful comments off screen. If grandparents, cousins, or family friends say something problematic: sexist, racist, homophonic, transphobic or otherwise, speak up at that moment and have a conversation about your values. You could say, “We believe it’s important to treat everyone with respect.”
  6. Acknowledge and talk about video game violence. The frequency and normality of violence in video games cannot be ignored. Repeatedly viewing violence, whether in games or other forms of media, can desensitize viewers. Help your child tap into empathy by asking: how would you feel if this was happening to me or someone I care about in real life?
  7. Identify positive role models on and off screen. Identify role models–of all genders–who exemplify positive, healthy, respectful behavior and emotional expression, and whose interests, jobs, and opinions challenge harmful stereotypes.
  8. Recognize that modern day gaming is an interactive experience. The gaming experience is about more than what you see in-game. It includes tuning into live-streams, engaging with others, and using a shared language. Parents should speak to their children about expectations around all aspects of gaming.
  9. Talk to boys about sportsmanship. Hold the same expectations about digital sportsmanship as you would in face-to-face sports or competitions. Encourage boys to think, “Would I say or do this if I was face to face with this person?”
  10. Encourage critical media consumption. As with all forms of media, parents should encourage boys to be critical consumers of video games. Remind children that all media is carefully crafted with particular intentions. Encourage kids to ask: what would the consequences of this action be if it occurred in real life? Is this encouraging me to purchase something? How would I feel if this was happening to me or someone I care about?

Previous Action Steps created for the Masculinity in TV Study

 

IF SHE CAN SEE IT, SHE CAN BE IT