Heatstreet is Murdoch's latest go at being "relevant" to the tech-hungry, celeb-bothering, video-gamin' 20-somethings heavily into rabidly right-wing politics. Uncle Rupers might be happy to have Vice on the balance sheet as long as the cash keeps flowing, but he'd much prefer a successful brand that can do the business hawking repellent views similar to his own. Still, I'd managed to ignore this doomed venture until my Twitter feed tossed up this: No, Grand Theft Auto Doesn’t Make You Sexist. Video games and sociology, right up my street.
In a scholarly paper, 'Acting Like a Tough Guy: Violent-Sexist Video Games, Identification With Game Characters, Masculine Beliefs, & Empathy for Female Violence Victims' (read it here), the authors say "We hypothesized that playing violent-sexist video games would increase endorsement of masculine beliefs, especially among participants who highly identify with dominant and aggressive male game characters. We also hypothesized that the endorsement of masculine beliefs would reduce empathy toward female violence victims ... We found that participants' gender and their identification with the violent male video game character moderated the effects of the exposure to sexist-violent video games on masculine beliefs. Our results supported the prediction that playing violent-sexist video games increases masculine beliefs, which occurred for male (but not female) participants who were highly identified with the game character. Masculine beliefs, in turn, negatively predicted empathic feelings for female violence victims. Overall, our study shows who is most affected by the exposure to sexist-violent video games, and why the effects occur." They go on to argue in the paper itself that lack of empathy is the most significant predictor of violence against women, and so games that depress empathy could well be problematic. More specifically, broken down into variables there were statistically significant relationships between reported "masculine beliefs" and level of violence, and more specifically between those values and identification with a masculine player-character in what the research team classify as 'violent-sexist' games.
Now, remember, correlation isn't causation. At best it indicates that a relationship *in all likelihood* exists, but it doesn't necessarily point to the direction of these relationships. Was it the case that the young men reported a more sympathetic attitude toward masculine values after playing the likes of Grand Theft Auto because these views were already in place, or that they had been "caused" by the game they had just played. In all likelihood, as the authors claim, the former is more likely to be the case. At best the sorts of tropes on show in GTA would merely confirm and reinforce pre-existing dispositions. Nevertheless, there are some problems, not least being that the observed correlation only involved the 22 who played GTA (out of a total sample of 154 Italian high school students who played a variety of games). Because the group is so small it's not wise to draw any sort of conclusion beyond "more study needed".
None of this makes it into the dimly-lit consciousness of our HeatStreet writer. Instead of addressing, or even polemicising against the results, he writes "Is Grand Theft Auto sexist? Is killing a woman in a video game somehow inherently worse than killing a man? Well, maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but if women are tough enough to be president, fight in war and kick my ass ... they’re probably tough enough to be included in video game carnage, just like the men." This is not so much as missing the point as doing a very deliberate body swerve to avoid it. Where women feature as video game adversaries, historically speaking there is a tendency to represent them as overly-sexualised. In 1990s beat 'em ups, like the otherwise wonderful Streets of Rage 2, women typically appear in fetish wear as you smack them in the mouth. When things moved into three dimensions, Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame led the way in svelte bodies and generous hips and boobs, and so did the baddies. And today there is not much variation in female body types available. How often do you spot overweight or small-breasted women in a game?
This isn't to suggest portrayals of women in games cause sexism. They don't, they reflect, feed back, and naturalise already existing views and assumptions - an effect that's quite subtle but nevertheless real. If there was no effect whatsoever, then why would a mainstream game centered around Nazi battlefield exploits, such as my Call of Duty: Heroes of the SS thought experiment, be hugely controversial? Might it have something to do with normalising and rendering banal a regime long-associated with truly foul crimes?
In the real world, it is rarely a matter of something causing something or not, it's a matter of degree. If it applies to the in-your-face, it's also the case with the commonplace.