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Geena Davis Is Wrong About Video Games
It's just the same tired nonsense scolds on the right and the left have been saying for decades now.
Every few years (months? weeks?) we have to dive back into the well-trod subject of how video games cause violence, sexism, baby-killing, mass shootings, war, Donald Trump or any other number of atrocities. Usually it’s when some study is released or some celebrity who has no interest in video games shows up to talk down to the lowly masses about how problematic their hobby is.
In 2017 I wrote this exact same headline—just replace “Geena Davis” with “Ashley Judd.” Like Judd, Davis is wrong about video games and her prescription for “fixing” video games is silly and counterproductive.
It turns out that Geena Davis has her very own institute called the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which sounds like one of those puzzling vanity projects that some celebrities come up with when they don’t have much more to offer and want to do a little good. In this case, it feels more like scolding do-gooder meddling than charity. The institute has come out with a new report titled “The Double-Edged Sword Of Online Gaming: An Analysis of Masculinity in Video Games and the Gaming Community.”
You can read a breakdown of the study and its findings here. The long and short of it is that games are too white, too violent, too sexist and too problematic and that creating games with more people of color, more women and less violence will solve the problem.
"Hyperexposure to these kinds of tropes is very impactful," Davis said. "What we're exposed to over and over becomes a sort of reality for us. Media and games, the things we see in our popular culture, have a tremendous impact in shaping who we are. So as you can imagine, playing these games over and over or watching people play these games can have a significant impact about what you think is the actual way that men should be, or what masculinity should look like."
This is pure, unadulterated rubbish. Grand Theft Auto V is one of the best-selling video games of all time and yet somehow despite the tens of millions of copies the game has sold, and despite the fact that it’s a violent game about criminals, we have not seen a corresponding rise in violence or crime. As I’ve said now countless times, we’ve actually seen crime go down as more and more people started playing video games.
Even there, I’m not suggesting that video games cause people to be less violent or criminal, but you can hardly argue that games make people violent if violent crime has fallen year over year as video game sales have increased. Maybe having access to relatively cheap diversions makes young men less likely to go out and engage in the old ultra-violence. Maybe other factors can explain it. Whatever the case, violent crime has been on the decline and video games, rife with all these problematic characteristics, have been gaining popularity. Clearly something doesn’t add up.
Where Davis’s schtick really jumps the shark is her conception of the “Man Box” which is apparently "a set of beliefs that are communicated by parents and family, the media, peers, and other members of society that place pressures on men and boys to be a certain way."
According to the GamesIndustry.biz piece, there are seven pillars of the Man Box:
Be entirely self-reliant: Do things without help from others
Act tough: Defend your reputation and use aggression to do so
Be physically attractive, effortlessly: Putting time and effort into your appearance is not manly
Stick to gender roles: Take risks, be a leader, provide for your family, no cooking or caregiving
Be heterosexual and homophobic: Avoid being gay or even being perceived as gay
Be hypersexual: Value sexual conquests over intimacy, never turn down sex
Use aggression to solve conflicts: Be willing to use violence to get respect, be in control of your relationships
Yes, there are some men out there who fit this box. I’ve met them. But this feels like an almost preposterously outdated and antiquated idea of what most modern boys and men actually consider manly. Davis says that “four in five male characters” display at least one of these traits, but how is that even a problem? “Use aggression to solve conflicts” is literally the backbone of 90% of video games, so if that’s one of the points it’s going to come up all the time. How do video game characters even be “physically attractive, without trying” when they’re just pixels designed by artists? And how much actual homophobia do we see in video game characters these days? Virtually none. There’s also very, very little “sexual conquest” in video games at all, and often it’s in games that do allow intimacy, like Mass Effect.
"Seven of ten male characters are shown engaging in stereotypically masculine activities like taking risks,” Davis says, “engaging in violence, getting angry. Nearly one in four male characters actually express anger."
Dear god, the horrors. Also, is it just me or is this all pretty sexist? Do women not “take risks” or “get angry” now? My experience with women must be unique if so.
When Davis turns her ire to Twitch we discover that the Top 20 Twitch streamers are all men and only one is a man of color and only one identifies as LGBTQ—and yet, despite all this only 6% of segments included racist language. Seems to me that, compared to days of old, that’s a pretty low number considering these are all white dudes who play games for a living (and games make everyone super racist and violent).
My favorite, though, is the notion that 49% of these streams use “ableist” language because they include the word “crazy.” If I might be so bold as to hazard a hypothesis, my guess is the word crazy is used like this: “Holy crap bro did you see that [expletive] that [expletive] was [expletive] crazy!”
The study also analyzed Twitch chat and we’re supposed to be surprised and horrified that that cesspool of nonsense was filled with sexist and racist language or something. How illuminating.
Davis sees room for a more positive future in gaming, however.
"The thing to think about is, since there's such a positive aspect you can gain by developing community and sharing special time with your friends through gaming, how can we make it a more positive experience and subject you to less bullying, harassment, and violence? There have to be positive things, ways to make the experience more positive and creative," she said.
"We know that what happens in the fictional world does have a real-life impact. Online gaming provides incredible opportunities for boys and young men to connect, but we need to make it so they can feel like they're being their true selves online, and not having to reinforce toxic prejudices and toxic masculinity."
Good luck with that, Geena. When I play Call of Duty online with my friends, sometimes we find ourselves playing against perfectly friendly nice people. Sometimes we find ourselves playing against toxic assholes, including toxic female assholes. I either talk shit back or I mute them. This is the solution to toxicity in gaming. Creating more games with female leads will not lead to less toxic online communities.
The report makes its own suggestions:
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.
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.
Boost and promote underrepresented streamers. Diversify the gaming ecosystem by helping underrepresented streamers reach broader audiences.
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.
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.
Take moderation and reporting seriously. Strengthen platform moderation tools and enforce consequences for those who violate guidelines.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
Of these, I’m only interested in one: Take moderation and reporting seriously. This will do more than the rest of these combined.
I simply cannot accept several others. Don’t sexualize female characters in games? Well then you can’t sexualize male characters, either. And frankly, since I’m not a Puritan I find this notion as repulsive as it is silly. Sure, sometimes sexualization of characters is over-the-top and silly, but there’s nothing wrong with having sexy characters in video games or movies or anywhere else. Sex sells—for a reason. People, whether gamers or moviegoers, enjoy watching sexy characters with unrealistic body types. This does not turn people into sexists. Same with violence. We enjoy violent movies like John Wick and violent games like Mortal Kombat but enjoying fictional violence doesn’t turn people into violent monsters. Violence comes from a deeper place. And it’s not so easily fixed.
And please, for the love of all things holy, don’t add any more categories to The Game Awards. That show is already twice as long as it should be. Very typical of a Hollywood celebrity to want more categories in award ceremonies, though.
I just find this moralizing crap so exhausting at this point. You can make Overwatch characters gay or non-binary and have some social justice backstory to embellish your game about shooting people more woke, but that doesn’t stop Blizzard from being a den of misogyny.
Ubisoft can proudly proclaim what diverse teams made their diverse games but that didn’t stop the company from looking the other way when its own employees engaged in sexual harassment.
Art is a reflection of the world; it rarely does much to influence deeply held belief systems about gender roles or masculinity. Rather, it reflects the beliefs and customs of the time. You can’t force this type of change, it happens organically as beliefs and tastes shift. Sure, it can influence us to some degree. But typically that happens in more subtle ways.
And yes, addiction can be an issue here as well. People can get addicted to the media they consume whether that’s video games or porn, but you’re not going to fix addiction via any of these bullet points, either, any more than you’ll magically fix the problems with shit talking in game chat by making female characters less sexualized or men male characters more emotionally vulnerable. By all means, do both those things if you think your game will benefit from them (and maybe it would) but don’t think of it as some magic bean that can cure human nature overnight.