Sexual harassment in online videogames: What we found so far

Sexual harassment is an important issue besetting our society, in particular to how the online and physical worlds are more and more intertwined crossing online platforms and neighborhoods (Citron, 2009; Guardian, 2016; Pew, 2014; Geek feminism timeline of incidents). Nevertheless, there are social scientists, including myself, who examine sexual harassment in that not-so-little online neighborhood called videogames. Thus, I offer a non-exhaustive overview of the sexual harassment literature and what insights researchers have found for online videogames.

There are upsetting language and details in this blog post. Continue reading

The punishment and rehabilitation of the convicted in prison video games

I bought Prison Architect from Steam’s Holiday Sale, although that was shortly after I saw a study on Prison Tycoon written by Anna Oleszkiewicz (University of Wroclaw) and company. A few weeks later, another academic article on prison video games showed up, written by criminologists Steven Downing (University of Ontario Institute of Technology) and Kristine Levan (University of Idaho). The article specifically examined Prison Architect’s alpha development. Piqued by these articles, I started playing Prison Architect before I delved into the articles and I needed a lot of rest after serving a sentence called the dissertation.

The Alpha phase of Prison Architect

Downing and Levan got interested in Prison Architect when someone posted this question in the game’s forum: “Is supporting it by buying this game really ethical? Not to mention the whole victimless crime issue?” To the authors, the question prompted the idea that video games could potentially engage people on social/political issues. Specifically, Prison Architect players could play it seriously and critically discuss about incarceration and of the current prison system in the US.

The authors decided to analyze the developers’ videos during the development stage, from Alpha 1 to Alpha 23 (September 26 2012 – July 31 2014). The researchers got to stop at some point, who could predict when the developers will complete the game? The alpha videos gave the authors insights about the developers’ thoughts about incarceration, their motives in adding or not adding features in the game, and responding to critiques from players and journalists. This is evidenced by Wesley Yin-Poole in Eurogamer (2012) and Paolo Pedercini in Kotaku (2014).

The authors examined the developer’s videos in how Prison Architect reflect the five pains of imprisonment theorized by criminologist Gresham Sykes. (1) Deprivation of liberty: Given that the prisoners’ freedom have been taken away, they can be even restricted further into their cells, by the presence of armed guards and solitary confinement at the discretion of the player, making the prisoners’ compliant, but moving more slowly and less likely to complete reform programs. Another reflection are contacts with the outside world, such as telephone calls, mail and famil visitations, lessening the deprivation of liberty. I should point out that prisoners’ needs for freedom and family reflect such deprivation.

(2) Deprivation of goods and services: The players’ decisions in attending or not the prisoners’ needs, such as bowel, clothing, recreation, exercise among others, reflect such deprivation. The basics in Prison Architect is to provide shelter/incarceration, food, and toiletry. Anything beyond these needs are perceived as privileges, which is reflective when I noticed that certain random events in the game would have the mayor ordering players to remove certain items because of public opinion. These random events point out how prisons face political pressure and its impact on prisoners, something worth to expand on in the game with other political forces, such as prisoners’ rights groups or scientific groups. The authors’ noted that the developers want to give players freedom in how they run their prisons reflective in the policy reports, such as how much time in solitary confinement. An interesting observation from the authors are inmates who are paroled or finished their sentence, they leave in their prison clothes. Although, the developers had earlier thought of having inmates leaving in their civilian clothing, the authors noted that leaving in prison clothing is symbolic of their continued identity as convicts from the community.

(3) Deprivation of heterosexual relationships: The authors found very few mentions of heterosexual relationships, such as relationship with a heterosexual partner. It seems to be a very contentious area for the developers IMO. When asked by Wesley Yin-Poole in Eurogamer (2012) about the inclusion of sexual assault, the developers did not include as it might be a step too far. The authors noted that homosexual relations were not directly discussed in the developer videos. Nevertheless, the developers made the game with good modding capabilities that lets players address these issues, such as a modded conjugal room.

(4) Deprivation of autonomy: The surveillance and the concept of the panopticon in Prison Architect reflect the deprivation of autonomy. The surveillance impacts prisoners’ sense of autonomy as they’re being watched, leaving little room for privacy. The prisoners’ activities are controlled by prison regime set by players. The regime can be used to punish or provide rehabilitation through workshops, education, or therapy. Pedercini (2014) remarked the use of prison labor as a contemporary form of slavery, but from a different perspective, the developers argue that workshops provide skillsets when prisoners are released.

(5) Deprivation of security: This relate to whether the prisoners feel safe from each other, the most salient are prisoners’ reputation that makes them targets of violence (i.e. snitch, ex law enforcement, ex prison guards and cop killer). The authors mentioned gang affiliation as a factor and Prison Architect implemented such feature in Alpha 34. An interesting observation from the authors is how cell blocks are structured, certain designs may foster greater sense of security through a better relationship between prisoners and their guards.

The authors noted how well the game pay details to rehabilitation in the game, they suggested further exploring into other real life prison practices. First, the exploration of restorative justice practices. The practices involved rebuilding inmates relationship with the community, such as visitations from victims and the community at large. Another suggestion is form the Alternatives to Violence Project which are workshops on conflict resolution and communication skills. Given how moddable the game is, these real life practices would be interesting for players to create and share in the steam workshop.

I have contacted Downing and Levan on their thoughts of the recent inclusion of female prisoners in the game. Downing praised the inclusion as more than a re-skin and that the developers have tapped into some of the real life issues for female prisoners. Furthermore, I would be interested in how the developers deal with long-term incarceration and aging. As of this writing, the inmates do not age, thus they fully serve their sentence and return to the community. How do players deal with elderly inmates who die in their prisons and to have not step back into the community is something worth to talk about. Levan rightly added that prisons would have to deal with increasing medical care and costs as a reflection of caring aging inmates.

Levan posed an interesting question is “What is a successful prison?” Levan thinks that many would say success is from rehabilitation of inmates and providing meaningful opportunities. But the realities of US prisons of warehousing large numbers of inmates makes rehabilitation more difficult and expensive.

Downing posed an interesting question is whether Prison Architect could evoke sympathy to prisoners? “Would it be better to have students, for example, play a game that is graphically realistic and involves more role playing – would this evoke more empathy?  What about teaching people to consider structural and institutional problems – could a macro-level, top-down perspective, like in PA, be best for this?  We don’t know, but these questions could be empirically explored.” Continue reading

Reactions to a woman’s voice in an FPS game: The moderating role of status and skill (Kasumovic & Kuznekoff, 2015)

Michael Kasumovic (University of New South Wales) is an evolutionary biologist, has posted his write-up of a study at The Conversation and even has a comic version. Its data is quite familiar though.

In early 2013, I blogged about a field experiment on players’ reaction to a woman’s voice in an FPS game. Its popular take home message was that a female player received three times as many negative messages as male players do. There was some press attention and I believe the study is mentioned quite often in sexual harassment panels at videogames conventions.

The field experiment’s data was once again explored with a different perspective and a fine-tooth comb on particular variables previously explored in the 2013 study: in-game skill, performance and status. Michael Kasumovic provided an evolutionary perspective of the data and Jeffrey Kuznekoff (Miami University) is the communication scientist who originally conducted the field experiment.

Abstract

Gender inequality and sexist behaviour is prevalent in almost all workplaces and rampant in online environments. Although there is much research dedicated to understanding sexist behaviour, we have almost no insight into what triggers this behaviour and the individuals that initiate it. Although social constructionist theory argues that sexism is a response towards women entering a male dominated arena, this perspective doesn’t explain why only a subset of males behave in this way. We argue that a clearer understanding of sexist behaviour can be gained through an evolutionary perspective that considers evolved differences in intra-sexual competition. We hypothesised that female-initiated disruption of a male hierarchy incites hostile behaviour from poor performing males who stand to lose the most status. To test this hypothesis, we used an online first-person shooter video game that removes signals of dominance but provides information on gender, individual performance, and skill. We show that lower-skilled players were more hostile towards a female-voiced teammate, especially when performing poorly. In contrast, lower-skilled players behaved submissively towards a male-voiced player in the identical scenario. This difference in gender-directed behaviour became more extreme with poorer focal-player performance. We suggest that low-status males increase female-directed hostility to minimize the loss of status as a consequence of hierarchical reconfiguration resulting from the entrance of a woman into the competitive arena. Higher-skilled players, in contrast, were more positive towards a female relative to a male teammate. As higher-skilled players have less to fear from hierarchical reorganization, we argue that these males behave more positively in an attempt to support and garner a female player’s attention. Our results provide the clearest picture of inter-sexual competition to date, highlighting the importance of considering an evolutionary perspective when exploring the factors that affect male hostility towards women.

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Beta testing/replication on videogame cognition research

People learn from the news on recent science and these studies are often breakthroughs. Sometimes, a study would ‘contradict’ long held beliefs or even another study or they fascinate us with some novel idea or perspectives. These ‘breakthrough’ studies would often gets press attention, although when examined closely they may be overstated. This happens when academic journals are likely to accept studies that has found breakthroughs rather than studies that could not find breakthroughs or is ‘old news’ science. This is called publication bias.

Science is self-correcting by repeating the studies and reaffirm or disconfirm the original findings. This is quite similar to game testing, game bugs are identified, game testers repeatedly replicate the conditions leading to the bug in order to figure how it happened and where it can be remedied in the programming. Unfortunately, beta testing scientific findings is not on every scientists’ mind as they are pressed by a lot of people to push the boundaries of the unknown. This results in the audience trusting scientific findings unknowing that it is not been beta tested enough. Without beta testing for video games, it is quick to spot game breaking bugs in the final product. For science, it is not obvious to spot the ‘bugs’ in the findings, so it is up to the scientists to replicate them.

It is commonly thought that videogames improve hand-eye coordination among other cognitive benefits and these seminal findings were published by Dr. Daphne Bavelier’s lab at the University of Geneva. However, Walter Boot and his colleagues (2011) critiqued these findings’ methodological shortcomings, putting the conclusions into question. Recently, three studies were published with the purpose of beta testing the original findings. Their results came out not as advertised as the original findings. Continue reading

The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory: A social identity approach

Via Jamie Madigan (Psychology of Video Games), I watched two GDC 2015 talks about anti-social behaviours in video games. Jeffrey Lin (Riot Games) on the science of shaping player behavior (GDC, 2015) and Ben Lewis Evans (Player Research) on how game design influence social behavior (GDC, 2015). Both touched on parts of Internet lore, the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (GIF; Penny Arcade, 2004). The GIF theory is often associated with the Online Disinhibition Effect (Suler, 2004), however Lin and Evans did not made any indications of applying Suler’s work. As a communication scientist, I recognized hints on a different theory: the Social Identity model of Deinidividuation Effects (SIDE). Continue reading

Longitudinal relation between videogames use and sexist attitudes among German video game players (Breuer et al., in press)

Just today, I’ve been alerted from Johannes Breuer (University of Cologne) that his paper on the longitudinal relationship between videogame use and sexist attitudes has just been published online at Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. Along with the mention of twitter exploding like crazy, so I dropped everything and reviewed it. The paper is co-authored by Rachel Kowert, Ruth Festl and Thorsten Quandt.

Abstract

From the oversexualized characters in fighting games, such as Dead or Alive or Ninja Gaiden, to the overuse of the damsel in distress trope in popular titles, such as the Super Mario series, the under- and misrepresentation of females in video games has been well documented in several content analyses. Cultivation theory suggests that long-term exposure to media content can affect perceptions of social realities in a way that they become more similar to the representations in the media and, in turn, impact one’s beliefs and attitudes. Previous studies on video games and cultivation have often been cross-sectional or experimental, and the limited longitudinal work in this area has only considered time intervals of up to 1 month. Additionally, previous work in this area has focused on the effects of violent content and relied on self-selected or convenience samples composed mostly of adolescents or college students. Enlisting a 3 year longitudinal design, the present study assessed the relationship between video game use and sexist attitudes, using data from a representative sample of German players aged 14 and older (N=824). Controlling for age and education, it was found that sexist attitudes—measured with a brief scale assessing beliefs about gender roles in society—were not related to the amount of daily video game use or preference for specific genres for both female and male players. Implications for research on sexism in video games and cultivation effects of video games in general are discussed.

The good news is that the paper is published in Cyberpsych and thus is quite short for my review. Continue reading

Computer science stereotypes as barriers to inclusion for women and how they extend to videogames

In my previous blog post, I reviewed a study on the associations between career interests and videogames preferences of which I argued the need to go deeper than just looking at associations. The study piqued my curiosity about why so few women major in STEM careers and how this affect women’s career interests with videogames (see Wikipedia). To my knowledge, most universities offer videogames design courses through computer science, a major predominantly populated by men. There are many researchers who studied the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers and they found different kinds of barriers (i.e. cultural, psychological, etc.). I will summarize studies focused on a single aspect and consider its relation to videogames, which at this point referring to interests in gaming and careers in videogames. Continue reading