Attitudes on sexual harassment and sexual portrayals of video game characters (Dill et al., 2008)

I’ve noticed something about my latest posts in that they are mainly about the relationship between violent video games and aggression. Well I guess this is partly my fault since reading such articles seemed more attractive. On the other hand, the e-mail alerts I’ve set up with several academic databases mostly churned out this kind of study. In regards to the previous post, maybe researchers who are studying video games other than finding a relationship with aggression might call video games under different terms, such as virtual world.

This study is done by Dr. Karen Dill of Lenoir-Rhyne College and company who are looking at the exposure of video games’ depiction of sexual stereotypes of men and women and its relation to attitudes towards violence towards women. According to the authors, this study is the first of its kind.


The violent video game literature has previously not extended to the domain of violence against women. The current investigation tested the effects of exposure to sex-typed video game characters versus images of professional men and women on judgments and attitudes supporting aggression against women. Results showed experimental effects of short-term exposure to stereotypical media content on sexual harassment judgments but not on rape myth acceptance. A significant interaction indicated that men exposed to stereotypical content made judgments that were more tolerant of a real-life instance of sexual harassment compared to controls. Long-term exposure to video game violence was correlated with greater tolerance of sexual harassment and greater rape myth acceptance. This data contributes to our understanding of mass media’s role in socialization that supports violence against women.

Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of experiment one or I would believe it to be (i.e. playing a video game that has sexist portrayal of male and female characters)

In one of the paragraphs, the authors referred to David Walsh’s (of the NIMF) paper of which showcased examples of violence towards women in gaming, mainly from the Grand Theft Auto series. Somehow reading that paragraph made me a bit a cynical, like what about fighting games series, such as Dead or Alive series, they have sexist portrayals of women and violence. Well, I guess they like to use the worst case of a video game to illustrate how deprave a game can go.

If you think that video games don’t portray sexist characters. Well take another look at your local video game store or read Dill & Thill (2007) on how teenagers describe a typical male or female video game character. Or if you think that media in general doesn’t influence people to be more sexist or more aggressive towards women, then try to counter-argue all the previous research and visit your local university library that has books on the topic.


Participants: 181 undergrad students (120 female, 61 male) The gender imbalance is because that’s a characteristic of the psychology majors population. There are more women than men in psychology, yes I have first-hand experience in that since I was a psychology major.


Sexual harassment judgments: participants read a real-life story of sexual harassment done by a male professor against a female student. They chose a story that is very subject to interpretation in order to have a high sensitivity on the participants’ judgment on sexual harassment. That’s a smart move. Anyways, the participants answered to seven judgement questions on a point-scale. (they varied the scale). I’m not very knowledgeable in that area, but it seemed very promising in measuring sexual harassment judgments.

Rape-Supportive attitudes: ah, yes. In one of the psychology class lessons, we were taught how studies after studies used a questionnaire on people’s attitude about rape and how much it relates to sexual aggression towards women. They’re using a 20-questions questionnaire from the Sexual Beliefs Scale.

Video game questionnaire-checklist version: questions about participants video gaming experiences, like how many hours of play per week and such.

Video games used: They’re not really using video games actually. They’re actually showing screenshots of video games known to have sexist portrayals of female and male characters. They have included GTA: Vice City, GTA: San Andreas, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball 2, BMX XXX, Saint’s Row, Resident Evil (seriously?) and Gears of War. 32 screenshots (16 male and 16 female) were used.

Other: Opposite to the sexist photos from video games are the photo portraits of American politicians. Of course IMO, they are boring to look at. 32 photos (16 male and 16 female) were used. But it makes one wonder if they should’ve used video game characters from non-sexist video games, say Alyx Vance or a generic video game character. I’m thinking Red Faction 2. The authors found that they had trouble finding screenshots of video game characters that are equivalent to the pictures of American politicians. Their main argument is based on findings from previous research, I’m not going into details, but I’m convinced of their decision.


Participants are randomly assigned to either watch the video game screenshots (experimental condition) or the American politicians (control condition). They’ve done by having the participants watch them through a PowerPoint presentation. Each photo is viewed for ten seconds and the photos were looped for a total duration of ten minutes. Ten minutes seems good, given that they found significant results. Afterwards, they are given either the sexual harassment judgment questionnaire or the rape-supportive attitudes measure, just to balance out carryover effects.


Okay there’s a significant difference on sexual harassment judgements in that men who viewed the video game screenshots were more tolerant of a sexual harassment situation. But looking at the raw scores of which the score ranged from 0 to 61 where a lower score means a higher tolerance. So men who saw the video game images had an average score of 41, followed by a 47.64 average score for men in control group, then a 48.47 average score for women in control, finally a 49.80 average score for women in video game condition. So a 6-point decrease for men, huh. I wonder if it corresponds well to the attitudes and behaviours you’d see and hear in Xbox Live or such. Hmm… this is good food for thought.

There is only one significant difference in rape-supportive attitudes in that men are more supportive of rape, so I guess video games may not have an influence, but we don’t know that for sure.

If you look back at the abstract, they were referring to long-term exposure to video game violence as was correlated to greater tolerance of sexual harassment and greater rape support attitudes. The data they used to arrive at that conclusion was the video game questionnaire checklist-version. So I find it a bit of stretch to make such statements since what they did was correlations.

Another note of interest is that they found higher correlations when the analyses “using exposure only to first person shooter games.” I’m a bit confused here, are they saying they made the analyses with just people who only played FPS, or they take everyone data’s and made the analyses with those who play FPS and may have also play other genres.

A future study in this venue would be an actual playthrough of games that has sexual stereotypes portrayals of male and female characters. Dead or Alive immediately comes to mind. I think the effects might be higher since the physics effects of gender stereotypes may be a factor (I’m thinking huge breasts physics, exaggerated physical features and gender stereotyped personalities) The authors had also suggested such a study.

Another suggestion by the authors is to explore how exposure to sexual stereotypes in video games might affect relations between men and women. I’m sure this is already known in the gaming community like in MMOs.

I find this study loosely connected to video games in part because the methodology is rooted from previous studies. The main reason is that participants were only shown photos of sexual stereotypes from video games; the same effect can be achieved in other media. This study adds some amounts of what is already known in sexual attitudes research. What remains to be seen are the long-term effects, how often teenagers are exposed to sexual portrayals in video game (I think that’s covered, but might as well say it) and/or how much male teenagers’ desires to see such sexual portrayals (yes, yes, maybe for fapping purposes).

Dill, K. E., Brown, B. P., & Collins, M. A. (2008). Effects of exposure to sex-stereotyped video game characters on tolerance of sexual harassment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(5), 1402-1408.


9 thoughts on “Attitudes on sexual harassment and sexual portrayals of video game characters (Dill et al., 2008)

  1. When I play an FPS, I’m naturally predisposed to more tolerance of violence against women, because more often then not half of the enemy soldiers are women, and it’s my job to shoot them. If I refused to shoot half of my potential enemies then I’d die a lot.

    This report of the study contains no mention of how they monitored general levels of tolerance to violence. Or military attitudes in general. A soldier that has just gotten their backside shot at is not going to have as much sympathy for a civilian who’s in an uproar because they’ve just had their backside pinched. A similar ‘in the grand scheme of things’ attitude could also be distorting the results.

    I’m sure they were measuring something here. I’m just not sure it was anything to do with what they think they were measuring.

  2. @ John

    This sounds quite interesting, however not all individuals will feel the same way as you do. The reasons they chose this kind of experiment is based on previous studies’ results and elements that are highly likely to elicit such reactions. In addition, their focus is on sexual attitudes and not violence in general. There are studies that looked into what you mentioned, perhaps another time for another study.

    Nevertheless, a peculiarity from FPS players does tell us something and thankfully your story might give some clarity and direction for the researchers to look into.

    Can you elaborate why you are not sure about their measures?

  3. @Wai Yen Tang

    Thank you for your reply. I will try to say what else I think the study might have measured, why it might also explain the results, and how one could be masking the other. And probably drone on about a few other things as well. [Edit: And after two hours+ of considering how to write this better, I’m just going to post the damn comment.]

    The study claims to show a connection between video games and increasing tolerances of sexual harassment. I believe it’s possible though that the study might have measured a lowering of sympathy to both men and women, rather than just women alone.

    Going off topic for a bit…
    In the context of normal life, getting your arm broken is a terrible thing. In the context of military life (trench warfare especially) getting your arm broken was a wonderful thing, because it gets you away from the front.

    Most people go through life with certain assumptions in their head. “I will leave to see tomorrow.” “Stealing, lying, hurting others is wrong.” Etc. Exposure to military (Gears of War) or paramilitary (GTA/Saints Row) experience tends to make people much more pragmatic. To remind them that others have suffered more than they, that some injuries are (in the grand scheme of things) worse than others. To make them understand that these beliefs aren’t true in and of themselves, but rather things we want to be true and work at making true.

    Getting back on topic…
    The study might have intended to explore sexual attitudes in a game context, but you seem to have used sympathy to measure this. You show them images, tell them a story, and then measure their sympathy for the victim. The study assumes the ‘measuring stick’ of sympathy remains constant for both groups. I believe that sympathy filtered through recent military pragmatism (even virtual military pragmatism) will be greatly reduced in comparison to sympathy filtered through civilian experiences. In other words, I believe one of the measuring sticks was warped; and hence its results cannot be compared like for like with the other.

    From my own virtual military experience (primarily Halo CE) I know that if I do something stupid I usually die, and it’s my own damn fault. Even if someone else pulls the trigger, no one forced me to take the risk that I did. That attitude extend to real life. If someone leaves their front door open when they go out, they share fault if they get robbed. If they fail to wear a seat belt and get their necks broken in an accident, what did the idiot expect? Yes it’s sad, and noone deserves to go through such horrible events, but I would disagree they share no blame at all for what happened.

    People are responsible for the stupid risks they take. If a woman gets falling down drunk, tells her friends to naff off, and tries to totter home alone through a dangerous area… She’s not asking for trouble, but she’s putting her life on the line. No one’s forcing her to do that. Therefore she has some responsibility for anything that happens as a result. And while I give rape a special exception to that.

    Not because I hate women, or think rape is okay, or anything silly like that, but because life doesn’t work that way. However much we want to pretend that life is fair, and whatever laws we write to try and *make* life fair, when we distort our view of reality through wishful thinking bad things happen.

    And again I’ve probably wondered off topic. Last night I also watched a programme on evolution VS creationism. If some of my objections are coming across as ignorant or simplistic, or failed to recognize obvious terminology, my apologies. I don’t want to sound like a creationist. I am aware I’m stepping outside my area of education, and I can only judge the study based upon the limited information in the above story. Hence the lack of technical language and references. However I am not satisfied that the above study took sufficient safeguards to measure what they intended to.

    Disclaimer: In honesty, I should say I’m an engineer by training, and my pragmatic (callous?) view of ‘fault/responsibility’ could come from that as well as the FPS games I play.

  4. it’s okay to go off-topic, it can put your comment into context and helps me and the reader to understand your point of view.

    You do have a point they should have measured sexual harassment against men since it might have just increased individuals’ sexual narcissism (not a proper term) or maybe they’re just sexually aroused by the images which can distort their thinking into being more tolerant towards anything with sex. It does beg the question whether there’s any lasting effects…

    It does seem interesting to see how military experience or any other factor act as a moderator (additional factor) between the relationship of sexual media and sexual attitudes. I’m pretty sure, there are several studies that looked for anything that can influence such relationship. But not with video games, of course.

    However, I am a bit skeptical about whether real life military experience or even virtual experience would make such reductions, it might have been the opposite direction. I am thinking of how military culture can be a factor, since the demographic over there is mostly men and whether machismo or pragmatism is accepted. Frankly, I don’t really know what goes in the army.

    Going into virtual military experience, it might have some merit, but the same argument applies from real life along with other factors, such as personal interpretation, the game’s narrative value for such and such, how female characters are portrayed and treated (Halo is pretty much fair to their female characters). And we could also talk about online behaviours and attitudes in online FPS games, like the Battlefield series or Team Fortress 2.

    But I do see your point about people taking responsibility, especially when they’re doing something stupid and sober at the time. Your drunk woman example is a bit off.

    going off topic, if a friend is drunk then responsibilities goes for both drunk and friends. I’m pretty sure that’s a societal norm and anyone violating such norm would feel pretty guilty about it.

    I am going to email the authors and see if they’re interesting in addressing your questions. For sure, they know better than I do.

  5. Here’s a reply from Dr.Dill:

    I guess I would say that social psychologists do experiments to find out if there are general trends that certain content causes. For example, do demeaning depictions of women generally cause male viewers to be more tolerant of sexual harassment. It doesn’t say all men do this in all situations, just that it is a causal connection and a general trend. Notice the women didn’t respond this way to the same stimuli (for a variety of reasons). I do think sympathy/empathy are involved. And no, this doesn’t by any means cover all situations and it is not designed to relate to military situations. The information is interesting and there are researchers who analyze military psychology to be sure – in fact, there’s a new Oxford Handbook of Military Psychology coming out soon.

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