Watch me beat up a videogame prostitute: causal effects on men’s beliefs on rape (Beck et al., 2012)

When I saw that article pop up in my inbox months ago, I was pretty excited to see this type of study published. The last time I read something similar was back in 2010 by Mike Yao and colleagues and another by Karen Dill in 2008. This study is published by Victoria Simpson Beck (University of Wisconsin Oshkosh) and colleagues in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence. Interestingly, the last author (Eric Beck) is a Master’s student in the psychology department.

Abstract

Current research suggests a link between negative attitudes toward women and violence against women, and it also suggests that media may condition such negative attitudes. When considering the tremendous and continued growth of video game sales, and the resulting proliferation of sexual objectification and violence against women in some video games, it is lamentable that there is a dearth of research exploring the effect of such imagery on attitudes toward women. This study is the first study to use actual video game playing and control for causal order, when exploring the effect of sexual exploitation and violence against women in video games on attitudes toward women. By employing a Solomon Four-Group experimental research design, this exploratory study found that a video game depicting sexual objectification of women and violence against women resulted in statistically significant increased rape myths acceptance (rape supportive attitudes) for male study participants but not for female participants.

However, when I read it I became very skeptical of its conclusions that I asked others for their thoughts and I delayed posting my review for several months as I am worried how this study will be received.

The general findings from the literature is that viewing media depicting women in a sexually objectifying and violent manner has a negative influence on both men and women’s perceptions and behaviours towards women. Women can still be sexy and be not degrading, but the line is drawn if they are acting submissively towards men or in the case of pornography, pretending to resist rape and eventually enjoying it. Pornography may be just acting, but in the heat of the moment, men may forget that fact when trying to get laid and add a couple of factors, like alcohol and stupidity to the mix and the result could be date rape. (see Sprankle et al., 2012 and Aubrey et al., 2011 for music videos; Lee et al., 2010 for crime dramas; Emmers-Sommer et al., 2006 for movies; Kahlor & Eastin, 2011  for television; Rudman & Mescher, 2012 for dehumanization; Foubert et al., 2011 for pornography).

I must caution that media is one of many factors that goes into degrading women. Please remember that peers, friends, adults, commercial and cultural institutions are powerful and “closer to home” influences too. Stories of how jocks boasting to other men about scoring numerous women in their sexual conquests and their treatment of women serve as examples for other less experienced or less successful men to follow.

The line between sexual objectification and female empowerment is very difficult to ascertain (for me that is). For one, I am a guy who never had a body swap into a women’s life, so I don’t fully understand the women’s psyche on what they consider sexually degrading or empowering. Second IMO, it is better to use clear examples of sexual objectification for publication, using less clear examples can be problematic for publishing results as they can be open to different interpretations. Third, I just don’t receive that many studies that investigate sexual empowerment (and no, I will not look into those critical studies stuff, too idiosyncratic and they do not have any empirical data to back up their claims), that makes it difficult to start studies on female empowerment. Sociological Images have some posts to help me out [1][2].

Back to the study, one outcome that sexual objectifying media has an effect on men is their beliefs, specifically their acceptance of rape myths. To quote the definition of rape myths: “they are attitudes and beliefs that are generally false, but are widely and persistently held and that serve to deny and justify male sexual aggression against women.” One example of that is Yale frat pledges chanting: “no means yes, yes means anal” [see Rape culture in Wikipedia].

Their theoretical basis is social learning theory premised on four interrelated processes for rape: (1) perpetuation of rape myths, (2) modeling (e.g. media, men’s stories, seeing one), (3) associating sexuality and violence, and (4) desensitization to pain, fear, and humiliation to sexual assault (or not recognizing rape, IMO). This theory would provide a good explanation how porn and hentai videogames affect men’s sexual attitudes. Did I mention hentai? The authors mentioned Rapeplay, that damn hentai game that was briefly on amazon and spurred a political handwringing [see 1, 2, 3].

The authors noted that it is the “first study to use actual video games to explore the influence of the negative, sexist portrayal of women and violence against women in video games on rape-supportive attitudes.”

Methods

Participants: a total of 141 undergraduate students from two universities. 110 are from Northern Midwest university (average age is 19) and the 31 are from a Southern Midwest university (average age is 31). The gender ratio is 61% are female and 39% or 55 participants are male. Ethnic composition is 81.6% white, 7.8% African-American, 3.5% Hispanic, 3.5% Asian-Americans.

Measures

Rape myths: The 20-item version of the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale.  It uses a 5-point agreement scale. An example item is “Women tend to exaggerate how much rape affects them.”

Video game survey: one question about the amount of time playing videogames. They also named their five favourite videogames and rate them according to: “how violent is the content of the game.” “how often is violence against women is shown and “how often is violence against men is shown”. The authors later criticized that method in their discussion, well too late as Ferguson and Rueda (2010) said the same thing. Cheryl Olson and her colleagues (2007) already used an alternative.

Lauren White (Fielding Graduate University) noted some methodological problems for inter-rater reliability, lacking validation with the ESRB rating and whether the questionnaire was meant to prime them to violence in games, an important concern is whether it was taken before or after the experimental stimulus.

Post-videogame questionnaire: Participants were asked about the videogame they experienced in the experiment: did they liked the game on a 5-point scale. Whether they played it before and whether they watched the game before.

Videogame used: Grand Theft Auto IV. Niko Bellic is the in-game research assistant and he was acting out what sparked a controversy in GTA 3.

Procedure

Participants, in both universities, are randomly assigned to one of four conditions according to a Solomon four-group design. This is the first time I have seen this design used in videogame research. See the graph to what the four groups did.

Those who were assigned the GTA IV condition did not actually played the videogame, they watched the game while one of the researchers played the game making Niko enact a sex crime. The researcher had Niko went to a strip club, got a lap dance from a female stripper, then picked a hooker with his car, had sex with said hooker, and paid her cash. Niko then proceeded to exit the car and shot the hooker and took back his money. Naturally, a police chase ensued and Niko got away and returned safely to home. In the baseball condition, which served as a control condition, the participants watched a baseball videogame being played.

I was concerned about the lack of mentioning a debriefing. Any experiment of this type would certainly need to debrief participants about their awareness of the study’s purpose. I emailed the first author for further clarifications and indeed they debriefed the participants. They also gave a lecture on rape myths and such. There were some deceptions involved in the study in a manner not to make the true purpose obvious to the participants. Nevertheless, the possibility of demand characteristics in a laboratory setting is there and, as noted by Christopher Ferguson (Texas A&M), they are dealing with undergraduate students who may or may not be informed of the relevant theories. The question at this point is moot, but I’ll say it anyways: What if participants knew about the purpose of the study and went along with what they think the researchers are looking for, a self-fulfilling prophecy, and they might ended with false positive findings?

A second concern is the experiment forcing them to watch a sex crime. I am fine, methodologically speaking, to see a clear example of women being sexually assaulted. Perhaps other videogame examples of sexual objectification in varying degrees might produce similar results, although at this point I leave it to content analysis experts to create a trope-based classification system. However, there are two separate concerns I have. The media consumer has a choice of whatever content they chose to watch or play, when play is concerned the player is in control of the game and they carry their moral baggage during play and I must ask is how likely they would commit such behaviours themselves. I could speculate that those who are very hostile towards women would have no qualms in killing a prostitute or calling names to other real life women in voice chats. Nevertheless, the players are given the freedom not to commit sex crimes and if they commit a sex crime, then the consequences are brought down by the world system, if any, which would rest on the developers’ responsibilities.

The developers or authors are in control of the content that can be told in the game. Drugs, sex, and violence are central themes Grand Theft Auto. I imagined that the developers are in a precarious position and removing an element, because some prude doesn’t like it, would remove a vital aspect of the game’s identity. The audience understanding of these inclusion is premised to where the game gets its sources and reasons. This is as much as I understand why “good guys” are doing bad things are included in The Wire. However, as it was argued elsewhere but I don’t remember who, if sexual objectification becomes a staple or is forced upon across all videogames, then it becomes a systemic problem for both men and women. Men are desensitized and eventually do not recognize the problem (some aspiring developers may even leave the industry because of that) and women are turned off from videogames because of the mistreatment of their gender identity.

Lauren White’s critique is that she did not understand why the participants were watching, instead of playing. She argued that a greater difference would show for those in active play compared to passive exposure. I agree with her.

Results

The authors conducted several T-tests and ANOVAs to verify their experimental design’s effectiveness. Overall, there were no problems found in the Solomon four-group design and there were no significant main effects and interactions between the four conditions (see graph below).

Keep in mind that their sample consisted of 86 women and 55 men. The overall scores are unsurprisingly non-significant. You’d think that women would learn to accept sexual violence onto them? Nope, of course not. However, their two-way ANOVA analysis indicated that there were gender differences. So, they conducted a repeated-measures t-test and found that in the pre-post GTA group, the men’s scores went from 41.48 to 43.70 (where are the standard deviations?), a significant increase. The women’s scores were statistically the same from 39.39 to 38.26. Another t-test on post-test scores found that men had higher rape myth scores than women.

More independent-group t-tests looking into reactivity showed that there were no differences in the post-test scores between the men in the pre-post GTA group vs. the post-only GTA group. In essence, they responded in accordance to their hypothesis. However, as I mentioned earlier, it is possible that both groups act in accordance to what they think the researchers are looking for and went along.

Finally, they investigated whether violent videogame exposure (as measured by participants’ top five favourite videogames) have any relationships with rape myth acceptance. Nope and there are very good reasons why there are no such relationships. First, the measurements they used are not sensitive enough to find anything of that sort because they asked participants to rate the videogames as opposed to using a rating system or even have the researchers rate the videogames in accordance to sexual violence. Second, even if they were to make it sensitive enough, as Lauren White pointed out, there are no known statistical data on how many top videogames in the American market that is violently and sexually objectifying towards women. There is plenty variety of violence, but we need statistical data on how many videogames depict violence towards women to make a claim.

Discussion

The take-home message is that viewing a sex crime in videogames increases rape myth acceptance among men. My take-home message is that there is nothing new to report relative to the literature in sex and violence in the media. Their procedure had participants watch another person playing a videogame committing a sex crime, which is relatively similar to watching a television show seeing an actor committing the same sex crime. This study does little to advance theory, only support. Christopher Ferguson pointed out that there are NO correlations between violent videogame play and rape myth acceptance and yet the authors ran their discussion section with their experimental data.

Lauren White observed that the authors’ claim that the majority of gamers in the United States are male which is false. White argued that men do make a majority of certain genres of videogames, but not in general. Also, the lack of proper references makes the claim sound shaky as I am prone to parrot “publish or it didn’t happen”.

The authors were cautious about their predictions of suggesting that playing videogames that models and rewards sexual violence indirectly promote an increase in rape. I am just shaking my head in disagreement and perhaps experts in rape crimes might do it too. I shook my head in utter disbelief that of the “coincidental” relationship between videogame sales and rape rates in the United States.

Since 2004, there has also been a slight increase in sexual victimization. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey Violent Crime Trends, 1973-2008, incidents of rape for individuals aged 12 and older increased from 0.4 per 1,000 in 2004 to 0.8 per 1,000 in 2008, with teens and young adults experiencing the highest rate of violent crime. Perhaps coincidentally (rather than correspondingly), the United States has also recently experienced growth in sales of video games. In 2000, video game sales totaled US$7.98 billion and increased by 250% by 2010 (Ortutay, 2010).

I sighed when they used such argument. I have seen it before with videogame sales and violent crime and I think that criminologists around the world would laugh at making such a simplistic relationship between one simple variable with another complex social phenomenon such as rape, murder among others. There are a lot of things that can lead to rape, a lot that I have yet to learn. Since the authors have been so bold to make a suggestion, I tried to replicate their claims and came up with this graph. (sources: http://www.npd.com/press/releases/press_100114.html, http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/glance/tables/viortrdtab.cfm, http://www.statista.com/statistics/7011/video-game-revenue-in-the-united-states/, http://videogames.procon.org/)

My graph and their claims do not match up. I emailed the first author about it, she mentioned it was for a certain age group and is looking it up. I also download two reports [2004][2008] and lazily search for the corresponding numbers, there was no match for the 2004 report, but the 2008 report was confirmed.

Here is what I would discuss from the findings. Convincing women that they have “consented” for sex, thus making women confused as to whether they should report or not and they internalized such confusion that would harm them psychologically. Bystander behaviours of rape where men let a rape go unpunished, not recognizing rape, keeping silence of a rape, blaming the victim (e.g. a football player is accused of rape, people rally behind the football player, instead of the victim). A lack of empathy towards the rape victim, lack of emotional and behavioural support towards the victim, ostracising the victim, favouring the perpetrator instead of the rape victim in court which can result towards lenient sentences. This would be problematic if a male protagonist is well liked by players and commits sex crimes in or outside of the players’ control. These behaviours are not as “traumatic” as the act itself, but these behaviours do not help the healing process in the aftermath nor prevent further rapes. It is a cultural environment that teaches to the majority of men to let a criminal minority commit such crimes with little repercussions. This is what I argue would come out of the findings using college-aged populations.

To spur on, they referenced to videogame addiction research making some kind of link between addictive videogame exposure and sexual objectification in videogames calling out as a serious problem. A serious problem, I agree, but make such link with videogame addiction is inappropriate. Have they read it in its proper context? Normative depiction of sexual objectification in videogames is the problem, not the excessiveness of videogame play from individuals with mental health problems. Must we pointed out it again that there were no correlations between normative violent videogame play and rape myth acceptance, so it is problematic when they make an argument that increasing or excessive videogame play is a concern and given the “trend of portraying sex-typed images of women and violence against women in popular video games” and without references.

Besides gaming content, we must consider gamers themselves, the social milieu of videogames to consider their attitudes towards gender-related issues, such as acceptance of women in gaming, rape, sexual harassment, equality and tolerance.

Beck, V. S., Boys, S., Rose, C., & Beck, E. (2012). Violence against women in video games: A prequel or sequel to rape myth acceptance? Journal of Interpersonal Violence. DOI: 10.1177/0886260512441078

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