The SeX-Box and benevolent sexism (Stermer & Burkley, 2013)

When I saw the title from the new academic journal, Psychology of Popular Media Culture, it sounded familiar that I googled and found out it was a probable reference to the Fox News’ face-palming reporting of Mass Effect’s erotic cutscene (“se”xbox). Steven Paul Stermer (Oklahoma State University) and Melissa Burkley has a line of studies examining sexual depictions in videogames.  This study investigated the correlational link between sexist videogame content and benevolent sexism. This reminded me of a videogame commercial I saw a long time ago when television had a big place in my leisure time.


We examined the association between playing sexist video games and sexist attitudes. Undergraduate students (61 men and 114 women) indicated the level of perceived sexism present in their most frequently played video games. Students also completed the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (Glick & Fiske, 1996), which measures both hostile and benevolent sexism. As predicted, men who played video games perceived to be high in sexism showed higher levels of benevolent sexism, compared with men who did not play such games. This relationship was not evident for women. Importantly, our study provides the first known evidence of a link between long-term exposure to sexist video games and sexist attitudes. Although correlational, these data are consistent with the notion that sexist video games encourage and reinforce sexist attitudes. Our findings have important real-world implications for video game researchers, parents, and game players themselves.

I started playing League of Legends after finishing a good portion of the Assassin’s Creed series. I can see why it’s popular, I am starting to think on my play style and which champions to aim for.

Previous studies on sexual depictions of videogame characters showed various adverse outcomes. Several experimental studies showed the increasing exposure to sexually explicit content increasing thoughts for men on sexual objectification, gender stereotypes, rape myths, among others. In a virtual reality study with avatars, Jesse Fox and her colleagues (2013), whom I am collaborating on a related subject, found that women internalized sexual objectification when they see their own sexualized avatars versus women who saw their own non-sexualized avatars. The authors noted that there were no study that examined such relationship outside of the laboratory and therefore conducted a survey.

There are several theories explaining why sexualized media content influence sexism. Cultivation theory posits that repeated and long-term exposure to sexual content would become normalized and change the audience’s worldview aligning them to the media away from reality, a perceptual distortion of social reality. The result is that sexist beliefs promoted by the media (and others) would eventually be adopted by the individual. Social-cognitive theory posits a learning and observation approach where observing others’ behaviors and its outcome would impact how to think, behave and react. The result is that individuals would behave in such way because that’s what they learned to “fit in” (my interpretation). Objectification theory posits that sexual media content emphasize gender inequality, by emphasizing women as sexual and submissive which reinforces sexist attitudes and rigid gender roles. I’m not sure if the theorists of objectification theory are aware of hegemonic masculinity, but I wanted to mention it as both have similar arguments. However, sometimes I have some doubts in whether it is harmful or beneficial as women like to dress sexy, the line between sexy and sexual objectifying is hard to discern. Fortunately, Miriam Liss and colleagues (2011) provided some leads on this issue.


Participants: 175 undergraduate students. 61 male and 114 female students, mostly white, average age is 19 (SD=1.56). I surmise the gender ratio is due to the sample characteristics they recruited from, psychology students… I really should ask the natural science and engineering departments access to their students as they are mostly men and are more likely gamers.


Videogames played: using part of the popular General Media Habits Questionnaire. Participants listed their three videogames they played the most and rated them to the extent they contained sexist content on a 7-point quantitative scale (from little sexist content to extremely sexist content).

The problem with this method and the authors noted this too is that asking participants to rate them for sexist content is that they may be biased. The authors argued that it was used for violent content, but like a judge would say “I know when I see it“. Sexist content is different, especially when the content is ambiguous and men, compared to women, have a hard time recognizing ambiguous sexist content like (IMO) they have in recognizing subtle sexual harassment. The biases can result from desensitization to sexist content where cultivation theory would argue normalizes sexist content and thus they no longer recognize it as sexist [see TED talk]. Thus, the operationalization of sexist content is a lay definition or at most the typical college student’s definition of sexist content, which could be a problem for some segment of students.

Some solutions for these biases is to rely on the ESRB content rating system, they have several content descriptors referencing to sex. The authors did cross-check the titles in the ESRB database, but did not use it in their analysis. It is quick and rough, but it is not an ideal solution as ESRB raters may miss sexist content, such as sexist conversations embedded somewhere in the narrative. A better solution is coding the content for sexist content which requires manpower, money and time and it is a study by itself (see you in 2-3 years). A combined solution is having expert judges rate the videogame for sexist content and verify the extent they match with the participants’ judgments, much like how it was done for violent content in a prior study.

Sexism: the Ambivalent Sexism Scale. A 22-item 7-point agreement scale. It has two subscales: hostile sexism 11-items, and benevolent sexism 11-items. The difference between hostile and benevolent sexism is the latter is characterized by perceptions of rigid gender roles, protective and patronizing attitudes towards women, the “white knight” as some are referred to. Furthermore, I would also say that the white knight fails to see the gender inequality they are communicating to others as they punish and discriminate women who do not conform to the feminine role.


It was an online survey: participants completed the videogame questionnaire and then the Ambivalent Sexism Scale.


The authors listed some descriptive results. The most interesting part are the most popular games: The Sims, Mario Kart, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto and sports games. The most sexist videogame is Grand Theft Auto. However, I should note the average level of sexist content reported by male participants is 1.87 (SD = 1.01) and female participants is 1.54 (SD=.84). On a 7-point scale, it’s below the mid-scale and possibly positively skewed. It would have been interesting to see if there is a divergence of judgment in terms of gender, coders, or content experts.

They used hierarchical regression analyses to determined whether gender and reported exposure to sexist videogame content predict hostile and benevolent sexism. In the first step, gender and sexist videogame content is added. In the second step, the interaction terms between gender and sexist videogame content is added.

The results indicate only an interaction effect for benevolent sexism in that men who reported greater exposure to sexist videogame content is associated to greater endorsement of benevolent sexism. Videogame play time did not have a significant role when entered into the analysis. There was no significant effects for hostile sexism.


The take home message is that among men playing more sexist videogames is associated to greater levels of benevolent sexism, although this is relationship was not apparent for women and the direction in these associations cannot be verified in a survey.

The authors argued that these gender differences in the study is consistent with previous studies. One explanation is that men’s sexist attitudes is towards an out-group, women, and women sexist attitudes towards their in-group, i.e. other women. I expand on this interpretation in that sexism is usually focused on women as subject and object whereas the role of men in sexism is absent. They authors another explanation in that men are more likely than women to become transported in videogames according to their study that is yet to be published or peer-reviewed.

The authors argued that theories, such as objectification theory, can be brought to bear on videogames for further research. As the authors noted, objectifying virtual images of women is associated with greater levels of sexism. For future study, they should examine the extent objectifying interactive characters of women is associated with greater levels of benevolent sexism. There are some important points to consider. One possible response from gamers is bringing female characters that does not fit in the sexist mold, such as Lara Croft, Chell. They don’t fit, then they are models for future female videogame characters. Lara Croft started out in 1996, if there is some evidence of an increase in the proportion of female protagonists since 1996, then this is a positive development (and a study for those involved). Until then, I would bring out this argument. Lara Croft would be relegated to the sex symbol role and be seen as an exception to the rule, obscuring the high percentage of sexual marginalization (as some researchers might push it to) found in prior content analysis studies. Second, the visual portrayal is important, but we should consider the personality of these characters. Jesse Fox and Jeremy Bailenson (2009) showed that female avatars who behaved in a gendered stereotypical manner  resulted in participants reporting greater negative attitudes towards women, similarly found in videogame experiments. Ferguson (2012) showed that a sexy and strong female lead character is a positive experience without affecting negative attitudes towards women, but a subordinate female character just fits with benevolent sexism and in turn increases negative attitudes towards women.

The authors listed some limitations. The sample have an unequal gender ratio, mentioned earlier and my call to tap into the engineering population. Second, the study is a survey so the interpretation are correlational, but the authors argued that experiments have found a causal relationship in that having participants play a sexualized female character increases negative attitudes towards women, rape myth acceptance or the various measures used in gender research. So, it seems reasonable to suggest that sexist videogames reinforces sexism, but the authors noted that we don’t know whether sexist attitudes cause people to prefer sexist videogames. The downward spiral model (Slater, 2007) is the most likely theory to explain how content and prior attitudes concurrently affect future attitudes and future media use.

I have an additional consideration for sexist videogame exposure, whilst the gaming industry is publicly accountable for sexist content (remember Fox News), individuals or communities are not accountable or sometimes they are mistakenly identified as part of the industry. Customized content enhance gamers’ experience beyond what the developers’ originally intended and content you’d find in a modding site is very diverse. The sexual content people can make can be breathtaking, downright sexist or pornographic. Finding and installing these content require effort of which I argue reinforces their sexist attitudes (or titillation). For a future study, what players want to enhance their game with can be revealing (see Wohn & Wash, 2013).

Stermer, S. P., & Burkley, M. (2012). SeX-box: Exposure to sexist video games predicts benevolent sexism. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. DOI:/10.1037/a0028397

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