A recent study appears to indicate that young boys and girls are fed up with the portrayals of female characters in video games – but it’s not without its issues.
Rosalind Wiseman is a teacher, “thought leader,” and author of several books, including Queen Bees and Wannabes, the New York Times best-seller that served as the inspiration for the movie Mean Girls. In 2014, Wiseman launched a study aiming to explore the feelings and perceptions of middle and high school boys and girls in regards to female representation in video games. Collaborating with Wiseman on the study were Charlie Kuhn and Ashly Burch. Over 1400 students from throughout the country participated by answering a variety of questions exploring how they felt about gender representation in games and the types of games that girls play. The results were shared in March at the Game Developer’s Conference, and Wiseman posted the results in a Time article titled “Everything You Know About Boys and Video Games is Wrong” on Wednesday.
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Before highlighting the findings, it is critical to note that Wiseman herself states that the study was exploratory, claiming a lack of resources contributed to not being able to conduct a thorough evaluation.
Yet many publications are citing this study as both a confirmed indicator of the feelings of youth in regards to video game representation and confirmation that there are issues within the industry that require a remedy. I’m not going to do that.
An eighth grade boy by the name of Theo apparently told the researchers, “If women are objectified like this it defeats the entire purpose of fighting,” in regards to Mortal Kombat – which he “loves” to play. “I would respect the [female] character more for having some dignity.” It’s important to remember that Mortal Kombat is game that is recommended for players over the age of 17, as is evidenced by its Mature rating. Sorry Theo, but that game wasn’t made for you. It may have been more appropriate to ensure that the children being surveyed are playing age-appropriate games.
One of the most immediately apparent issues with the study is the way in which the information was gathered. The primary method for collecting and compiling the answers for this study was through an online service called SurveyMonkey, with potential respondents directed to the survey link via public tweets. There is currently no way to verify the identities of those who respond to surveys through this website. “Do you have 6th-12th grade boys or girls who can take our new gaming survey? And please share!” Wiseman wrote in one tweet. Ashly Burch wrote: “We need more teenage respondents for our gaming survey! If you’re a teen or know any teens, pls take/share,” later clarifying “That survey is only for kids in middle school and high school, FYI!”
Another issue with the study is the lack of neutral and balanced questions asked. Several focused on the types of games girls play, and the types of games boys think girls play. No questions exist to explore the opposite perspective. A second imbalance was the lack of questions aimed towards male representation in video games. Considering the method used to conduct this research, no additional resources would have been required to create a more neutral survey for the anonymous internet users to share their feelings. Instead, the study focused exclusively on the “hyper-sexualized depiction of women onto the phone, computer and TV screens of millions of boys and girls,” seemingly without offering questions about either male characters or positive female characters.
Despite the incompleteness of the research and the author’s own admission that a thorough evaluation was not possible, Wiseman concluded that “gaming has become an important part of our culture, and it’s sending the wrong message to our boys’ and girls’ screens. Our kids deserve better. And it’s what they want.”
While the questions asked in the study are neither new nor troubling, one can reasonably question whether the decision to ask children about games that were not created for their age group, without the ability to confirm the identities of the study participants, or including a biased, unlevel series of questions may have skewed the results. One could also reasonably question whether it is responsible to cite such an unstable study in demands of altering the entirety of the game industry.
Requests for comment in order to clarify whether measures were taken to confirm the identities of the study participants went unanswered at the time of posting. Updates will be provided if and when they become available.
For the full slide created for the purpose of sharing the collected data, you can click here.
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