By Mary Ellen Holden

Can the video gaming ecosystem help promote healthy boyhood to manhood? Will a deeper understanding of video games support the development of positive gender norms in the offline world? How do we move from the notion that video games are harmful and promote toxic masculinity to see the good in gaming? What actions can companies take to improve inclusion in the video game ecosystem?

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, in partnership with Promundo, released a multidimensional study, The Double-Edged Sword of Online Gaming, funded by Oak Foundation. This investigation sparked a collective interest in generating the data to identify action steps to ensure a healthier gaming experience. The timing couldn’t have been better as the ecosystem grew and online gaming activity spiked +75% during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Setting the Stage

Soraya Giaccardi

Today’s See Jane Spotlight provides an inside look from an array of industry experts to get their take on the “good in gaming.” Read on for surprising insights and concrete actions that stakeholders can take to improve the online gaming space so that intersectional populations including male, female and non-binary players of all races and sexual identities can feel a sense of belonging within the gaming community.

To understand the context of the study, I spoke with Soraya Giaccardi, former Associate Director of Research for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and current Senior Researcher, USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, who led the project for the Institute. Giaccardi explained. “Modern-day gaming is about so much more than what you might see in one particular game. The experience is broad and more interactive than that, so our study looked at Twitch, which is the largest and most popular streaming platform of video game content.”

Gary Barker, President, and CEO, Promundo, added, “We stepped into this study wanting to go beyond the question that’s often asked, namely ‘do video games cause harm, do they lead to violence and sexism?’ We know the gaming space contributes to lots of things, but it’s not on its own responsible for violence, sexism, and racism. That said, it is a space that we need to be concerned about.”

The Double-Edged Sword of Gaming

Gary Barker

Barker continued, “We were disturbed by many findings that the study uncovered. In particular, I was quite alarmed by how many of the characters who caused the most harm are white males. In our country, this is very real in terms of ongoing mass shootings (mostly carried out by white males) and the killing of people of color by police (mostly white male police officers). So what does it mean that boys and young men see the same things in the gaming space?

But at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge how much boys, young men, and women also told us in the study that the gaming world is a tremendous source of connection, friendship, camaraderie, and self-expression that all of us need now more than ever. The key question thus becomes: how do we ensure that it’s a place where we are free to be best ourselves, connect in respectful ways with others, and where empathy prevails over harm?”

The inspiration behind the term double-edged sword arose from the study results. Of course, normalizing violence, hate, and a belief system consistent with white extremism is part of the problem, but the video gaming experience also provides a valuable human connection. Giaccardi added, “We found that video game spaces are meaningful and important to both boys and men. One in three boys says they feel closer to their friends and less lonely when playing video games for younger players. And one in four think that video games teach them how to be good friends.”

Giaccardi continued, “We saw similar thoughts among a vast majority of older gamers who report that video games help them to connect with their friends to let their guard down and to share their problems, their worries, and their concerns with other men. Overall, two-thirds of gamers say that they feel more like their true selves in gaming spaces than they do in real life. And three in four gamers say that people who do not play video games simply do not understand how meaningful these experiences can be.”

This finding is highly significant and requires the industry and parents to take notice and act.

Calling all Stakeholders

Vicky Rateau

Vicky Rateau, Campaigns Program Officer, Oak Foundation, explained, “The research analyzes the role of video gaming in the development of gender norms and contributes to the call for engaging teachers, parents, media, content producers, coaches, and other stakeholders in the development of interventions that promote positive masculinity.” She posits, “As a society and community of gamers, we would benefit from more diversity and more quality. We need to include in games more speaking female characters, better treatment of the LGBTQ+ community and people of color, and male characters that model healthy masculinity versus the harassment, bullying, homophobia, and racism that dominate the landscape.”

Rateau added, “What was surprising to me was that the majority of respondents felt like they could present their authentic self-online even though this space is known for its violence, toxic attitudes, and beliefs.” Oak is also interested in online gaming for another reason. Rateau added, “Oak is committed to holding the technology industry accountable for online child sexual abuse, the social chatrooms can be a place where children are inappropriately approached by strangers and enticed into harmful abuse.” The future integration of AI into gaming represents one way to thwart predators who use the platform to groom victims for online child sexual abuse.

Understanding and Action

Anita Sarkeesian

Anita Sarkeesian, Executive Director, Feminist Frequency and the Games and Online Harassment Hotline, provides an excellent assessment of the video game ecosystem, “As the study shows, and we anecdotally already know that the top streamers are primarily white men. They’re the ones getting most of the sponsorship money, huge audiences, and institutional support from these platforms. So that informs how these platforms are operating and who’s benefiting from them, and who’s not.”

Sarkeesian added, “We have seen an increase in conversations around representation in gaming and the importance of moving out of white male-dominated male power fantasies. Yet, we are not seeing an increase in playable female and non-binary video game characters. Instead, we see an increase in customizable, create your own character or suite of characters. This isn’t bad, but that has been the industry’s response to inclusion which is not the same problem. Instead, it is a solution to a different issue that also needs to be addressed.”

Excerpts (below) are from industry experts interviewed by Anita Sarkeesian during a See Jane Salon on August 17th. They discussed the ecosystem, interventions, and actions for big companies to pursue to improve diversity and inclusion within the gaming experience. In addition, they are breaking the cycle of violence inherent in traditional white, male, heterosexual privilege often reinforced through the video game ecosystem.

Dr. Kishonna Gray (Professor, Gamer, and Author): “Video game industry investment is the solution to the problem. Gaming is a microcosm of what’s happening in the real world. These folks need to leave their tower for a little while and put their heart on the Twitter streets and in the digital media streams. If they do, people will tell them what’s happening. They need to be transparent and explain what and when they are trying to do something. It’s OK if you can’t change anything but know that you can do something.”

Nikatine (Twitch Streamer and Ambassador): “As a child, my biggest draw to video games was the opportunity to inhabit another character or possibility as a trans person. I spent my formative years in video games because I could experience something new and different. We are depriving ourselves if we only see the same tropes and themes.”

Bijan Stephen (Video Correspondent, Podcaster, Twitch Streamer): “If we’re jumping straight to solutions, literally empower the people of color and minorities in your organization and do what they say. Avoid the diversity trap where you hire people at a low level who fit your requirements, and then you don’t listen. Conversely, don’t just install a Chief Diversity Officer. Give diverse voices responsibility and pay them!”

Anita Sarkeesian: “A robust long-term intervention is leadership training. If you are an executive in one of these places, please hit our Games and Online Harassment Hotline up as we’re addressing this problem from a systemic, long-term perspective.”

For more, please check out Action Steps for Industry Leaders and Parents and #Raise the Game. In addition, look for more interventions to come from Promundo, The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Oak Foundation, and the Global Boyhood Initiative.