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Thinking outside the Man Box

Geena Davis and Mitu Khandaker go over the results and takeaways of a new study about masculinity in games and online communities

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media yesterday released its "The Double-Edged Sword of Online Gaming" report, which examined the role of masculinity in the games industry and gaming communities.

To mark the occasion, the actress and advocate herself appeared in a fireside chat session with Glow-Up Games CEO Mitu Khandaker at the Game Developers Conference to get the word out about the research.

"We wanted to find out what message the games are sending," Davis explained.

To do that, researchers analyzed the content of games, streamer communities, and gaming chat features (with the help of automated language analysis), as well as conducted a survey of boys and young men aged 10 to 26. They looked at the representation in games of women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, those with disabilities, people over 50, and people with large body types.

To answer representation questions, the group collected information on nearly 28,000 characters shown during 684 15-minute clips of gameplay segments from top Twitch streamers. Male characters outnumbered female characters four-to-one. Girls and women made up almost 28% of protagonists, and were 10 times more likely to be shown in revealing clothing than male characters (24.6% to 2.3%).

"Hyperexposure to these kinds of tropes is very impactful. What we're exposed to over and over becomes a sort of reality for us"

Geena Davis

On race, 75% of all characters were white, as were more than 89% of leading characters. Games were apparently more comfortable having white characters perpetrate violence than characters of color (51.7% compared to 33.6%) and that violence was less likely to have arguably noble justifications (14% of violence of characters of color was committed to protect strangers or society, compared to 7.3% for white characters).

"It's not like we're saying, 'Hey, let's make it equal and get the characters of color more violent,'" Davis said. "It's, 'Let's get the white characters less violent.'"

LGBTQIA+ characters were "virtually absent," accounting for .03% of the sample, with 0.1% of characters shown with a physical disability.

3.2% of characters were 50 or older, and 1.5% had larger body types.

In addition to concerns about representation of marginalized audiences, the report also focused on representation of men, specifically in how they depict and reinforce notions of what being a man entails.

"Hyperexposure to these kinds of tropes is very impactful," Davis said. "What we're exposed to over and over becomes a sort of reality for us. Media and games, the things we see in our popular culture, have a tremendous impact in shaping who we are. So as you can imagine, playing these games over and over or watching people play these games can have a significant impact about what you think is the actual way that men should be, or what masculinity should look like."

Davis described the idea of the Man Box, "a set of beliefs that are communicated by parents and family, the media, peers, and other members of society that place pressures on men and boys to be a certain way."

She identified seven main pillars of the Man Box:

  • Be entirely self-reliant: Do things without help from others
  • Act tough: Defend your reputation and use aggression to do so
  • Be physically attractive, effortlessly: Putting time and effort into your appearance is not manly
  • Stick to gender roles: Take risks, be a leader, provide for your family, no cooking or caregiving
  • Be heterosexual and homophobic: Avoid being gay or even being perceived as gay
  • Be hypersexual: Value sexual conquests over intimacy, never turn down sex
  • Use aggression to solve conflicts: Be willing to use violence to get respect, be in control of your relationships

"We found in our study that masculine norms are very strongly upheld, with four in five male characters displaying at least one of these pillars of masculinity, for example," Davis said. "Seven of ten male characters are shown engaging in stereotypically masculine activities like taking risks, engaging in violence, getting angry. Nearly one in four male characters actually express anger."

Khandaker pointed out that these strict conceptions of masculinity simultaneously harms both the people who fit within them and those who don't.

"The thing I love about [the Man Box] definition is the way it talks about how it is limiting, both for cis men and folks of all genders, the ways these representations box people in, in certain ways."

Of course, these issues aren't limited to the content within the games the industry makes; they're also clearly visible in the culture surrounding games, including online communities and on streaming platforms like Twitch.

As the introduction of the new report notes, "On the positive side, streaming platforms are a vital space for connecting with male friends -- these communities are a space where boys and young men can share their emotions and problems and be their authentic selves. But online spaces are also rife with identity-based prejudice, harassment, and bullying that are ultimately harmful to boys and young men, and also harmful because other community members who interact with this content may mimic or condone these behaviors online as well as offline."

Almost 38% of the streaming segments analyzed included sexist language. 29% included the word "bitch."

Davis said the Top 20 Twitch streamers were all men, with only one being a man of color and only one identifying as LGBTQ.

The report found that almost 38% of the streaming segments analyzed included sexist language. 29% included the word "bitch." Almost a quarter contained sexually degrading content.

Racist language was used in 6% of segments, and almost 1% included the n-word.

Homophobic language was used in more than 10% of segments. 49% of segments used ableist language, with "crazy" being used in more than 18% of clips analyzed.

The numbers are worse when looking at the chat accompanying Twitch streams, where 63% of segments had sexist language in chat, 38% included racist language, and 84% saw ableist language used.

"Online gaming provides incredible opportunities for boys and young men to connect, but we need to make it so they can feel like they're being their true selves online..."

Geena Davis

"When a streamer uses sexually objectifying language, the amount of sexually objectifying language in the chat doubles," the report states. "We find similar increases in chat messages using a respective slur when the gamer uses sexist, racist, ableist, ageist, and sizeist language. This confirms that the most popular streamers in online platforms set the tone for the language used by participants in the chat."

Davis acknowledged that gaming culture provides people with valuable human connections and stressed the need to have a place for that, but added that there is an ongoing concern about it normalizing violence and hate.

"The thing to think about is, since there's such a positive aspect you can gain by developing community and sharing special time with your friends through gaming, how can we make it a more positive experience and subject you to less bullying, harassment, and violence? There have to be positive things, ways to make the experience more positive and creative," she said.

"We know that what happens in the fictional world does have a real-life impact. Online gaming provides incredible opportunities for boys and young men to connect, but we need to make it so they can feel like they're being their true selves online, and not having to reinforce toxic prejudices and toxic masculinity."

In light of this week's discrimination lawsuit against Activision Blizzard, Khandaker specified that the onus for fixing issues of representation and treatment of marginalized people in the industry are the people in charge.

"Ultimately these problems go up to leadership," Khandaker said. "These things start from the top, so companies and leaders need to have values where they care about these issues... It really does come down to a question of values from the top, because that's who gets listened to at the company, who gets supported, what is the overall culture at the company."

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