Toxic Masculinity in Games – Transcript


So, last year I did a talk at the NZ Game Developers Conference about toxic masculinity in gaming. The talk was 20 mins long, and while I shared a link to the video in my previous blog post and to FB , it’s a long-ass time to be sitting watching something when you’re not in a conference setting. Sooo I thought I’d share a (slightly edited for clarity) transcript of the speech if anyone wanted to know what I spoke about but can’t put aside a whole 20 mins to watch the video. 

Below is the transcript of the speech – warning that is is a long read and was designed to be verbal.

Hi everyone,  today I’m going to give something of an academic perspective to the gender relations in video games, focusing on the idea of toxic masculinity. I’m gonna  start this talk by saying that I’m not in the games industry – my passion and my background is in social geography (so – gender relations, race relations, urban spaces and everything in between). I’m not a gamer. But what I am is someone with a deep interest in how social theory plays out in different contexts, and in this case the context is video games. Although I have talked to some friends in the gaming industry about the games I mention in this talk, I definitely feel more comfortable talking to the academic theories surrounding these games – which is why I’ve chosen to focus on those aspects. I hope that by giving an outside perspective on video games, I can help give some insights from a different discipline – and explain how cross-disciplinary knowledge (which i think is very important) can be useful. I’m not going to step too far outside my expertise today. My purpose is not to tell you what you most likely already know – that the gender order in games often preferences men and continues harmful stereotypes around women – and it also contains very specific types of men. What i’m also not here to do is condemn those who play games as perpetuators of these ideas because i think that’s oversimplifying a complicated situation, and i don’t want to go down that road because it’s far more complex than that. I simply aim to give some understanding of how the themes in games can mirror wider, structural, institutional and individual perspectives towards men and women.

In the past, and to some extent, in the present, video games have been constructed as a traditionally male space. Although the gender split between female and male gamers is now reaching equilibrium, game design is generally not accounting for this fact. As these statistics show, while only 18% of gamers are males under 18 years old (a demographic generally seen as the one which game companies target), 41% of gamers are now female (with many over 35). This shows a divide between supply and demand in the game industry – where the games, and the characters in them, are not always matching up to what the people playing these games desire.  

In popular media, criticisms around gender and games tend to focus on the portrayal of women. Even a preliminary google search turns up with mostly articles about  females in video games. Of course, this discourse is a vitally important one, and one that is gaining a lot of traction within the industry and in wider society. However, in academic study there is a move towards focussing on the dominant group in society, to make those invisible concepts, such as masculinity, whiteness and ableism, visible. This talk takes the same perspective, in the hopes that by shedding light on the treatment of men in video games, greater understanding can be gained of the detrimental effects of this on men and women alike.

So to start, I’m going  to go over a couple of theoretical aspects so just stay with me.

I want to define toxic masculinity first of all – as it’s a concept that is particularly contentious and evokes a lot of emotional response. So,and I cannot stress this enough, toxic masculinity does not state that being masculine or a man is toxic. What it really means is that there are certain ways of being in a patriarchal society which are harmful to men by condemning “unmasculine” traits like emotional connection or sadness, and rewarding traits that are perceived as masculine – like anger and aggression. This construction of the male gender role is especially harmful for men who do not conform to these ideals. An artist called Luke Humphries has made a fantastic, accessible comic about this exact topic for those who are interested. I also want to note the difference between masculinity and the state of being male. Anyone who has done some kind of biology, or sociology, will know that there is a difference between sex and gender. Sex relates to the physical, biological features of a body, whereas gender relates to identity and expression. Masculinity and femininity are descriptors of gender identity, in that being male does not equate to being traditionally masculine.

Raewyn Connell is a prominent gender theorist, who positions toxic masculinity as aligning with hegemonic or dominant masculine ideals.. She proposes a masculinities schema, a changing, contextual classification which you can see laid out behind me. This explains how there is no one way of being a man. As I’m sure every man in this room can attest to, the experiences of men are varied and changing – meaning no two men will express their ‘masculinity’ in the same way. However, in society, particular types of masculinity are privileged over others. Not every man wants to conform to all stereotypical features of masculinity, playing rugby and punching things – just as every female does not want to conform to all stereotypical features of femininity, with pink and shopping and barbies. I mean, I don’t particularly want to punch things either, but my point is it’s all about personal expression – I’m a woman but malls hold a very special place of hatred in my heart. For men also, there are interests that don’t always conform to traditional masculinity, and may fall more on the spectrum of feminine traits – like cooking for example.

So we have these different ways of expressing ourselves, and that’s where this masculinities schema comes in. Hegemonic (meaning to dominate socially or politically) or dominant masculinities ascribe to gender norms and gain from dominance over women. They are not bad people, they don’t necessarily spend their days abusing women, trash talking and flexing – they just happen to fit into the most socially acceptable way of being a man.  We privilege attributes that we see as stereotypically ‘masculine’ traits – strength and confidence, toughness and physicality. As I’ll elaborate further on in a bit, this is the model of masculinity most video game characters ascribe to. It’s society which views these aspects as the best way of being a man – although individuals may believe differently, it is the collective societal ideals which influence gender orders. Ways of thinking can become ingrained in a society and the norm goes unquestioned – a type of masculinity becomes hegemonic when it is widely accepted in culture.

Next, complicit masculinities are men who don’t necessarily fit into these dominant characteristics, but are similar enough to still benefit from some power relations. As men, there will always be power structures which privilege them over women. However, they may be more “meterosexual” or have a ‘non-masculine’ job such as being an academic or teacher, meaning they can’t access all the benefits of dominant masculinity or are looked down on by some men. Again, they don’t purposefully go out to dominate women, it is the wider structures of society which does this.

Now, subordinate masculinities, on the other hand, generally don’t conform to dominant ideals. They may not fit into a heteronormative standard, or have interests that are deemed ‘feminine’ – being a fashion designer for example. It is important to note that dominant masculinities are seen as very fiercely heterosexual, something which many men do not ascribe to. This could mark them out as subordinate to dominant ways of being masculine – this does not mean that it is an unacceptable way of being a man, just that within society in general they may experience more judgement from other people for their interests.

Finally, marginalised masculinities are men whose position in society makes them face structural inequalities. Although they may conform to dominant ways of being masculine, they can not achieve the same level of power. They may play rugby, go to the pub, work as a tradie for example, but they do not have access to certain power structures like a dominantly masculine man might. A good example of this would be a Maori or African-American man – even if they conform to the traits mentioned before they will still be subjected to racism and structural barriers that restrict their access to complete hegemony. This can make them more marginalised, whether it be in the workplace, schools or in life in general.

Of course these categories are not mutually exclusive, people are always changing through different contexts and situations over time – so a man may shift categories throughout his lifetime. The purpose of the masculinities schema is not to restrict people, or place them into boxes – it is simply to highlight the multitude ways of being and expressing oneself in society. And of course, this has all been super simplified in order to fit in into a 20 min talk – there are hundreds of papers that are all thousands of words long so There Is more information about this out there is you are interested. If there’s anyone in this room who has a deeper knowledge of gender identities, please forgive my over-simplification!

So how does this all relate to gaming? It probably seems like I’ve veered off on a tangent but I promise it does all relate. The fact is that in video games today, there is a common type of masculinity which dominates. Hegemonic masculinity appears time and time again in the main characters in video games – across genres and companies.

In 2016, the top (that is, the best selling) 5 video games were Call of Duty – Infinite Warfare, Battlefield 1, The Division, NBA 2k17 and Madden NFL 2017. You’ll all know that these are either shooter or sports games, that all have similarities in the way men are portrayed in them.

There’s a strong theme across the different games, a discourse of strength and power. For shooter games (COD, Battlefield and the Division ), men can step into a role of dominant masculinity for a quick thrill. They can experience the feeling of control and power over a situation, dominating other characters in fights through their aggression. Of course, in real life this kind of behaviour is not legal – so it is a safe space where these people can play out dominant masculinity they don’t, and can’t, adhere to in their own lives. These games featured predominantly male characters, all posed in a dominant way, expressing aggression and authority. They represent hegemonically masculine men, physically muscular, predominantly white. Hegemonic masculinity is associated with these aggressive, tough behaviours – and the characters that people get to play in videos games such as the top 5, are men who conform to these traits. Call of duty for example is a first person shooter game, meaning that you are essentially playing the masculine man and carrying out his actions. The player gets the chance to enact their masculinity, and decide how aggressive their game play will be. The same applies for Battlefield 1, it is also a first person shooter which puts the player directly into the action that their character is experiencing, again, making them play out how their character reacts to situations. In the game they can take advantage of the power that it gives them. This may accustom them to this power in real life, even though they do not have the advantages of the game in reality – meaning a mismatch can occur between their online or virtual personalities and their own experiences of life. If you look at the physicality of these characters and other male characters in video games, they are all physically fit, young to middle aged men – a time where males are in their physical prime. They are strong and muscled, often with unnatural proportions – big biceps and washboard abs. This continues the hegemonci ideal of what a man should be like – physically capable so he can provide for a woman, fix things with his hands, and protect those around him. This can also link into the use of weapons, most video game characters are pictured with weapons throughout the game. The idea of aggression, and violence ties in with dominant ideals – men should be able to use a gun to protect others, they should be physically capable, and “hard” enough to deal with fighting someone. Of course, as we’ve already discussed, many men don’t fit into this ideal.

Now, this doesn’t just apply to shooter games. Sport is often discussed in academic literature as  a reproduction of battle or war – this new accessible battlefield through which dominant male aggression is expressed. In sport played in real life, there is a very militaristic stance taken. The haka, for example is actually a battle chant – how appropriate are the words “we are going to live. we are going to die” when rugby is only a sport. The language of sport contains many military terms, like attack, defence, and victory – which position a simple sports game as a battle and enhances the dominant traits the men portray by increasing their status in society. Competitiveness is a huge factor in sports especially, and sports video games. The competitive spirit is instilled in boys in a young age, as they are pushed to play rugby, or soccer, or other sports. This competitiveness is a strong masculine trait, as men are supposed to play to win, and be aggressively competitive as they play to show they are not ‘wimps’. Physical force and control are seen as a core component in hegemonic masculinity. The male body comes to represent power, force and domination – and this is put to the test when playing sport. Even in NZ, we have seen the prominence of rugby culture influencing our perceptions of what makes a great man. Ask any Kiwi for an example of a masculine man, and no doubt richie mccaw will be on the list. These representations naturalise hegemonic masculinity, which continues the idea that this is the normal, right way to be a man. Of course, this all links in with the 2 sports games I mentioned earlier. NBA and NFL are American sporting institutions, which are male dominated. By playing the sports (basketball and American football) in the video games, the gamers are continuing these ideas of competition and masculine aggression – and getting a chance to “play” into it themselves, without necessarily needing to have the skills or physicality to play in real life.


Looking at the top 5 best selling games, they all based their game play around violence, competitiveness or aggression. I’m not saying this is inherently bad or good, but it does show a pattern of dominantly masculine ideals that are being portrayed in these video games. The war games and sporting achievements enacted in these games continues the cycle of positioning hegemonic ways of being masculine as something to aspire to, or desire. This doesn’t mean that everyone who plays a shooter or sports game literally wants to be the character, or to do the things the character does, but there are ways of gamers immersing themselves in the games which can lead to feeling part of the game and it’s ideals.

This relates to an academic theory called embodied experience. This describes how the experience of an activity is one which can felt bodily. What this means is that you can feel physically transported or part of this activity. This can be applied to gaming, where the act of playing a character can transport you into the game. Now I’ve already said I’m not a big gamer – my main experience with gaming is the Nintendo 64 I would play Goldeneye on as a kid and laugh at the awful graphics – but when I have played video games it’s funny how physically expressive it can be. As you may have noticed, I talk with my hands a lot – I’m very physically active when I’m speaking and the same applies when I play video games. I’m the person who turns the controller as I move the character and almost mimic its movement through the game – of course not everyone plays like this but it is interesting to note the embodied aspect to this. Even though I’m not in the game, I act as though it is my body which is experiencing these actions. This immersion creates what is called digital embodiment – something only set to rise as the popularity of VR increases.

An argument many people give when contesting the importance of gender in games, is that games are not real. However, we have seen how the real world can affect the virtual world through conceptions of dominant masculinity influencing character traits – the same can occur in reverse. The fact remains that media can effect real world perceptions just as easily as the real world effects gaming.

In the Entertainment Software Association’s latest report, they find that more than 150 million Americans play video games, and 65 percent of American households are home to at least one person who plays video games regularly, or at least three hours per week. Playing video games is almost a universal activity, and it has become a vessel for societal ideals, which CAN have effects on behaviour.

For young men, especially those who do not conform to a dominant form of masculinity, games can teach them that there is a correct way of being a man – something which can have profound psychological effects on their mindset growing up. Research in psychology has shown that some young men playing video games can display wishful thinking in wanting to participate in the same actions their video game personalities participate in. Those who were mostly likely to identify with characters and aspire to be them, were those who felt immersed in the game. This was especially apparent in young men with lower education, who showed heightened aggression and desire to act violently. Of course, correlation does not always equal causation, however, it does show a disturbing effect on the enactment of masculinity in younger men – who will grow up to become adult men and participants in society.

Further psychological studies have shown that exposure to sexually stereotyped video games can change men’s tolerance of sexual harassment. Fox and Tan found that two types of masculinity were at play in men playing games – the desire for power over women, and the need for heterosexual self expression. This endorsed toxic masculine norms and increased sexist attitudes towards women.

In another study, Dill, Brown and Collins found that men who were exposed to  gender stereotyped images of women in video games were more tolerant of sexual harassment of a woman. As they become desensitised to these kinds of behaviours, they become less of an issue in real life as well. There are always further considerations when it comes to research practice and methodology, but this study does seem to show there is some correlation between the portrayal of gender in games and the way people behave in real life.  

Now, I’ve strayed a little into evidence based speculation, so I will give an example of how video games have impacted the way women have been treated. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the issues of #GamerGate. What you may not be aware of is that two of the women involved published an academic journal article following the ordeal they were part of.

If anyone isn’t aware of Gamergate here, is was an event that occurred in late 2014 – where a female game creator, Zoe Quinn, was accused of sleeping with a reviewer to gain a good review for her game. This escalated to a full blown conspiracy theory, whereby a “feminist agenda” was accused of taking over the games industry. She started getting harassed by 4chan users and Anonymous members on various social media platforms. Shira Chess and Adrienne Shaw were two academics specialising in video games, who were pulled into the discussion when their conference discussing some of the issues arising in the game industry surround this gamergate event (not unlike this one to be honest, so lets hope I get out of this safely), was hijacked after the fact by conspiracy theorists as evidence of this supposed feminist agenda. A google doc they had created with notes on the conference was taken and modified by Gamergate believers, and transformed into a document that was used to connect Zoe Quinn and other game developers to academics – supposedly proof of a wider feminist conspiracy. Various posts and youtube videos were created, trying to discuss this conspiracy and actions to take – as they tried to stop the appart takeover of the games industry by feminists determined to undermine men and their masculinity. So you can see where I’m going with this. The hegemonic masculinity of the men involved, and the video game character they  loved playing, was supposedly under threat by women trying to gain hegemony. The notion of dismantling hegemonic masculinity was one which came up in discussions around gamergate, which was quoted as further evidence by people who did not understand what the term actually meant. Chess and Shaw contend that the aim of this statement was in fact to attempt to make room for increased diversity in gender identity, and make room for other gaming cultures. Hegemonic masculinity is not something that needs to be removed or dismantled, instead it needs to make space for other ways of being, gaining greater allowance and acceptance of other ways of being a man – in the hopes of gaining acceptance for women as well. In order to “dismantle” hegemonic masculinity, we must embrace it – along with the entire masculinity schema and the multitudes of femininities as well. Only through this exploration and acceptance of diversity, can we on from toxic masculine ideals and portray other ways of being.

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