Jack Thompson is Never Coming Back

For those not in the know, Jack Thompson is a former lawyer and demagogue who argued that video games directly caused violence. He was eventually disbarred for the unethical actions taken during his anti-gaming crusade.

Thompson was around at the same time politicians like Joe Lieberman and Hilary Clinton were arguing for restrictions on the sale of violent video games, and there was a real fear of censorship in the gaming community.

Nowadays, games are considered art, and Supreme Court decisions in the US and Canada have extended free speech/expression protection to video games. Despite this, the ghost of Jack Thompson still seems to haunt us.

Many of the arguments (and vitriol) that were lobbed at Thompson are now being used against Anita Sarkeezian. Some gamers apparently see her criticism of tropes in video games as another front in the war for increased censorship, despite never having called for censorship. I’ve seen her called “the new Jack Thompson” in a number of places, and one of the more common (non-harassing) arguments against her is “if video games don’t cause violence, how can they cause misogyny?” I got tired of not knowing the answer to that question, so I decided to see what the peer reviewed studies were saying.

Apparently there isn’t a strong link between violent video games and real-world violence, but that may just be because we don’t have good data on people who commit violent acts. There is very likely a link between violent games and aggression, self-control and cheating,  especially in young people with a high degree of ‘moral disengagement’ (see: Interactive Effect of Moral Disengagement and Violent Video Games on Self-Control, Cheating, and Aggression).  We can’t quite bridge the gap between those elements and actual violent acts, however.

Misogyny is a different story. We have loads of empirical data that show a link between sexualized characters and tolerance of sexual harassment, likelihood to sexually harass, perceptions of women’s competence (even non-sexualized women), denial of mind and moral concern regarding womenself-efficacy in women, and all kinds of nasty things.

Perhaps the most interesting and relevant study I found was “Virtual Virgins and Vamps: The Effects of Exposure to Female Characters’ Sexualized Appearance and Gaze in an Immersive Virtual Environment“. It’s a bit tricky to parse the abstract, but the gist of the study was that both sexualized and non-sexualized female characters that behave in a stereotypical manner contribute to rape myth acceptance, benevolent sexism, and hostile sexism, while the same characters acting in a non-stereotypical manner result in a reduction in all three. This seems to suggest that the really important and damaging factor is the overuse of SEXIST TROPES! I never expected to confirm Anita’s position like this when I began my analysis.

What do you guys think? I don’t have nearly as many studies on aggression and violence, and I would be interested in hearing other people’s opinions.

3 responses to “Jack Thompson is Never Coming Back”

  1. judmicha

    Well this is an extremely interesting collection of research you have brought together there. One thing that does seem to be frequently forgotten in this debate is the fact that the claims being made do not exclusively live in the realm of theory, and indeed may be empirically verified or refuted. I confess I am genuinely surprised that some of theses tropes seemingly not only promote negative stereotypes, but may increase the likelihood of actual harassment.

    I would just add these two points:

    1. For my part, I’m not certain how to draw the distinction between violence and misogyny in this case. Misogyny of course is considered to be an important component of the overall landscape of gender-based violence. It seems to me that one component of what is being claimed is that sexist tropes in video games may lead to a greater inclination to justify or even engage in violence against women. Is that categorically different from the kind of claims made by critics of video gaming on the right, such as Mr Thompson? It seems to me more like a subset of the general argument that participation in certain types of virtual worlds tends to deaden one to the value of other human beings and weaken the social bonds of sympathy that might otherwise deter acts of aggression. Perhaps what the old “video games cause violence” argument really suffered from was a lack of contextualization and specificity?
    2. With respect to Anita Sarkeesian’s work, I think one point to be made in this context is that the types of tropes she is dealing with are at least to some degree a little different from what is described in those studies. (I should admit that I have not extensively watched all of the Tropes vs Women videos and am speaking from the limited knowledge of what I have seen.) For example, in one video she talks at length about the representation of Ms Pacman, arguing that the Pacman games set up male as the default and female as a variation through details like Ms Pacman’s hair(?) bow. Important commentary perhaps, but somewhat different from the explicitly sexualized images used in those studies. Of course Sarkeesian deals with a lot of different games and this is just one example of her work, but I think it shows that the “misogyny in gaming” analysis comes in different varieties and I would be interested to see more research about the effect of games like Pacman.

  2. joewmanning

    Some of these results were pretty surprising for me too. It was actually really interesting to learn about the methods social scientists are using to ‘measure’ various aspects of sexism.

    This sort of thing is probably not going to make someone less likely to harass or commit violence against women, I’ll admit. On the other hand, it’s hard to make a clear connection between an attitude (like sexism or aggression) and an aberrant behaviour (like acts of violence or sexual assault). On the other, other hand, ignorance and false beliefs almost certainly contribute to certain kinds of sexual assault, especially date rape and street harassment.

    While Anita’s arguments might be rely on similar premises, she comes to a different conclusion than Jack Thompson. Thompson called for a legislative response to ban or censor “murder simulators”, while Anita seems confident that developers and gamers can solve the problem.

    Responding to your second point, it sounds like you’re referring to the “Ms. Male Character” video. The latest two videos discuss the “Women as Background Decoration” trope, which heavily involved sexualized women (and stereotypical depictions of female victimhood).

  3. megancoyle

    Those studies are extremely interesting, particularly the “Virtual Virgins and Vamps.” In terms of “solutions,” I also tend to shy away from legislative restrictions and am hopeful that developers, and gamers in particular, might be better positioned to solve the problem. Just this morning this comic (http://mic.com/articles/96008/the-perfect-comic-for-anyone-who-thinks-everyday-sexism-isn-t-a-big-deal) popped up on my Facebook feed, and I remembered it when pondering “solutions.” It basically advocates for bystander intervention, suggesting that a visible and pervasive culture of harassment and disrespect can be countered by creating a visible and pervasive culture of respect. Considering the statistics on who gamers are these days, this could be a viable possibility. Perhaps if we seek out or call for more games with a more novel raison d’etre for the hero(ine)’s quest, and call out the players who say things that might, for example, make women feel comfortable playing certain games online only when disguised as men, more non-stereotypical female characters will emerge and the “magic circle” (or, if there’s nothing left of it, then the world) will become a safer and more enjoyable space for women.