Even before its April 2019 release, the eleventh installment of the popular fighting game Mortal Kombat was generating waves for its presentation of female characters. But the grumblings are not what one might expect. After years of being criticized for sexualizing female characters, Mortal Kombat is now under fire from fans—including women—for not allowing the female characters to be sexy enough. Did Mortal Kombat’s developer overshoot the mark? Or are we beginning to see a reassessment of concerns that sexualized games are responsible for sexist attitudes toward women—an argument that increasingly became a mantra of progressive games criticism?
Historically, games have catered to male audiences, even as increasing numbers of women and girls have joined the ranks of gamers. Given the rapidly changing gamer demographic, it was perhaps inevitable that games would eventually come in for criticism for under-representing playable female characters, and for presenting them as hyper-sexualized images when they were available.
Much of this criticism was deserved, particularly the lack of alternative options featuring strong, less-sexualized playable characters. Indeed, I am on record advocating for stronger female characters in games. In recent years, the Tomb Raider reboot was praised for reimagining a less sexualized Lara Croft, and games such as Alice: Madness Returns, Horizon Zero Dawn, and The Last of Us have struck commercial gold with enticing, strong female leads. Commercially, Mortal Kombat XI will probably do just fine too. But why the sudden backlash against the covering up of the series’ famously sexy females?
Part of it probably has to do with the specifics of Mortal Kombat as a series. Many of the games praised for promoting strong female leads were new franchises such as The Last of Us that didn’t require developers to reimagine popular classics with an existing fan base. Tomb Raider is an exception, of course, but its reboot was a complete restart and felt like a fresh angle on a story that had grown stale. By contrast, Mortal Kombat‘s redressing of its female characters may have been a shock particularly because some players feel that many of the male characters remain sexualized.
This backlash was foreseeable. Even as I supported the introduction of more strong women characters in games, I cautioned advocates against overplaying their hand. Just a few years ago, claims linking sexualized games to sexual assaults in real life were met with convincing criticism. The more subtle suggestion that sexualized games might cultivate sexism or misogyny have since become more common, particularly among cultural critics and some areas of progressive games journalism, which have sacrificed a critical edge to the repetition of advocacy talking points with little concern for fact-checking or appropriate skepticism.
Cultivation theory suggests that, in the absence of other information, we develop beliefs or attitudes about the world based on media exposure. So, for instance, if a person regularly sees a lot of crime reported on the nightly news, they may come to believe that crime is more common than it actually is. However, even this fairly reasonable hypothesis has been maddeningly difficult to demonstrate. Is there any evidence that playing games such as Grand Theft Auto cultivates sexist attitudes in gamers?
A recent edition of scholar Christina Hoff-Sommers’ vlog Factual Feminist poured cold water over this idea, noting that most social outcomes for women have improved, despite the vast popularity of sexualized games. But it’s worth taking a closer look at the actual research base. As with most media effects fields, it’s a mess, and advocates are making bold claims insufficiently supported by the available data.
A few years ago, much attention was given to a study conducted at Ohio State that looked at the impact of sexualized avatars on the acceptance of “rape myths.” The study asked participants to move around a virtual world, but the exercise wasn’t technically a video game. The study has often been described as showing that when women see their faces on sexualized avatars, they are more likely to accept rape myths. But this ignores one of the study’s most interesting findings: rape myths among women were actually lowest among women who interacted as a sexualized avatar using a random face, and this is how most games such as Grand Theft Auto are actually played. Thus, this study could be used to suggest that playing most sexualized video games may reduce rather than increase rape myth acceptance, so long as women players avoid using their own faces on their avatars.
Another study, also conducted at Ohio State, exposed Italian boys to Grand Theft Auto, a non-sexualized violent game or a control violent game. No connection was found between game conditions and empathy toward female victims of violence. Nevertheless, the authors employed a dubious, complicated analysis to suggest that a reduced empathy effect was hidden in the results. Some outlets, like the ever-credulous Time Magazine ate this story up. Unfortunately, it has been since discredited. A reanalysis I conducted with my colleague Brent Donnellan found that the study was not randomized, despite its authors claims to the contrary. All of the youngest boys ended up in the Grand Theft Auto cohort, with older boys more likely to end up in the non-sexist cohort. If random assignment had occurred, boys of different ages should be evenly spread throughout game conditions. But this is the opposite of what actually happened. In other words, age was conflated with game condition, a big problem since empathy tends to develop with age. Further, we found that even with that problem ignored, the analyses could not support even indirect links between Grand Theft Auto and sexism.
This study is a good example of what some call the Bullshit Asymmetry Factor. The study’s claim to be randomized when in fact it was not should have been grounds for retraction. However, its findings are still cited as if they provide evidence for effects. The Wikipedia page for sexism in video games, for instance, mentions only the original study, but fails to disclose that it was subsequently found to have fatal flaws.
Other recent studies have likewise failed to support the cultivation hypothesis. A 2015 study found no evidence that playing video games with sexual content is causally related to sexism later in life. Another recent study suggested that playing sexualized games might reduce rape myth acceptance over time. And a third found that cognitively demanding games, including sexualized games, could lead to decreased sexism. The problem is that research in this area tends to be inconsistent with studies that find effects and those that do not. Many studies also suffer from methodological flaws. On balance, this field is shaping up to be similar to the field dedicated to examining the effects of violence in video games. That is to say, high on rhetoric but ultimately low on evidence for effects in the real world.
None of this should discourage efforts to introduce non-sexualized female characters into games. However, advocates for this cause tend to make two mistakes. First, their claims about the causal relationship between gaming and real-world “harms” are unsupported by the current research evidence, and this misuse of data can reduce the credibility of an otherwise worthy cause. Second, there is a temptation to shift the focus from balance in game content to de facto censorship.
Which brings us to the question of whether it’s simply good marketing to provide a variety of games for different audiences. Some producers, such as Sony, appear to accept that, at very least, they may experience some social backlash for sexualized images and are restricting content with this in mind. The trap into which both Mortal Kombat and Sony have fallen is that rather than providing a diversity of options, they decided to restrict the available options to those approved of by a narrow range of advocates. I suspect that developing games with strong non-sexualized characters will continue to be met with encouragement, whereas censoring existing game franchises will not. Or, put another way, there is room in the world for both Grand Theft Auto 6 and Horizon Zero Dawn 2.
Ultimately, if game developers are producing games with more positive female characters, that is a positive development. However, they would also do well to avoid becoming merely an arm of an ideological advocacy agenda or exaggerating the impact their products have on consumers. Game companies which began at one extreme are now in danger of swinging to the other.
Christopher J. Ferguson is a professor of psychology at Stetson University in Florida. He is author of Moral Combat: Why the War on Violent Video Games is Wrong and the Renaissance mystery novel Suicide Kings. You can follow him on Twitter @CJFerguson1111