Opinion Why Feminist Frequency almost made me quit writing about video games: Part 2

Cultivation Theory and Gaze Theory. Are they good fits for video games?

Liana Kerzner


By Liana Kerzner @redlianak

Editor's note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, Metaleater Media as a whole.

(Note: the following may contain various game spoilers and descriptions of things that may be triggering as part of critical analysis. Reactions may be strong. Please be respectful in your discussion of the issues.)

In part one of this series, I explored the general state of gaming, especially the areas influenced by Anita Sarkeesian and Jonathan McIntosh, AKA Feminist Frequency, and briefly discussed the intimidation tactics practised by their followers. I looked at how I believe gaming and associated communities are harmed by the these tactics and influence. In this second part, I'd like to take a closer look at Feminist Frequency's actual theories, and explore whether the methods they use are really appropriate tools to study video games.

At the core of feminist analysis of media is a distinction between whether something is legitimately harmful as opposed to personally distasteful. Every human being has personal sensitivities and things they just don't like. People should not be forced to consume entertainment products that they don't find fun or entertaining, or that remind them of something bad that happened to them. Furthermore, consumers should not be tricked into buying something under false pretences by misleading marketing. These are all personal comfort issues that gamers can encounter, but they're not sexism per se.

Ratings systems and content warnings exist to provide cautions to an individual so they can avoid unpleasant content or prepare themselves for being exposed to it. I've seen a lot of people mock these warnings online, and that has really surprised me. Content warnings of this kind in video games helped fend off government censorship and allowed the industry to self-regulate. The alternative was being at the mercy of governments that treat morality like fashion and don't understand interactive entertainment. Given a choice between voluntary self-regulation and arbitrary government censorship, which would you choose?

Assassin's Creed Unity

That being said, it's fair to question whether we are overemphasizing sexual assault as a fate worse than death, and therefore giving that sort of trauma undue special designation. An examination of that issue is an essay in itself. All I'm getting at here is that content warnings are a useful tool in distinguishing between media that exacerbates trauma -- which can exist with appropriate content warnings -- and legitimately harmful media that negatively influences the behaviour or self-image of a consumer.

Consumers should not be tricked into buying something under false pretences by misleading marketing."

Feminist Frequency's Tropes vs. Women series is rooted in the idea that these images in media aren't just annoying and immature, but that they're "pernicious," aka harmful. That's a heavy accusation, reminiscent of the "Seduction of the Innocent" accusations leveled against comic books in the 1950s. The book Seduction of the Innocent was eventually completely discredited, primarily because it was based on anecdotal, as opposed to objective evidence. It's important that we're not fooled by similar overreaches a second time, because Feminist Frequency uses some similar methods.

Cultivation Theory and Mean World Syndrome

It's generally argued by sociologists and communications majors that mass media can have incredibly influential effects. Television is seen to be particularly influential because it's a daily part of many people's lives. In the 1960s, this analysis of the unique power of television crystallized into something called cultivation theory, named because the original studies tracked the "cultivated" influence of television on the attitudes and behaviours of the American public.

Cultivation theory is frequently misunderstood and misused. It can't correlate specific effects -- the common example is that cultivation theory was not intended to correlate watching Superman with kids trying to fly out a window. Similarly, cultivation theory can't be used to show that Grand Theft Auto makes men more likely to want to kill prostitutes, because that would be correlating a specific effect. Furthermore, caution must be used when extrapolating cultivation theory to forms of media other than television, because this was something it was never intended to do. Despite this, cultivation theory is the core of all theories based in the idea that watching bad things will make you more likely to do bad things. So far, the only negative thing studies have consistently correlated with playing video games is a temporary increase in aggression. Not violence. Aggression.

The cultivation effect only occurs after cumulative, long-term exposure to television. The effect is only observed in "heavy users" of TV, and the theory was created before the explosion of cable TV channels that fragmented a family's viewing habits. Cultivation theory sees television as an inherently special medium because of its unprecedented centrality in American culture.

And I suppose that's true, since half of gaming lost it when Anita Sarkeesian went on Colbert. Depending on who you asked it was either a massive watershed moment or a cable TV smackdown of Sarkeesian, but either way, the importance of a single talk show appearance was massively overvalued. The same spazzing happened again when Sarkeesian appeared on ABC News.

The last important thing to note about cultivation theory is that it doesn't claim television shapes behaviour. It claims television shapes perception of social reality. For instance, studies were done of schoolchildren, and they found that the kids that watched the most TV thought the world was more dangerous than the kids that watched less. The thought was that television cultivated the idea that the world was scarier. This was referred to as "mean world syndrome."

I repeat: watching television made people more afraid of violence, not more likely to commit violence. Television doesn't figure into predicting criminal behaviour, nor does it turn people into Sherlock Holmes.

Extrapolated to sexism, this would mean that viewing sexist material would make people believe the world is more sexist, not turn men into perverts. The implications on Feminist Frequency's theories on that point alone are significant. If true, the concern shouldn't be that sexually violent or objectifying content is going to make consumers mimic these behaviours. The concern should be that this content makes people more afraid of rape, abuse, and second-class status because our entertainment is cultivating this mindset.

This is a very valid concern. Excessive fear will hold back entire portions of our society -- in this case, women. But our current approach has not been fear reduction.

For example, Anita Sarkeesian does talks where she displays horrid, vicious tweets and emails she's received. According to cultivation theory and mean world syndrome, if exposed to heavy doses of this messaging, her audience will become more afraid that they too will be attacked. If Sarkeesian is cultivating fearful attitudes through repeated, systematic exposure to vicarious abuse, this is, to borrow the word, "pernicious."

For the record, I'm not saying she should be muzzled from talking about her experiences. I'm just applying the theories Feminist Frequency uses to their own work.

On the bright side, there's no evidence that video games have the same widespread impacts as television. Interactive media functions on fundamentally different principles than a television show. Research is still being done on what emotional or attitudinal responses are cultivated in gamers. Results are a mix of positive and negative responses regarding things as varied as reaction time, neural elasticity, aggression, frustration, and prosocial responses. However, most modern research indicates that the effect of video games appears to be short term and limited to a mix of aggression and frustration. Other research that has been in progress since the age of the ColecoVision is still inconclusive. (Thanks to Cain ejw for that tidbit and quip.)

Game design is not about mimicking a passively consumed TV show. Games, at one point, thought being "cinematic" was a good thing, but now many developers are experimenting with ways of delivering information and advancing the plot without cut scenes. For example, many designers are using reactive events where button prompts accompany spectacles on the screen. Whatever you think about quick time events, video games are increasingly diverging from other forms of media and developing their own creative language.

Because of this, it's extremely important that analysts, reviewers and critics not treat video games like interactive television shows or movies. Video games are video games. They're their own speciality. They deserve their own theories instead of replications of mass communication theories that often neglect the unique experience of playing over watching.

Anita Sarkeesian

Game design is not about mimicking a passively consumed TV show.

Modern game design focuses on player freedom, player choice, and making the emotional responses of the player part of the interactive experience. A good game doesn't push you toward a particular viewpoint. A good game allows you to decide that viewpoint for yourself interactively. This means that we can't assume video games cultivate perceptions of social reality the same way that television does: video games hinge on a give and take between player attitudes and messages delivered by the game. Player choice short circuits cultivation theory because the player, to an extent, creates his or her own meaning.

True player choice allows the player the option to do things that are morally wrong. However, if a player doesn't think it's fun to act like a jerk in a game, they're not going to. There is huge debate in video games about how real choice versus perceived choice works. Some believe that creating consequences for particular behaviours is not ideal because then players make choices based on desired results, not raw morality. Other developers believe that choices are meaningless if they result in no impact on the game world or the player's experience. It's complex game design philosophy that doesn't exist in any other entertainment medium.

The experience of playing a game and the experience of watching a game aren't the same thing, which undermines gaze theory - the idea that camera angles simulate the distinctly gendered perspective and experience of a viewer.

A TV viewer feels no responsibility for the characters in a show. In a game, I feel greater responsibility for not harming the character I'm controlling, and this leads to very different reactions between player and viewer. For instance, we've all seen scenes in TV shows where a character is beaten to bloody death with a golf club, but it's a totally different experience for a player to be forced to beat Andrew Ryan to death with a golf club on command in Bioshock. Ryan's words might actually summarize the difference: "A man chooses. A slave obeys." But a slave also has no accountability for what they do. Gaze theory requires the audience to be a spectator. In video games, the player is a participant. This doesn't mean that a participant is not a spectator as well. It just means, without getting technical, that they're a spectator and more, which changes the variables significantly.

A game that utilized this principle of participation with accountability to maximum impact is the Minority Media puzzle adventure game Papo & Yo. Papo & Yo doesn't use a health bar. The main character, a little boy named Quico, can't "die" in game. But once I realized that the game is a metaphor for child abuse by an addict parent, I became highly invested in minimizing the amount of damage Quico took. I was hyper-aware that I could control Quico's safety as a player, but Quico could not control it as a character. The in-game consequence was emotional, not literal. This is why Minority Media calls their products empathy games.

Fortunately, Feminist Frequency has Papo & Yo on their list of recommended games, even though it's a story about a boy and his father with only one mystical female character who exists only to further the story of the male protagonist. It would be nice if Feminist Frequency was equally forgiving with other games that attempt to make a player feel kinder things as well. Assassins Creed's anti-racism and anti-sexism messages deserve kudos, as does Dishonored's anti-violence moral. Watch_Dogs also shows human trafficking to be a really bad thing. However, all these games were criticized by Feminist Frequency for promoting sexism using imagery pulled out of the context of the games.

To recap (because this stuff is confusing) video games give a player agency in fictional realities in a way that TV shows don't provide a viewer. As a TV viewer, you feel bad when a child is abused. When you are given control of an abused child in a video game, you feel responsibility and guilt for failing to protect that child. This player agency wreaks havoc on traditional cultivation theory: instead of a passive viewer, the player is an actor that participates in choices. When those choices are denied the player, they must be denied very deliberately. As players in video games, we become defined and self-define by these choices, and struggle with frustration when we're forced into things we don't want to do. For instance, Assassins Creed Rogue forces the player to assassinate a popular character as a way of encouraging the player to question the morality of the Assassin/Templar binary. It's gut-wrenching, reluctant gameplay, and it's supposed to be.

Papa & Yo Watch Dogs Arno and Elise


So let's set aside cultivation theory for a moment and discuss agency - the ability to act on one's surroundings as opposed to being acted upon -- because it's a uniquely complex concept in video games and one that Feminist Frequency invokes frequently. There are two types of agency to consider: player agency and character agency. The player has primary agency over the playable character, but some games give the player even greater agency by influencing the choices of non-playable characters as well. Choosing the ruler of a fictional realm, telling other characters what to do, and choosing where to locate buildings in a town are all examples of player agency.

When the player acts through an avatar or playable character, the lines between character agency and player agency blur. Is the character choosing to pursue a potential romantic partner? Or is that the player's choice? Is it the character choosing to spare that life, execute that target, or perform that fatality? Unless it's in a cut scene, not really.

The player's perception of power and freedom is what makes a game fun. Survival genre games, on the other hand, take both these things away to deliberately make things tense and frightening. Often, the ability to impact a game world is fairly illusory, but player agency is a primary distinction between narrative and character in a linear medium and ludonarrative and ludocharacter in video games. (The "ludo-" prefix indicates an element of game theory fused with traditional literary or artistic structures.)

There's also the creator agency of the developer to consider, but in a well-designed game, that should be an invisible factor. The more artificial that the options offered the player appear, the more dissonance is created in the interactive reality.

When you're making choices, you're not the passive audience that cultivation theory deals with, so treating players as passive subjects of the cultural messages cultivating a perception of social reality isn't appropriate. Linear art forms attempt to cultivate specific reactions in an audience. Games usually intend for players to make up their own minds.

For example, open world games are currently extremely popular because of the amount of agency afforded a player. A player often doesn't just guide the playable character through an open game world; that player shapes that world through their decisions: liberating neighbourhoods, impacting economies, and granting or removing power from local leaders. The story set by an open world game is only a small portion of its ludonarrative. A player missing a jump, thereby causing the playable character to fall off a roof, land on an enemy and cause an explosion, for instance, is part of what a linear art form would refer to as "plot." In a video game, however, that's considered to be more in the realm of gameplay, but developers are getting better and better at blurring the lines. Ideally, campaign missions, side missions and general exploration work in harmony, creating a cohesive experience.

If you're finding this stuff dense and confusing, congratulations: you're beginning to understand the depths of game design. Tools designed to analyze linear media were never intended to tackle things with this level of complexity.

Often, video game developers struggle to even predict player reactions, nevermind create products that cultivate perspectives. When I spoke to a developer of the survival horror game The Evil Within, he said that there was a gap between older players and younger players regarding an understanding of why they should care about a third person view protagonist. Older players were absorbed since we grew up with games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Younger players, who associate Horror games with a first-person view like in Amnesia or Outlast, couldn't understand why they should be scared on behalf of another person.

If the reactions of players are this unreliable, can we really assume games cultivate specific outlooks on the world?

Let's try a more controversial example: when a Grand Theft Auto player chooses to hire a prostitute to regain health, then kill her to take the money back. For the record, I personally hate this element of those games because it doesn't make any sense - dudes often need to lie down after sex, not spring back immediately into action, so hooker health feels like an artificial way to include prostitutes in the mechanics of the game. It would make more sense that hot hooker sex would buff a character's mood, affecting his initiative and cognitive abilities more than his health. But, on the bright side, they weren't just used as background decoration, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Ha! Head! Prostitute! Get it!? Hey, never say I don't have a sense of humour.

This controversial mechanic in GTA games examines the dehumanization of sex workers in a different way than a TV show does precisely because a player must choose to do it. In a TV show, the viewer can't choose if a given character is harmed - and let's face it: sex workers are shown to be more disposable than Kleenex in most cop shows -- you can, however, play GTA games and not kill prostitutes, it's just economically beneficial to do it. Anita Sarkeesian similarly runs over the experiences of sex workers to boost her own career health, so I find it ironic that she's so opposed to the practice.

In a movie, I could absolutely understand the freaking out over this element: why would I pay money to see a guy gleefully kill prostitutes and get away with it? But Grand Theft Auto doesn't rack up huge sales because you can run over prostitutes. Grand Theft Auto and similar crime games are popular because you can run over anyone you want. This differentiation eliminates gender from the equation, because a player can choose for themselves how much misogyny they can include in the experience. Now... okay... it's really not possible to play Grand Theft Auto with absolutely no misogynist content. I just can't think of a vice or disgusting attitude that isn't in Grand Theft Auto. It's a game series where characters literally compare penis sizes.

Now I won't claim I've completely avoided being a video game pedestrian killer myself. It was just motivated by a completely opposite experience, courtesy of Saints Row 3. For most of the game I'd worked hard to avoid running over bystanders. However, after the citizens of the city of Steelport turn on the Saints, some of them start carrying signs that say "Shaundi is a whore!" -- Shaundi being the most prominent female member of the Saints, and a character with a pretty impressive development arc from bimbo party girl to a determined, responsible grown up who loathes her former self. I saw red, floored the accelerator of my customized purple truck, and ran over the bastard with the sign. You don't mess with my friends, even in a video game.

Now was that a moral decision? I still don't know. On the one hand, killing is wrong. On the other hand, defending your friends from public defamation is right. What I realized was that I had the power to run the guy over with no consequence, so I did it to avenge my friend. This experience was a pretty instructive personal exploration of power dynamics, and it taught me that I should probably never be granted the power to run people over with my car.

GTA girl Shaundi

In a TV show, this would have been a cheap ten-second slapstick sight gag. In a video game, it made me think a lot more because I was actively involved. Is it more wrong to kill an unarmed sex worker than kill an unarmed dude with a sign that pissed me off? Of course not. Both acts are gross examples of using a privileged position in a game world to act like a thug. The entire balance of GTA would change if some in-game prostitutes carried guns or tasers in their handbags. If a failed murder attempt resulted in a loss of all health gains created through sex, that would change the dynamic in a really interesting way.

Well-designed games may tempt the player with forbidden fruit, instant gratification, and other things that, in the long run, turn out to make the player feel guilty. These action/consequence ludonarratives utilize objectifying, violent, and selfish moments, yes; they also often turn the tables on the player for taking the easy way out. The game Dishonored, for instance, rewards the player for minimizing violence with a happier ending. The path to that ending, however, is much harder. But are these decisions that of the main character Corvo? Or are they mine? In the reality of the game and narrative suspension of disbelief, we are one in the same.

This blurring of player and character fascinates me regarding gender analysis. Corvo is a male character. I am a female player. I can't help but wonder how significant this relationship is. A well-designed game provides a relatively similar experience for players of all types, because the game worlds are well-defined enough to allow you to understand the fictional expectations of you as the character. Immersion means that, if done properly, you're not thinking about what would happen in the "real world," because you are, mentally, experiencing the world of the game from the inside. In a well-designed game, I am not a female player. In a well-designed game, I am the consciousness of the protagonist, whether they be male or female. This leads us into the realm of performative gender, as conceived by feminist Judith Butler.

Gender Performativity

Gender performativity has been held up by feminist art historian Amelia Jones as a preferable alternative to gaze theory which she, and I, believe to be outdated. I maintain that gender performativity is a much more accurate tool for looking at video games.

A simple explanation of performative gender is that gender identity is formed through imitating the dominant conventions of a given gender. If we look at gender as a performance as opposed to examining gender depictions through concepts of objectification, then the gender of a playable character becomes far less political and far more artistic.

Playing Dishonored as the male Corvo isn't making a comment on the worth of my gender in the real world. It's allowing me to perform within the game in whatever way I believe is relevant to the character I'm playing. I feel more relaxed and less dysmorphic in some video games than I do in the real world, because the characters within it aren't judging me based on faulty assumptions related to my gender. I choose to play the game "in character" as Corvo. Others will use Corvo as an extension of themselves. There are no right or wrong answers regarding these choices, but it's undeniable that Corvo's maleness is relevant.

Furthermore, Dishonored is unique as a video game because Corvo's actions are constantly being watched and judged by Emily Kaldwin, the female heir to the throne. Corvo's actions are setting an example for a very important young woman. In Dishonored you're not just playing as a man. You're playing as a male mentor that influences what kind of Empress Emily becomes. This is completely at odds with Feminist Frequency using the game as an example of objectifying male gaze: Corvo is performing for a female audience, since the game judges your choices via Emily's reactions to them.


A well-designed game provides a relatively similar experience for players of all types."


This is just one example of how Feminist Frequency oversimplifies its analysis by treating games more like films than interactive experiences. The clips they use don't distinguish between what a given game allows you to do and what a game encourages you to do. If a viewpoint is presented as merely one option in a game, that should, logically, be far less influential on a player's view of the world. It is the choices of the player that cultivate. Games merely provide the choices.

But the idea that video games can cultivate a predictable change in the opinions of a player is central to Feminist Frequency's critique. There's no reason to show clip reels of a given trope unless the underlying concept is that the sheer volume of that content passes the threshold for long-term, cumulative exposure required for a cultivation effect, even though we don't know that video games influence shared values the way television does.

It would be much more productive for Feminist Frequency to advocate moderating the amount of time spent playing video games, and encourage players to sample many different kinds of games. Those two factors would significantly reduce any potential harmful cultivated opinions. Instead, Feminist Frequency issues the "it's okay to still like these games with problematic content" platitude, which is as unscientific as it is condescending. Either something is harmful or it's not.

If something is harmful, we should limit our consumption. If it's not harmful, there's no need to focus on it for the betterment of society. In order to present a compelling argument that the industry needs radical change, Feminist Frequency must identify a clear and specific problem, not a whack a mole of mass communications 101. I believe that a large part of the backlash against Tropes vs. Women is a failure to accomplish this goal. They've presented themselves as a cure to sexism in gaming -- that cure is a reduced diversity in the portrayals of women to preserve Feminist Frequency's personal sensitivities -- but they've failed to convince gamers that there is, in fact, a sexism disease.

So that's cultivation theory, gaze theory, and gender performativity, and how they apply - and don't - to some of the games targeted by Feminist Frequency. Of course, these are just a sampling of concerns I have with the Tropes vs. Women videos. And everyone reading this will have their own opinions. I ask that disagreement and debate remain respectful and avoid deliberate insults or ad hominems, because we're just getting started.

Part three focuses specifically on objectification and the tropes of Tropes vs. Women.

Images courtesy of Ubisoft, Bethesda, Minority Media, Rockstar, 2K Games, Deep Silver and Feminist Frequency.