On Media Effects, Cultivation Theory, and Video Games
There’s been a fair amount of discussion in the gaming community recently about whether or not media can affect what we believe and how we see the world. Most of this discussion originates from criticisms of the “Tropes vs. Women” videos, in which Anita Sarkeesian discusses various ways that video games portray women and the possible effects that those portrayals may have in aggregate. A few days ago, prominent Youtube game critic/commentator TotalBiscuit (John Bain) weighed in, asking that someone provide evidence for the argument that media (and in particular, fiction) can influence us.
Let’s get one thing out of the way first: I am by no means an expert on this stuff. I am not a sociology researcher; I am an animation MFA candidate who happens to be writing a master’s thesis that involves some aspects of “media effects” theory. What I’ll be describing is essentially a base level, hopefully not too jargon-y version of the basic ideas at work and the empirical foundations the theories are built on. As a result, I won’t be using any specific academic formatting, so just assume that anything in brackets refers to an endnote.
“Media Effects theory” is a bit of an umbrella term describing the study of the influence that media can have on both individuals and society. “Cultivation theory” is a particular model, based largely around television, that studies how media can “cultivate” specific attitudes or beliefs within its audience. The Wikipedia article on cultivation theory is actually pretty good, so I won’t rehash the entire thing here. There are also links to a number of referenced studies in the sources for the article, but I’ll include a sampling of studies with a brief summary at the end of this article.
Briefly, though, the idea is that media plays a role in shaping how the viewer sees the world. This is not a new development — stories have been one of the ways that society “teaches” us things for practically as long as language has existed. Stories have been used throughout history to teach morality, to provide cautionary lessons, and to reinforce social norms. Television (particularly in the pre-cable, pre-satellite days) represented an entirely new level, though, given its cultural penetration and ubiquity.
In a nice little bit of symmetry to the discussion surrounding games, cultivation theory was actually born out of a concern over the effect that violence on TV might be having on viewers. What the researchers found was that, while there was little evidence of a causal link between TV viewership and violence, there did appear to be a link between heavy viewership and those viewers’ perceptions of the world. Those who watched a lot of TV (particularly crime shows and the like) were more likely to have an increased fear of crime, increased suspicion or cynicism about other people and their motives, and so on. This is known as the “Mean World” syndrome.
Since then, studies have been done on what other messages viewers may be internalizing from the media they consume. Sara Baker Netzley conducted a study on representation of gay people, finding that the high level of sexual activity associated with gay characters in the media led viewers to perceive the gay community as highly promiscuous and exaggeratedly sexual . There’s certainly no shortage of research on how various media can affect body image , but the basic concept has also been applied to everything from gender stereotyping  to substance abuse  and alcohol consumption .
Note that the claim being made is generally not that the media causes these attitudes, conjuring them from thin air. The idea is that media works to normalize certain existing attitudes and reinforce a particular set of perceptions. Most often, these are attitudes and perceptions that align with the status quo (or, at least, widely-held social beliefs). When people discuss the potentially harmful effects of media, they are generally talking about the reinforcement of existing societal issues (sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.)
It’s also worth noting that, in most cases, it’s not about blaming any single media product; rather, it’s about these narratives in aggregate and the effect that long-term, repeated exposure to them can have on cultural attitudes.
If you stop and think, chances are pretty good you’ll be able to think of at least a handful of examples, both historical and contemporary — maybe how 24 helped to normalize the idea of torture in the U.S. (to the point that Antonin Scalia actually cited the show in a discussion in which he was defending the hypothetical use of torture).
Maybe it’s how the tendency to portray young black men as dangerous criminals in the media has historically contributed to an existing societal fear/anxiety about young black men.
Maybe it’s how the public perceptions of trans people continue to be informed significantly by stereotypical, often dehumanizing portrayals in popular media.
Maybe it’s virtually every fictionalized propaganda film ever made, including things like the anti-Semitic screed Jud Süß
Hell, maybe it’s even how Birth of a Nation is widely credited with the revival of the KKK in the American south as well as a series of race riots that erupted in cities where it was being shown.
If you sincerely can’t think of any possible examples…well, I kind of have to suspect you’re not actually trying.
Again, this is different from saying the media causes these attitudes. It’s also in a different category entirely from claims that media causes certain behaviors, such as violence. It’s entirely possible (and, in fact, extraordinarily common) to hold unexamined or unconscious attitudes about some things. An unconscious act of violence, on the other hand, is somewhat more difficult (and decidedly more conspicuous).
Games vs. TV
So how does all of this relate to video games?
So far, we’ve mostly been talking about TV. Obviously, a few CD-ROM games from the 90s notwithstanding, TV and video games are not the same. TV is a passive medium, while video games are (to an extent dictated by the specific game) interactive. This raises some questions: Does the more direct engagement of the viewer actually intensify any cultivation effects? If so, how do you account for player agency? Or approached from the opposite direction: does the more active engagement mean that the viewer is more “critical” and more likely to properly contextualize on-screen portrayals as compared to viewers of a more passive medium?
Unfortunately, studies on cultivation theory/media effects as it relates to games are fairly limited. Aside from the obvious “Do games cause violence?” ones (not altogether relevant for reasons I alluded to earlier), there have been a few.
- A study that appeared in Accident Analysis and Prevention found that games depicting risky driving behaviors were a decent predictor of those same behaviors in the real-life driving habits of teens who consumed them 
- A 2014 study appearing in the Howard Journal of Communication found a correlation between negative video game portrayal of black characters and negative attitudes about black people. 
- A number of studies have attempted to track the relationship between portrayal of women in games and “sexist” attitudes in players. Again, I’ll drop a list of them at the very end.
- A study in the Journal of Communication in 2006 found that players changed their perceptions of real-world dangers based on the dangers present in the game. Interestingly, this only appears to have applied to those dangers specifically present in the game, rather than a more generalized “mean world” sort of attitude. 
So what’s the upshot? Basically, we don’t have enough evidence to be able to say conclusively that video games, specifically, create cultivation effects in precisely the same way and to exactly the same degree that more passive forms of media are often believed to. There’s certainly fairly strong evidence that there’s some effect, and it’s not unreasonable for the time being to generalize the ideas of cultivation theory to games at least to some extent (at least for purposes such as media criticism, etc; really, stuff that isn’t empirical psychological/sociological research).
Still, to say that there’s no evidence that games have any effect on our behaviors or perceptions is simply an unsupportable argument. One can reasonably argue that games are a special case due to their interactive nature (but what about cutscenes? What about non-interactive elements? What about scripted sequences, or in-game text, or pre-recorded VO, or pre-built art assets?). One can certainly say that we don’t know how the effect compares to that observed in other forms of media. One might contest the degree to which cultivation theory specifically applies to video games (inasmuch as it involves the viewer buying into the “reality” of the world portrayed).
But no effect whatsoever? That’s a somewhat harder case to make.
Odds and Ends/Afterward
To preemptively address an obvious rebuttal: yes, there are criticisms of media effects theory (and cultivation theory in particular). Some of these relate to the methodology of the studies, while others relate to the difficulty of proving actual causation, due to the sheer number of confounding variables and factors that are difficult to control for in studies such as these.
I do not intend to dismiss those criticisms; I merely want to point out that there are criticisms of most sociological models or theories, and many of them face a lot of the same difficulties. Skepticism is always healthy, but at the same time, the existence of disagreement should not be taken as an excuse to dismiss the ideas outright (especially since even some of the critics of the theory do not deny that media affects us; they simply differ on the specific mechanisms and extent). The research is, at this point, fairly well established and well documented.
Anyway, as promised, here’s a handful of studies addressing the subject of gender as it relates to media effects and games. I apologize that a lot of these may be inaccessible unless you have access through a journal database or university; it sucks, but that’s how it goes with most of these articles. I also cannot personally vouch for each and every study, being, again, far from an expert on the subject.
Behm-Morawitz, Elizabeth and Dana Mastro. 2009. “The Effects of the Sexualization of Female Video Game Characters on Gender Stereotyping and Female Self-concept.” Sex Roles 61(11–12):808–23
Cruea, Mark and Sung-Yeon Park. 2012. “Gender Disparity in Video Game Usage: A Third-Person Perception-Based Explanation.” Media Psychology 15(1): (44–67)
Dill, Karen E., Brian P. Brown, Michael A. Collins. 2008. “Effects of Exposure to Sex- stereotyped Video Game Characters on Tolerance of Sexual Harassment” Journal of
Experimental Social Psychology 44(5): (1402–08)
Yao, Mike Z., Chad Mahood, Daniel Linz. 2010. “Sexual Priming, Gender Stereotyping, and Likelihood to Sexually Harass: Examining the Cognitive Effects of Playing a Sexually-explicit Video Game.” Sex Roles 62(1–2): (77–88)
Stermer, S. P. and M. Burkley. 2012. “SeX-Box: Exposure to Sexist Video Games Predicts Benevolent Sexism.” Psychology of Popular Media Culture Online Publication
- Netzley, S. (2010). “Visibility That Demystifies Gays, Gender, and Sex on Television”. Journal of Homosexuality, 57(8), 968–986.
- …god, too many to even name. Just start here and, as they say, let your fingers do the walking: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effects_of_advertising_on_teen_body_image
- Carveth, R., & Alexander, A. (1985). “Soap opera viewing motivations and the cultivation hypothesis”. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 29, 259–273.
- Minnebo, J., & Eggermont, S. (2007). “Watching the young use illicit drugs: Direct experience, exposure to television and the stereotyping of adolescents’ substance use”. Young, 15, 129–144.
- Beullens, K., Roe, K. & Van den Bulck, J. (2012). “Music Video Viewing as a Marker of Driving After the Consumption of Alcohol”. Substance Use & Misuse, 47(2), 155–165.
- PDF: https://lirias.kuleuven.be/bitstream/123456789/300481/2/Games+4.0+Postprint+AAP.pdf
- Williams, D. (2006). Virtual cultivation: Online worlds, ofﬂine perceptions. Journal of Communication, 56(1), 69–87.
Other possible resources
Killing Us Softly — a documentary by Jean Kilbourne focusing on images of women in advertising
Tough Guise — a documentary by Jackson Katz on images of masculinity and how those inform social conceptions of what it is to be a “man”
Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World by Edward Said — a book on the role the media plays in creating widespread perceptions of Muslims.
Note: edited on 3/13 to fix a couple of minor grammar errors