Why Do Women Play Violent Video Games?

Video games are everywhere. We can all whip a mobile device out of our pockets for a casual game of Candy Crush while commuting to work, waiting for a dentist appointment, or (if we’re a UK Member of Parliament) to kill a couple of hours during a Department of Work and Pensions committee meeting.

The first violent video game I ever played: Duck Hunt on the NES. That poor vaguely duck-shaped sprite! Image by Smithsonian Education, CC BY-NC 2.0

But many parents, lawmakers, and teachers are still concerned about violent video games. Is it healthy, they wonder, for kids to play-act an airport departure lounge massacre? Or to gleefully take pot-shots at faceless foreign nationals in some dusty digital desert? It is healthy to spend your free time lobbing grenades at n00bs and whooping as they go off like firecrackers filled with ketchup?

Well, no. Not especially. The number of studies that reveal playing violent video games increases aggression and hostile feelings is in the triple figures. The effects are small, but real. The debate isn’t over, but perhaps it should be.

Games and sex

The more interesting question is why do we play violent video games?

Michael Kasumovic of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, wondered whether it might be to do with sex (after all, isn’t everything else?)

He asked 1000 men and women, across two studies, to complete an online survey on video games. The volunteers listed the five games they played most often, and rated the amount of violence in each game. They also answered lots of questions about themselves, including how attractive they thought they were.

Kasumovic found that men played more violent video games than women, but the common stereotype of men as players of blockbuster AAA Call of Duty war-fests and women as casual Candy Crush fanatics wasn’t supported. There was huge overlap between men and women at all levels of exposure to violent games. Men like swiping at bananas just as much as women adore strafing at innocent civilians.

Why do women play violent video games? New research suggests that women who play more violent games feel more attractive and consider themselves a better “catch” for future romantic partners. Image by Maxime Fort, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The most interesting difference between the genders was in the link between attractiveness and violent gaming. Women who played more violent video games thought they were more attractive than women who played few violent games. Was the same true of men? No! There was no correlation between violent gaming and male attractiveness.

Of course, these are self-ratings of attractiveness. We don’t know for sure that women who play violent games really are more attractive. But they think they are. Either hot women are drawn to the digital battleground, or playing violent games makes women feel more alluring.

What’s my motivation?

In his second study, Kasumovic asked his volunteers whether they were motivated to play games because it made them feel strong and sexy, or more attractive to potential partners.

He found that in men there was no link between a preference for violent video games and a sexual motivation for playing, but there was in women. Men don’t play games to get laid, but it looks like women might.

A graph from Kasumovic’s research paper. It shows how women (red circles) who play more violent video games are more likely to claim that they are motivated to play games because it makes them feel more attractive and sexy (note the upward tracking line). In men, however, there is no relationship between sexual motivation and violent video game exposure (the line is flat).

Another weird result from this study was that women with more sons played more violent video games than women with fewer sons. Whether this means women play those games with their sons, or that they indulge in a spot of console-based carnage once the little nippers are tucked into bed, is unclear.

Women with more sons play more violent video games. Image by Sean Dreilinger, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

As Kasumovic points out, if we want to get to grips with why some people become chronic compulsive gamers, and if we wish to address some of the negative consequences of violent video gaming, we need to study why people choose to play.

Games are appealing because they make us feel competent and in control of our environment, they give us wonderful worlds to explore with friends we may never meet in person. But, according to Kasumovic, they may also make women feel more attractive. Kasumovic speculates that this could be because women often underestimate their abilities and performance: women who excel in competitive violent games are able to reassess their ability in light of evidence. This may be empowering and raise self esteem as well as self-perceived attractiveness.

Kasumovic, M. M., Blake, K., Dixson, B. J., & Denson, T. F. (2015). Why do people play violent video games? Demographic, status-related, and mating-related correlates in men and women. Personality and Individual Differences, 86, 204–211. Read summary

For an audio version of this story, see the 8 September 2015 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.