Video Game Culture: Who’s Responsible?

(10- Minute Read)

According to Grant Tavinor, video games are an art form of their own, containing evocative, aesthetic qualities which allow players to involve themselves with the stories and actions of their characters.[1] For this very reason, the subtle themes of these video games may actually cause players to become too involved, even mislead. While some may believe that the game developers hold the right to depict characters and events in whatever way they choose and that doing so will have no ill effect on gamers, it is arguable that the exploitative themes, misrepresentations, and forced game actions can become psychologically destructive to players’ better judgment and world views. In other words, game designers should be accountable for the negative events displayed.

To understand the impact that a suggestive theme may have on gamers, one can compare game themes to those present in theater. Theatrical performances, which contain “universals,” allow the audience to identify some sort of underlying meaning or message.[2] Moreover, Tom Stern makes an interesting point about an audience’s interactions with theatrical themes, “If interpreted in this way, the… request seems general for theater: the audience has to imagine seeing certain things, and it has to imagine that certain things are the case. The key point for this kind of imagination is that it is not only typical but it might even be necessary for everyday functioning.”[3] So, if a theatre audience is required to believe and act as though certain things are the case for the sake of a theatrical performance and everyday life, then gamers are certainly required to observe, believe and act as though certain things are the case in order to perform well in certain video games. While the interactivity and sensibility provided in video games are something to be admired and protected, many developers seem to abuse the engagement that video games uniquely allow by depicting unnecessary violence, obscene gore, and sexual exploitation. Feminist, Anita Sarkeesian has identified some of these rather disturbing themes that have tainted the true quality of gaming. For example, Grand Theft Auto III, allows players to become a man who is able to abuse and even rape women and other civilians while stealing cars, shooting innocent people, and burning down hospitals. Even at the very ending of the game when there are no actions left for the gamer to make, developers added a sound effect of a woman nagging the main player and consequently being shot in order to make her shut up.[4] Whether players truly enjoy these events or not, they are actually forced to, at least for the time being, accept the images of women’s mutilated, nude bodies in order to play the game and earn the achievements that are offered. Further, when characters say things like, “Come and get her,” or, “bullet in her head!” while consequently allowing players to unlock achievements for causing the bloodshed of a woman, the reward serves as a reinforcement.[5] These are not fantastical ideas, these are horrific things that are conveyed as normal, and even admirable for the players in the games. One famous Psychological study revealed that observation leads to learned behaviors, especially aggression. The participants watched adults display violence. Even when the adult was not rewarded for the behavior, the children still mimicked the aggression.[6] Now add that observation with the interaction and reinforcement presented in video games. The results are not good. Developers should be held responsible for creating erred role models for gamers while also desensitizing them to disturbing violence and gore.[7]

When designers are allowed to develop games with violent and exploitative environments, gamers may also develop warped concepts about society, including how women should be perceived and how one should feel in sensitive situations. Video games create social illusions, depicting situations as positive in a world where characters can do any vulgar act. As Sarkeesian mentions in her video series, these psychological changes may be subtle, going unrecognized. In games where a woman must die so that the main character can seek vengeance, male lead characters have no other options but to use violence. Players aren’t able to show any sort of sensitivity or rational response to situations because the developers have not allowed for it. Many games use the same sexist, violent template, and individuals are certainly more likely to generalize these perceptions into their daily life without even realizing it. Why is it that a man is arrested for raping a woman in the real world while a video game character can earn an achievement for it?

Additionally, developers’ responsibilities lay in the structuring of video games. The forms of games, “depend on some kind of illusion to operate”.[8] Without the ‘Damsel in Distress’ stereotype, without the sexualization of women in the story and backgrounds, many of these games would have no form. There would be no plot, no environment in which to play. Better yet, the environment wouldn’t tailor to the male players’ hormones.[9]  The designers of these games are creating unfriendly environments, and women are certainly not encouraged to play these violent, exploitive games. Male players, though, are able to float about through sex scenes as a type of “flaneur” in a virtual realm where these kinds of disturbing acts are acceptable, “Indeed woman is just a sign, a fiction, a confection of meanings and fantasies.”[10] The modernity era is still among us in video games. Male players can “gaze” at other female characters being brutally raped, killed or abused while he is able to freely roam the streets without being bothered.[11] What purpose other than to divide the male and female gender do these situations provide? Just as in the times of modernity, video gaming provides men with the majority, a place to escape while women are once again the negation. Gamers are usually totally involved in the games that they play, so much so that they are able to overlook a woman being raped on the side of the road, or the fact that they must kill their mother or sister in order to win the game.[12] The form, therefore, is just as Stern writes, “The focus… is on what state is required of the audience in order for the play to get going at all.”[13] The same goes for video games. Gamers are practically forced by the developers to accept the terms of the games, even when these terms are disturbing so that they can progress in the game.

Although, some may overlook more insidious aspects of popular games. They may claim that the true purpose of the games is to entertain gamers. Others may excuse the idea that video games can present any sort of psychological effect since some characters are not actually human, “If we know what we are seeing…is not trying to be a copy of everyday life then perhaps we won’t have such a gullible attitude.”[14] Could one say that video games are imitating “what is not”, and therefore are not truly conveying any certain idea about violence and women?[15] To these remarks, it can be said that the issue lies in the actions of video games where there is a learning experience, “It is via the action that universals are made apparent to the audience. The play distils universal features of the every day then presents them on stage, such that what the audience sees is a presentation of what types of people do in types of situations.”[16] Gamers may not realize that when games are realistic, even when nonhuman characters are personified and given human traits, implications and associations are created between depictions, behaviors, and rewards. Video games teach players to solve real-world situations in the same way they play their games, “Imitations are relative to a purpose. A painter might deliberately alter… to produce a certain effect…they imitate falsely because it improves the artistic value of their work.”[17] Where is the meaningful purpose when designers create games focused on gore, violence, and exploitation? It actually is possible to convey these things in a meaningful way that teaches individuals how to perceive them in the real world, but it is rare to see developers creates these sorts of games.

Game designers are responsible for the 1st person interactivity mechanisms that they create and choices in which they allow, sometimes even force players to make. The same questions that Stern asks on pages 52-54 about theatrical performances can be asked of video games: “What kinds of things happen? What is being implied?” Take a game like This War of Mine, civilians attempt to survive and help one another survive in a revolt. One must make moral decisions while the civilians’ moods and actions differ based on the means one uses to obtain resources. The greater the force and violence that player uses, the greater the amount of robbery that occurs in the player’s home. Characters become depressed, commit suicide, starve and are murdered. One learns to play the game by observing the interactions and reactions of the characters. A game such as This War of Mine aims to help players become aware of the serious conditions of the civilians in a war. One must wonder what is learned from games in which gamers are rewarded for rape, murder, and theft. When an individual analyzes the mass-produced, cliché video games, he or she can easily see the premise behind the game actions. Either sex or vengeance, or both, are the among goals for players, and every time sex occurs the story plot moves on and discards the woman as though she was just another achievement. Players earn experience points that are tied to sexual attraction. These rewards typically validate masculinity, while building gender barriers and stereotypes.[18] Gamers can become so involved with the storylines of games they can even forget who they are for the time that they are playing. This “self-forgetting” is a result of the participant getting so lost in the action of the events that he or she consequently loses his or her self-concept.[19] During the period while gamers are immersed in self-forgetting while performing certain actions that the game allows, they also receive rewards for their achievements. This is like interactive operant conditioning in which the gamer performs an action and is then reinforced by the game mechanics.[20] Further, take the individuals who participated in the Rubber Hand Experiment as another example.[21] The participants knew they were being deceived yet still reacted to the hand as though it was theirs! Such a simple experiment yielded significant and consistent results. Even theatrical illusions can accidentally stump people as Stern shows in the example of the doctor who mistook an actor from the theater as a real doctor rather than a man who played a doctor.[22] Therefore, a video game, where a player engages with the action and even imagines himself or herself as the one partaking in the story, can cause the same if not more serious psychological misperceptions. “When we watch things we tend to learn.”[23] What can be learned from interacting and observing violence, exploitation, and gore in video games? Developers have almost made it impossible to play some games without encountering these disturbing aspects. Players have no other option but to kill the woman, abuse her, force her to do something, the woman never has a choice. Game elements like these are what create changes in temperament, worldviews, and behavior.

Video game developers need to be held accountable for the themes they design within their games as well as any misconceptions and disturbing mechanisms that they program into their games. The unnecessary violence and exploitation happening in video games do not improve artistic value, rather it taints the interactive gaming industry for those who aim to introduce unique, innovative games for a meaningful player experience.

This is Part One of a Three-Part Series of Essays Regarding Video Game Culture. Read Part Two Here.


Article Submitted/ Written by R. Lederman, Spring 2016.

Copyright 2016-present.

Please cite author when using this content in any form. Thank you.


Works Cited

Hyman, Ira. “Blurring the Self-Other Boundary: The Rubber Hand Illusion and Mirror Failures.” Psychology Today. Psychology Today, 14 Aug. 2010. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <;.

McLeod, Saul. “B.F. Skinner | Operant Conditioning | Simply Psychology.” B.F. Skinner | Operant Conditioning | Simply Psychology. Psychology Today, 2015. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.

McLeod, Saul. “Bobo Doll Experiment.” Bobo Doll Experiment | Simply Psychology. Simple Psychology, 2014. Web. 11 Feb. 2016. <;.

Pollock, Griselda. “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity.” (n.d.): n. pag. Rpt. in N.p.: n.p., n.d. 245-66. Print.

Sarkeesian, Anita. “Tropes vs Women in Video Games (Damsel in Distress) (Women as Reward).” YouTube. Feminist Frequency, 28 May 2013. Web. 11 Feb. 2016.

Stern, Tom. “Mimesis: Imitation and Imagination; Truth and Illusion.” Philosophy and Theatre: An Introduction. N.p.: n.p., 2014. 21-74. Print.

Tavinor, Grant. “Video Games.” 2013. Ed. Dominic McIver Lopes. The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. Ed. Berys Nigel Gaut. London: Routledge, 2013. 565-74. Print.

[1] Tavinor, 568. Video games are a “species of interactive art”.

[2] Aristotle’s universals of tragedy in theatre; mentioned in Stern, page 33.

[3] Stern, 37.

[4] Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian, Tropes Vs. Women: Damsel in Distress (Part 2)

[5] Devil May Cry 4, Hitman-Absolution via Feminist Frequency , Anita Sarkeesian, Tropes Vs. Women: Damsel in Distress (Part 2)

[6] 1961. Bobo Doll study created by Albert Bandura. Aggression and other Social Behaviors are acquired through Observation and Imitation. Adults assaulted a Bobo Doll and were either punished, rewarded, or received neither. 

[7] Adapted from Plato’s false roles view via Stern, 28.

[8] Stern, 48.

[9] Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian, Women vs. Tropes: Women as Reward Video Series

[10] Pollock, 254. “For women, the public spaces thus construed were where one risked losing one’s virtue, dirtying oneself; going out in public and the idea of disgrace were closely allied.”

[11] Pollock, 257. Alludes to “Male-gaze”.

[12] Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian, Tropes Vs. Women: Women as Reward (Parts 1 & 2)

[13] Stern, 48.

[14] Stern, 31. Illusions of Theatre

[15] Aristotle’s idea about what Theatre can convey. Stern, 34.

[16] Stern, 52.

[17] Stern, 35.

[18] Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian, Women Vs. Tropes: Women as Reward Series

[19] Stern, 68.

[20] Psychology Today, (Skinner, 1948.) An experiment based on Thorndyke’s Law of Effects: “Behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated.”

[21] Experiment conducted by Botvinick and Cohen. Distinguished that vision is crucial for identifying one’s body. Participants hands were replaced with a rubber hand. After a series of interactions with the participant’s real hand and fake hand, the rubber hand was “threatened”. Results concluded that Vision could make the association between an apparent body part and a real one.

[22] Stern, 62.

[23] Stern, 48.



5 thoughts on “Video Game Culture: Who’s Responsible?

  1. Paul-NL says:

    This is a really great article and I agree with you. Gaming develops do have some accountability when it comes to the state of gaming culture. While censorship should never be condones, needless hyper violence only taints the industry.


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