Monday, January 13, 2014

Education of Masculinities Through Video Games

“BOOM, headshot!” can be heard echoing down the hallways of many homes, residential halls, and apartments complexes as adolescents and emerging adults go on a virtual shooting rampage with their friends in the latest video game to be released. While this may sounds terrifying to some, the reality is, it is happening. It’s no secret that that these games are now a common everyday activity that many men participate in. In a week, men play an average of about 13 hours of video games (Kimmel, 2008). Our new generation of students has always had technology in their lives, and it’s important to remember from here on out, they always will. Video games are beginning to fall to the front and center of the media as one of these technologies, but the question is, for better or worse? Blamed for escalation of violence in our youth, video games have been a defining influence in many of our students today (Kimmel, 2008). I urge our current and future educators to not focus their energy on stopping this industry, but instead to focus their aim on helping men understand their own development of masculinities.
            It is important to first recognize what values and societal expectations are being portrayed within these games. Think of a video game character. Odds are the character that you just thought of, was a heroic male. This is because predominantly male characters are the stars of the game. Let’s take Mario for example. Mario is the well-known plumber who has set off from the ‘Mushroom Kingdom’ to save the princess from Bowser, the main antagonist of the series, no matter what obstacle stands in his way (McLaughlin, 2010). It is in this way that gamers from a young age get an idea of what it means to be a man. The notion that they are expected to be brave and self-sacrificing is strongly emphasized within these games and throughout all media as a whole. Because of this, there is an unspoken expectation within society for men to take on these roles. This can be particularly stressful for men who are not yet ready to be a leader, but feel the pressure to step up.
            It seems now that every hero needs his “damsel in distress.” It is very common that games have females who portray this role. Thus, women are projected as objects of desire for men to seek out. Objectification of women through these games gives some men the sense that they are superior and creates a false sense of what women want from a guy and perpetuates the assumption that all men identify as heterosexual. Men’s perceptions become skewed and what they expect is not always what they get in real life. Family Guy, a popular cartoon targeted at young adults, depicts this discrepancy in a brief clip using the popularMario character discussed before.  Beyond this, woman are often used as sex symbols for men. Perfect slim, hourglass shaped bodies, large breasts, and a flirtatious personality are all the essentials of a well-liked female character. Often a side character, these females usually have clothes that show off their sex appeal.  These images become ingrained in many men’s mind as what women should look like. Though often unrealistic, it is no secret that sex sells. With men as the primary consumer, there is little chance that these depictions are changing anytime soon. 

             Another expectation that is portrayed in video games is that men become super macho killing machines. Popular games, such as Gears of War and Halo, have an emphasis on strong male protagonists with game play focused content of shooting and killing the “bad guys” with a variety of violent weapons. What draws men to these games? Power. Power is the value that is being illustrated in these games (Kimmel, 2008). What feels more powerful then picking up a rocket launcher and firing it at a crowd of enemy monsters? The answer is, probably not a whole lot. In real life, many of these men perceive that they have very little power or control over where they are or what they are doing in their lives (Kimmel, 2008). Thus, the video game becomes an outlet for them to feel the power and control they are missing in their own lives.  While this is probably not the reason for violent behavior itself, the fact remains that these games help construct a fictional reality of what it means to be man. 
            Who are these “guys” anyways? The way we describe them makes them sound like sex crazed, ruthless monsters. It might be surprising to find out that these killing machines are the stunning good-looking men featured here.

Looks are everything these days. Almost all the heroes of these stories are physically perfect. Being athletic, muscular, having six pack abs, and stunning smile are all the must haves of a lead character. But what does this image of an overly perfect body mean for the development of our youth. Studies have shown that men have similar body issues as females, but in different ways. Men seek the muscular physique that is so openly displayed in these games (Harper and Harris, 2010). Many underweight men view themselves as less desirable, felt as though they were more likely to be rejected, and were often found to be lonelier  (Harper and Harris, 2010). We must recognize that body issues are become increasingly prevalent in men, and video games are just one of the many media outlets that contribute to this type of thinking.
            Video games are evolving and rather then working against them, we, as college student educators, should be working with them. It will be impossible to instantly change the culture of the gaming industry, but it is not impossible to change the way men critically think about their own identity in relation to the games they are playing. I suggest 3 simple steps that will engage guys in their own development of masculinities through video games.
1.      Relate and understand the games that they are playing. Nothing is more off putting then someone trying to make a point on a subject matter they don’t know well. Take time to ask questions or independently research popular games, so that you can discuss things on their level. Knowing the details makes you more relatable and opens the lines of communication. If they start talking about something you don’t know, ask them to explain.  This places you in their playing field.
2.      Facilitate a discussion with them. Find out how they view the character’s roles, the story, and what they enjoy about it. This is a time for them to teach you about the game on a personal level.  Give them time to talk. Just through them talking alone they may pick up on some of the stereotypes and stigmas that are hidden throughout games. This will allow them to personally reflect on their own thoughts and opinions.
3.      Educate them about how you perceive characters and aspects of the game, and take some time to point things out that you see things differently. Get them actively engaged in the conversation, and have them discuss how they see things differently. The age of an individual is a major factor in the amount influence a game can have. Because of this, it is important to discuss how different ages may warrant different conversations.
            There is no way that, as an educator, you will be able to teach every guy everything you want to about this topic and completely open their eyes to everything that is being ingrained in their minds. But we can slowly make change if we try and engage these men in critically analyzing what they are being exposed to. As they set their aim on other players, we should be taking our best shot at getting them proactive at recognizing the depiction of masculinities in these games.

Kyle McAuliffe is currently an Academic Support Coordinator at the University of Maine for the Department of Residence Life.  After receiving his BA in Psychology at the University of Maine, he decided to return for graduate school in the Master’s program in Student Development in Higher Education.

Harper, S. R. & Harris F. III (2010). College men and masculinities: Theory, research, and implications for practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Kimmel, M. (2008).  Guyland: The perilous world where boys become men.  New York, NY:
McLaughlin, R. (2010). IGN persents the history of Super Mario Bros. It’s-a Mario! A look back on the greatest franchise in gaming. Retrieved from
YSAFE. (2013). Retrieved from

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