I think part of the misunderstanding comes from a misperception about how culture works. It’s not a direct cause-and-effect situation where everybody just mindlessly copies the behaviors they see in the media. That said, media stories do have a profound effect on us, especially when messages, myths, and images are repeated over and over again. This is the reason why I choose to step back and look at the overarching patterns of how women are represented in video games over time. Because it’s this collective repetition that can seep into our minds and shape, perpetuate, and amplify harmful or regressive perceptions of women.
To put it another way, popular culture is like the air we all breathe. It’s in everyone’s interests to make sure that air is not polluted with poisonous sexism so that we don’t all end up with hideous misogynist mutations growing out of the back of our collective heads.
When I first read this, I just marveled at the brazen bullshitting. “Oh, no, I’m not saying video games directly cause men to form hateful attitudes toward women. That would be ridiculous! Haha, no, I’m saying it happens much more subtly, as a cumulative effect over time. It’s so subtle, you might not even see it, but trust me, it’s there.”
Ah, so a pixelated representation of misogyny is like styrofoam! Once it’s released into the noospheric environment, why, it might take thousands of years to fully disintegrate! Well, as someone who came of age hearing similar empty claims over heavy metal records and slasher movies, I just rolled my eyes at how each generation seems to have a deep need for some type of moral panic. People who would find it impossible to comprehend how anyone could have ever taken stories of preschool Satanic sex rituals seriously are eating this stuff up as fast as it can be served to them. Thankfully, though, others have done the dirty work to explain in detail just how little evidence there is to support this:
The root of these claims is in social learning theory. Social learning theory, in short, dictates that we learn through observing behaviors as shown by models, internalizing them through memory and retention, and then displaying them through imitation until a desired outcome results.
This is taken even further by Craig Anderson who put forth the General Affective Aggression Model. According to Anderson, the chief proponent of GAAM, the model bases itself on social learning theory and other models. This model states that single-episode play/aggression comes from personality variables such as aggression mixed with video game play to change mood, heart rate arousal, cognitions, and result in violent behavior. The model further states that multiple episodes result from repeated violent gameplay causing single episode aggression.
In short, the more often you see violence or experience violence, the more likely you are to repeat violence as it has “seeped” into you resulting in an aggressive behavioral choice. The evidence for this model is exclusively found in research by Anderson and cohorts including Lindsey, Bushman, and others. However, research done by Chris Ferguson time and time again refutes this claim every time Anderson publishes a new article.
Simply put, there is no strong indication that media outright causes human behavior such as aggression. There is research that media can help change a narrative, a memory, or compel someone to buy something. However, there’s no clear evidence that media in any form can cause you to do a certain thing, have a certain belief, or hold a certain opinion.