Game Over: Gender, Race & Violence in Video Games. Directed by Nina Huntemann. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2000. 41 minutes.

Joystick Warriors: Video Games, Violence & the Culture of Militarism. Directed by Roger Sorkin. San Francisco, CA: Media Education Foundation, 2013. 56 minutes.

Reviewed by Shamethia Webb

Do violent video games encourage violent behavior? Can virtual violence bleed into the real world and compromise players’ empathy? These are questions that both films reviewed here seek to answer as they examine the violence and misogyny associated with war-based video games and first-person shooters. Both films challenge the notion that video games are mere escapism and entertainment, and they question whether virtual violence can influence players’ notions of gender, race, war, and social justice.

In Joystick Warriors, a range of contributors (gamers, media scholars, even former soldiers) analyze first-person shooters and share their concerns that video game violence inures players to violence more generally and, possibly, weakens their sense of empathy. Ironically, to make this point, the film relies on a constant stream of graphic scenes from popular video game franchises like Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, and Battlefield. Viewers are presented with macabre images: rapid machine gun fire, unerringly accurate headshots, bloody decapitations. One unlucky character is cleaved in half by a buzz saw.

Many of these scenes are difficult to watch (even for a seasoned player), so Joystick Warrior’s strategy is an effective one. Viewers can’t help but wonder: If an adult can startle at these scenes—even grimace and recoil, expecting blood spatter against their television screens—how might such troubling imagery impact children, adolescents, the millions of players who buttress the billion-dollar video game industry? Does the repetition of violence—and the escalation from melee weapon to assault rifle, stab wound to decapitation—condition players to shoot, maim, kill? To use violent language or action onscreen and off?

Joystick Warriors does a masterful job exploring these questions and examining how violence in first-person shooters is employed as theme, gameplay strategy, and identity. The film even implicates the US military and asks us to consider the cooperation (co-op play?) between players, game developers, and the “military industrial entertainment complex.”1

The film goes on to explore hypermasculinity in video games and details how many present their male protagonists as brutish, aggressive, and adorned with weaponry. Female characters (and gamers) might find little space for their voices and experiences in these virtual spaces. Women in video games are often backgrounded—little more than ornamentation or tertiary to the storyline—or made hypervisible due to their exaggerated sexuality.

Joystick Warriors also briefly reviews misogyny in online game spaces, displaying tweets of sexist comments from male gamers and introducing snippets of sounds from actual game forums where players casually make sexist, racist, and homophobic comments as they shoot their next targets. Most interestingly, the film discusses the massive backlash that game theorist Anita Sarkeesian experienced after she openly challenged misogyny in video games. Educators might be interested in pairing Joystick Warriors with the YouTube series, Damsel in Distress, that prompted this backlash. Mia Consalvo’s (2012) scholarship on misogynistic game culture could also contribute to this discussion.

While Game Over explores equally important topics, the 2000 film might seem a bit dated with its cinematography and cultural references. Whereas Joystick Warriors reviews the ever-popular Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty franchises, the appropriately titled Game Over focuses on discontinued games like Duke Nukeem and Gauntlet. At the same time, it does focus on franchises that are still popular, namely Tomb Raider and certain wrestling games. The film scrutinizes a range of violent video games and questions whether gritty gameplay incites violent behavior and reinforces sexist and racist stereotypes.

The most important contribution Game Over makes might be its analysis of sexism, for which it considers the beloved Tomb Raider character, Lara Croft, who might rival Indiana Jones as the most badass archaeologist in popular culture. The film acknowledges that Croft is a complex character: this heroine is intelligent and capable. However, like the female characters mentioned in the film, Croft is oversexualized and designed to satisfy traditional beauty standards and the male gaze. This debate around Croft is an ongoing one, and educators can point students to the game studies blog, Not Your Mama’s Gamer, for more detailed analysis of Croft’s characterization and for other discussions of feminism, patriarchy, and video games.

Despite their critiques, Joystick Warriors and Game Over seem to recognize that video games have pedagogical potential. The video game industry is a popular one, and its accessibility via console, PC, and handheld devices makes it an employable resource for K-12 and college classrooms. Additionally, if video games can threaten empathy, it stands to reason that they can enhance it. If video games can reinforce racist and sexist stereotypes, perhaps they can challenge and supplant those stereotypes too.

Both films review war-based and first-person shooter games. Still, there are a range of video games left to evaluate (and play). Video games that value education as well as entertainment and that make room for marginalized voices can expand players’ worldviews and equip them with knowledge(s) and skills that might carry over into the real world. Role-playing games might be especially transformative since they allow players to ground their playstyle in gender, racial, and sexual identities and, by doing so, could challenge dominant narratives and introduce players to new insights and experiences.

Educators might consider Sarah Lynne Bowman’s scholarship on role-playing games (2010), Jane McGonigal’s terrific TED Talk, “Games Can Make a Better World” (2010), and other studies that examine the pedagogical potential of video games (Maguth, List, and Wunderle 2015). Better yet, educators can push students to reflect upon games that they already play and theorize about those experiences and cultural messages. Video games present opportunities for players to launch grenades, to swashbuckle, to use magic and militarism to level up, to level virtual townships! But they might also assist players in furthering their imaginations, in braving new worlds, and reevaluating their views on violence, war, sexism, and social justice.

1On the relationship between video games and militarism, see Shaw (2010).

Works Cited

Bowman, Sarah Lynne. 2010. The Functions of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Consalvo, Mia. 2012. “Confronting Toxic Gamer Culture: A Challenge for Feminist Game Studies Scholars.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology 1 (November).

Shaw, Ian Graham Ronald. 2010. “Playing War.” Social & Cultural Geography 11, no. 8 (December): 789-803.

Maguth, Brad M., Jonathan S. List, and Matthew Wunderle. 2015. “Teaching Social Studies with Video Games.” Social Studies 106, no. 1 (January/February): 32-36.

McGonigal, Jane. 2010. “Games Can Make a Better World.” TED video, 19:57, February.

Shamethia Webb is a doctoral student in Texas Woman’s University’s Multicultural Women and Gender Studies Department. Her research interests include antipoverty initiatives, literature and social justice, and science fictional feminism. She plays video games in her free time.