Why Don’t Women Play Games?
This is a difficult question and one that most likely doesn’t have a definitive answer. And I don’t believe this is anything we can blame on something as clean cut as sexism; there are far more interesting underlying social and psychological factors that are more worth exploring that simply crying sexism. With a smattering of sociological know how and just a few of my own personal opinions and theories, I’ll do my best to explore what this odd gender imbalance exists.
Figures for the quantity of female gamers are hard to come by and their veracity is hard to verify. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 42% of gamers are women (in America) however; the sample group seems to have only been of 1200 households so I would be sceptical of how well it reflects the truth. Although there are many more female gamers than is thought and joked about, I wouldn’t have thought there were that many. And the games that the aforementioned 42% are purported to be playing fall heavily into the casual category of browser games and handhelds. For the sake of this article, I’m focusing on why there aren’t many women who inhabit the ‘hard-core’ section of consoles and triple A titles, which will hopefully end up highlighting why it is that casual games are so popular amongst women.
I find this issue most difficult to talk about because it’s incredibly circular in almost every situation; a case of what comes first, the chicken or the egg? For example, are there fewer women in gaming because they’re put off by the way they are portrayed? Or does the bad portrayal come about because there are fewer women in gaming? Do girls dislike games because they’re not as good at them or are they not good at them because they don’t play them as often because of reasons I’m about to mention?
It can be quite difficult for me to look at this objectively. I think games are glorious. I can’t see how other girls don’t see what I do but the fact is that many of them don’t. They simply don’t have fun when playing them and think that they’re ultimately a waste of time. But putting my lady hat on for a second, I’ll try to assess the reasons that I often find myself a lone ranger.
Question is, why do boys prefer shooting and sports?
Let me preface this with a quick word on evolutionary biology and the like. It’s uncertain how much of our behaviour occurs because of difficulties we had to overcome in our earlier and more primal history. There are a lot of our modern behaviours that can be explained in terms of how useful they would have been to us in our caveman days. However, with the expansion of modern culture, a great many of our behaviours and values have come out of cultural conditioning and tradition too. This is socialization, the process whereby a child is instilled with the cultural norms and values that will allow them to seamlessly and acceptably integrate into their society. This is the phenomenon that means a Chinese child born to Chinese parents but adopted out by an English couple at a young age and raised in the UK will have none of the cultural norms shared by people in China because they were raised by English people. A child is born as a blank slate, ready to have their personality shaped for them by their environment. Not only do I consider socialization to be one of the key contributors to the lack of women in games, but it’s also the most important process in a human’s life. The way you are raised can pretty much determine your course in life and determines your personality. The way your parents treat you, or reward and punish you are key to what interests you initially develop and the way in which you perceive the world. And it’s different for everybody. In some families, reading may be considered the most integral aspect of their life and so the children are constantly read to and bought books, whereas in another family, sports could be the most important thing. It really is amazing to think how you are shaped when growing up.
The issue of gender is the one I find most fascinating. Our roles in life and our attitudes to pretty much everything are culturally prescribed from the moment they pull us from the womb and check between our legs. Boys and girls are not raised in the same way because we have developed very different roles in society. Hegemonic masculinity and femininity are a fact of life; we all know how we should act according to our gender and we are judgmental against those who act in opposition to them. If a man spends 2 hours on his hair, we’ll laugh and be derisive. However, it is expected of a woman, and we’d just accept it and sigh exasperatedly. In terms of interests, parents are more likely to direct their little girl to dolls and colouring books then they are to sports and games, like they would a boy. Some girls may even be actively discouraged by their parents from engaging in something seen as traditionally masculine. Sport is seen as physical, physicality is about strength, and strength is masculine. Dolls are about nurturing, nurturing is about emotions and emotions are feminine. Games are action packed; all about simulating that active physicality and strength so desired in men. There is nothing of interest within them to girls. Or at least it is perceived that way. When games first came out, the technology didn’t exist to make anything but extremely basic sports or shooting games (I’m thinking pong and space invaders here). Being things that traditionally appeal to boys, a target market quickly presented itself and the course of gaming history was set. The incredible speed with which the industry has grown has led to this being a generational issue more than a gender one. Those women never introduced their own daughters to games, unlike how the boys introduced their sons to it.
I never had one of these...maybe that explains it...
This idea of socialization is, I believe, the reason everything I’m about to mention becomes an issue as well.
There could also be a certain fear of reprisal; some girls may be afraid of the pervasive stigma attached to gaming and don’t want to be part of something that sets them apart from the norm. It’s widely accepted that boys play video games, but to a certain extent, the same can’t be said for girls. People just never consider it as a hobby possibility for girls. Women continue to be surprised when I tell them of my ardent love for video games because they’ve never even considered the possibility that I might be interested in them. By looking at me, they’ve assessed my gender and as such, they’ve inferred a tremendous amount about me, but one of the things they have not considered is gaming because it’s not associated with women. Access is also a large issue. Even if a boy hasn’t been raised with games in his childhood, it’s pretty likely that he’ll come into contact with them at a friend’s house. It’s not the same for girls. The most we can hope for is Nintendogs to crop up and even that is a rare occurrence.
There are quite a few neurological differences that can bring about this disparity as well. Men excel in things like hand-eye coordination, spatial reasoning and more precise control of muscle movements (citation: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/anthropology/v1007/jakabovics/mf2.html) These skills are perfect for FPSs where reactions and aiming have to be instantaneous. Girls, however, excel in areas of social reasoning, which isn’t really a major gameplay element; sure, there are relationships in games but they’re not quite as subtle as those found in real life. The differences between choosing to say, “You’re so brave and strong” or “I hate you and have an overwhelming desire to shoot you in the face” is pretty obvious to anyone who has spent time amongst humans, regardless of how socially mature or capable they are.
As great though this is, it's sadly unfounded...
That being said, games that do contain this more social aspect, like Mass Effect or Dragon Age prove to be incredibly popular with women. Personally, playing the Mass Effect series is the most involved and concerned I’ve ever felt about a game. My crew members become the most important thing; saving their lives and ensuring their safety becomes paramount, especially because the consequences can be biblical in the following games should you fail to save someone or anger the wrong person. These games feel like they have real weight behind them; like the sum of your achievements is not merely measured in how many aliens you managed to kill but in how balanced and cohesive the dynamic is amongst your crew. This is really appealing and adds a totally new dimension to the traditional idea of what a game is.
The perception that outsiders have of the industry is not helpful either, and we don’t exactly help ourselves in promoting our cause. Girls have a very awkward place in the annals of gaming history; our roles have been very limited and the stereotypes have been flowing thick and fast. Sexualisation has been and sometimes still is, rife and a woman can be hard pressed to see behind this macho exterior and see anything that would interest them. She’s not going to pick up Bayonetta for example, look at the box and think, “Yeah, I definitely want to spend the next 15 hours of my life staring at the lycra’d ass of this Amazonian bondage master.” There’s nothing wrong with Bayonetta’s look but if we’re going to have characters like this, we’re going to have to accept the consequences which are often a continued lack of interested women. Girl’s interests simply do not lie in boobs, funnily enough. Also, amongst boys, gaming is often seen as a highly social and inclusive event. Guys are more than happy to get together for an evening to play a few rounds of team death match on Call of Duty or fight it out on the virtual playing grounds of Fifa. But for girls, priorities are very different. With me for example, I am virtually the only girl out of my group of friends that plays games seriously, so getting the girls together to battle a few hordes on Gears of War just isn’t going to happen. Girls prioritise in different ways, usually preferring chatting with friends and going for coffee over sitting in, drinking beer and gaming. This could all change if we finally get girls in on the gaming act though!
This doesn't happen a lot in my world...
I would write a conclusion but I don’t really think we’ve reached one. The reasons for this phenomenon are very complex and most likely need to be analysed by someone with a PHD, which sadly I’m not in possession of. It could be that this is considered another non-issue because boys and girls like what they like and it is of no consequences that one gender doesn’t like what the other does. But I’ve always found the differences to be interesting because of how much I lie in the middle. It is obviously a generalisation to say that boys like games and girls don’t, but it is at least partially true so I’ve always wondered where that leaves me. And I don’t mean that in a ‘woe is me’ sort of way, more just as an interesting thought. Why aren’t there more girls like me? I suppose the question now is: what is different in my life that means I go against every reason I’ve stated above? I think the conclusion is that people are very diverse and although there are underlying reasons, ultimately, people aren’t always predictable. But hopefully this has given you a little food for thought on this issue.