the artistry and psychology of gaming

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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.

6 Comments

  1. I do agree with you it is much more than just sexism and that

    socialogy and psychology are bigger issues to the matter.Sexism

    definitely plays a backseat to those larger issues. I think that 42%

    is a bit of an inflated number. Either a badly chosen market segment

    for that study’s reference or it was chosen much more in a section

    (usually genre-specific) where it is far more female-inclined.

    As for which came first, this is a recent enough example that we do

    have a record about how it started. It began with Pong in bars, which

    were more male-inclined then than they are now. Gaming started off

    relatively gender-neutral (Pong was just 2 bars, Space Invaders had no

    identity, Asteroids had a rocket, etc.) compared to now (Pac-Man was

    the first big “hero” of gaming but if his name was something like

    “WabbaWabba” he could have easily remained gender neutral) but any

    marketing will tell you to advertise/design towards the majority of

    your market is the smart move, especially with a product’s infancy

    era, and so it continued that way. As for not being “as good”, that

    is a myth I would just laugh off as smack-talk. While there may be

    specific genres that are designed to appeal to the “better natural

    talents of the male brain” (reaction, quicker visual identification,

    quicker reflexes) the female brain does have an ace up the sleeve

    (better pattern development, thought processing, better planning,

    etc.). I’ll even easily admit that when I’m going against a female

    gamer in a serious tournament, they are, on average, more likely to be

    serious and “well-trained” (which may stem from either the “women are

    viewed as inferior so must prove oneself” or from “this woman is that

    passionate about this game that she has decided to come out and show

    her merits”).

    Nature vs Nurture is a good part of it. I would say our lives are 75%

    nurture and 25% nature. Most people use twins for this debate and I

    would say that falls short because even their DNA and brain activity

    are usually very similar which leads to too much being the same. My

    brother and I ended up very different even though we were raised the

    same and had the same schooling potential (both were in gifted classes

    in Elementary school). I ended up as the honor-roll every year and a

    hard worker always networking and trying to lead my company to

    success. My brother barely graduated high school from lack of effort

    and still shows very anti-social and lazy behaviors (and spends most

    of his time locked up in his bedroom in my parents’ house). I

    wouldn’t say we are completely blank slates but we are much more

    capable of being molded during our youth than as we grow up and try to

    change what has become a part of who we are.

    I do agree that gender-socialization and access play a huge part in it

    as well. I remember your story of your first taste of gaming and how

    you fell in love. Guys also, relatively speaking, get the “better

    games” (not being sexist but the games “made for guys” vs the games

    “made for girls” is a well known comparison). I’m sure if my only

    experience with gaming was a meak Nintendogs and Barbie game then I

    wouldn’t be interested in gaming either. The socialization is an

    aspect that we are in the dawning of a new era for so I think we’re at

    a point where things will change for women that are craving the social

    interaction (just look at the gender ratios for the MMORPGs and how

    they led the trail for such a high female adoption rate). Ultima

    Online was ground breaking at it’s time for all that it accomplished

    (and female adoption rate just boggled the minds of the publishers on

    how to market the game because they were not expecting such high

    female player numbers).

    The Bayonetta is a good example. It is also an example of, if they

    can get through staring at her near-nakedness all the time, they are

    in for quite an enjoyable game and my close friend Cidsa (and long

    time gamer girl that dates back to the NES era like myself) is

    actually the one who got me to finally play Bayonetta. However, your

    point is more important of women aren’t going to want to see that just

    as much as guys aren’t going to want to see a near naked guy for the

    same amount of time. This also goes back to a previous article you

    wrote of “if you dress characters a certain way, there will be a

    reaction to it” (too much or too little). I can only hope for the day

    where women are just as comfortable as guys are sitting home playng

    video games together ~_^ I’m sure I’m not the only guy who would

    enjoy the idea (and I’m sure other gamer women like yourself would

    enjoy the concept too).

    As for your personal “why?” I cannot provide an answer, but I think you’ve learned by now that I am in agreement with you on “why are there are not more like you?” On the bright side, it does help keep you unique and different in a way that many gamer guys will appreciate.

    PS,
    You may not have had a doll house but you did have a Sims house =P

    • Yeah, 42% seemed WAY too large to be true. I think it was a very bad choice of interviewees or just far too few. It’ll get there eventually though, I’m sure!

      As much as it’s often talked about how men are better at blah blah and women are better at blah blah, at the end of the day, it is still very hard to categorize. I’m far more acomplished at traditionally male games(although maybe I just have a lot of practise…) but I can’t really multitask for shit… I would agree that although it’s true on a more general level, when you get down to specifics, it has a lot to do with nurture as well. If a young girl is taught extensively how to orienteer and mapread etc from her father/mother, she’ll be better at it than many boys, even though that is traditionally an area where boys excel.

      The example of your brother is really interesting because yes, the differences will certainley be down to a combo of nature and nurture. Genetics do play a role in our personality. But he is an example of environment too. He would have had different friends, or perhaps even been lead astray by his peer group. As a teengager, studies have shown that your peer group becomes far more important to you as a source of information and behaviour than your parents. I would hazard a guess that although your parents treated you in the same way, your brother then went and hung out with very different people and developed a very different set of ideals. Not that I’m a psychologist or anything! Just speculation, but it does make you think about the power of the environment in people-shaping.

      That is a really interesting point I didn’t think about actually! The fact that bad games are propagating the lack of interest from women. Exactly, if you’d only had nintendogs, you’d you totally underwhelmed as well! MMORPGs have always been popular with girls and you’re right, it most likely comes down to the combination of the social aspect and the gaming/customization part too.

      I really have no problem with Bayonetta, I can’t wait to play it and I’ve heard great things, but I was more saying that on first site, that isn’t going to appeal to a girl who may not game that often, not much in a game shop is. Of course, if she played the game then I’m sure she’d have a great time but it’s that initial hurdle that’s hard to overcome.

      Haha, I have no problem with being me :P And being different but it was just a bit of existential musing on the matter! There are girls like me obviously, just none in my group of friends! I have to turn to boys for the sort of gaming banter that I need!

      And your point on the sims house is duly noted, but isn’t it funny how even the more girly of the activities I indulged in was still digital and game related!

      • Yeah, there are many possible reasons but we’ll never know the truth, not that the exact truth exactly matters for that situation. ^^’ But yeah, I’m sure you want to see it closer to really being like that and, for myself, I want to play a role in helping make that expansion occur and contacts like you will help play a very large part in making it a reality that I could not achieve without the help of.

        I agree with that. As a whole, guys supposedly are better at blah blah but the fun thing about the general numbers game is that we can play fun spins on those numbers like “guys are only better because they have such a large number base” (which would be a bit silly IMO and that would be more of an example of claims we could make that would either be silly or just unprovable. Also, like I said before, in a competitive environment like a gaming tournament, a minority such as female or a noticeably younger child is more of someone I’d be more concerned going against because they are there for a reason and that reason is not “to lose”. Yeah, nurture plays a big part of it. In fact, I think those who are taught young from their parents and raised at something that isn’t natural (I am not talking skilled based but information/learning techniques) then it makes them even better because they must learn ways to interpret such characteristics from how it is normally understood to “the naturals” into a way they understand best.

        Yeah, that is a bit true but not like “always in reform school” type of bad people. But he was around the “not the best of seeds” type of peers. I do know personality has a bit of play too though =P But yeah, I would say it is true that peer pressure is another important factor that should stand on it’s own as a third part of “nature vs nurture” debate instead of being considered a branch of nurture because of the great impact it has.

        Thanks ^_^ Maybe if you do a version two of this article a few years down the road you could include it as another detail to consider. I may not be a simulation game expert but I would not say they are an ideal “fun” experience. I would say their entertainment comes more from the immersion and curiousity of “what would happen if…”. Sure they are still “fun” but I just would not rate them as the most fun genre (but definitely could consider them as top for entertainment and immersion). I do see customization coming into play but there are still many genres that are leaving it limited to “choose your moves/abilities/actions” as the limited extent of customization. You do get to customize the experience to your playstyle but you’re still not truly customizing the experience. One example I could mention is “does Mario ALWAYS have to be in a red hat and overalls?” Sure that is the icon of Mario and he can be defaulted to such an outfit? But why not let Mary Sue Noname let her run around with Mario in a pink outfit for her personal enjoyment? And if those who say “it’s ruining the identification of Mario”, there is the counterargument of “she is only ‘ruining it’ for herself to something she enjoys and prefers more and is not forcing you to play her way.”

        Very true and I think I might have worded it wrong. I do still agree with the point of “more women would consider her fashion/limited clothing as a turn off for the game.” It is a shame they won’t fully enjoy it but I hope it lives up to your expectations (especially since one rumor I frown about on the inside is that I’ve heard it plays a noticeable amount better on 360).

        I have no problem with you being you, especially since you have no problem showing how fun you are in your own unique way (especially on Twitter). Yeah, nothing wrong with how you are unique and we need more like you…but on the bright side, it helps you stand out in a crowd by requiring you having to only do what you enjoy ~_^ But I do invite more to the calling as well because the more in this gaming party, the more fun we all will have ^__^

        You’re just a digital gaming girl through and through, and IMO, that’s the best of girls =D

  2. This was a fascinating article that has given me quite a bit of the aforementioned food for thought, but, oddly enough, not about gaming. I’d say that socialization has a great deal to do with the conventions you’ve named because I, too, fall into the middle with nearly everything. Living here, I do laundry and keep our technology working. I’m a dishwasher and a snowblower. I cook and move furniture. You get the idea. Having just read this article, I think a large portion of my gender neutrality has to do with my upbringing. I grew up out in the woods not knowing most of my neighbors, and having never even met quite a few of them (even to this day). Simply put, despite my parents having very rigid conceptions of gender roles, I sorta wasn’t socialized. Until I went to school for the first time, I didn’t have any interactions with other kids, and by then, I was so radically different, I didn’t fit in with girls or boys, so my “anti-socialization” was furthered even more deeply. I don’t want to get into my whole life story here; what I’m trying to say is that I think you may be onto something about how nurture can be just as important as nature. For one thing, I’d be a completely different person had I been raised by incompetent parents; most definitely for the worse.

    By the bye, Ninrac, I have to give you props for WabbaWabba, because I think it’s the most accurate representation of Pac-Man’s trademark noise that I’ve ever seen in writing.

    • Thank you, Alice. I remember hearing that term from a friend nearly a decade ago and it is one of those words that always stuck in my mind ever since.

    • Wow, I’m really glad it gave you so mucn to think about. Although I didn’t mention it in the article, nature does have something to do with it; we do have genes that affect our personality but really, I think how we are raised and the environment in which that occurs can have the biggest and furthest reaching impact of them all, as you say you can attest to.

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