I wrote part of a “pro/con” piece for CQ Researcher about whether video gaming has a gender gap. Although we were on opposite columns, Dr. Kishonna Gray and I made similar arguments: the gap seems to have closed in casual gaming, but not in more competitive, online gaming spaces. This is likely because of the hostility toward and stereotypes about women and girls that are prevalent in these spaces.
“The statistic that nearly half of gamers are female is dangerously misleading. It ignores significant gender differences in game genre preferences and veils a gender gap that detracts from equal participation within and beyond gaming writ large. Recent research shows the multiple consequences of this gap. Women and girls are more likely to be harassed by other players and perceived as uninterested and low-skilled. Female characters are less visible in games (especially as protagonists) and often are hypersexualized. Possibly contributing to this is a gender gap in the industry, with a significantly smaller proportion of women employed in game-development than men. These gaps are not caused by inherent sex differences. For example, studies have shown that boys have better spatial or mental rotation skills — the capacity to orient two- or three-dimensional objects in the mind — than girls. However, researchers also have found that those initial skill differences are neutralized after a short amount of action gameplay. Similarly, studies have found that men are no better than women at playing certain games (such as “EVE Online” and “EverQuest II”) when controlling for total time played. So why are women often relegated to the “girlfriend gamer” stereotype, playing support roles and healing their boyfriends instead of reaping the benefits of gameplay? The answer lies in a vicious stereotype-driven cycle. Research has shown that exposure to gender stereotypes in gaming reduces women’s self-confidence and ratings of their own skills. It also increases self-objectification, aggressive thoughts and acceptance of the rape myth. In my own recent study, women who believed they were playing against a man as opposed to a woman (the actual opponent was a bot) not only performed worse in a first-person shooter game but also rated men as better suited for careers in computer science, technology, engineering and math. This leads to two conclusions. First, the stereotype that women and girls are not true gamers prevents them from participating equally in video games, hindering their ability to combat the stereotype. Second, the gender gap in games leads to gender inequality in technological fields. Recognizing this, we should encourage our daughters, sisters and mothers to play more video games and we should demand that our sons, brothers and fathers not act cruelly or lecherously to the females they meet in gaming spaces.”