GIRLS WHO PLAY THE GAMES
Girls who play video games were once uncommon, but that gender gap is closing quickly. In fact, the gaming industry overall reports that 46% of players worldwide are female (Fnatic, 2022). What do we know about these players as girls, their behavior, and their development?
- Cooperative video games strengthen in-person friendships and encourage prosocial behavior; in fact, girls who cooperate to play an online game will be closer friends IRL (“in real life”) afterwards, so their gaming experience reinforces their social connections, an effect not observed in boys (Verheijen et al., 2019).
- Girls are aware of negative gender-related stereotypes related to being a “girl gamer,” but experimental research shows that they have little to no effect on their actual performance or gameplay attitudes, even if girls are “primed” by being reminded ahead of time about these negative ideas (being reminded in some way about a negative stereotype, even if you don’t believe it to be true, often lowers performance, and is called “stereotype threat”) (Kaye, et al., 2018).
- Girls who play a violent video game feel increased stress afterwards, unlike boys (Ferguson, et al., 2015); this longer-lasting psychological response may be part of the difference in preferred video games: while girls choose action games in high numbers, they are less likely to choose games that include explicit violence.
- Earlier onset of video gameplay in girls — “in middle or late childhood, a period when the brain is highly plastic to environmental influences” — accounts for a smaller gender gap in the cognitive costs of switching attention between tasks (Hartanto, Toh, & Yang, 2016). In other words, girls who start playing video games in elementary school manage their visual attentional resources more efficiently than girls who start playing after age 10 — so much so that the performance gap in that area with boys disappears.
- Similarly, baseline gender gaps in spatial attention and mental rotation skills disappear after as little as 10 hours of training on action video games (Palaus et al., 2017); that is a remarkably small sliver of time to invest to realize a large — and lasting — neurological impact.
GIRLS AND BOYS WHO GAME
- The difference between how much tweens (ages 8-12) and teens (ages 13-18) play video games is negligible (1:27 vs. 1:46), but across that entire age range, boys spend more than two and a half times as much time playing video games as girls. (Common Sense Media, 2022)
- Similarly, 60% of boys enjoy playing video games “a lot,” with only 24% of girls citing the same; the study shows no differences by race/ethnicity or household income.
- However, video games are a much larger part of boys’ everyday lives than they are for girls: 40% of all boys report playing console, portable, or computer video games every day, as opposed to only 10% of all girls who play video games daily.
GIRLS WHO MAKE THE GAMES
Of course, these girls who play video games will grow up to be women who game, which foreshadows increased female participation in the professional arenas of which video games are a part. Women continue to be substantially underrepresented in professional video game competitions, game development, and leadership of video game companies, an imbalance many organizations such as AnyKey and Women In Games are working to correct.
The gender imbalance on the content creation side of gaming is tightly connected to what has often been called a “hole in the STEM pipeline,” meaning the precipitous drop-off of girls choosing to pursue higher education and employment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. (STEM may also be called PSTEM, where the PS means “physical science,” as opposed to social sciences, where women participate in much larger numbers.) Here are a few things we know about the paths traveled by girls who play video games (Hosein, 2019):
- Overall, girls are 58 times less likely to pursue a degree in physical science, technology, engineering, or math (PSTEM) than no degree at all; playing multiplayer games is positively correlated with undertaking a PSTEM degree in girls.
- 13- and 14-year-old girls who are “heavy gamers” (>9h/week) are three times more likely to pursue a PSTEM degree than non-gamers.
Given that in 2009, only 6% of the video game-related workforce was female, the 2020 figure of 22% is heartening (Women in Games, 2022). However, only 16% of the executives running the world’s largest video game companies are female (Women in Games, 2022), so the imbalance remains large, particularly at the top levels.
No one is advocating that children spend more time being sedentary and staring at screens, of course; we know too well that a lifestyle like that is unhealthy. However, perhaps encouraging our girls to pick up a game controller is one way of helping them toss their hat into a ring that is crying out for more of their participation — and can help them be content creators, not just consumers, in the future.
Common Sense Media. (2022). The Common Sense census: Media use by tweens and teens, 2021. Available here.
Ferguson, C. J., Trigani, B., Pilato, S., Miller, S., Foley, K., Barr, H. (2015). Violent Video Games Don’t Increase Hostility in Teens, but They Do Stress Girls Out. Psychiatric Quarterly 87(1), 49-56.
Fnatic.com. (2022). Fnatic insights: Gender equality in gaming. Retrieved here April 25, 2022.
Hartanto, A., Toh, W. X, Yang, H. (2016). Age Matters: The effect of onset age of video game play on task-switching abilities. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics 78, 1125–1136.
Hosein, A. (Feb. 2019). Girls’ video gaming behavior and undergraduate degree selection: A secondary data analysis approach. Computers in Human Behavior 91, 226-235.
Kaye, L. K., Pennington, C. R., & McCann, J. J. (2018). Do casual gaming environments evoke stereotype threat? Examining the effects of explicit priming and avatar gender. Computers in Human Behavior 78, 142–150.
Palaus, M., Marron, E. M., Viejo-Sobrera, R. Redloar-Ripoli, D. (2017). Neural Basis of Video Gaming: A Systematic Review. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 11:248.
Verheijen, G. P., Stoltz, S. E. M. J, van den Berg, Y. H. M., Cillessen, A. H. M. (Feb. 2019). Influence of Competitive and Cooperative Video Games on Behavior During Play and Friendship Quality in Adolescence. Computers in Human Behavior 91, 297-304.