Playing With Gender Stereotypes

Experts take aim at trite assumptions about male and female gamers

By Rosemary McClure

Who plays video games in the United States? Don’t answer that question too quickly. You’re likely to be wrong.

Although 60 percent of Americans assume gaming is mainly a pastime for young males, a recent Pew Research Center study found that equal numbers of men and women are involved.

That may not surprise players on campus – or the estimated 75 million female players in the U.S. – but video game stereotypes die hard. In fact, relatively few young males actually play: The Pew study found that male gamers between the ages of 10 and 25 represent only 15 percent of the market.

“People have some entrenched stereotypes. They presume girls aren’t competitive and don’t play, but there’s not a lot of basis for it.”

“People have some entrenched stereotypes,” says Constance Steinkuehler, a digital media expert and pioneer in video game study, who joined the UCI faculty in January. “They presume girls aren’t competitive and don’t play, but there’s not a lot of basis for it.”

That doesn’t mean male and female players are equally drawn to the same games, however.

“Statistics indicate they often choose different games,” Steinkuehler says, referring to the phenomenon of “casual games,” a relatively new genre that created a seismic shift in the industry a few years ago. Intended for – as the name suggests – the casual player, these include a slew of mobile games such as the super-popular Candy Crush Saga. The easy-to-access games don’t require the time commitment necessary with the more complex “hardcore” games.

“Some of the [male] hardcore gamers used to be critical of these kinds of games, which are popular with women, because they didn’t see them as being hardcore enough,” Steinkuehler says. “But there’s money there for the industry; casual games are a huge market that draws both women and men.”

There are other differences between male and female players, but research indicates no gap in ability. “Women advance at least as fast as men do in … games,” says a 2016 UC Davis study in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. “The stereotype of female players as inferior is not only false, but also a potential cause for unequal participation in digital gaming.”

One issue for female players is that they’re rarely represented on the professional/celebrity circuit. “But it’s not because women have no aptitude for gaming,” says Kathy Chiang, one of the founders of UCI’s Association of Gamers.

“It’s hard for a woman to feel comfortable when there aren’t any female role models,” says Chiang, who graduated from UCI in March 2016 and now manages the campus’s new eSports arena. “All of this could be a result of the history of developers and publishers marketing their games specifically to men.”

Another problem for women: Gaming tends to be an old boys’ network, and female gamers are often bullied by hardcore gamers.

“Women sometimes experience a lot of online harassment,” says UCI’s Braxton Soderman, assistant professor of film & media studies, who has written about gender differences in gaming. “They decide not to compete because of the abuse.”

But positive steps are being taken that may empower female players. “There is great potential for UCI to cultivate women gamers and address issues with games and gender,” he says.

And the university has a strong support network, Chiang says: “At the collegiate level – especially at UCI – you see more girls in gaming, and women have leadership positions in campus gaming clubs.”

Additionally, she says, “we’re really pushing at the arena for girls to feel more relaxed. There are a lot of female staffers and a lot of girls that come and go.

“There’s something about UCI that enables girls to do more with gaming, whether as players or designers and developers of games.”