Gendered Innovation 1: Games as a Catalyst for Changing Gender Norms
Method: Rethinking Language and Visual Representations
Designing Games for Girls: The Problem of Stereotypes
Gendered Innovation 2: Designing Flexible, Mixed-Gender Games
Method: Engineering Innovation Processes
Video Games and Women’s Participation in the Information Technology (IT) Industry
In 1962, MIT student Steve Russell created Spacewar!, the first widely-distributed software video game (Rockwell, 2002; Graetz, 1981). Until games were commercialized in 1971, game developers and players were primarily computer scientists, electrical engineers, and their students (Herman et al., 2002). Video games thus emerged from an environment where women were—and, to a large degree, remain—underrepresented (see Institutional Transformation, Disparities).
Gendered Innovation 1: Games as a Catalyst for Changing Gender Norms
Researchers are interested in how games—and the cultures that form around them—influence players’ real-world behaviors. Controlled experiments show, for example, that violent game play (in first-person shooter games, such as Wolfenstein 3D, or third-person fighter games, such as Mortal Kombat) increases the incidence of self-reported aggressive thoughts in the short term (Anderson et al., 2004; Anderson et al., 2007; Bushman et al., 2002; Gentile et al., 2004). Research has also shown that prosocial games in which the goal is “to benefit another game character” can make gamers more likely to take prosocial action (defined as voluntary actions intended to help others; Greitemeyer et al., 2010).
If games influence social behavior, they may also catalyze social change (Stefansdóttir et al., 2008). Game researchers have found that games embed “beliefs within their representation systems and structures, whether the designers intend them or not” (Flanagan et al., 2007). Games can either reproduce gender stereotypes or challenge them—in ways that lead players to rethinking gender norms (see diagram). Analyzing Gender has led to understanding how games provide a virtual space where designers and players can explore gender identities and behaviors. Games that challenge conventional sex and gender stereotypes allow players to create multiple femininities and masculinities in a range of particular contexts and over time.
Games provide a virtual space where designers and players can experiment with gender norms, relations, and identities (see Analyzing Gender). Video games allow players to experiment in ways that might be difficult or impossible in the real world (Turkle, 1997). A cross-sectional study of gamers found that—when given choices—54% of men and 68% of women engaged in “gender-swapping”; these players felt more freedom to experiment in game play than in real life (Hussain et al., 2008). Players might also engage with gender-ambiguous characters (Conrad et al., 2010).
In addition to sex and gender, gamers can and do experiment with other factors such as race, age, height, etc. (Harris et al., 2009). Challenging traditional stereotypes, not just reversing them (by making “women warriors,” such as Lara Croft) has the potential to help remake real-world gender identities and behaviors.
Challenging gender stereotypes may enhance diversity in video and online games, and potentially the gaming industry. This is important because games are increasingly spaces where young people engage in a significant portion of their socializing.
View General Method
Designing Games for Girls: The Problem of Stereotypes
In the 1990s, researchers estimated that the majority of games were purchased for boys (Cassell et al., 1998). Recognizing this, a number of gaming companies developed strategies to increase play among girls, including:
- 1. Encouraging girls to play boys’ games. The effort to make girls competitive players in boys’ games is an assimilationist approach, aligned with liberal feminism. Liberal feminism generally seeks to provide girls with the skills to make it in a boy's world. In this instance, the games remained the same; girls learned how to play them better. The main problem with this approach is that neither games nor societies change; efforts are focused on teaching girls new skills (Cassell et al., 1998).
- 2. Designing games for girls. The 1990s saw the bifurcation of gaming along stereotypical gender lines. “Blue” games catered to boys' perceived interests which included combat and sports. Often violent, these games featured few women characters, and those were likely to be highly sexualized or victimized. “Pink” games, by contrast, were “girly”, typically presenting fashion and princess themes. These games included Barbie Fashion Designer and Cosmopolitan Virtual Makeover (Dickey, 2006).
- The 1990s also saw the introduction of “purple” games, which placed “less emphasis on the ultra-feminine aspects of young girlhood than pink games” (Kafai et al., 2008). Although the term “purple” might suggest unisex games, purple games such as the Nancy Drew series (by Her Interactive) and the Friendship series (by Purple Moon) still targeted girls (see Gorriz et al., 2000 for a listing of these games).
- Developing games specifically for girls is an approach associated with difference feminism. Critics have argued that pink games promote gender stereotypes and essentialism, and they tend to overemphasize gender differences (Jansz et al., 2010)—see Term.
Video game players are often stereotyped as “male and young, pale from too much time spent indoors, and socially inept” (Williams et al., 2008). These stereotypes mark video games as “the province of boys and men” (Jenson et al., 2011; Toto-Troconis et al., 2010). Such beliefs have been internalized; even kindergarten girls and boys report that video games are more appropriate for boys than for girls (Lucas et al., 2004).
Parents’ attitudes also reinforce stereotypes. For example, the designers of KidCom, a communication game made specifically for girls age 7-12 in the Netherlands, found that girls did not like pink but they designed the device in a pinkish color anyway because this best satisfied the (paying) parents’ expectations (Sørensen et al., 2011).
Gendered Innovation 2: Designing Flexible, "Gender-Mixed" Games
“Pink” and “blue” games reinforce traditional gender stereotypes. Stereotypes tend to exaggerate gender differences between girls and boys, women and men. This dichotomous thinking can result in unsuccessful game design. With the exception of Barbie Fashion Designer, video games designed specifically for girls have not been commercially successful (Gorriz et. al., 2000; Sørensen et al., 2011).
One way to overcome stereotypes is to collect empirical data about who plays video games and what games they play. Although data are rare, evidence from several large studies suggests that designers may benefit from creating games that are “gender-mixed,” appealing to both girls and boys (Rommes et al., 2010; Faulkner et al., 2007). A 2007-2008 Pew Research Center study of 1102 U.S. 12- to 17-year-olds and their parents found that the most widely played game, Guitar Hero, was equally popular among these girls and boys (Lenhart, 2008b)—see chart. None of the games designed for girls in the 1990s ranked among the top ten for either sex.
The Pew study confirms that girls and boys play different games: Girls are more likely to play puzzle and simulation games, whereas boys are more likely to play combat and sports games. Yet there is also great overlap in the games they play: Girls and boys are equally likely to play games categorized, for example, as “racing,” “rhythm and music,” “simulation,” and “virtual worlds” (Lenhart et al., 2008b). This is consistent with findings that the games girls and boys play do not fall into simplistic categories of traditional feminine or masculine tastes (Faulkner, 2004). The classification of games into genres is complex and not an issue addressed in this case study.
Considering the following points may lead to games designed with dynamic gender norms (Danilda et al., 2011; Sørensen et al., 2011; Rommes, 2006).
1. In designing for “everybody,” designers often unconsciously design for boys (Oudshoorn et al., 2004). The result may be games that boys prefer and an increased number of hours that boys play. This approach, however, misses boys who are not typical gamers.
2. “I-Methodology"—where designers assume that users will like the same things they do—may also result in games for boys: in the gaming industry, 88% of designers are men (Oudshoorn et al., 2004).
3. Designing specifically for girls can have multiple effects:
a. Companies that focus on “what girls want” may find new markets. This strategy, however, can reinforce traditional stereotypes and may not achieve long-term success.
b. Designers' beliefs about what girls like and what the market wants (what parents will buy) may lead to stereotypically feminine games. Girls may play different games from the majority of boys, but they don’t necessarily play “pink” games, as we saw in the Pew study. This approach misses girls who do not fit the stereotype.
4. User input—from girls and boys—can be important (see Participatory Research and Design).
a. Surveying users may produce inaccurate data due to reporting bias: People surveyed tend to report behaviors that conform to stereotypes, even if their actual behaviors do not. As a result, self-reports may generate inaccurate data that appear to support stereotypes. For example, when parents and their children are surveyed about time spent playing video games, parents underreport their children’s gaming hours relative to children’s self-reports. The gap between child-reported and parent-reported playing time is much larger between daughters and their parents than between sons and their parents (Lenhart et al., 2008b).
b. Objective measures of players’ play behaviors may lead to better design.
5. Which girls/women? Which boys/men? Not all women (or men) are the same, and analyzing group heterogeneity may better capture the diversity of interests and tastes in broad populations. It is important to keep in mind that factors intersecting with sex and gender, such as age, educational level or geographic location (urban vs. rural), can be more important to consider in game design than gender differences (Lenhart et al. 2008a)—see chart below.
6. Including women on the design team may broaden perspectives.
a. Including women—their experiences, perspectives, knowledge, and networks—enhances creativity and innovation (Danilda et al., 2011).
b. Simply including women, however, may not be enough. One woman, for example, does not represent all women. To maximize innovation, everyone on the design team—women and men—will want to learn methods of sex and gender analysis.
View General Method
Video Games and Women’s Participation in Information Technology (IT) Industries
Gaming is often considered a gateway to careers in computer science and IT, but this may not be the case (Gros, 2007). In the past decades the number of women players has increased dramatically. Girls and women today are playing games more than ever before. Women are especially active in online games and social games played on networks such as Facebook (Taylor, 2003). The Entertainment Software Association found that in 2011 in the U.S, women were 42% of video game players overall and 48% of the most frequent purchasers of games (ESA, 2011).
The upsurge in girl gaming, however, has not led to women’s increased representation in computer science. The proportion of women in computer science has decreased in most Western countries, falling from its peak in 1986 of 36% of undergraduate degrees to 21% in 2006 in the U.S. (AAUW, 2010). In the European Union, women received 25% of ISCED level 5-6 degrees (tertiary degrees) in computing in 1998, but only 18% of such degrees in 2009. During this 11-year period, the absolute number of computer science women graduates increased from 14,505 to 25,764, or about 78%; the absolute number of men graduates, however, increased from 42,148 to 119,310, or about 181%, over the same period (Eurostat, 2011). Further, women are only 12% of the U.S. video game workforce: as in most industries, they are particularly underrepresented in executive and technical positions (Haines, 2004; Fullerton et al., 2008).
Promoting game play among women is not enough. Engineering innovation through analyzing sex and gender is important to influencing social change. Methods of sex and gender analysis can help us rethink stereotypes and open design to dynamic representations of gender.
Design can promote gender equality. Games, in particular, can be a catalyst for change in gender norms, relations, and identities, and, eventually, in the gaming industry itself. Although gender norms determine in part the kinds of games that are produced, gender itself is dynamic and often produced during game play through player interaction. Games can have a powerful influence on players’ gender attitudes and behaviors.
- 1. Empirical data are required to understand gender differences and similarities in gaming behaviors, skills, and preferences. Studies should include information about players' educational background, play experience, income level, regional location, and age.
- 2. Designers may develop strategies to enhance gender flexibility in games, allowing games to become experimental spaces for changing gender norms.
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Last Updated October 12th, 2011