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Why Women Refuse To Be Labelled As “Gamers”

46% of the world's video game players are women, yet the term “gamer” is typically applied to men, reveals new research
46% of the world’s video game players are women, yet the term “gamer” is typically applied to men, reveals new research from Aalto University School of Business
  • 46 percent of people who play video or role-playing games globally are women
  • The term “gamer” has associations with masculine “tech-nerd” culture and sometimes obsessive consumption of videogames
  • Many women reject the term gamer due to harassment they encounter when playing online

Even though 46 percent of people who consume video and role-playing games globally are women, gaming communities and the production industry still typically associate the term “gamer” with men, reveals new research from Aalto University School of Business.

If you’re unfamiliar with the culture that has sprung up around video games, you might be considered a bit of a “noob” – and that term might have you reaching for a dictionary right now.

Under “noob” you’d discover the term simply describes someone new, or inexperienced to the world of gaming. Exploring further, under “gamer” you can expect to find a definition approximating “someone” who regularly plays (video)games – a description some experts feel is much too generic to be accurate in reality.

Saija Katila, a Senior Lecturer at Aalto University School of Business, frames the term in a more specific way, relating it to the “hardcore” consumption of games. This entails playing more frequently and for longer sessions than those perceived as “casuals”, as well as having a greater desire for challenging content and thus choosing to associate with Triple-A titles (the videogame equivalent of blockbuster movies).

In short, “for gamers, games are typically ascribed as an important part of their daily lives,” says Katila.

She believes that gamer culture has been masculinised due to its focus on technological prowess which, like hard sciences, has historically been considered a male skill. When combined with the asocial implications of “nerdiness”, the resulting fusion forms a cultural “tech-nerd” identity, Katila says, which manifests in passionate, bordering on obsessive, consumption of games.

Pull these strands together and a gendered hierarchy of play emerges. According to Katila: if technical skill and fervent devotion to gaming are perceived as male traits, women are equated with low aptitude and passing interest – hence the feminisation of casual play. Thus, she says, men are the priority consumer base and recruitment pool for gaming companies; they are the “Player Ones”, and women are the “Player Twos” – a secondary concern.

To discover the implications of gender bias in gaming industry and culture, Katila, alongside Marke Kivijärvi from the Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics, conducted a study based on in-depth interviews with women occupying senior positions in Finnish production companies.

The interviewees were either employed as corporate leaders (such as CEOs, founders, co-founders, or producers) or occupied key development roles (in game design, art, or programming).

The researchers found that female participation in the development process is hindered by recruiters’ perceptions that the ideal candidates will be men. Furthermore, their findings show that stereotypes embedded in design practices have led to a wave of “pinkified” products being marketed as games for wives, mums, and so on, to play. The authors identify these games as often slower paced, with content inspired by a typecast view of femininity, focusing on women and girls learning about their feelings and caring for others.

“Since the development of the first computer games, gaming fantasies have offered more variety for boys, less for girls. Design practices mimic the activities from boys’ physical playgrounds, offering them adventure, violence, and competition. The masculine space of play sustains the boys’ culture, for example, via technical competency, mastering the game, and long hours of repetition,” says Katila.

Gendered discourses in gaming communities are also visible in how women are treated in online play, the study shows. Hostility towards female players is common as male tech-nerds attempt to protect perceived masculine gamer culture from female encroachment by making women and girls feel uncomfortable.

According to the findings, such behaviour manifests in various ways, from questioning female players’ proficiency to making sexual comments and attempting to elicit favours. Unsurprisingly, many women are put off by the implications of the gamer label and refuse to self-identify with it, even if they regularly play videogames.

The research also discovered that some female players attempt to conceal their gender by choosing male or neutral avatars and screen names and refraining from using voice chats to communicate with other players. Others go to greater lengths, refusing to play with strangers or else disregarding online play entirely and exclusively playing solo.

Katila and Kivijärvi note that short-term advances towards gender parity have been hampered because gaining a perceived legitimate identity in gaming communities requires players to aspire to the masculine “Player One” position. Women who try to present as more masculine reinforce gender stereotypes and are therefore complicit in holding themselves down – though the researchers add female players often do this unconsciously.

However, they believe that in the long-term, the seeds of change have already been sown. The study finds that female players and game designers are creating a new “tech-savvy” cultural identity which challenges the masculine tech-nerd implications of the term “gamer” in several ways.

Tech-savvy players reject the idea that coding is an exceptional ability possessed only by those (men) who dedicate large amounts of time to developing their technical prowess. Instead, they transform it into an unextraordinary activity which is done for fun with groups of friends, as opposed to asocially.

The researchers believe the creation of new cultures through which people can interact with games is beneficial to men as well as women, as there are plenty of men who do not conform to the current masculinised ideal ascribed to gamer identity; they might not play frequently enough to be considered hardcore, or else enjoy more social gaming experiences.

And whilst some may consider the world of gaming frivolous and the gender bias that exists there as no serious concern to the “real world”, consider that research has shown that gamers can make better leaders and managers, so by focusing on eradicating the bias in a virtual world, we can improve our chances of improving the balance in the physical world also.

And if that’s not enough to convince you, when you roll in the fact that diverse leadership teams produce the best results, there’s not much left to argue when it comes to the potential benefits to be claimed.

Change will probably be slow and incremental, they predict. But even slow running water can wear through bedrock in time.

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