How gender perceptions limit design thinking in games

I was riding right along with Jesse Schell in his book The Art of Game Design, right until about page 102, when he started exploring the relation of player demographics to game design.

For instance, is this statement, from page 102, true or false?

“The majority of videogames are played by boys and men.”


(That means, no — not true.)
Just to set the stage, the version of this book I’m reading was from 2008.  Not the dark ages, but almost a decade ago.  New research and ideas about how women play games has emerged since that time.

As early as 1998, however, the Boston Globe reported that the video game market was exploding for young girls; the charts here show women comprised about half of those playing games well before 2008.

Research from 2014 shows, as quoted from the Washington Post:

The stereotype of a “gamer” — mostly young, mostly nerdy and most definitely male — has never been further from the truth. In the United States, twice as many adult women play video games as do boys, according to the Entertainment Software Association, the industry’s top trade group. Male gamers between ages 10 and 25 represent a sliver of the market, only 15 percent, according to Newzoo, a games research firm.



Gender perceptions in advertising

Gender biases run deep. And it’s no accident. Watch the short ad above from the 80s.

(My big plans after school were usually not book reports. Gotta admire Elliott’s dedication.)

Even today:   I searched for images of girls playing video games, then women playing video games. Most of the images were extremely sexist, featuring both in bikinis or as part of the game equipment.

Archive imagery tended to depict males playing video games, with female in the role of onlooker:

She just watches. Or maybe she is player II?


And no wonder.  Most games prominently featured male characters (even my beloved Pitfall Harry and Police Quest) while females were relegated to victims status or the more elegant “damsel in distress”:


Pauline, Donkey Kong Princess. Originally named “The Lady.”

Even devices like “Game Boy” clearly had a planned demographic inherently planted in their very name. Unless there is a Game Girl I missed?

Ms. Pac-Man. Feminist, or … ?

One exception is Ms. Pac-Man. According to my bud Wiki, “Shortly before release, Stan Jarocki of Midway stated that Ms. Pac-Man was conceived in response to the original Pac-Man being “the first commercial videogame to involve large numbers of women as players” and that it is “our way of thanking all those lady arcaders who have played and enjoyed Pac-Man.”

How generous!

Closing the gender gap in tech

Gender and technology was covered in fascinating detail in two recent podcasts: Planet Money’s “When Women Stopped Coding” and the TED Radio Hour (Part 4 of “Nudge” episode).  We learn that early advertisements for computers were completely tailored to boys, featuring boys as the gift recipient to viewing parents (as in the example above).

Due to the lack of early encouragement to experiment with games, many girls did not have the play and experiment/fail time that boys of their age experienced. Therefore, in the classroom, many became discouraged as they failed to meet the perceived perfection of their peers and gave up by high school rather than pursue computer science.

Enter, Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls Who Code (image from Business Insider)

Based on such a low number of women programmers, Reshma Saujani discusses why she founded the Girls who Code movement which is dedicated to “closing the gender gap in technology.”  Interestingly, one of the stats on their site shows that women comprised 37% of all computer science grads in the 80s, compared to a much lower 18% now (those ads worked!).

Girls Who Code not only aims to change that, but according to Ms. Saujani,  have succeeded, with 40,000 coders enrolled (over 65% of whom pursue computer science majors after the program).

So I was a bit irritated with the weak research in the demographics section about the “player” in an otherwise fascinating look at creating games in The Art of Game Design. One example given is very anecdotal: a mother who hesitatingly takes the pirate wheel in their pirate game at Disneyland. He deduces women prefer to be in the background and steer the ship rather than in the action. Yikes!

It’s true that studies show gender preferences for certain types of games (for example, FPS (first person shooter) games are statistically played by males primarily (at the moment) but this, too, is arguably influenced through our societal “nurture” process into defined genders.

Schell gets a lot right, but his analysis of women as players was simplistic and short-sighted.  Perhaps his later edition reflects these updates.


What are your favorite types of games?  Do you defy the stereotypes or stats?

Role playing, fantasy, family or farming simulations, city-building, racing?


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