Gender and Computer/Video games

by Uzoamaka Nzegwu '00


Reason for the girl video game movement

Studies have shown that computer and video games provide an easy lead-in to computer literacy, and so those children who are not playing them at young ages are at a disadvantage. Although boys and girls can be equally skilled at using computers and computer games, boys are more likely than girls to choose to play with them, and children of both sexes consider both computers and computer games to be boys' toys. Among secondary-school aged children, boys are at least three times more likely to use a computer at home, participate in computer-related clubs or school activities or attend computer camps. The fact that more boys play computer games lead to more men in the computer-related fields, fields that are growing in scope and importance every day. In 1990, approximately 70 percent of all employed computer specialists were men (Kramer and Lehman 1990). The problem becomes compounded as more and more fields (commerce, science, journalism, law, etc.) are becoming heavily dependent upon computers. Because of this problem there has now been a push to change the nature of the technological playing field through the design of new kinds of computer games and video games.


Why are things changing?

New Market

The game industry has it's own reason for exploring this issue. Approximately 75-80 percent of the sales revenue generated by the $10 billion game industry are derived from male game industry. The widespread success of video games with young boys resulted in almost total market penetration. About 80 percent of American boys play video games on a regular basis. This saturation has occurred at the same time that Sony Playstation, Sega, and Nintendo have entered a phase of heightened competition. A context like this requires some means of expanding the market, of reaching new consumer groups, particularly if all the three major players hope to enjoy continued economic growth rather than stagnation, and this has turned the attention to the long dismissed girl market.

Also, the extraordinary success of Mattel's Barbie Interactive line, called attention to the potential market that could be reached by spanning the gender gap. "Barbie Fashion Designer" sold more than 500,000 copies its first two months, outstripping such industry megaliths as "Doom" and "Quake," and demonstrating that interactive media aimed specifically at girls might have strong market appeal.


Enterprenurial Feminisim

The new focus on creating "girls' markets" also reflects the emergence of what had been called the "entrepreneurial feminism." Between 1975 and 1990, women started businesses at more than twice the rate of men. Many of the companies that have been central to the girl's game movement, such as HerInteractive, GirlGames, Girltech, and Purple Moon, closely parallel this trends-smaller start-up companies that are female-owned and largely female staffed. The founders of these girl game companies fit the profile of female entrepreneurs in other industries-women who had struggles to get their ideas accepted within the male-dominated fields, which they found largely closed to female oriented products. The focus in girl market reflects not only an economic reality but also a political commitment to female empowerment that is consistent with the nontraditional career choices.


Imapact of the Girl Game Movement

As a result of the girl game movement, an increasing number of game designers and producers are women. Many of these women work for female-run enterprise and many make their choices based as much on political commitments as on their economic goal. Most of these women grounded their design and development of girl games upon extensive sociological, psychological, and cognitive research into girls cultural interests and their relationship with digital technologies. Many of the key players in the girls' game movement have written dissertation or books exploring the idea of gender about gender and game design. Also some academic feminists have consulted with the game companies as they have sought to rethink what a feminine (and feminist) approach to digital image might look like.


How to bridge the Gender gap

New Computer games for girls or New Look at the Old Games?

All the women in the industry agree that there are gender gaps in the video game industry, but disagree on how to breach the gap. The first answer presumes the need for girl-only game market (the approach taken by Girl Games and Purple Moon), while the second presupposes the possibility of expanding or broadening the existing game market to include both male and female consumer interests (the approach taken by Sega).

The first group work under the assumption that girls and boys want something fundamentally different from video games, that it is possible to find out what girls want from market research and the best way of responding to this situation is to create girls-only or girl directed media that stand alongside more boy-centered media. They asserted that because the gaming industry defined games based largely on boys interest and play behaviors girls need their own games. Some have argued that in designing girl-only games, these developers or designers ensure that boys will not play with girl-targeted games, once again ghettoizing girls interest as the marked options.

The second group, argues that what is needed to breach the gender gap are not new games genres designed specifically for girls but the successful development of traditional boys' games with stronger female characters. Sega's approach has been to introduce female protagonist into many of its fighting games, giving them strengths and capabilities that are attractive to both male and female characters. They contend that better marketing of existing games genres to female consumers may help to close the gap between male and female players. Video game companies tend to advertise primarily in media space they view as either mixed like MTV, rather than female-targeted publications like Seventeen Magazine. It seem possible that changing the marketing currently available games&emdash;for example by advertising in female targeted space with female models&emdash;may diversify the gaming world without restoring to the friendship adventures.

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last updated 5/15/2000