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Why have video games always been seen as boys toys?

Dr Rebecca Davnall

Lecturer in Game Design Studies, University of Liverpool

‘Everybody knows’ that video games are for boys – but as with anything that everybody knows, it’s important to look at how this idea took root, and why.

Video games are technology, which places them in the male-dominated domain of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The belief that men are naturally better at mathematics is still common. Combined with the perception that technology and software engineering stand on a foundation of maths, it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that women have no place in games.

What everybody doesn’t know in technology

Every link in this chain of reasoning is wrong. Women aren’t naturally worse at maths; historical gender score gaps on tests of mathematics and spatial reasoning can be explained exclusively by social factors. Psychologists call this ‘stereotype threat’: the anxiety caused by awareness of a negative stereotype about a demographic one belongs to that can hurt concentration, working memory and a host of other capacities which are essential for test performance. One 2008 study by Tuulia Ortner and Monika Sieverding at the University of Berlin found that stereotype threat could cut women’s spatial reasoning scores by a full 20%.

Nor are women ignorant of or uninterested in technology. We often ignore female focused technology. Fantastically complicated devices include sewing machines. Even still, you won’t see new-model Singers promoted on the front page of TechRadar or Wired. The intricate soft-materials engineering that goes into a red carpet or catwalk dress never gets counted as ‘technology’. Instead, we label this stuff as ‘arts and crafts’.

This is particularly frustrating when it comes to video games. Programming might be mostly maths but it has relatively little to do with what sells games. Games hide their code; you never see a list of programming languages on the back of a game box. Programming glitches may well show up negative in a review. But no game reviewer ever gave a game five stars for programming alone. It’s the ‘arts and crafts’ stuff that makes all the difference: art styles, narrative design, and atmosphere.

Creating the Gamer Boy

So, why is it so obvious to so many people that video games are for boys? The answer lies in marketing decisions made in the 80s and early 90s. By the time I was begging my parents to buy me a Nintendo 64, everyone on my school playground saw it as a boy’s thing. There were never explanations for why. A century of marketing science, though, means that marketers rarely do anything without good reason.

The gendering of products is a lynchpin of contemporary marketing. Gender is part of your identity, one of the first frameworks that’s imposed on you after you’re born. Associating a product with an identity transforms buying it into an act of self-affirmation, fostering a strong sense of brand loyalty in gamers. This is where ‘console wars’ come from, when gamers identify themselves not just with games in general but with one particular platform or company.

It’s also the root of the hostility to ‘girl gamers’. If girls can like games, the instinct goes, then games can’t be essentially linked with masculine identity. The long-running culture war waged against any woman in game development, journalism and esports is a direct product of this crisis of identity. It’s not enough, then, for us to celebrate those women who do manage to build careers in this hostile space. Three or four decades of marketing habits needs to be turned on their head.

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