Women in the world of gaming: dispelling the myths

We interviewed a few female gamers from across the Middle East and Africa about dispelling some of these myths that exist in the gaming industry.

Women in the world of gaming.
Read time 10min 20sec
Women in the world of gaming.

Picture a typical video gamer. Are you thinking of someone wearing jeans and sneakers, donning a set of the latest, high-quality earphones and proudly sporting a game-branded t-shirt? Now, be honest: when you conjured up this image, did you picture a guy?

If you did, you're not alone. Because despite the gender ratio in gaming becoming more equal in recent years, there remains the lingering stereotype that gaming is a 'guy-thing'.

And, although more women are playing games all over the world, female representation in the industry that creates these games is also a problem. In fact, according to the International Game Developers Association, while the number of female game developers has doubled since 2009, there is still significant male dominance in the field.

The birth of the 'guy gamer' stereotype

The roots of the 'guy gamer' stereotype date back to the 1970s, when video games first began gaining popularity. The original games released by the industry were actually family-friendly games, and were marketed to a broad audience comprising both children and adults, and not only boys.

The industry then fell on tough times and marketers adopted a different approach to combat the slump. They focused their smaller budgets on a more targeted group, boys. While this isn't the only reason for the perceived gender gap in gaming, this development contributed to the world of gaming becoming far more attractive to boys and young men than it was to young girls or women.

New data changes minds

According to the Entertainment Software Association, there is an almost equal proportion of males and females participating in the world of gaming, almost evenly split, but not evenly distributed. These figures include mobile, free-to-play, social and role-playing games. But, when it comes to console games, female representation remains low. Arguably, this is because many of the games associated with consoles are created for, and marketed towards, males.

Journalist and gamer, Anna-Michelle Lavandier, adds that while many girls may play video games, some are embarrassed about identifying as a gamer. For example, 48% of women in the United States report playing video games, but only 6% identify as gamers, compared to 15% of men who identify as gamers. Connotations of sexism in gaming culture as well as overtly masculine marketing have caused women to be less willing to adopt the label.

The challenge (and the opportunity) for the multimillion-dollar gaming industry now is to create new genres of games with fresh titles that also appeal to women. This requires a holistic approach that includes addressing the problems of gendered advertising, social stereotyping, as well as the lack of female video game creators, including coders, developers, producers and animators. Balancing the gender divide on the staffing side will undoubtedly lead to better, more diverse titles with broader appeal, and curb the tendency towards stereotyping characters.

Gaming for life

Gaming plays an important role in teaching young people relevant 21st century skills to thrive in a world increasingly dominated by technology. Minecraft, for example, is being used in classrooms globally to teach students coding skills which, in turn, teaches them skills like critical and computational thinking.

There is also a significant gender disparity in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields globally, with only 16% of female students graduating from STEM subjects, according to the World Economic Forum. Yet, in many countries in the Middle East, for example, girls often outperform boys academically in STEM subjects.

It's also predicted that by 2020, 80% of all future jobs will require STEM education. Companies in region are already grappling with a lack of skilled employees, and over the next decade this STEM skills shortage will grow. Increasing female participation in STEM helps bridge this gap, which enables businesses to access a treasure trove of untapped potential, and boost the region's workforce equality in the process.

Gaming is one of the ways to get more women interested in STEM. For example, Minecraft: Education Edition combines gaming with learning to code. The game gives students in more than 100 countries the opportunity to experience the world of gaming, while exposing them to coding for the first time.

As with STEM education, there are multiple factors which influence women's participation, achievement, and progression in gaming; one of these is the existence of gender-based stereotypes.

We interviewed a few female gamers from across the Middle East and Africa who are making a name for themselves in the gaming industry to find out what stereotypes exist and how we can overcome some of these myths and misconceptions. One of these gamers is Sam Wright, the brainchild behind an event that is bringing female gamers together for a night of gaming to smash gender stereotypes. Wright's ultimate goal is to encourage more women to compete as professionals in the global gaming scene.

Myth 1: Gamers are overweight, lazy men

"Just because you are female doesn't mean you can't enjoy games the same way guys do," she says. "I used to be terrified of playing in public because I didn't want people to say I played 'like a girl'. I realised other women might feel the same way and I wanted to put it out there that it didn't matter and we can have fun regardless."

To Wright, gaming is about having fun. "It brings about a host of emotions from joy, happiness and giggles, to giant rages when I can't finish a level. Everyone should try it, not only for the fun aspect, but also because of the skills it teaches you, like keeping a cool head under pressure, remaining focused and even social skills."

Myth 2: Female characters are damsels in distress

Growing up, actress Alicia Vikander, star of the new Tomb Raider movie, was a fan of the original game. In an interview with ValueMagazine.com, she says, "As a young girl, I didn't have any video games, so I was always very excited to go to our friends' houses who did. I remember when they played Lara Croft, what struck me was that I hadn't seen a girl being the lead character in a game before. She was not only a woman, but she was extremely fierce, determined and capable, and that really drew me to her."

Now playing the character on-screen, Vikander says: "For me, she's like the superheroes and action heroes we love; by seeing their journey to become the 'super' versions of themselves, we get to feel close to them and get to understand them, emotionally."

For South African gaming thought leader, Pippa Tshabalala, most often female characters are always cast as the "damsel in distress", which shows the gender bias in gaming.

"I don't believe women are adequately represented in the world of gaming, but it's something that is changing, from more strong female protagonists, to more women becoming involved in game development, and more women joining the gaming community as players," she says.

Tshabalala encourages other women to try gaming for themselves. She highlights problem-solving, fine motor co-ordination, strategy and planning, creativity, and good communication as some of the key skills she believes anyone can learn through gaming. Skills that are essential to flourish in the modern world of work.

"You might be surprised by how much it changes the way you think," she says.

Myth 3: "Girl gamers" are different to regular gamers

Lynn Jisr, head of Arabic editorial at IGN Middle East, doesn't believe the term "girl gamer" is empowering enough. She believes it implies that a woman who plays video games is something other than just a "gamer" - and this stereotype perpetuates gender inequality.

"Everyone has a responsibility to speak up against gender inequality," she says. "As stereotypes become less prevalent, there is more opportunity for women to become active members in online gaming communities. Furthermore, video game companies are taking note of the huge segment of their market that they have been neglecting or misrepresenting up to this point."

As a result, Jisr believes gender stereotypes in the world of gaming are beginning to be phased out.

"The main stereotypes I still encounter is that women are only gaming for attention, and that only specific games appeal to them," she adds. She points out how ludicrous this is by explaining what can be learned from different kinds of games.

"Puzzle games are great for developing lateral thinking and problem-solving skills. Platforming games are excellent for gaining faster reflexes. Co-operative games foster teamwork. Strategy games encourage tactical thinking and planning. All of these are useful life skills beyond the world of gaming, whether you're male or female," she says.

Myth 4: A gamer is a geek

Probably the most common perception of gamers, and one that may put many would-be female gamers off, is that you must be a geek to be a good gamer.

But for pharmacist, Lana Mojoyinola, gaming is about escapism and entertainment after a long day at work. "The word geek means nothing to me," she says. "I have hobbies just like everyone else. I enjoy games just as much as I enjoy street racing or arm wrestling. It's a fascinating hobby."

YouTuber Kristina Pavlovsky agrees: "I enjoy gaming because this is my place to have fun, to make funny videos and to play with my friends," she explains. "I've also improved my English as a result of gaming."

Like Mojoyinola, Pavlovsky also enjoys working out at the gym and playing basketball and soccer, busting the stereotypes that gamers are 'geeky', anti-social or lazy.

Empowering women to create what they want to see

With strong female gamers like these in the Middle East and Africa, it's little wonder that some companies are exclusively targeting women in the region. For example, Yalla! Games Caf'e, a tournament Web site for skills-based games, launched in 2010 in the MENA region, marketed specifically to Saudi women.

Yet, developing games that speak to the female market is tricky when most developers are male. Tshabalala notes game development has long had the stigma of mostly male developers creating overly sexualised female characters.

That's why Saudi prince Fahad Al Saud's company, Na3m Games, has made it its mission to advocate for equality through technology by launching a gaming platform that champions and fosters the empowerment of women and girls. Among other things, more than a third of the company's staff are women.

In South Africa, GirlCode is also working hard to achieve better representation in the tech industry by creating a network of women who are highly skilled in computer literacy, coding and design.

Information systems student and GirlCode Hackathon winner, Valerie Tshiani, is used to being faced with gender stereotypes, including that girls can't be coders because they lack the ability to focus on one thing at a time. She is determined to change this perception.

"It always amazed me that someone could create a computer program that makes it feel like you are interacting with another human being," she says. "I've now realised that part of being able to do that stems from traits that are often associated for being more female, like the ability to empathise, nurture, or intuit."

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