I was talking to a colleague the other day, and he mentioned “I don’t know any women who play games.”
My first thought was “Really…?” My second thought was “Have you ever asked them?”
I thought that we’d be out of this mindset by now. And fortunately, we’re getting there. But the fact that I’ve heard this twice in the past week shows we’ve still got a way to go.
The assumption that women don’t play video games is a pervasive one, even when studies refute it. In my experience, women are assumed not to play unless they first give some outward indication otherwise. This doesn’t seem to be the case with men. Over the years, at school and at work, I’ve regularly heard men ask other men they’ve recently met if they play games or if they’ve ever played a certain game, but I rarely hear men ask women these questions (or, admittedly, hear women ask other women) unless the women has previously established that she plays video games.
For me, this started sometime around the early 90s, when I was entering middle school. It was the SNES/Genesis era, and game marketing was definitely skewing more male. It was getting harder to find people to talk about games with, especially for a shy kid like me. Occasionally I’d work up the guts to talk about games with my classmates, but I was never really actively invited to join the conversation the way the boys were.
I distinctly remember being in 7th grade and working on a class project with my sister and some male classmates. This was at the height of the Mortal Kombat controversy, and our classmates were talking about the game. At one point, one of them looked at my sister and me and asked, “Have you ever heard of Mortal Kombat?” I’ll give him credit for asking and not leaving us out of the conversation completely, but I remember my sister being pretty offended by the question (because, come on… in 1993/1994 what middle school kid hadn’t heard of Mortal Kombat?). There was nothing malicious about the question, but the way the topic was approached was to assume the boys in the class were familiar with the game and assume the girls were not.
Perhaps part of the problem was that middle school girls were less likely to bring up their gaming habits publicly, as well. I had one friend around that time who I would hang out and watch movies and play video games with, but I didn’t even realize she had an SNES until I saw one sitting in her room while going over to her house one day. She enjoyed playing games just as much as any of my male friends, but never really talked about it in school.
I saw this repeated up through college, as well. In a lot of my college classes, men outnumbered the women in the class. (On more than one occasion, I was the only woman in a given class.) Considering my field of study, games were a common topic of conversation in class, but one that was discussed over and around me, never being invited to join in. I remember one time overhearing some classmates discussing an upcoming game and getting a number of facts wrong until my nerd rage kicked in, and I couldn’t help but go over and correct them. Things changed after that, but I had to take the initiative. And that’s usually how it goes.
When I do start talking to guys (and girls!) about games, they tend to be very receptive to it and happy to talk games with me going forward. And that’s great! But the problem remains that, by default, people tend to assume that men play games and women do not. (Though maybe recently it’s been more like, “men play ‘real’ games and women play Facebook/mobile games.” But that’s another discussion.)
I think that’s part of why, sometime in the early 2000’s, the emergence of the “gamer” identity had some appeal. If you wore a t-shirt with the Konami Code on it, it took some of the guesswork out of who would be most receptive to discussing the finer points of Pikmin or your Unreal Tournament mod. It gave you that instant connection and made socialization a little bit easier. And that goes for both men and women. Honestly, it’s a crutch I still rely on today. I imagine the bulk of my casual wardrobe is probably game-related t-shirts. My cubicle at work could possibly be mistaken for a shrine to Super Mario Bros. And those things work very well as conversation-starters. I’ve talked Zelda with the girl at the register at McDonald’s and geeked out over Koopa Kids with a woman in a business suit who happened to wander past my cube.
But not everyone is going to wear their gaming habits on their sleeve. Let’s face it, the “gamer” stereotype is not doing us any favors right now. A lot of women (and some men, too) play games regularly but don’t want to be judged and associated with the negative connotations of that cultural identity. Some women may be embarrassed to admit that they spend 6 hours after work every night playing World of Warcraft. A woman who exclusively plays Angry Birds may be told that her gaming habits “don’t count,” though you probably wouldn’t hear the same about someone who exclusively plays a 20 year-old copy of Street Fighter II. Some women may play a variety of games regularly but just don’t tie that into their identity in a way that’s obvious simply by looking at them. Some women love to talk about games, but don’t want to invite interrogation by men on a witch hunt for the elusive “Fake Geek Girl.” (Don’t even get me started…)
So, while it seems that, in general, society is becoming more accepting of women who game, people still walk around with the default assumption that “men probably do, women probably don’t” until proven otherwise. But do yourself a favor and invite more women into your gaming discussions. If they’re not interested, that’s fine. Not everyone is going to be. But you might just be surprised.