When I was nine, I stumbled upon a gaming section in a store for the first time. After rummaging through space games and shooter games and building games, I held up The Legend of Zelda to my mother and asked if I could get it for Christmas. “No,” she said. “Girls don’t play videogames.” I asked her why not and she said, “Because videogames are for boys.”
She wasn’t scolding me, or trying to be mean. She had the tone she did when she was explaining fundamental concepts: that water evaporates and turns into rain; that I shouldn’t buy the shoes that were snug because they’d hurt my feet after I’d been walking around in them all day; that my father would always forget something if he went to the supermarket by himself. And so, I put Zelda back on the shelf, and watched a little enviously at school when the boys hovered over their gameboys and talked about Super Mario Bros.
The barrier between femininity and gaming is a cultural construct that’s remained surprisingly strong, even in 2017. When it comes to women, gaming has a terrible reputation. Games themselves have traditionally been populated by women characters with bizarre proportions in barely enough clothing to cover them. Gamergate is one of the first things people talk about when discussing the culture. Women make up the minority of developers because of sexism in the workplace.
At the same time, the old belief of ‘only boys play videogames’ is now patently untrue. In the United States, 48% of the 190 million gamers are women. You’d never know, however, because most don’t talk about it. In the realm of the video game world itself, for those girl gamers who are logging on online, they’re hesitant to open their mouths and identify as female. A Pew Research Study found that while 60% of teenage girls play videogames, less than 10% will speak on a mic in a video game space.*
Even Google has yet to catch up. A search of ‘why women don’t say they play videogames‘ brings up suggested searches: girlfriend hates video games, why do guys play video games all the time, my boyfriend plays video games all the time, why do guys play video games so much, adults who play video games immature, men video games relationships, how to get your boyfriend to stop playing video games.
Furthermore, gaming itself – for men and women – is still stigmatized.
It’s a shame. Gaming as an industry has flourished, and games themselves can run the gamut from battlefields to massive open worlds to rebuilding ancient civilizations to time traveling through meticulously reconstructed historical eras. Games can showcase incredible achievements in imagination, design and storytelling.
In moderate doses, games have been proven to be beneficial. They decrease stress and can sometimes soothe anxiety and depression; they’ve been shown to increase resilience; they’re an easy gateway to communities with similar interests, and they even increase executive function. Gaming should never replace exercise, work or socializing, but it undoubtedly has value for building a community, or simply as an escape.
Gamers are programmers, students, engineers, politicians, doctors, lawyers and journalists – men and women. For all those who support gamergate, there are other communities thrilled to embrace women. Even video games themselves are adapting to a more women-powered world; just look at the original Lara Croft vs the newest Lara Croft for proof.
Girls – it’s okay to come out of the videogame closet. (And when you do, look up my gamertag. I hear Destiny‘s multiplayer is great.)