Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Men, Women, and Gaming: Part 1

There’s been an influx of discussion on the subject of how women and men interact in gaming communities. A handful of people have asked me if I’m going to write something on the subject, or asked why I haven’t written on the topic yet. The answer is simple: because the topic isn’t simple. There as many experiences and perspectives involved as there are people, and any over-generalization or catch-all piece of advice will fail to capture the whole picture.

The thing is, I have tried to write on this subject dozens of times, and each time has ended in my dissatisfaction. But it seems like the best time to talk about it, with so many people writing and discussing the subject. I’d like to throw my two cents into the mix, and with any luck, it will be helpful in moving towards our goals.

What are the goals? Right now, there’s a divide between many male and female perspectives. So our goals are:

--Increase understanding of other people’s circumstances, so we can act with more empathy.
--Increase understanding of our own motives so we can adjust our behaviors to improve our own interactions.
--Create a more welcoming and unified community.
--Be happy forever.

Okay, maybe the last point is a bit overambitious. One can dream.

What are the issues preventing us from reaching those goals? There are a lot of factors creating the landscape that currently exists. Some of them are general human tendencies that affect how people respond to their experiences. Some of them are a bit more specialized to whether you are male or female. Like I said, there are a lot, which means talking about the subject--at least, for me--will take awhile. So I’m going to split this in multiple smaller posts, to keep things better organized.

This post is introductory. I’m going to describe the main issues and points that I think are creating the current landscape. The next post will describe, more fully, why these issues and points are doing so. The third post will be where I talk about ways men and women can change how they view and respond to one another, so we all act with more empathy and positivity, and improve the gaming community overall.

Maybe it will help? Maybe it won’t. Regardless, this is my take.

There are a group of main factors that are shaping some (most? many? all?) of the interactions between men and women in the gaming community. Some of them are a bit specific to gaming, some are more general to people. I think all are applicable.

(disclaimer: I’m American. If I refer to “culture” or “society,” it refers to my experience specifically with American culture and society, specifically in the time-frame that I have been alive, and the places I’ve lived and visited)

Male Introversion's Dominance In Gaming

According to Susain Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” if there are more male introverts than women, the number is small enough to be statistically negligible. But my own observation is that introverted behaviors are less discouraged among boys than among girls. I think this is based on a skewed attitude towards the worth of men and women (at least in American culture).

Female value is measured more socially, and male value tends to be measured more in terms of production and action. Female value is tied heavily to appearance, to personality, and social behaviors and statuses, while male behaviors are often judged relative to their outputs and abilities. When males obsessively pursue hobbies in isolation, they are encouraged, or less frequently discouraged, more than women are. Why? Because it’s interpreted as a significantly larger character flaw to be an isolated person when judging somebody socially. If you judge somebody based on output, however, it’s easier to disregard their personality and look at things like grades, work, and performance.

What is my basis for this? Well, it’s really just an impression I get based on the people I meet. For the male part, most of the guys I knew that were extremely into video games had solid grades in high-school. My parents would only criticize my gaming habits when my grades dropped, and I played a lot of video games in high-school. My main socialization came from friends that liked games. But even when I spent a lot of time alone, if my grades were solid and my behavior acceptable, my parents wouldn’t mind.

It’s based also based on the significantly higher number of (obvious) introverts among men that I observed growing up compared to women. Even the quieter girls were always part of social activities. Even outside of gaming, I notice that the females tend to be more talkative and socially oriented.

Furthermore, I base this on the fact that the sudden, heavy introduction of the female demographic has dovetailed neatly with the merging of social media and devices with games. The ability to play online, network with friends, and socially integrate games corresponds well with the drastic increase in female numbers and--not surprisingly--an increase in the female voice wanting a more inclusive and respectful environment.

In short, the larger influx of women into the hobby of gaming is heavily tied to the social element. Yet the fact that women have always been part of gaming regardless (despite discouragement), implies to me that the root is not strictly biological. I also base this on the fact that it's more encouraged for women to pursue introverted, solo activities like practicing musical instruments, creating art, or studying; those are significantly more acceptable on average (particularly for women) than gaming.

Historical Isolation of Gaming

Gaming has, until recently, demanded certain things. You must spend a lot of money on the gaming platform, and then a lot of money to purchase individual games. Then you have to spend a lot of time on games, usually by yourself. The oldest games were grindfests for memorizing levels and developing skills to beat them. Whether shooting for high-scores or having to replay the whole game just for dying, a difficult game demanded a lot of your time. It was time you had to be willing to spend by yourself for hours to make good on your investment.

That’s time you don’t spend socializing. Maybe you would play with a brother or friend. But it would usually take somebody more willing to spend time alone, working for hours on the same game by themselves to make the most of a gaming investment. For that, you will probably find more introverts (this is also why there exists a hardcore vs. casual debate among gamers, depending on where you look). This tendency expanded with the development of longer and more complex games thanks to improved hardware and technology.

Furthermore, the ability to integrate gaming with socialization was very limited, since it involved setting up numerous TVs and consoles, or PCs and monitors for a LAN party. You had to go to great lengths to set up connections and play with other people, and you typically needed some technical knowledge. It has taken years, but with the increased ease of access, we see more social people catching up with the gaming hobby. But I think those also contribute to reasons why the original demographic was, primarily, the introverted male.

Gaming Stigmatization

Historically, it has not been okay to be a gamer. It’s weird. It’s a hobby you don’t talk about very much, else you get associated with the guy who sits in his mother’s basement and never gets a job. As mentioned, ease of access to video games is changing that. Facebook games, phone games, cheaper mobile games with touch screens that increase intuitive use, these make it easier and easier to just sit down and play for a bit, then walk away.

But we still have a bit of a stigma against people who like games a bit too much. Socially we tend to stigmatize obsessive behavior towards anything, but gaming gets one in particular. Probably for reasons mentioned above (it was, historically, hard to be a gamer and not be obsessed, or else you were wasting money). Numerous stereotypes are still associated with the typical gaming nerd. They smell bad, they’re fat or rail-thin, they wear glasses, they breathe through their mouth, they are virgins, they live in the basement of a disappointed mother, and did I mention that they smell bad? Also they’re creepy and awkward and weird. Ew.

Some of the stereotypes have some basis in fact (why else would some tournaments enforce a rule where you have to present deodorant at the door to get in?), and generally the time you spend sitting down and playing video games is not time spent meeting people or exercising. But, like all stereotypes, they aren’t perfectly accurate true. With more people adding “gaming” to their list of hobbies, the stereotypes are even fading. But they still exist.

I (and lots of other people I know) have developed a habit of avoiding mentioning a love of gaming. I think the phrase is called “hiding your power level.” We know how some people will perceive it, particularly if you’re older and “too” into it. We play it cool, test the waters, and don’t let people know too much, because we’re worried about how it will look. There’s a bit of shame involved in the hobby. And any time there is shame and hiding about something, when it finds an outlet, behavior towards it becomes more extreme, usually correlating to the level of shame.

This stigma is also, historically, why you might not want to associate with gamers. People often will stay away from things they might enjoy because of their perception of the fanbase. So however true or false these stereotypes are, they are kind of discouraging.

But let’s move beyond just gaming. Let’s talk about general, psychological tendencies.

Rarity Value

The more rare and novel something is, the more it tends to stand out in our heads. When gaming communities have a very small number of females, the female presence will be commented on and noted. A female’s primary distinguishing characteristic will be the fact that she is female. Hence why if you describe somebody as a “gamer,” it’s assumed they are male, and females are described as “girl gamers,” to avoid confusion.

If we’re trying to move towards a situation where your gender is a non-issue when evaluating your abilities or personality (i.e., who you actually are as a person), then this doesn’t make sense. But it’s a basic fact that any characteristic (and it doesn’t need to be your gender) will more heavily identify you the less common it is. If you are the only person in a group with blazing orange hair, then you will be heavily identified by that trait. If you are the only main of a particular character in a fighting game community, you will be identified by the character you play. The rarer the quality, the more dramatic the effect, and the more attention paid to the quality (and the person possessing it).

Having a rare trait makes you special to others, makes you stand out more, and it frequently dwarfs other attributes you possess. This is very useful in marketing and getting people’s attention; less so for being recognized as a three-dimensional person.

Generalizing From Specifics

It is a fundamental function of the human brain to search for patterns and create rules that guide our behaviors. But what happens when you have limited experience, and try to create rules and patterns from that limited data? You end up with faulty theories and hypotheses. You can generate a line using two points on a graph, but you have no idea if the relationship is real.

If I flip a coin twice, and it comes up heads twice, do you assume that the coin is rigged? If you ask ten kids on a college campus whether they prefer pizza or spaghetti and seven of them say spaghetti, do you confidently assert that seventy percent of college students prefer spaghetti to pizza? No. Because when you compare the sheer number of possibilities and individuals out there, a tiny sample size does not help you figure out rules.

But we generalize from our limited experience because our experience matters most to us. It’s ours, and we can’t use data we don’t have. Unless we stop and think critically about it, and go out of our way to seek lots of data points, we will tend to generalize from our very limited pools of individual experience. A woman with two bad dates in a row could decide that all men are creeps or deadbeats. Playing a video game and getting two misses in a row with a 95% chance to hit, you might assume the RNG is busted. People do it all the time, and we do so automatically.

Particularly if an occurrence happens to be rare; see above.

Confirmation Bias

If you have a bad experience, and then you talk to somebody else who had a similar one, you will start to think that this bad experience happens all the time. Then you will develop your own theory, and start looking for information that reinforces what we currently believe.

If you combine that with the first two, you will have novel experiences that stand out in your head, then you will make rules based on those rare experiences, and confirm them using people who agree. At this point, most people become very difficult to persuade that the reality is different, even when you give them absurd quantities of data to the contrary.

If you have a hunch about something, the scientifically intelligent and valid thing to do is look for instances where your theory or idea wouldn’t be true. You try and shoot yourself in the foot, and if you miss, you win. But most of us try to prove ourselves right. And if you ask people specifically to share stories proving you right, you will find them, and skew your opinions further.

Debate Polarization

This is something that I see happen when two sides argue.

There won’t actually be two sides to the issue. Not initially. There will be a large variety of viewpoints and ideas floating around. But somebody with an extreme viewpoint will become highly vocal. This will typically encourage some people to agree with them while also provoking an extremist on the other end to reply. It’s a typical trend that the more extreme you are, the more passionately you feel; the more passionately you feel, the louder you tend to speak. And the loudest voice is the one that gets the most representation, regardless of numbers or credibility.

At this point, people start picking which extreme they hate less, even as they privately disagree with it, because a war of association begins; if crazy group A hates crazy group B, and you disagree with the radical views of group B, then that must increase the likelihood you support crazy group A! So now, in the minds of rational people who don’t even like crazy group B, you are crazy too. And soon you assume they are extremists as well, because they are responding to you just like the B extremists would.

It will now be assumed that, no matter what viewpoint you actually hold, you must hold extreme viewpoints. Debates and discussions now grind to a halt, because it is believed that there is no middle ground. If progress is made, an extremist (or maybe internet troll) usually worms their way in and destroys that progress. Strawmen are erected and brutally torn down. Rational people, at this point, hang their heads and cry. Quietly, because they're pretty sure nobody is listening anyway.

It is never so simple as just two sides. But when you see people start throwing generalizations around at their imaginary opposition? That’s what has happened. The debate has polarized inside their minds, and discourse becomes difficult. This also happens more easily and frequently when we have something that automatically categorizes people, like gender.

The end result: you become highly suspicious of somebody criticizing or debating against either side (even though the two sides aren’t actually popular, and you might not even agree with them), because you suspect the criticizer is an extremist trying to ruin everything. And over time, this polarization process can even encourage people to adopt the extreme viewpoints they never held to begin with.

* * *

Okay. I threw a lot of stuff out there, and it might not be obvious how it all ties together. That’s what I’m going to start talking about Friday: how these attributes and these common human tendencies merge and have established many of the issues we’re facing now.

Thanks for reading. I’ll see you Friday.


  1. If I approve is it to extreme of a viewpoint? Wait, but what if I disapprove...

  2. Gaming is the platform through which you should not discriminate among the people. I think game is played for the fun and sometimes the games are the career also. So, one should play the different games like the trivia buzzers, bingo games, music bingo.