Women and video games

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For depictions of men and women in video games, see Gender representation in video games.
Japanese women playing an arcade game in 2006

The relationship between women and video games has received extensive academic, corporate, and social attention. Since the 1990s,[1] female gamers have commonly been regarded as a minority, but industry surveys have shown that in time the gender ratio has become closer to equal and since the 2010s females have been found to make up about half of all gamers. Sexism in video gaming, including sexual harassment and the underrepresentation of women as characters in games, is an increasing topic of discussion in video game culture.

Advocates for increasing the number of female gamers stress the problems attending disenfranchisement of females from one of the fastest-growing cultural realms as well as the largely untapped nature of the female gamer market. Efforts to include greater female participation in the medium have addressed the problems of gendered advertising, social stereotyping, and the lack of female video game creators (coders, developers, producers, etc.). The term "girl gamer" has been used as a reappropriated term for female players to describe themselves, but it has also been criticized as counterproductive or offensive.

Demographics of female players[edit]

From the earliest years of demographic data collection targeting female gamers, females have represented a minority of gamers. Having tracked these industry figures for decades, some reporting groups now show the ratio of female to male gamers to be growing closer and closer to the ratio of females to males in the population at large. In 2008, a Pew Internet & American Life Project study found that among teens, 65% of males and 35% of females describe themselves as daily gamers. This trend was found to be stronger the younger the age group.[2] The study found that while adult men are significantly more likely to play console games than adult women, for all other platforms men and women were statistically equally likely to play.[3] However, in 2015 another Pew study found that more American women (42%) than men (37%) owned video game consoles.[4]

In 2013, Variety reported that seventy percent of females between 12 and 24 years of age played games.[5] The same article stated that sixty-one percent of females between 45 and 64 years of age played games, while only 57% of males in the same age group played games.[5] In 2013, Nintendo claimed that 50% of its users were female.[6] A study by the Entertainment Software Association found the proportion of players in the United States who are female increased from 40% in 2010 to 48% in 2014.[7][8] In August 2014, UKIE published the results of a survey indicating that 45% of UK gamers are female.[9]

Data collection[edit]

In North America, national demographic surveys have been conducted yearly by the U.S. Entertainment Software Association (ESA)[a] since at least 1997, and the Canadian Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC) since 2006. Other organizations including the Australian/New-Zealander Interactive Games & Entertainment Association (IGEA) since 2005 collect and publish demographic data on their constituent populations on a semi-regular basis. In Europe, the regional Interactive Software Federation of Europe (ISFE) and numerous smaller national groups like the Belgian Entertainment Association (BEA), the Nederlandse Vereniging van Producenten en Importeurs van beeld- en geluidsdragers (NVPI), and the Association for UK Interactive Entertainment (UKIE) have also begun to collect data on female video gamers since 2012. One-off market research studies and culture surveys have been produced by a wide variety of other sources including some segments of the gaming press and other culture writers since the 1980s as well.

Not only has the general female gaming population been tracked, but the spread of this population has been tracked over many facets of gaming. For more than 10 years, groups like the ESA and ESAC have gathered data on the gender of video game purchasers, the percentage of women gamers within certain age brackets, and the average number of years women gamers have been gaming. The ESAC in particular has gone into great depth reporting age-related segmentation of the market between both male and female gamers. Other statistics have been collected from time to time on a wide variety of facets influencing the video game market.

Survey data[edit]

IDSA/ESA-reported USA female to male gamer ratios per platform
(Note: Y-axis corresponds to the percentage of women gamers.)
ESAC-reported Canadian female to male gamer ratios
(Note: Y-axis corresponds to the percentage of women gamers.)
  Video gaming (comprises PC and Console gaming)[29][30][31][32][33][34][35][36][37]
International gamer gender ratios for 2012
Region/Country Study Ratio
(female to male)
Australia IGEA[38] 47 : 53
Canada ESAC[35] 46 : 54
China 17173[39] 27 : 73
Japan 17173[39] 66 : 34
Korea 17173[39] 37 : 63
New Zealand IGEA[40] 46: 54
USA ESA[19] 47 : 53
Europe ISFE[41] 45 : 55
Austria ISFE[41] 44 : 56
Belgium ISFE[41] 46 : 54
Czech Republic ISFE[41] 44 : 56
Denmark ISFE[41] 42 : 58
Finland ISFE[41] 49 : 51
France ISFE[41] 47 : 53
Germany ISFE[41] 44 : 56
Great Britain ISFE[41] 46 : 54
Italy ISFE[41] 48 : 52
Netherlands ISFE[41] 46 : 54
Norway ISFE[41] 46 : 54
Poland ISFE[41] 44 : 56
Portugal ISFE[41] 43 : 57
Spain ISFE[41] 44 : 56
Sweden ISFE[41] 47 : 53
Switzerland ISFE[41] 44 : 56

Historical prevalence[edit]

  • In May 1982, sociologist Sidney J. Kaplan reported the composition of arcade video game players to be roughly 80% male and 20% female.[42]
  • In 1983, researcher John W. Trinkaus published findings that there were 8 male players to every 3 female players in video game arcades.[43][44]
  • In 1988, Playthings reported that among primary video game users, females represented 21% of all gamers.[45]
  • In 1988, a study by Nintendo reported that 27% of NES players in the United States were female.[46]
  • A 1993 self-reported survey by Computer Gaming World found that 7% of its readers were female.[47]
  • In 1994, a survey by Electronic Games reported that, among American women gamers, the Sega Genesis was most popular, with 75% ownership, followed by the SNES with 58.3% ownership, the Game Boy with 58%, and MS-DOS with 50%.[48]

Self-identification as gamers[edit]

"Girl gamers" or "gamer girls" is a label for women who regularly play games. While some critics have advocated use of the label as a reappropriated term,[49] others have described the term as unhelpful,[50][51] offensive, and even harmful or misleading. The word "girl", for example, has been seen as an inherently age-linked term that glosses over the difference between women over 30 and younger women.[52] The term "girl gamer" rather than simply "gamer" has also been described as perpetuating the minority position of female gamers.[49] For many critics uncomfortable with the term "girl gamer", its over-embracement may lead to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes[49] of female gamers as oversexualized, casual, and sometimes defiant or confrontational.[53][54] This in turn can result in poor game design.[52] These critics submit that there is no single definition of a female gamer, and that women gamers are as diverse as any other group of people.[55]

A lack of role models for female gamers[56] contributes to a feeling that they should edit their femininity in order to maintain credibility as a gamer, and that they must fit into the caricatured role of the "girl gamer" in order to be accepted.[49] Negative stereotyping of female video game players as "girl gamers" quite often comes from male gamers who have themselves been negatively stereotyped by the broader society.[49] Social stigma against games has influenced some women to distance themselves from the term "gamer", even though they may play regularly.[57][58][59][60] Parental influence has been theorized to perpetuate some of the stereotypes that female gamers face as boys are bought gifts like Xboxes while girls are bought girl-focused games like Barbie or educational games.[57]

Controversially, some critics have suggested that the term "gamer" is endemic to the stereotypical male audience and has become outmoded by the industry's changing demographics.[60][61] Half of female PC gamers in the United States consider themselves to be core or hardcore gamers.[62][63]

Genre preferences[edit]

While male audiences prefer fast-paced explosive action and combat,[51] women tend to prefer in-game communication[52] and interpersonal relationships (character development and plot dynamics).[51] Women have also been shown to prefer role-playing video games to first-person shooters,[51] and Thomas W. Malone of Stanford University found that girls preferred to play a Hangman video game over a darts simulation that boys enjoyed.[64] In 2012 EEDAR published a survey they had conducted showing that nearly 60 percent of female gamers played on mobile devices and that 63 percent of these female mobile gamers played online multiplayer mobile games.[65] In-game activities may also differ between the sexes in games with less linear plots such as the Grand Theft Auto series. Women are often characterized as preferring story-driven games or constructive games like The Sims or Civilization, but this is not universally true.[55] In 2013, Variety reported that thirty percent of women were playing more violent games.[5] Of this 30%, 20% played Call of Duty and 15% played Grand Theft Auto.[5] There has been persistent female interest in action-adventure games and MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Second Life.[52] Compared to males, female MMO players tend to place more emphasis on socialization relative to achievement-oriented play. Most females play video games when a male is present. Typically playing with the other gender can be viewed as a partnership for both players and can improve their online communication with one another.[66]

While video games and advertising were initially quite gender-neutral, advertising began to narrow its focus to young boys as a target market following the video game crash of 1983.[1][58][67] Although commercial hits such as Myst and The Sims appealed to women, these were nonetheless seen by some as being outside the gaming mainstream. Critic Ian Bogost opined, "We're looking at where there isn't diversity and we're saying those games are the most valid games."[1] Industry studies on the lack of females in gaming have also suffered at times from biases of interpretation. Kevin Kelly of Joystiq has suggested that a high degree of circular reasoning is evident when male developers use focus groups and research numbers to determine what kinds of games girls play. After making a bad game that targets those areas suggested by the marketing research, the game's lack of popularity among both genders is often attributed to the incorrect prejudice that "girls don't play games" rather than the true underlying problems such as poor quality and playability of the game. Whereas market data and research are important to reveal that markets exist, argues Kelly, they shouldn't be the guiding factor in how to make a game that appeals to girls.[55] The argument has also been advanced that emphasis on market research is often skewed by the participants in the study. In studies on male gamers of the baby boomer generation, for example, players displayed a marked aversion to violence. The incorrect conclusion that could be drawn from this result—that men dislike violent games—may also be comparable to incorrect conclusions drawn from some female-oriented gaming studies.[52] It has been suggested that developers can learn what girls want in a game by observing similarities in how different girl teams will react to and modify a game if given the opportunity.[52]

In the past, "girl games" have frequently been created by adapting girl-oriented material in other media like The Baby-sitters Club, Barbie, and Nancy Drew[56] while leaving male-targeted genres such as sport and driving sims, role playing games, and first person shooters to the boys.[68] This has begun to change, however, with the expansion of entrepreneurial feminism and the concept of "games by girls for girls" that has been embraced by companies such as Her Interactive, Silicon Sisters and Purple Moon—all video gaming start ups that are female owned and largely female staffed. Creating games designed with regard to sociological, psychological, and cognitive research into girls' cultural interests, such companies hope to awaken a female-only market emphasizing fundamental differences between what girls want and what boys want in gaming.[69] The movement to expand the existing market to include females through the development of gender-neutral games has also had a number of advocates. Critics have proposed that female gamers, especially older female gamers[51] prefer gender-neutral games such as Tetris, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, or the King's Quest games to "girl games".[56][68]

In examining game play habits at Internet cafés, South Korea has seen a rise in female gamers publicly playing games such as Lineage, while in other Asian countries this kind of public female gaming has remained rare; similarly, games such as Tamagotchi are seen as a gender neutral in Japan, but have been regarded as girls' games in the West.[52] In other cases, female trends in one country may be indicators of associated changes in others, as in the case of a rising number of female Lineage players in Korea having led to increased number of female Lineage players in Taiwan. In Japan the rise of cute culture and its associated marketing has made gaming accessible for girls, and this trend has also carried over to Taiwan and recently China (both countries previously having focused mostly on MMOs and where parents usually place harsher restrictions on daughters than on sons).[52]

Skill levels[edit]

An aspect of game design that has been identified as negatively impacting female interest is the degree of expertise with gaming conventions and familiarity with game controls required to play the game.[57] In-game tutorials have been found to bring both sexes into games faster,[55] and new controllers such as Nintendo's Wii Remote, Microsoft's Kinect, and the various rhythm game controllers have affected demographics by making games easier to pick up and by providing a level playing-field.[57] This trend has continued through the efforts of Nintendo in its release of the Wii.[70] Leigh Alexander argued that appealing to women does not necessarily entail reduced difficulty or complexity.[71] In 2012, the developers of Borderlands 2 were criticized for referring to a reduced difficulty option as "girlfriend mode".[72]

Disparagement of female gamers[edit]

A 2015 study found that lower-skilled male players of Halo 3 were more hostile towards teammates with a female voice, but behaved more submissively to players with a male voice. Higher-skilled male players, on the other hand, behaved more positively towards female players. The authors argued that this helps explain male hostility towards female gamers in terms of evolutionary psychology, in that "female-initiated disruption of a male hierarchy incites hostile behaviour from poor performing males who stand to lose the most status".[73]

Women in competitive gaming[edit]

The top female players in competitive gaming mainly get exposure in female-only tournaments, including such games as Counter-Strike, Dead or Alive 4, and StarCraft II.[74] Canadian StarCraft II player Sasha Hostyn (Scarlett) first gained notoriety in the open qualifiers of IGN ProLeague 4, where she defeated top-tier Korean players.[75] She is well known for being one of the few non-Korean players who can play at the same skill level as male Korean players.[76]

In 2012, Street Fighter x Tekken player ArisBakhtanians commented on the lack of female players in the community, saying "sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it's not the fighting game community."[77] He later apologized for his comments.[78]

In 2014, organizers for a Hearthstone tournament in Finland were criticized for limiting registrations to male players only.[79] This was due to the tournament being an offline qualifier for the IeSF World Championship, with its Hearthstone tournament only open to male players. The winner of the Finnish qualifier would risk not being eligible to participate in the main event if that player were female.[80] The IeSF organization ultimately removed the male-only restriction from all of their tournaments, and in turn the Finnish qualifier that originally sparked the controversy also removed this restriction.[81]

Women in the games industry[edit]

In 1989, according to Variety, women constituted only 3% of the gaming industry.[5] In 2013, Gary Carr (the creative director of Lionhead Studios) predicted that within the next 5 to 10 years, the games development workforce would be 50% female.[5] Despite the increasing number of women in the gaming industry, as of 2013, females in the industry receive an average of 27% less income than their male counterparts.[5]

Notable women in the video game industry[edit]

  • Carol Shaw is noted as the first female video game designer, breaking the ice for other women in the video game industry. Shaw began as an Atari employee, designing and programing 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe (1979) for the Atari 2600.[82] Shaw later joined Activision where she designed Happy Trails for the Intellivision and River Raid for the Atari 800 and Atari 5200 for which she is most widely known. Additionally, she designed an unreleased Polo game in 1978 and worked on the game Super Breakout.[83] Now retired, Shaw lives in California with her husband, Ralph Merkle.[84]
  • Roberta Williams is an American video game designer, writer and a co-founder of Sierra On-Line (later known as Sierra Entertainment). She is known for her pioneering work in the field of graphic adventure games, with titles such as Mystery House, the King's Quest series, and Phantasmagoria, and is viewed as one of the most influential PC game designers of the eighties and nineties.[85] She has been credited with creating the graphic adventure genre.[86]
  • Kim Swift is a video game designer best known for leading development on Portal. She was credited along with writer Erik Wolpaw in its Game Developers Choice Awards for design, innovation, and game of the year.[87] Swift was featured by Fortune as one of "30 Under 30" influential figures in the video game industry.[88] She was described in Mental Floss as one of the most recognized women in the industry[87] and by WIRED as "an artist that will push the medium forward".[88]
  • Kellee Santiago is a video game designer and producer. While studying at the Interactive Media Program of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, Santiago produced the game Cloud which was developed by Jenova Chen and a team of students. After graduating, Santiago and Chen founded Thatgamecompany, and Santiago took on the role of president. The studio's first two games, which Santiago produced, are Flow and Flower (2009). Flower ranked among Sony's top 10 PlayStation games for two years in a row and the PlayStation 3 follow-up game, Journey (2012), won several video game awards as well as a Grammy nomination for Best Original Soundtrack.[89] Santiago announced in 2012 that she would leave Thatgamecompany. Additionally she is a backer for the Indie Fund, which invests in independent video games, is a TED fellow, and is the head of developer relations for OUYA.[90]
  • Julie Uhrman is best known as the CEO and founder of OUYA. Uhrman has worked in the gaming industry for ten years at companies like IGN, GameFly and Vivendi Universal during which time she oversaw digital distribution and business development.[91] In 2012, Uhrman founded the OUYA project to create an Android based games console that would allow Indie developers to make games for the TV.[92] Development for the project was funded by Kickstarter and raised $8.5 million, making it the second-highest earning project in Kickstarter's history.[93]
  • Heather Kelley is a media artist and video game designer, most famous as the founder of Perfect Plum, a start-up specializing for software for women. Kelley also came up with the well-known iPhone app OhMiBod Remote. Kelly is also a co-founder of the Kokoromi experimental game collective for which she curates the annual Gamma social gaming event which showcases the best current indie games.[94] Kelley has also worked as a game design researcher at the Hexagram institute and previously was a “Game Life artist” at the Firehouse center for the Arts. She also served as the creative director at the Emergent Media center at Champlain College.[95] Additionally, Kelley has been involved in game-based efforts to put a stop to gender violence and held the role of co-chair at the IGDA Women in Games Development Special Interest Group.[96]
  • Mary Flanagan is a digital artist, game designer, and scholar. She is the inaugural chair holder of the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professorship in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth College and the director of the Tiltfactor Lab, an innovative game research laboratory. Flanagan's artwork deals primarily with how the design and use of technology can reveal insights into society.[97] She is the author of Values at Play in Digital Games, where she presents a theoretical and practical framework for identifying socially recognized moral and political values in digital games, and Critical Play: Radical Game Design, in which she argues that games designed by artists and activists are reshaping everyday game culture.[98][99]
  • Ellen Beeman is a Seattle area fantasy and science fiction author, television screenwriter, cofounder the industry group Women in Games International, and computer game designer/producer since the 1990s.[100] Since 2014, she has been a faculty member at DigiPen Institute of Technology.[101] She is credited for development of over 40 video games, for publishers including Disney, Electronic Arts, Microprose, Microsoft, Monolith, Origin, and Sega.[102]

Support groups for women in the video game industry[edit]

WIGSIG (Women In Games Special Interest Group)[edit]

WIGSIG is a special interest group of IDGA (International Game Developers Association). The group was formed in order to foster a positive impact on the game industry regarding gender balance in the workplace and/or marketplace. It provides a community, resources, and opportunities for people in the gaming industry. It also works to assess the numbers of the women in the games industry and tracks the changes of these numbers over time. Additionally, it works to recruit women into the games industry and make the field more attractive to women while providing them with the support and connections they need to be successful.[103]

WIGJ (Women In Games Jobs)[edit]

WIGJ is a group that works to recruit, preserve, and provide support for the advancement of women in the games industry by positively and energetically endorsing female role models and providing encouragement and information to women interested in working in the gaming field. The group was incorporated under the UK's Companies Act 2006 on June 2, 2011 as a “not for profit” or Community Interest Company. Companies in the game development industry have, in recent years, been seeking to balance the gender ratios on development teams and consoles like the Wii and Nintendo DS have seen increased numbers of female players. In addition to using this growing interest in women in the game developing industry, WIGJ works to put more women in traditional game development with less stigma attached to them. WIGJ seeks to help women find their place within the growing and rewarding field of game development.[104]

Gender disparity[edit]

Critics attribute the seeming lack of female interest in video games to the negative portrayal of women in video games and to misogynistic attitudes common among professional and hardcore gamers.[105] A 2012 Twitter discussion among women working in games, collated under the hashtag #1reasonwhy, indicated that sexist practices such as the oversexualization of female characters, disinterest in topics that matter to women as well as workplace harassment and unequal pay for men and women were common in the games industry.[106][107][108]

Regarding elements of game design, areas such as gameplay, mechanics, and similar features have been described as gender neutral, however presentational aspects of games have been identified as strongly gender-linked. Specifically, gaming is often seen as fantasy and escapism in which empathy and identification with the character is much more easily achieved if the character shares the same gender as the player.[49] Gamers of both genders tend to crave realism and the more realistic the gender of the character, the easier it is for a player to identify with the character.[50] A 2009 academic study published in New Media & Society, however, found that 85% of playable characters in video games are male.[57][109] Erin Hamilton argues that part of the problem comes from the difficulty in "juxtaposing femininity and feminism in a good video game."[51] When female characters do appear in video games, they are often regarded as presenting unhealthy messages concerning unrealistic body images and provocative sexual and violent behaviors for players of both genders.[110] Stereotypical female behaviors such as giggling or sighing are often presented non-ironically, and this leads young children (especially girls who identify with the female character) to think that this is how girls are supposed to look and act.[111] Furthermore, over-sexualized depictions[50][57] of scantily clad female video game characters such as Tomb Raider's Lara Croft[51] are not appealing to some girls.[55][112]

Although some of the population of male gamers have been the source of harassment towards female gamers and over-sexualization of the characters,[113] there are many men in the gaming industry who agree that there is a problem with female over-sexualization in gaming.[114] There are also male gamers who argue that some of the sexualization of women in video games also applies to men in video games and that portraying a man or woman in a video game in a sexual way can be acceptable if done in the right context.[115]


The concept that video games are a form of art is one that has begun to gain force in the later half of the 2000s with the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts recognizing games as a form of art in May 2011,[116] for example. In viewing video games as cultural artifacts and the industry as a cultural industry, the disenfranchisement of women from the medium is regarded as negatively impacting the female voice in the industry and the woman's capacity to take part in the cultural dialogue that gaming inspires.[57] From an education perspective, certain gaming genres particularly lacking in female players such as the first-person shooter game have been shown to increase spacial skills thereby giving advantages to players of the games that are currently skewed along gender lines.[57] Video games have also been determined to provide an easy lead-in to computer literacy for children and correlations have been drawn between male video gaming and the predominance of male workers within the computer industry.[69] With the increasing importance of tech jobs in the 21st century and the increased role of online networking, the lack of female video game players suggests a loss of future career opportunities for women.[57]


The majority of the people who work on game development teams are men.[117] Researchers have identified that one of the best ways to increase the percentage of female players comes from the aspect of authorship (either in-game as with Neopets and Whyville, or indirectly as with the Harry Potter series' inclusion of Hermione as a playable character subsequent to fan requests).[52] The solution to the problem of societal pigeonholing of female gamers is often identified as interventionist work such as the insertion of women into the industry.[57] Groups like WomenGamers.com and Sony's G.I.R.L. have sought to increase female gamer demographics by giving scholarships to girls considering getting into game development,[118][119] and game developers like Check Six Games, Her Interactive, Silicon Sisters and Purple Moon have openly courted female coders and developers.[68][69]

In addressing the future of the medium, many researchers have argued for the improvement of the gaming industry to appeal to a more general gender-neutral audience and others have suggested that the appeal should be directed to females in particular.[49][51][120] One of the earliest attempts to broaden the market to include females could be seen in Sega's[51] use of the increased number of female protagonists in fighting games.[69] Other examples of this include games like Mass Effect 3, which includes a female option for the main character which many gamers, men and women alike, have started to turn to,[121] Remember Me, and the Last of Us. These games decided to use strong female characters in important roles which was often met with a great deal of resistance.[122] Examination of IGN's Big Games at E3 2012 and Big Games at E3 2013 shows growth of the female protagonist in video games, rising 4% from 2012 to 2013.[123] Other efforts outside of making games with female characters have also started to occur. One example is that Women in Games International has teamed up with the Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles in order to create the first video game patch which the two organizations hope will encourage Girl Scouts to develop an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math.[124] Activism and specifically female-targeted LAN parties in Scandinavia have helped boost female game playing.[52]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The ESA was known as the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) prior to 16 July 2003.


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