Women aren't actually worse at video games: Why the stereotype is harmful

Experts say that besides being untrue, the stereotype leads to a greater gender imbalance in the STEM fields. 

M. Spencer Green/AP/File
Robert Morris University Illinois freshmen, from left, Sondra Burrows, Brian Rodonis and Alex Chapman practice playing the video game “League of Legends” with their collegiate teammates at their on-campus training facility in Chicago on Sept. 23, 2014.

New research shows that, contrary to stereotypes pervasive in the gaming world, women are just as good at video games as men.

A study testing the speed at which men and women advanced to higher levels in online multiplayer games – online worlds where thousands of players develop characters, socialize with other players, and complete quests – found no difference in ability between genders.

Also contrary to popular belief, nearly as many women play video games as men do: 50 percent of men and 48 percent of women, according to a recent Pew survey. But despite equivalent skill levels and a relatively even number of male and female players, both genders continue to perceive the activity as largely male-dominated, a misconception that experts say promotes inequality far beyond the gaming world. 

The same Pew survey revealed that men and women are equally likely to assume that most video game players are men, regardless of whether they themselves play: approximately 60 percent of all men and women surveyed held this belief. The percentage of 18 to 29-year-olds who agreed that men play more – 71, to be exact – was particularly high, indicating that younger women are especially likely to write gaming off as a male pastime. 

One mother, blogger Samantha Parent, writes that she used be glad that her daughters didn't play video games as frequently as her sons, choosing to focus instead on activities such as singing and dancing. 

"Frankly, I liked that they weren't glued to a computer screen," Ms. Parent says. But, she continues, "I didn’t realize that by condoning this gendered disparity in my children's play, I was inadvertently sending them a message that video games and computers are just for boys – not to mention contributing to the nationwide wage gap." 

Indeed, according to one study from the University of Toronto, playing action video games can help develop kids' spacial skills. "Given that superior spatial skills are important in the mathematical and engineering sciences," the authors of the study write, "these findings have practical implications for attracting men and women to these fields."

The number of women working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields has gone down in recent years, with the percentage of female graduates in computer science at a 39-year low. Only 18 percent of computer science majors were women in 2012, a drastic drop from 37 percent in the mid-1980s. 

Men outnumber women 3 to 1 in computing-related jobs, according to the US Department of Labor, and women make up only 16 percent of the workforce at large tech companies such as Facebook.

These disparities have led some industry experts to encourage young girls to play video games, which Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has described as "the gateway to computer science." 

"A lot of kids code because they play games," Ms. Sandberg said while speaking in Philadelphia in 2013. "Give your daughters computer games. Ask them to play them."

The connection between gaming and interest in STEM fields has also caught the attention of President Barack Obama, who in 2010 launched the National STEM Video Game Challenge, citing research that shows that creating video games teaches students computer programming skills and improves math and problem-solving abilities, while at the same time promoting creative and artistic thinking.

Tech companies have begun to expand diversity initiatives as well in an effort to correct the gender imbalance. Recently, Intel and ESL partnered up to launch AnyKey, an advocacy organization "dedicated to supporting diverse participation in gaming." According to Intel Director of Developer Relations Lee Machen, the company got involved after noticing a lack of diversity among its own staff. 

As the numbers suggest, the imbalance in the gaming world and larger tech industry isn't the result of a lack of interest among women, says T.L. Taylor, a professor of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of research for AnyKey. The organization aims to someday see that interest reflected in the industry workforce. 

"I think historically what we’ve seen is a lot of women wanting to be in the space, often struggling with some barriers that have hindered their access and success," Dr. Taylor said in a video panel. "I think we’re actually at a pretty exciting time to ... move that history in interesting ways forward."

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