teenager on a computer, gaming, cyber security

How “tech-savvy” women are changing masculine dominance in the video game industry

teenager on a computer, gaming, cyber security

Despite the fact that 46 percent of gaming enthusiasts around the world are female, the discourses surrounding “gamer” identity are still associated the term with men rather than women.

Men are typically perceived as “hardcore” consumers of games, playing with greater frequency and for longer sessions as well as enjoying more challenging content than those viewed as “casual” players.

As a consequence, the casual position is feminised in the culture of gaming communities. This has resulted in a category of “pinkified” products that are marketed at mums and wives, often designed to be slower-paced and with a stereotypically feminine storyline, content and outlook, focusing on girls and women learning about their feelings and caring for others.

For this reason, the term “gamer” has been criticised for fencing off gameplay as an exclusively masculine pastime which, elevated by the sexism associated with gamer cultures, has led to women refusing to self-identify with the label.

Game design practices mimic activities familiar to boys from the playground environment, providing them with adventure, violence, and opportunities for competition. Principles of masculine culture are sustained through mechanics of play, such as prioritising technical competency, and mastery over the game achieved through long hours of repetition.

Furthermore, the masculine dominance over the consumer base extends into game development. Women’s participation in the industry is hindered by recruiters’ perceptions of ideal game developers, stemming from an expectation that men are more passionate about gaming, as well as the positioning of women in stereotypically feminine clerical roles.

Together with my colleague Dr. Marke Kivijärvi from the School of Business and Economics, University of Jyväskylä, we wrote a paper based on in-depth interviews with women in the videogame industry in Finland to understand how perceptions of gender create male dominance in the gaming community.

The interviewees held management positions such as CEO, founder, co-founder, or producer, or occupied core development roles in game design, art, or programming.

We found that for women to gain a legitimate identity, both as consumers and producers of video games, required them to imitate stereotypically masculine personality traits, aspiring to the male “Player One” position, if you will.

This is the position of priority in current industry discourse for both the creation and consumption of video games, as opposed to the female “Player Two” position, which is associated with casual play.

The fact that women are pressured to become more masculine to be perceived as important in gaming circles has hampered short-term progress on the issue of gender parity.

However, this is not to say the status quo will always be what it is now. Long-term change seems likely, as women in the world of video games are beginning to develop their passion for technology in ways that eschew the typically masculine “tech-nerd” identity.

Expertise in computing has traditionally been seen as a male quality, which when combined with nerdiness carry associations of social ineptitude as well as obsessive gaming and enthusiasm for technology.

What we observed is the creation of a new “tech-savvy” identity that challenges these connotations in three key ways: firstly, by framing coding as a normal rather than exceptional activity which is, secondly, done for fun by groups of people as opposed to asocially; and thirdly, shifts attention away from the machine to the person and what they can accomplish with the machine.

While this change is subtle, it subverts the stereotypes that are prevalent in the current discourse. Moreover, for women the ability to express themselves through a “tech-savvy” identity allows them to embrace their knowledge of and passion for technology without having to adhere to masculine forms of play.

But this shift is not only valuable to women, but has the potential to offer a new way for men to interact with gaming culture. There are plenty of men who do not conform to the associations of being a “tech-nerd” and do not identify with the “gamer” label and its highly masculine connotations.

Even though they may exhibit qualities such as expert technical knowledge, they might prefer social games or not play to a degree that would be considered as hardcore.

About the author

Dr. Saija Katila is an Adjunct Professor and Senior Lecturer at Aalto University School of Business in Finland, teaching in the Department of Management Studies. She received a PhD in Organisation and Management from Helsinki School of Economics. She is particularly interested in practices of inclusion and exclusion in various industries.