Are Girl Gamers Really Worse Than Guys?

Why you should care

Because false stereotypes in gaming can lead to fewer girls in STEM, too.

Belinda Van Sickle was scared. What had started as an online debate over media ethics in video game journalism had erupted into a visceral campaign of harassment toward women in the industry. Threats to dox, rape or even murder were consolidated by certain gamers under the Twitter hashtag #GamerGate. It got so bad that Van Sickle, executive director of Women in Games International, bought motion-detector lights for her home and added multilevel password security to all her financial sites. Even today, two years later, Van Sickle says she sees how the controversy hurt the recruitment of female gaming pros, and the episode fueled perceptions of rampant sexism throughout the gaming world. “It was a scary time for the industry, and it really hasn’t ended,” Van Sickle told OZY. “If you were on the fence about staying, this pushed you over the edge.”

The misogyny that boiled over then, and simmers today, has many roots, but much of it stems from the idea that women are impostors. Never mind that there are more adult women playing games than teenage-and-younger boys, according to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2016 report. Demographics aside, the assumption that women are less suited for gaming is on shaky scientific ground. Sorry to tell you, boys, but …

Women advance as quickly as, or faster than, men in massively multiplayer online (MMO) games.

That’s the finding of a recent study analyzing more than 10,000 men and women in two MMOs, EverQuest II in the United States and Chevaliers’ Romance III in China. In such games, a player’s progress is measured in levels, which are reached by gaining experience through killing enemies or accomplishing key tasks. If men are better gamers, they should advance to higher levels faster in the same amount of time. Studies have shown that women tend to spend less time playing, and choose more assistive characters, such as healers, which can make leveling up harder. But once those factors are controlled for, women level up just as fast as men, says Michigan State’s Rabindra Ratan, one of the study authors, proving it’s playing time, not gender, that affects player skill. This all matters because researchers have shown at least a partial connection between gaming and the decision to pursue work in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), in which women remain significantly underrepresented.

Women do start, in aggregate, with less spatial awareness, which can be a roadblock in first-person shooter games like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor. But that disparity all but disappears after just 10 hours of game time, according to a study published in Psychological Science in 2007. The MMO study wasn’t able to compare the most advanced gamers, since the leveling speed of a max-level player is essentially zero. Still, the study adds to a growing body of research suggesting one thing … one of the potentially more dazzling special effects in gaming: Give a girl a controller and watch the gender gap disappear — in a flash.

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