Why we need to encourage girls to play video games if we want more women in STEM jobs.
Believe it or not, more women than men currently attend college . But, whereas almost half of college-attending males are enrolled as engineering majors, only 18% of engineering majors are female . With more women going to college, why aren’t more of them choosing engineering as a major? Is it their lack of preparation? Could it be a lack of confidence in technology? One factor is becoming abundantly clear; girls need to be fluent with technology if they are going to be adequately prepared to get good jobs for good wages .
Careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) are in high demand, yet, only 24% of women were employed in STEM occupations. There is much speculation over why women consistently avoid tech professions and the challenges that pervade their academic and professional paths. And, more importantly, it is fundamental to investigate how we can encourage females to pursue the road less traveled.
Gaming: Nature vs. Nurture
Girls should play more video games, suggests a study by University of Toronto researchers, published in the journal of Psychological Science. In early childhood, girls and boys play with different games that may provide various types of learning experiences.
Today, most girls still play with toys that emphasize relationships (i.e., playing house) or creativity (i.e., drawing, painting.). In contrast, boys will play computer and video games or games that encourage building (i.e., LEGO), both of which develop problem-solving, spatial relationship and hands-on skills. There is considerable evidence that this gender gap is a result of nurture, rather than nature .
Parents who encourage their kids to build and construct toys, either in a traditional sense or through digital games, give their children an opportunity to develop and hone their visual-spatial skills at a very young age. This exposure gives children the necessary confidence boost to persevere in an academic environment .
Proficiency in spatial cognition is imperative for successful problem-solving skills and is strongly correlated with excellence in STEM fields. Progress is being made in these areas of spatial advancement through playing digital games, as studies show the frequently long-lasting effects of video game training.
Computer games provide substantial learning opportunities for its players. For example, action and racing games are expected to increase motor and perception skills, while design and strategy games will increase forward-planning skills, and adventure games can foster sophisticated problem-solving skills . All of these learning processes can occur while the child is playing and enjoying themselves and without them feeling as if the process is difficult or burdensome.
A Male’s Industry
Since the creation of digital gaming, the industry has been dominated by a male perspective, both in the profession itself and by the games that they produce. Traditionally, games tend to be geared towards a male audience. Slowly video game developers are taking female gamers into consideration, though it can be speculated perhaps not quickly enough. However, when developing video games and products with women in mind, they often still base their game designs on stereotypical gender roles. For example, many game companies still think that female players want fashion, shopping, and dating games .
In 2012, researchers concluded that male gamers tend to play games of strategy, role-playing, action and fighting genres more often than female gamers. Female players reported that they liked to play social, puzzle/card, music/dance, educational/edutainment and simulation genres. Though preference of games differs, the desire to play is shared by both genders.
The Gender Divide: Bridging the Gap
Minecraft, an increasingly popular game, is an open-ended, adventure-based platform game that allows players to create a virtual, 3D custom world (Figure 1). Similar to the concept of LEGO and interactivity of Sim City, the game has the most basic of graphics and essentially no storyline.
The objective is to collect materials (mine) to create new items (craft); players then display their outcomes for others to see, use and critique. In survival mode, players can choose to fight monsters, if they wish, but the main task is to design, build and share elaborate structures.
Imagination is key to this game, creating anything from a small mud hut to a giant concrete city landscape . As in other “sandbox” games, players have no way to win the game; rather, they are encouraged to express their creativity and reflect their self-expression .
The amount of enthusiasm that Minecraft has generated means kids don’t even realize they are learning while they play. The game rewards them for getting information, combining their resources and solving design problems .
Minecraft is a game that spans the ages—from children in elementary school to adults; it has something to interest just about anyone. It’s not so much a game, but a social network that values and circulates expertise . While Minecraft can be an amazing tool for encouraging and training spatial abilities, it comes with the unfortunate pitfall that it was originally designed for adult men—not children. While children love to play Minecraft, boys still make up the majority of its players.
Rethink Gaming: Gender-Considerate Design
As children, girls are often raised to prioritize nurturing and prosocial behaviors and are discouraged from engaging in competition. They are raised to be less ambitious than males and are inadvertently told to focus on their looks, as opposed to asserting themselves into leadership, and to avoid being seen as “bossy.” Yet, competition is a part of life, and females who have experience with it are more likely to succeed in competitive workplaces.
Playing in virtual worlds allows females the opportunity to develop Information Technology Fluency, the knowledge of the skills needed to use today’s computer software applications . Technology fluency, also known as media literacy, could help bridge the gender gap in the gaming community, allowing girls and women to feel more welcomed in a society that is dominated by men, potentially giving them more acceptance in challenging STEM careers.
But, in order to fully engage with technology fluency, girls must be interested in the games they play. Looking at gender-considerate design when rethinking video game concepts can have considerable influence over whether more girls will be interested in playing those games.
Research shows that girls have specific video game playing preferences; they like complex social interaction and are fascinated by relationships between characters and other game players. They often will identify with and mimic main characters in video games. Additionally, they prefer exploring stimulating environments, adventure or puzzle-based games. Overall, girls enjoy working together with other players to accomplish mutual goals as opposed to trying to outdo someone else.
In A Nutshell
Parents can help to close the technology gender gap by encouraging both gendered children to engage with technology while supporting play with a combination of feminine- and masculine-stereotyped toys and play activities during early childhood. By challenging gender stereotypes with their children, parents can strengthen a positive learning environment where girls and boys learn to work together as equals  ergo creating a more inclusive digital community. As a society, our goal should be to encourage young girls to develop the skills, knowledge, ethical frameworks, and self-confidence needed to be full participants in contemporary culture .
In the end, well thought out game design, where girls’ playing preferences are thought of during conceptualization as opposed to being an afterthought, can have a great impact on whether or not girls become engaged in video games at a young age and remain engaged. Specifically, open-ended, 3D games that encourage spatial-skill training will give girls the greatest edge and confidence they will need later in life to pursue a STEM career. Girls enjoy gaming, but we must give them something to play.
Read the full thesis dissertation here.
Image Credit: Belinda Hankins Miller / Wikimedia Commons