York U researchers rewrite the plot on gender inequity in gaming

Rewriting the plot featured image
Game researcher Stephanie Fisher
Stephanie Fisher

New research led by doctoral student Stephanie Fisher with Faculty of Education Professor Jennifer Jenson, director of the Institute for Research on Digital Learning, examines some of the ways in which girls are set up as subordinate, in relation to boys and men, by and within the digital games industry.

Faculty of Education researcher Jennifer Jenson
Jennifer Jenson

What is unique about their investigation, which takes place under the umbrella of feminist interventionist research, is that it goes beyond recording the inequity. Digging deeper, the researchers profile how, and under what circumstances, girls push back on these imposed positions when engaging in game development.

“This research shows how participants are not helpless victims,” Fisher explains. “Rather, the girls in our study critically considered gender roles in games as well as different aspects of their own identity. They exercised autonomy to resist negative positioning. We were interested in supporting girls as producers, not just as consumers of digital games.”

“We were interested in supporting girls as producers, not just as consumers of digital games.” – Stephanie Fisher

In mainstream digital games culture − where the games are primarily developed and marketed for boys and men − sex-based stereotypes are routinely displayed and reinforced. This effectively normalizes the male-dominated system.

The repeated imagery of girls and women in games are instrumental to maintaining gender-based oppression. Characteristics of female imagery in these games include the following:

  • Pinkification: In games where pink signifies anything feminine. This reinforces gender-based play and functions as a barrier for female participation.
  • Marginalization: In most, if not all, aspects of games culture, women are on the sidelines as quest givers or objects of affection or conquest.
  • Sexualization: Women are portrayed as sex objects that exist for the pleasure of male gaze. This undermines attempts by women to participate as equals.
  • Exclusion: It is not uncommon for women to be explicitly excluded from gaming tournaments on sexist grounds.
  • Gender-based harassment: In the past, this has included highly publicized, coordinated campaigns that target feminist critics.

Game development camp places girls at the top of the pecking order

This is the context in which Fisher and Jenson set up their experiment. In the summer of 2011, they ran three game-development camps around York, through two existing on-campus summer youth programs. They, with their team, worked with 39 kids (23 boys and 16 girls) between the ages of 11 and 16.

Fisher and Jenson's study participants
Study participants

The researchers created a unique environment as the kids developed computer games using Game Maker: critical thinking spaces designed to encourage participants to challenge cultural norms on what games are “appropriate” for girls and boys to play, to talk about their gaming experiences, and to take risks in their play and designs.

“We designed and enacted a ‘crash course’ that raised awareness of and questioned the status quo, put girls at the very top of the pecking order and intentionally placed female staff in positions of authority,” Jenson explains.

What kind of games would the kids develop? How would the kids make gender-based decisions about the games they were creating? Primarily interested in the girls participating in the study, Fisher and Jenson focused on how the girls constructed their identity as game developers.

Girls begin to counter stereotypes 

The researchers collected data using methods such as short surveys, interviews, researcher observations and analyses of student-produced media. They discovered that the girls created games that fell into three categories:

  1. Pink or ‘girly’ games: Most girls created games that reinforced the status quo and in this, they saw themselves as ‘good girls.’ “This is how these participants chose to mark themselves as girls in a space that is dominated by boys,” Fisher explains.
  2. Educational games: Eighty per cent of the girls created a game that included math problems. Why? Being a good student was part of their identity, and they were familiar with this genre.
  3. Gender-neutral games

Despite the environment ─ an empowered space designed to disrupt the gender order ─ the girls reinforced stereotypes. “Our findings show that it’s not enough to provide opportunities for youth to work with digital tools,” Jenson concludes. “Masculine values have an impact on the stories that girls will tell through game development.”

“Masculine values have an impact on the stories that girls will tell through game development.” – Jennifer Jenson

However, the girls were receptive to encouragement to think outside the box. They discussed inequalities that they had personally noticed. After talking about the lack of representation of girls who enjoy “boy” hobbies, one girl changed the sex of the main character in her skateboarding game from male to female. She began to think of her game as something that flies in the face of industry norms, an example to counter stereotypes of “what girls can do (too).”

Game camp participants
The game camps focused on getting girls to ask questions and recognize that it is possible for them to act in ways they never imagined

“It’s about pushing boundaries, getting these girls to ask questions and recognize that it is possible for them to act in ways they never imagined,” Fisher emphasizes. “If a space does not exist where the girls can act from a powerful position, then they will learn to question why that is.”

This research was funded by a Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada grant. The article “Producing alternative gender orders: a critical look at girls and gaming,” was published in Learning, Media and Technology (2016).

To read more about Jenson’s work, visit her website.

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca