Why Don't More Women Play Video Games?

It happens every time. I walk into GameStop with my brother or boyfriend and the sales associate walks up to us and acts like I don't exist. They look the guy I'm with in the eye and pretend I'm the girlfriend or sister who was dragged along, never asking if there's anything I need when I stray away and start looking at the games for sale.


I don't blame them, really. I don't look like the "usual customer" (a boy) - for now. And video games aren't marketed to women, and as a result women like myself who actually play games would rather just order the games off Amazon than deal with the uncomfortable behavior in the store from most associates. But it's a bit of a catch-22. If I'm not treated as an equal in the store, I won't buy games and companies won't market to me. But most women won't even think to buy games in the first place if they aren't ever marketed to them and rightly so. If you don't feel like a product being sold is made for you, that it is made in fact so you'll feel excluded from that product, you won't buy it. It's not always a bad things. We don't need to advertise bras to men, for instance. But in terms of video games, a storytelling mode that should be as universal as books, women certainly belong in the field.

It's worth pointing out that despite this first interaction I tend to have with associates, as soon as whoever I'm talking to understands I'm a serious gamer, they completely change. There's never any sexist assumptions like there often can be in other areas I've experienced, like with film (I don't understand why this industry lags so seriously behind video games, but that's for another topic). Whoever I'm talking to usually nerds out and completely expects I've played every game they have, which is really nice even though it means I have to do a lot of nodding and smiling and pretending I know about games from 2007 before I owned any consoles.

Meanwhile, whenever I find another fellow girl in the store who I've misjudged and assumed was the girlfriend/sister/etc of someone - doing exactly what I hate having done to me yet trapped within my own societal preconceptions - my world lights up. I become the biggest geek ever, the same way I do about people who love Chaucer or Carlos Saura. It feels like a chance encounter, like a true miracle, because whether I like it or not, it's really rare for me to find other girls who like games.

Don't get me wrong. There are girl gamers out there and we are growing in number, apparently making up 50% of the general industry (though this incldues mobile gaming, not the gaming I am referring to here) and the industry is reflecting that - far faster than the film industry in my opinion. However, this constant surprise has me wondering why it is that more women don't play video games on gaming consoles or computers, or at least don't mention it much. Is it the fact that they aren't marketed to? Or is it something more than that?

Because I play more video games than my brother.

It's worth noting that I think a lot of people - not just women - have a certain disdain for video gaming that drives me CRAZY. Most people consider it inferior, a lazy activity who lack motivation or work ethic and forget that this very attitude is the same archaic attitude people once held about books. And movies. And television. People walk into a room and see me reading and there's admiration. Yet the same people walk in and see me playing a video game and within an instant I detect a severe judgment of my behavior that I think in many ways puts off women more than most. After all, as women, we are always pressured to work harder to achieve the same success that men do. So I believe women also as a result judge downtime far more strictly than men do - though of course this is a broad generalization shaped by my own personal experience.

But besides these societal perceptions about how people and women specifically should and shouldn't spend their downtime, I think there are a few more key reasons why women don't play games.

Why Women Likely Don't Play Video Games

Belief That Games Require a Skill They Don't Have

The number one reason my girl friends give for not gaming is that they "can't play video games," or that they "are bad at them." This statement usually comes from girls who have given one game a try, usually in a large group of people where mockery is inevitable, and never looked back again. And if you know anything about me and my blog, you'll know that I believe anyone who proclaims they "lack a skill" when it comes to storytelling is someone who is misinformed about the medium altogether. Because if you ever want to ostracize a group of people from something, make it seem like they need a certain inherent, inborn "skill" or "talent" to participate in that something and that group of people will be excluded without any extra work.

Of course I'm not saying this exclusion is by any means purposeful or that video games don't require skills, - they require a lot of different ones and it varies depending on the game - but that the notion that women have come to believe that they lack the ability to hold a controller is arguably the top one that pushes them away from playing and intimidates them. More often than not, they're pressured to do so in front of other men, be it a boyfriend or their guy friends - even just for fun - and will be ridiculed, jokingly at times, other times not so much, for their failure to be an expert at something they've just picked up. From thence forward, they're conditioned to believe they are inherently bad and lacking in talent at something that in reality they've hardly had the chance to exercise.

Because video games, just like reading and writing and anything else you've ever picked up, take some practice. But in reality, they require a lot less learning and practice than reading and writing ever did. In other spheres of art, people rarely dare to make fun of beginners, but in the gaming world it's different because people have the misconstrued expectation that using a video game controller is an inherent skill you either do or do not have. 

Furthermore, buttons and controllers change constantly, meaning even the most experienced players around still have to constantly relearn buttons and rewrite their instincts. However, because women are not encouraged to play video games in their youth, when compared to men who have been playing games since they were in middle school they are considered to be "awful" at games, when in reality they just need practice with the controls.

So for that reason alone, I believe most women are turned off by the idea. Nobody likes to be bad at something, especially something they don't believe they are capable of improving upon. But that's just the trick with games. The skills of using a controller are more intuitive than you realize and just require a quick warming up to. And even if you are decidedly "bad" at video games, there's always the "easy" mode created so that people can enjoy the story without distractions - or repeatedly dying.

Lack of Marketing

As I touched on before, when a something isn't market towards you, you're less likely be interested. Though this is not always bad, it can completely estrange a group of people who would be a great customer.

As we all know, though the times are changing and evolving, it's far less likely that marketers are going to suddenly decide to invest all the money into advertising towards people besides men and far more likely (perhaps with the help of this blog post?) that women will become more interested in games, and then the marketing will follow. But what would marketing towards women really mean? It certainly doesn't mean making everything pink and girly - though it can - but it also doesn't mean just using the same marketing tactics altogether because there are so many "types" of women out there and the current approaching to marketing estranges a lot of them.

There are women like me who know every detail about Westeros and can play video games until four AM yet at the same time also like Korean beauty products and shopping for clothes online. But there are also women in every other category possible. Women who love cars, women who love working out, women who love make up. And all these women can easily also be the same person. That's why video games should be marketed to us. Our interests are wide and don't belong in categories, so what about video games seem so vehemently exclusive to women?

To start, the sexualization and violence in many video games can be an enormous turn off and rightly so. Women don't like seeing other women - even virtual ones - being treated like an object and they certainly don't like it when every single woman in a game is treated that way.

However, the notion that every video game has these traits is the result of marketing towards men. Sure, not every guy loves the idea of driving around in a virtual car running over strangers and ogling over the unrealistic body type of a woman, but they're still more likely to get into gaming than women, perhaps because it doesn't affect them as much or because they are fortunate enough to see the game for what it really is.

It's my belief that if more triple-A video games began to market the story of a video game instead of the action and the violence, more women would give video games a chance. Additionally, I think that if women saw more games where women were the protagonists they would feel more inclined to play. Luckily more and more video games are making women their main characters and opening up the market to a new perspective, even if the marketing style is still predominantly oriented towards men.

As a female gamer myself, I used to never think twice about all the times I played as a male character. It just seemed "normal." But then I played a video game in which I was a female and my world was completely turned around. I remember thinking to myself, "So this is what it feels like to be a guy playing most games!" and I can only hope that with more female leads on the rise, more women will feel this way too.

Misunderstanding of the Content Within Video Games

The final point that the content is misunderstood in games is one that goes beyond women, but I think it certainly affects them more than it does men who aren't gamers. As mentioned in the previous section, most women don't like the violence and the sexualization in video games. Couple that with the fear that they lack some skill to play video games, and the video gaming industry really does start to feel like a boy's club.

But what if I were to tell you that most games that come to people's mind - the big ones - either are covering up a wonderful story with their trailer or they just aren't a game of substance to be even worth the consideration in the first place. Period. We all know what comes to mind here. Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Halo, etc. Whether we want to admit it or not, we imagine these games as mindless outlets for violence and see them as nothing more.

But what if you found out that Grand Theft Auto V is actually a satire of modern America and does so really well? Or that the earlier Call of Duty games before they began to sell out actually had really great stories? And that Halo did too? If you've watched the trailers for these games you'll get an entirely different picture though. And that's the case for a lot of video games.

Take for instance Bioshock. I urge you to watch the trailer here and see how little story is told in the trailer, how it demonstrates instead all the different ways you can shoot and kill things, but hardly hints at more than the world (which is stunning).

To women like myself, this trailer really turned me off towards the game. However, after being encouraged to by my brother and boyfriend, I discovered that this game has not only one of the most incredible stories ever, but on top of that it also is heavily rooted in the literature of Ayn Rand.

Yeah. It surprised me too. A video game making references to Atlas Shrugged, asking deep philosophical questions and questioning the nature of society? Who would have guessed that from the trailer. Not most women, I assure you.

This gets back to the marketing of course. Every reason why I believe women don't play video games is interlinked in some way. This game was marketed towards men, highlighting what you can do as an attacker instead of what story will unfold. The combat seems intimidating, the game seems scary, but perhaps if the content of the actual game was less ambiguous, women might give the game a shot.

However, there still remains a chance you saw this trailer and heard about the content of the game and it still wasn't for you. That's very normal too. Some people love epic eighteenth century literature and others like modern novellas written with simple language. We all have different tastes and video games as stories come in a variety of forms. Because just like with any industry, the gaming industry has independent games that get far less publicity than they deserve and they are doing really creative and interesting things with medium. These independent games have an enormous range, some imitating classic Dungeons and Dragons-esuqe details in their customizability (which always means you can play as a girl!) to simple stories where you wander around and just experience a story, nothing more. In fact, the list of indie video games is so far in its reach, there's no way you won't be able to find a story you like.

So if you are a woman reading this post, I urge you to give video games a chance so that more of our stories can be told in this medium. Companies like BioWare are doing great things for us, making a point to include people of color and even a transgender person in their narratives, but if we women can push past the biases excluding us from the industry I truly believe we will start seeing more games marketed for all sorts of people.

Why don't you think more women play video games? Do you agree with me or disagree? I'd love to hear your thoughts. And if I've convinced you to give gaming a chance, head on over to my post on how video games help storytelling, where I have a detailed list of games for newcomers.