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June 12, 2010

A Manly Pastime

Lumberjacking? Wrestling bears? Hot-dog eating contests? No, friends, I speak of video games. Why are men so much more drawn to video games than women are?

This little essay will contain no links -- you can find plenty of commentary on the internet, but not much actual scholarship on the subject. What follows is pure opinion: observation, anecdote, and supposition. This is an "asking" kind of essay, not a "telling" or "teaching" essay. I'd be interested in knowing what the Morons and Moronettes have to say on the matter.

More after the jump.

The issue at hand seems to be a much deeper difference between the sexes, and has a larger scope than just video-games. Females generally have less interest in contests and games than men do -- this crosses cultures and epochs. There are certainly many female athletes and athletic supporters (so to speak), but they are a proportionally tiny group compared to men.

Some evolutionary biologists think that males are simply predisposed to contests and games; it is our nature to contend in order to establish dominance heirarchies. Since open warfare is wasteful and inefficient, games came about to provide a non-lethal way to prove who was biggest, strongest, fastest, smartest, and so on. It also gave men a non-lethal way to show off for women and show their fitness as mating partners. It also provides a way to train young boys in the arts of war and the hunt without putting them in too much danger early on. This seems as likely an explanation to me as any.

Women also tend to be smaller and less powerful than men, and somewhat more prone to injury. Evolutionarily speaking, it's a bad idea to put child-bearing females at risk for something as comparatively pointless as a game.

Women in general cannot contend with men physically, but even in purely abstract games like chess and cards, men predominate. This tendency may go back again to the old homo sapiens dominance heirarchies -- women just seem to be less attracted than men to contests of skill, whether physical or mental. Many observational studies over the years have shown that women are far more comfortable in situations where they act as peers and groups rather than as contestants or solo actors. The concept of "winning" seems to carry much less power for females than it does males.

The most modern gaming environments, the purely abstract video games, still draws men in hugely greater numbers than women, and scientists and social scolds are quick to moan, "How can we get girls to play videogames?" The idea is that video-games are too violent or action-centric, and thus drive women away; but this fails to explain why comparatively gentle games like Mario Galaxy fail to draw female players in any great numbers. "It's the lack of strong female protagonists!", they cry, completely missing the profusion of female-lead games out there: Bayonetta, Tomb Raider, and more. (Granted, females may be put off by the hyper-sexualized nature of these female lead characters.)

I have heard that games like World of Warcraft draw large numbers of female players, but two interesting trends have emerged. First, females tend to play incognito as male characters to avoid online harassment; and second, they tend to "play" more as a social exercise than as a game. It's a social activity to many of them, in other words, a way to hang out with friends in an alternate environment.

In terms of video games, women seem more drawn to the simple puzzle games and derivatives of the old board games rather than the fancy shooters and role-playing games, and then mostly as short-term amusements. It's rare to find a woman who will spend twelve hours a day level-grinding and looting to be able to afford the Strong Sword of the Paladin's Might to kill the Abyssal Demon to get enough points to open the Oaken Door of Majesty to access the treasure vault to get the Sapphire of August Power to....

Ultimately I think that gaming of whatever kind is always going to be a heavily male-oriented pastime. I think it just comes down to the fact that males like to compete far more than women do, whatever the context. Males also seem to have an ability for a narrower and longer-term focus on task -- but also a tendency to obssess almost autistically on achieving status and rewards in an environment where such status and rewards carry little if any real-world meaning. (I can't count the number of hours of my life I've wasted playing Diablo and Dragon Quest, only to sit back afterwards and think, Well, great, that's eighty hours of my precious free-time gone; what the hell did I do that for?

I'd like some feedback from the Moronettes particularly: do you like to play games? Not necessarily video games, but any games? Are you a solo player or a group player? Do you play to win or do you just enjoy playing, win or lose? If you do play video games, do you do so at the urging of your male companion? Would you still play even if you were alone? Do you consider video gaming to be a waste of time, or do you think it has some redeeming value?

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posted by Monty at 08:15 AM

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