Biology and Gaming: Why Women Don't Play Games
by Philippe O'Connor

Where are the Girls?

I owe a lot to games, especially the person that I have grown up to be since I started playing games seriously at the age of 12. Through games I developed leadership skills, problem solving, confidence, analytical skills, diplomacy, writing, team building, tactics, organization, strategy and more importantly knowledge of my own limitations and talents. I have derived great pleasure from games, countless hours of fun, mental exercise, socialization, and memorable emotional highs and lows. I have faced situations and experiences through games that I would have never had the chance to in any other medium.I am not talking about just computer games, but all forms of gaming: RPGs, arcade and wargames, from which all computer games borrow. Given all the pleasures and gifts that gaming has brought me over the years, it has always bugged me that girls don't seem to enjoy games as much as I do. Sure, I have met plenty of girl gamers, but they always seemed to be a minority of womankind, a fringe element that is considered "unusual". Now that I am in the game industry, itís become a professional pre-occupation. How can such a large segment of the population not get the same kick of out gaming as us guys? I would find it unfair, but it's clear that they are staying away mainly because of indifference and distaste. This realization wounds me personally because it brings into question a major component of my very being, and this is only a slight exaggeration!

I recently read an article on the issue of female gamers written by Vangie Beal, of and an editorial staff member on AGN. "Aurora", as she is known in the biz, pointed out in her article some explanations for why women stay away from gaming in general. This topic is hotly debated in women gamer circles, from what I can tell from my various forays into game sites for women. Among many arguments that are being currently debated, she pointed out that men and women's social, cultural, physical and chemical make-up are quite different, and this is mainly where the answer to the question lies. To sum it up, reason vs. action. Men prefer action, women reason. Most games are action games: ergo more men play games.

Other arguments that I have read, that Aurora repeated, are: sexist ads (the "big breast debate"), the lack of female developers, poor female role models in games, sexist and immature online communities, etc., etc., etc. The basic assumption is that women are being "kept-away" from gaming by a combination of factors, all of which can be boiled down into one explanation: men dominate the industry. But, I believe these factors are the visible effect of womenís low interest in gaming, not the cause.

Her article inspired me to respond, expressing my take on the issue, and this essay is largely based on that letter.

The Biological Roots of Gaming

Unfortunately in todayís political climate, no one can write about the differences between men and women without being pigeonholed into a category of the political correctness "friend or foe" list. I very much wish to avoid having this article banished into either one of these extremes, and in order to do so you have to bear with this rather lengthy explanation on the roots of gaming and why humans play games (or, I suppose you can quit here and never know my thesis!). In essence I am going to try to explain the reason behind men and womenís gaming choices. In order to do this I have to first explain what I think are the biological roots of gaming, and why humans play games. Once I convince you that nature invented gaming, maybe you will be convinced by my explanation for the difference between male and female gaming.

Before I became a producer in computer game company, I was a freelance game designer for a consulting firm that specialized in simulation training. They would use various types of simulation games for management training. For example, one of my contracts involved creating an airline game for Boeing, in order to teach airline executives about new airline management concepts. Designing training simulations for corporate clients forced me to come up with a "pitch" as to why simulation training was better than conventional classroom training, and over the course of the years I looked into the matter and noticed to my surprise that gaming is not just a human activity.

I noticed that animals play games too. If you have ever owned a dog or a cat, you know what I mean. Animals seem to enjoy playing as much as we do, and they have signals to indicate when they are in a playing mood and ways of "asking" to play with you. When a dog drops his favorite toy on your lap thatís an invitation. Cats start rolling on their back and put their front paws in the air to indicate the same. If you have ever watched a nature show you must have noticed that wild animals play too, not just domesticated pets. When you look even deeper into the matter, you notice one distinction thought: Only mammals seem to play. Lizards and birds donít seem to frolic and chase each other. For these species everything always seems to be strictly business. So if mammals (and marsupials, like kangaroos) are the only type of animal that "play" like we do, then what is the reason? Nature never does anything for no reason, so there must be an advantage to play behavior, otherwise it would have never developed.

If we look at the type of games that different species play, we find some interesting answers. Dog games include "chase me/chase you", "tug of war", and "wrestling". I chose titles for these because it makes it easier to make my next point: Each one of these dog games includes a type of activity that adult dogs engage in when in the wild. Wolves chase down pray, pull large carcasses away from competition and they jockey for position in "pecking order" fights. In other words, the games dogs play are closely related to their daily survival behavior in the wild. If we look at cat games, we see a similar pattern. The most popular cat game is "Ball of Yarn". This game involves chasing anything small that moves quickly when batted around. This game is basically a simulation of hunting. Watch a cat toss around a toy, and chase it down. The cat is basically substituting the toy for its normal prey. Cats donít play tug of war because their normal prey is small. What I am propose is that these animals games are actually for the purpose of honing physical skills that will help the animal survive. This is only possible in mammals because only mammals have a brain of sufficient complexity to be able to "imagine" prey, or substitute prey for either an inanimate object or another friendly animal. Furthermore, the mammal brain must be able to learn from such games, and the secret seems to be REM sleep. REM sleep is the period during sleep where we dream. It is characterized by rapid eye movement and intense dreaming, often involving involuntary physical movement. One study published in Scientific American found that the brain wave activity in animals during REM sleep was exactly the same as the brain activity recorded while the animal was engaged in its primary survival behavior. For example, in rats, it was when foraging for food. In rabbits, it was while watching out for predators, and in cats it was while hunting for prey. This link between each speciesí primary survival behavior and its REM sleep brain pattern seems to suggest that REM sleep is a learning mechanism, a sort of "play back the tape of the game" like football coaches do.

What does this have to do with games? Well, if REM sleep is the review process, play behavior is the practice mechanism. This is how mammals train their muscles for the real thing, this how they test their performance against each other, how they practice situations they may encounter. And its also fun! Animals feel pleasure when they play, as much as we do.

Humans have playing instincts just like our pets. We mostly play games when we are kids, but our love of games never dies. Human games include "hide and go seek", "house", "youíre it", "Simon says". You can find these games in any human culture around the world. When we look at our games closer, we see the same kind of "training simulation" going on. I remember the first time I played house. I was about five years old, and some of the girls took me aside at recess and asked me to play house. I had no idea what the rules were, but I knew the game, almost instinctively. The girls had no problem explaining what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to be the "daddy", and they handed me a doll. Then they proceeded to play, which mostly consisted of me doing various tasks handed to me by one of the girls. The thing is, I knew what I was supposed to do, and played along. "Pretend" play is one of the mechanisms that human children are equipped with to prepare them for adulthood. Hide and go seek has more sinister undertones. Itís a hunting game, where children take turns being hunter and hunted. Both skills must have been very useful for pre-historic humans. Our games may be more complex, but the purpose is the same. If we accept the fact that playing is a type of animal behavior that evolved to help us survive, and that itís a primarily instinctive behavior, as opposed to learned, then we can move on to the more specific topic of male and female play, which I dare suggest, is also largely based on instinct. Girls and Boys seem to play different games in childhood: Girls play "House", boys play "Hide and Seek". This is a stereotype, I realize, but I donít think anyone could argue that it isnít generally true.

Hairless Monkeys

I feel that the answer to the question of why women donít play games as much as guys do must lie in the fundamental make-up of the human brain, because the pattern of women staying away from games is so widespread. My reason is simple: the more widespread the effect, the more fundamental the cause. I donít care what some erroneous statistics have said about women constituting 40% of the game market. This is categorically not true, and I can tell by just looking around my own surroundings and from experience. Women are a very small percentage of the total game playing market, and there has to be a reason for this. I would like to propose a possible explanation, and the possible solution.

First of all, I am a big fan of the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, and his books. He has given me plenty of food for thought on the nature of life, and evolutionís influence on behavior. Desmond Morris is another inspiration, simply because in his series "The Human Animal" he dared to approach the subject of human behavior on the same terms as the study of animal behavior, in terms of Darwinian Evolutionary theory. His series made sense out of what was for me completely incomprehensible human behavior. These two guys are my main source for this argument:

Human beings, as complex as we might seem on the outside, are essentially animals (religious beliefs notwithstanding). We are only superficially different from them. Man has been around for a million years or less, and most (if not all) of our behavior and instincts developed during this time. Modern human society (living in cities, etc...) has only been around for maybe 5000 years. Needless to say it is safe to assume that the way we behave now is probably not that much different from the way we have been behaving for over half a million years or so.

Most of our "instincts" developed over a very long time, and we still have them today. A lot of what men and women feel, think and do is instinctive. Hunger, fear, anger, pleasure, etc.. are all behaviors that animals and humans have in common. We were programmed with these emotions and behaviors in order to help us survive, just like the other animals on this planet.

The point I am trying to make is that the concept of "pleasure" that we feel while doing certain things is a mechanism that nature has developed to get us to do the things that nature wants us to do. For example, nature wants us to reproduce, therefore sex is pleasant. On a less extreme level, we experience subtle but no less intense pleasure when doing more common things, such as tinkering with a car engine, or fixing something in your home, or finding a good buy. When we use expressions like "it was better than sex" we are trying to describe these intense feelings of pleasure we get from doing things that are not commonly thought of as pleasurable. Much of the satisfaction we derive from doing various things is a chemical reward mechanism set up by millions of years of programming, designed to get us to behave in ways that maximize our survival chances. Pleasure is the equivalent of a biological AI. Unlike computers, human code is hard-wired in our brain architecture. And our brain architecture is built on top of the foundation architecture of many previous animal families, such as primates, early mammals and before them lizards. The software (what we learn from while we grow up) is only written on top of the operating system (the chemicals swimming in our head) that runs on an architecture that was designed millions of years ago.

Nature designed "play" to help us survive. In order to get us to play, nature makes it a pleasant experience. However, nature wants us to play specific games, games that will be useful to our survival. For animals, these games are pretty straightforward. For us, tool using, social hairless monkeys, itís a little more complex.

Human Behavior

Humans have various complex survival behaviors and particularly men and women have different survival mechanisms designed around our particularly strange (as far as other animals are concerned) lifestyle. One of these mechanisms is hunting behavior. Meat was (and still is!) one of our main sources of food in prehistory (take a good look at your own teeth and check out the incisors, these are not for chewing cud). Unfortunately meat doesn't grow in the ground, and it tries not to be eaten, so humans (in particular men) developed hunting skills: These include throwing things (ballistic skills) aiming sharp objects at things, running down animals, navigating the land, making hunting tools, setting traps, spotting hidden "game" (interesting word): in short a whole range of hand-eye, spatial and coordination skills. When men use these skills they are rewarded with sensations of pleasure (our chemical AI at work). Another pleasurable activity is working in a group of men to hunt. There is a considerable degree of pleasure derived from participating in a team hunt or its modern equivalent (sports, corporation, platoon). Spectator sports are so popular with men (even though there is no physical activity) because of the pleasure associated with the illusion of being with a team (online-games also give the same kick). It's hard for women to understand the pleasure men get from hunting activities and hunting socialization because they themselves are not chemically rewarded for these things. For men, the pleasure is not associated with being in a group (unlike women), it's in participating in a group objective. Action games are written to give that sensation of both hunting and being in a team. This is much of the reason why women are not as numerous in computer games. Men derive pleasure from games that "flip their switch" because these games are designed by men. And it is such a strong kick that a lot of men prefer action games to a bunch of other activities. Sometimes it can be better than sex. Well, maybe not, but pretty damn close.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) there are very few ways that men can (legally) get their hunting kick in modern society. There are few avenues for men to exercise that instinctive behavior safely and without consequence. We don't have to kill our food, we don't fight wars that often (when we do it's usually too terrifying to enjoy) and we generally don't work with our hands. Sports are the most common way men exercise this urge, but it's an abstraction of hunting, and largely a social activity. There are all kinds complications involved in playing organized sports, and plus it's damn tiring. Computer games, in particular, action computer games are the safe substitute for hunting/combat, and instead of abstracting a hunting atmosphere like sports, they simulate it directly without much fuss or things getting in the way of the action. Plus there is the added bonus that you donít have to be in shape and you can drink beer while your doing it. Men are born with these instincts, and we itch to use them. Games allow us to use them without bringing civilization to its knees. But once again, these games are designed to please men.

Some people might object to this argument in the wake of the debate over the role of action games in recent tragedies. I am not making a political statement, this feature of male psychology is a fact, and there is no need to refer to a mound of studies or other credentials to support it. Anyone who knows anything about people knows this is true: Men are pre-disposed to aggressive behavior, and our games reflect this. Some men crave this action more than others, but most of us love it. We just learn to live with it.

The Medium is The Message

Action games have only become popular fairly recently, for much the same reason that sports became popular: The medium. Sports became a mass culture event when television came along. Computers have developed to the point now that they allow us to make games complex and realistic enough that they are able simulate the hunting "feel" better than other mediums (sports, movies).

Our instincts are still with us, and when we donít exercise them we feel depressed, restless and unhappy in much of the same way when you havenít had sex for a long time (I keep coming back to sex, my apologies). Unfortunately a lot of what men derived pleasure from is no longer possible (and indeed is unnecessary) in modern human society. Therefore men spend a lot of time pursuing this satisfaction in unnatural (artificial and some would say unproductive) ways that are conspicuous because of their seeming lack of purpose and, to women at least, lack of interest. That is why the debate on why women seem to be excluded from gaming has cropped up. It is not a purposeful exclusion. It is avoidance on their part.

Puzzle games however don't seem to have the same demographic. Games that emphasize reasoning and logic seem to be as popular with both. Problem solving is pleasurable to both sexes it seems and this makes sense even when arguing from an evolution perspective. However give a red blooded male a choice between Tetris or Quake, and guess what. It's not that he doesn't get a kick out of Tetris, it's that he gets more of a kick out of Quake. For the girl, it's generally Tetris because she probably gets no kick from Quake.

You don't find a lot of women in gaming for the same reason you don't find a lot of women watching sports. They are not wired to feel pleasure (or "satisfaction" as Aurora more correctly put it) from this. Women, like men, carry evolutionary baggage from a time when human existence was more difficult; when we were barely more successful than the other animals we shared space with. They too are programmed by evolution for specific survival activities.

What do Women Want?

So, what kind of games give women the same level of satisfaction that men get from action games? Well, first you have to answer what gives women satisfaction in real life, or what is their chemically rewarded instinctive behavior? Once again, take a deep breath and try to read this with an open mind.

This is my theory: Women derive a great deal of satisfaction from personal interaction in a social group. In other words, relationships and everything associated with it (interaction, speech, psychology, intuition, diplomacy, etc.) are the primary chemically rewarded behaviors that women are instinctively wired to pursue. This includes relationships with family, children, mate and friends. Women are generally judged on the quantity and quality of their relationships, and a good part of their status in a peer group is associated with it as well. Once again, this is not a political statement, just an observation by one individual. I wonít venture to explain, just yet, why women would have this instinct.

This is not to say that men donít enjoy relationships and donít derive pleasure from them, that isnít the case. However I believe women get more of a kick from it, and the ubiquity and popularity of the female equivalent of sports: soap operas, are proof. My definition of soap includes the "X-Files", "Party of Five", "Ally McBeal" and all similar shows (those are soaps for the younger crowd). Soap operas create the illusion that you are part of a social group, and you watch each episode to find out who is going to be the next Alpha monkey, who is having a baby, who is breaking up or getting together. All of the plot twists in soap operas are generally events that change the social dynamic in an extended family group. In essence, soaps depict a fictitious, hyper-dynamic family group (and associated peripheral characters) interacting in stereotypical relationships. These TV families are extended, completely dysfunctional of course, and alliances (both sexual and otherwise) are made and broken very quickly. Soaps are essentially a distillation of all of the events that impact the social dynamics of the extended family and group. The main draw of soaps are the events that effect the power dynamics and emotional well-being in a family. The younger crowd soaps such as "Dawson's Creek" or "Party of Five" deal with pre-family social dynamics, and feature almost exclusively the topic of establishing relationships between men and women and friendships. Women are geared to being keenly interested in what is going on in a social unit, and are very concerned with events that may affect the dynamic of the group, such as a break up, or a new child, a dispute, a death, a newcomer to the group. etcÖ. This was especially useful when the survival of a group of pre-historic humans often depended on their ability to get along, when changes in the dynamics of the group could de-stabilize social harmony to the point of actually threatening their existence.

Women to a large extent still take on the responsibility of ensuring social harmony, and have developed many skills and abilities to do this, such as intuition, the ability to empathize with others, and highly developed language abilities. This is why language has far greater layers of meaning for women. We may speak the same language but we use it differently, and men often get into trouble when they fail (or succeed) to employ the subtle nuances in their language that convey the proper intention.

However, unlike men, women get to use all of their instinctive abilities in daily life. They engage in rewarded behavior all the time, unless they are orphaned and in solitary confinement. A good deal of a womanís feelings of well-being depend on how her relationships are going and she spends a lot of time tending her collection of relationships each day. Therefore they don't generally feel compelled to pursue this kind of satisfaction in a computer game, they don't need to! In fact computer games are a solitary and time-consuming activity, and therefore are considered anti-social and destructive to relationships. This gives games a very bad reputation among women. Maybe we can change their mind?

Games for Women

So what kind of games would give women the same "kick" that men get out of games? Instead of trying to get women to like action games, what has to happen is games must be specifically designed for them, by them (ideally). This has been attempted with mixed success already. The "Barbie-dress-up" games for pre-teens are one foray into this complicated subject, a very basic and primitive one. But in my opinion these are not as much games as they are multi-media software. The "Sims" is probably the only serious attempt at trying to hook the mature female audience. And it comes pretty damn close. But does it give that "soap" feel? I donít think so, primarily because of the abstract and mechanical interaction between the characters. One of its major problems is that there is no talking between the characters, only pictographic representations of what they are saying. This is a major obstacle to female "buy-in".

The truth of the matter is that designing the game that would have wide appeal for women is going to have to replicate to a certain extent many aspects of female daily existence. It's going to have to realistically depict various types of relationships in various degrees of contextual complexity, and make extensive use of language based on very good scripting. Voice acting will have to be top notch, and the scripting of stories and personalities in the game will have to be extensive, realistic and maturely done. Characters in the game will have to react to the player in multiple and sophisticated ways, with next to no repetitiveness. In essence, the game will have to have next to a completely functional human Artificial Intelligence, very rich and detailed art, complex and long stories, and multiple outcomes based on a wide array of choices. In other words, the ideal game for women canít be done yet, because the requirements necessary to interest the sophisticated female brain are beyond the abilities of current game technology. But we can start small. We can start by designing games that feature more detailed and esthetic interiors (thank you Aurora), that feature more mature and professional voice acting and scripting, more detailed and sophisticated characters and stories. We can start with this and gradually develop our designs until we have the ability to create complex stories about next-to-real people in interesting situations. Then maybe, just maybe, we can get them hooked.

Phil O'Connor is a game design consultant for his own company, Iconoclast Games Inc.

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Date this article was posted to 7/20/2000
(Note that this date does not necessarily correspond to the date the article was written)

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