Virtually a man's world: Research suggests gaming upholds model of masculinity that appeals to men but not women

While it might come as a shock to anyone who isn't a gamer, the video and computer gaming industry has reached colossal proportions. In 2003 alone, the U.S. realized software sales of $7 billion—double the intake of 1996—rivalling movie attendance, record sales, and TV ratings—all of which plummeted that same year. But now that the male gaming market has been virtually saturated, producers are attempting to attract the untapped pool of users: females. Kevin Schut, who studied gaming for the last four years before joining Trinity Western University's Communications faculty this September, has forwarded a new theory on how many top-selling games are fundamentally more attractive to men, and therefore uninviting to the opposite gender.

“For many years, the industry has tried very hard to get females to buy their games,” says Schut, who recently completed his PhD research at the University at Iowa. “They can't figure out why women won't buy them—but it does make sense. These games are made by men, for men.”

In his PhD thesis, Schut investigated how digital fantasy role playing games (FRPGs) mediate different social pressures. He argues that the games contain subtle but powerful themes that appeal to male players, allowing them to play out different perceived roles of masculinity, which, in ordinary life would be difficult.

“What I argue,” says Schut, a self-professed gamer, “is that men simultaneously experience the pressure to be (1) a respectable man who's the all around “good guy”, (2) a rough and tough man who's the athletic bad-boy, and (3) a grown-up boy who's not supposed to take anything too seriously.”

Schut says men can rarely fulfill all three roles at the same time, particularly in an office setting, where most middle class men find themselves.

“As I began to look at fantasy role playing games (FRPG) more carefully,” says Schut, “I noticed that there are parts of the game going on that allow the user to simultaneously engage these male stereotypes. While playing a game that is very much like a playground, the user is the romantic hero who forcefully rids the village of evil, participating as both the rough and tough man and the 'good-guy.' That's a very powerful thing in terms of masculinity.”

Schut points out that satisfying the pressures of masculinity is not the only reason to play. Some male players may not feel deficient at all, while some women may enjoy the games immensely, but he says that these users would either play the game differently, or ignore certain aspects of it. “The theory lines up nicely with the demographics,” says Schut. “Eighty percent of FRPG gamers are male. There's not a lot of good hard data yet, but they also seem to be white and middle-class. Altogether this is a group that is likely to feel the pressures of masculinity.”

Because of changing perceptions of femininity and changes in the games industry, Schut says it's entirely possible for gaming to catch on for women in the same way it has for men. “Younger women are more in tune with computer technology than ever before,” he says. “It's only natural that this will lead to a greater interest in computer games. And as the number of women in the gaming industry increases, there will be more game makers who have a sense of what female players would like to play.”

And on some levels, this is already occurring. “The largest demographic group for playing online games at places like AOL and Yahoo are middle-aged women,” says Schut. “According to recent research they are heavy users. These games are what we call 'casual games'—basically adaptations of existing board games like scrabble and solitary or puzzle games. They're very casual, well-done flash games, with an addictive quality in that they're easy to get in and out of.” Schut says female players have also gravitated towards the best selling series, The Sims.

But whether or not gaming in itself is a healthy way to spend one's time—for men or women—is a hotly debated topic that, according to Schut, will never be resolved.

“A role playing game is an exercise in creative imagination unparalleled by any other medium,” says Schut. “There can be a number of unhealthy issues associated with the presentation of some of these games—but it depends on which games you play and how you exercise your creative imagination.”

“We will never come to any firm conclusions about whether or not a particular media text forces or changes people in a specific direction or not. However, even in the worst games, the players realize there is a degree of parody and cartoonishness and aren't blending them into real life.”

Last Updated: 2015-07-20
Author: Keela Keeping