Opinion

Let’s Encourage Girls to Play Video Games

Only 18 percent of computer science graduates are female, and that’s not surprising when so many video games are geared toward boys. But if we want more female programmers, we need more games that girls want to play

A 7-year-old girl playing a virtual-reality simulation video game, "Job Simulator," February 2017.
ASHLEE ESPINAL/REUTERS

There are some girls who choose to study computer science. But if on average 57 percent of all college graduates in the United States are female, only 18 percent of computing grads are women (based on 2013 figures). There are no quotas or constraints; if anything, the job market may use positive discrimination in their favor. Yet though there are girls in computer science, they are few in number. And it seems games are to blame. Not just any games, but video games.

Games are crucial to our socialization as people and our acquisition of basic life skills, and video games constitute a significant proportion of such games. Games help us develop our creativity, imagination, emotional and cognitive strength. They help us emulate adults, work in teams, resolve conflicts, strategize, compete, and more.

The video games business turns over $100 billion a year, and is controlled and managed mainly by men. Even if some game programmers are female, they’re designing games to be played by males. People are developing games that boys like because the ones playing the games are predominantly male. And if somebody has spent his life playing video games, it’s only natural for him to develop further in that field – at school and, later, when choosing a career. If somebody did not spend her life playing video games, she is less likely to travel that route.

There are video games for girls, but their developers seem to have fixated on the pink aisles at toy stores, ensuring the existing socialization is totally preserved. There are no strategy games; no adventures; no computer skills. It’s all beauty, fashion, arts & crafts, pink, pink, pink. It may glitter, but it doesn’t develop the skills girls need for the labor market.

Mattel Inc.'s Barbie Dreamhouse, just one of many pink items on sale to girls in toy stores.
Peter Foley/Bloomberg

The industry does spring some surprises, one being that 67 percent of the players in the farming-simulation game FarmVille are female and aged 30 to 40 – an age when women are supposed to have no personal time. When genderization is less obvious – i.e., when the game is less violent, less about warfare, cops, zombies and street gangs – the more women play these video games.

The degree of such genderization increases with the game’s difficulty, and the more it targets serious gamers who spend much of their day online. But women’s presence is significant in games that are playable on smartphones, which enable quick dips before returning to real life.

A relatively new video game genre, which is leading to real change while destroying tired stereotypes, is Sandbox – the highly autonomous “open world” games in which players roam freely through virtual worlds and can shape their environment. Basic gender rules don’t apply to this environment, and it’s been attracting girls just as much as boys. “Minecraft,” for instance, can be used to create war games – or worlds with heroines in adventures.

The first video game produced by the Israeli company Toya, “Save the Gorillas,” lets girls and boys accompany Dian Fossey in pursuit of gorillas in Rwanda. It’s an adventure and there are missions. Strategy needs to be planned, in order to get near the apes without getting hurt. Nobody dies. You can play it alone or with a group, compete, collaborate.

Television being passé and YouTube being the thing (according to a 2014 survey, when entertainment newspaper Variety found that the five most influential figures among Americans aged 13 to 18 were all YouTube celebrities), there were 47 billion views of “Minecraft” videos on YouTube by 2014 – and half the viewers were female.

Toya is among the pioneers in a market that’s likely to be huge and has implications for the opportunities our girls and boys have as they grow up. The value of leaving behind the paternalistic stereotypes that the majority of games perpetuate, of developing the imagination, encountering new worlds, learning how to build worlds or developing strategy in order to succeed in the mission, playing alone or with friends – these are values that cross gender, and their social worth is patently clear. There are reasons Microsoft invested in “Minecraft,” and there are reasons hundreds of millions of people buy this game for their kids.

The writer is VP Business Development at IBI Investment House and serves on the board of the New Israel Fund and Ma’aleh. She also chairs and co-founded “Invest in You,” a financial forum for women.

A girl playing a game on a Nintendo Co. 3DS handheld game console.
Bloomberg