I’m trying to work through something which has been bugging me – gender deficit theories (i.e. the idea that male/female attitudes or behaviors are based on a lack of something). It’s hard to know how much to adopt defecit models when talking about gaming and questions of who plays what. There’s lots of literature in this post, but I’ve tried to use hyperlinks to non-paywalled sources where-ever possible. I’ll get into two main types of gendered deficit models I’ve seen, in relation to games, after a little bit of personal context.

The doctoral thesis I’m working on is based mainly around testing an idea present in a lot of the feminist lit. on games – that playing certain types of games has, over the years, given certain types of people (hint hint; the type with external genitalia) a sort of head-start in learning about and becoming enthusiastic about technology, programming etc. (for examples see: Kerr, 2003; de Castell and Jenson, 2007; 2008; Beavis and Charles, 2007; Taylor et al, 2009). I’m still very wary of industry reports claiming that there’s no gender imbalance in play. I’d like it to be true, but I think groups like the ESA tend to bundle all types of digital gaming together (that’s not to say that casual/mobile games aren’t “real” games – more that they’re not necessarily the type which will get someone interested in technology at a higher level). There’s also a reluctance amongst girl gamers to openly admit to playing when in the presence of female peers (Kerr, 2003; de Castell and Jenson, 2008; Cruea and Park, 2012) even though we know they do (and one of the great things about t’internet is that increased level of visibility that removes some of the anxiety about this kind of identification which might not be accepted by our geographically-close peers; see also Bronies).

But it’s hard to approach gaming and gender without having to wrestle with these deficit models of masculinity and femininity. They permeate the sort of commonsense understanding of gaming’s gender politics and a whole lot of academic research. You can also see them at work in actual gameworlds, particularly in environments like MMOs where boys are expected to tank and girls are expected to heal.

"slugs and snails and l33t ganking ftw"
“slugs and snails and l33t ganking ftw”


Deficit Models of Female Aggression/Competitiveness, or “Girls Hate Games Because Beheading Orcs is Gross”

Jenson and de Castell (2007; 2008) have argued that most existing research into “what girls want” from gaming has tended to reaffirm stereotypes about girls, such as some sort of natural preference for cooperation over competition. These sort of assumptions are examples of what Glick and Fiske (1997) term “benevolent sexism”; when a statement about the assumed natural “strengths” of either gender serves as a sort of double-edged, backhanded compliment (if you’re nurturing you’re probably weak; if you’re logical you’re probably insensitive, etc.). Benevolent sexism can describe any of those cases where someone thinks they’re saying or doing something nice, but actually making potentially harmful assumptions about what another can or can’t do based on their gender (the guy who once assumed my now-wife couldn’t put her own spare tyre on and then acted like she should be grateful when he insisted on doing it – you’re a good example).

The type of research which sees girls are fundamentally different tends to work on a sort of deficit model of femininity – i.e. one in which girls lack something. So you get – as Jenson and de Castell note – the repetition of statements like “well, girls don’t like games because most games are designed for boys to be violent and competitive”. In this model, girls lack some sort of attribute which boys have, and this deficit prevents them from engaging with what are seen as fundamentally masculine forms of play. The idea that boys are inherently more aggressive hasn’t gone unchallenged; popular associations between male physiology and aggression have been challenged even within evolutionary biology (e.g. Ramirez, 2003) and social psychology (Ostroy et al, 2006; Campbell, 2006; Wood and Eagly, 2002). One of the things I found incredibly irritating about the book From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, originally published in 1998, is that half of its essays are full of this kind of “girls like x, boys like y”, despite the fact that its closing chapter is dedicated to the testimonials of girls who clearly like y, and who think that competitiveness is an attribute that should be cultivated in girls and young women, rather than seen as the natural providence of penis-owners.


Deficit Models of Male Sociability, or “Guys Love Games Because Directly Interacting With People is Scary”

But what about teh menz? Media psychologists Cruea and Park (2012) make the point that most studies of gaming and gender do work on a sort of deficit model of femininity – the question is usually framed in terms of “why aren’t some girls playing?” instead of asking “why do some guys play so much?” Although this is just a passing comment in their essay, they argue that, because males are socialized to be less people-oriented (and more thing-oriented) they tend to structure their social interactions more around hobbies. It’s a gut-feeling but I do feel there’s some truth in this; you’re a guy, you feel lonely, you’re more like to say “hey, do you wanna come over and <do activity>” than just “hey I miss you let’s talk about our feelings”. This approach to understanding gendered relations with technology goes waaay back to Sherry Turkle’s work. For example, in Computational Reticence (1986) Turkle draws on the writings of feminist psychoanalysts from the 1970s and 80s (Chodorow, Gilligan and Keller) to make the following argument:

“Women are raised by women. Unlike men, they do not need to undergo a radical break to define their sexual identity. Unlike men, they are allowed, even encouraged to maintain a close relationship with the woman, the mother with whom they had an early experience of the closest bonding. Girls grow up defining their identity through social interactions: boys, through separation… They boy’s experience of early separation and loss is traumatic. It leads to a strong desire to control his environment”. (Turkle, 1986, pp50-51)

For Turkle, the boys’ “desire to control his environment” manifests itself quite clearly in what seems like a more obsessive relationship with computers and videogames. People are an unknown quantity – unpredictable – while everything about a program or a game happens as a result of the player. Success, failure (at least in fairly-designed games) are all a result of the player’s action; something which isn’t always guaranteed in social interactions. This theory interests me, because we do tend to focus on why girls/women aren’t engaging with this or that field of study/work, but I think it’s incredibly important to focus on the earliest years and to look at how particular types of activity come to be associated with pleasure.

So is this kind of “male deficit of sociability” explanation a biologically-essentialist one? I’m not sure. It’s not necessarily drawing on male or female biology to explain possible differences in worldviews and interests, and the wording “women are raised by women” does raise questions about, for example, would the archetypal boy/man be more people-oriented and less object-oriented if children were raised primarily by men?

As usual, I don’t have any answers.