By Jennifer Geller, Savvy Cyber Kids Contributor

Many consider the U.S. the birthplace of gaming, borne arcade gaming, the introduction of the first personal computers and home gaming consoles. These influences produced the game players and the game developers who shaped the direction of the industry—leading to gaming improvements in software, graphics, sound and player interaction that has also informed the technologies we use on a daily basis.

Whether you consider yourself a gamer or not, there is no denying that gaming is a major industry. Worldwide video game sales approached 75 billion in 2015 and are expected to reach 90 billion by 2020. In 2014, there were 1.8 billion gamers in the world—that’s 25 percent of the entire global population!

So, who is playing all of these games? You may think that video games are just for boys but the statistics say otherwise. According to Statista, in 2017 women accounted for 42 percent of all gamers in the United States. While 27 percent of U.S. video gamers are between the ages of 18 and 35, almost the same amount, 26 percent of those surveyed, are over 50 years old.

Clearly, video gaming is not merely a child’s pastime and not relegated to a boy’s club. But do boys and girls—men and women—experience gaming differently? While half of the player-base of solitary role-playing games are women, when it comes to social role-playing games, the majority of players are male. Why? Studies and firsthand accounts by girl gamers say role playing communities are rampant with sexual harassment. Read: Men Don’t Like Women Who Play Online Games; Sexism in Video Gaming Is Just Another Form of Bullying; Women Gamers Reveal Vile Online Abuse and World of Warcraft Has A Rape Problem.

These accounts invite the question, should we be keeping our girls away from video games or encouraging girls to be gamers? Well, as parents we need to recognize that gender disparity in children’s play sends a message that video games and computers are just for boys. And this message will shape the career choices made by our children.

  • Statistics from Girls Who Code, reveal that girls today are steering away from math, science and computers. In 1984, 37 percent of computer science majors were women but by 2014 that number had dropped to 18 percent. The computing industry’s rate of U.S. job creation is three times the national average, but if trends continue this study estimates that women will hold only 20 percent of computing jobs by 2025.
  • Looking at Silicon Valley today, women own only 5 percent of startups and only 7 percent of partners at top 100 venture capital firms are women. After peaking in 1991 at 36 percent, the rate of women in computing roles has been in steady decline. Now, they hold only 25 percent of computing jobs. Women hold only 11 percent of executive positions at Silicon Valley companies.

So, are these trends demonstrating a lack of interest on the part of women or are stereotypes sending our girls the message that women don’t have strong math and technical skills and that men make better engineers and computer scientists?

Sheryl Sandberg thinks we as parents can do better and wants us to encourage our daughters to take an early interest in the STEM fields by getting girls to play more and play with video games to pique their interest in computers. Speaking about gender inequality in the workplace, Sandberg said, “Computer games are the gateway to computer science. A lot of kids code because they play games. Give your daughters computer games.” This statement is backed up by a University of Toronto study, published in the journal of Psychological Science in 2017. Ensuring that girls see their careers choices in technology is important because high-tech jobs pay well. The gender gap in computer science ties into the larger U.S. wage gap, where women make 70 cents to the dollar compared to men.

Still as parents, we also must be thinking about what messages these games feed our children and how we want to influence our children’s experience on this virtual playground. Is the media hype about negatives surrounding video games what your children are experiencing?

In 2015, educator Rosalind Wiseman was presenting to 700 middle schoolers. In her program, she started a dialogue about First Person Shooter games as a way to talk to girls about boys and realized that a large majority of those in the audience—all 7th grade girls—were playing these games. She had thought these places were “no girls allowed” spaces and wanted to learn more. This led to a survey with 1400 responses from 6th-12th graders from schools throughout the country:

  • Girls are playing all kinds of games: While 32% of the girls surveyed said they play games on their phones, 26% of the female respondents said they played First Person Shooter Games, 17% played sports games and 36% played Role Playing Games.
  • Guys want girls to play more games: 67% of middle school boys want more girls playing games. 87% of high school boys want more girls playing games.
  • Guys also believed that girls were already playing these games: 66% of boys think that girls were already playing First Person Shooter games. 54% thought girls were already playing sports games.
  • Both genders aren’t more likely to play a game based on the gender of the protagonist: Female: 70% say it doesn’t matter. Male: 78% say it doesn’t matter
  • But girls have strong opinions about who they want to play: In high school, the majority of boys don’t have a preference of the main character but girls do. High School Boys would rather play a…Female protagonist:15%; Male protagonist: 39%; and No preference: 46%. Whereas, High School Girls would rather play a…Female protagonist: 60%; Male protagonist: 6%; and No preference: 34%. However, the Middle School numbers are different. Middle School Boys would rather play a…Female protagonist: 7%; Male protagonist: 59%; and No preference: 39%. Middle School Girls would rather play a: Female protagonist: 46%; Male protagonist: 6%; and No preference: 48%
  • Most male gamers want more female heroes in their games. 86% of boys that identify as gamers want more females playing their games. 55% of boys that identify as gamers think there should be more female heroes in games. 57% of boys who identify as gamers believe that female characters are too often treated as sex objects.

You may hate playing games yourself and you may wish that video games didn’t exist, especially those with violent and sexual content. You may think it would be best if no young person ever played another video game. And you can try to make that the reality in your house. But video games are here to stay and your kids will be exposed, if not deeply involved in this world. So, you have a responsibility to raise cyber aware kids and to get and stay involved in your children’s digital lives.

On the positive side, Rosalind Wiseman points out that, “games also give young people the opportunity to learn how to balance their responsibility to treat others with dignity with their right to express themselves freely, be creative, work in a group, and contribute to something that is valuable to them.” Wiseman believes that “young people need to know from the adults in their “real lives” that they have the voice now to make games better and challenge the loudest in the gaming community who may not represent their values and core beliefs.”

This is where digital parenting comes in. You don’t need to game with your children but you can and should get involved in their gaming worlds and encourage your children to see and challenge biases, stereotypes and the negative aspects of gaming. These conversation starter questions can help:

  1. Ask your kids what kinds of games they play. A common stereotype is that girls only play games on their phones. How does this belief contribute to the way girls are perceived? Why wouldn’t girls feel comfortable admitting they played certain kinds of games?
  2. The media consistently portrays gamers as male, with girl players being the exception. The studies we shared here show otherwise. Ask your kids, why do you think this is?
  3. Ask your kids what gender they choose for their gaming characters and see how that changes as they age. Talk about why this is. Explore the reasons why girls may have a stronger preference for playing as a girl.
  4. Ask your girl gamers if male gamers treat them badly. Is your girls’ experience of this in sync with the media portrayal as the vast majority of male gamers being sexist? Discuss why those male gamers who fall into that category seem to have the biggest voice in media discourse about gaming.
  5. Talk about where the assumptions about boy gamers versus girl gamers may have come from and how these assumptions about who is playing games may encourage or stop girls or boys from advocating for change in video games.

Today’s kids are future game enthusiasts and game developers, not to mention the tech leaders of tomorrow. What they learn now about the good and the bad about gaming will shape the games that come for the next generation. More importantly, the ways our future virtual—and IRL—personas interact with each other is being shaped right now on video consoles throughout the world. It’s time for the Tech Talk!

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