Not Just for Girls: Encouraging Cross-Gender Role Play and Reducing Gender Stereotypes with a Strategy Game

Alberto Mora
Oct 2 · 3 min read

Harsher sanctions against cross-gender role behavior among boys in Western cultural contexts create greater pressure for boys to adhere to traditional gender roles perceived to be acceptable by their parents, peers, and society at large. Indeed, research conducted in the United States over the past several decades has shown that boys in particular display a greater conformity to gender stereotypes, with the most common metric of such conformity being the activity of children during play, where the impact of current and future social roles, as well as the rewards and punishments for role nonconformity, may be experienced most keenly. To this day, gender stereotypes remain pervasive and persistent forces in children’s play contexts, and play choices, activities, or behaviors that defy traditional gender norms, such as boys’ engagement with traditionally feminine play objects and roles (e.g., dolls or princesses), continue to have immediate, and often punitive, consequences.

The present work aimed to tackle these barriers to cross-gender role play for boys head-on by investigating the impact of two design decisions incorporated into a tabletop strategy game that puts all players into the role of a sibling princess character. Specifically, a pair of randomized experiments tested the impact of varying the timing of the revelation of the characters’ gender (Study 1) and the degree of femininity of the illustrated representation of the characters (Study 2) on adolescent boys’ experience of the game, their levels of experience-taking (i.e., connection with and assumption of their roles as princesses in the game), and, consequently, their shifts in both gender perceptions and self-perceptions.

Study 1 showed that slightly delaying the revelation of players’ roles as princesses significantly encouraged higher levels of experience-taking, which mediated a reversal in the stereotypical association of communal or emotional traits with “female,” and, moreover, enhanced boys’ evaluations of the game. Study 2 revealed that participants who were given a less feminine illustration versus a more feminine illustration of the characters reported greater experience-taking, exhibited higher levels of self-ascribed androgyny, and evaluated the game more favorably. Together, these findings illustrate that strategic design choices can facilitate boys’ adoption of cross-gender personae, and that such role-play experiences open the door to shifting traditional gender norms and roles. We discuss the implications of these findings for using games as a force for social change and situate the strategies utilized in this work within a broader framework of transformative game design that involves embedding persuasive content and utilizing social science methods for evaluating the impact of games on players.


Contact author: Geoff Kaufman

CHI PLAY session:
Beyond the Stereotypical
Friday, 25 October 2019, 9:00–10:30

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