A Word on Gaming & Gender

Gender bias is both a simple and a complicated topic. It can be a minefield of even the most well-intentioned person inadvertently putting their foot in their mouth, but I think it’s an important topic to discuss. I think it’s one of many situations in life where everyone can learn from those who may get it wrong, and we shouldn’t let the fear of being wrong prevent us from talking about it. Hello, my name is Simon and I’m a cisgendered white male in the 35–45 age range, writing about gender and gaming for this article only.

I’ve been playing games — board games, card games, video games — since I was probably 3 or 4 years old. A lot of my early computer game exposure came from my mother, I have clear memories of playing adventure games with her on the Commodore 64 in the early 80s, and she was also the parent who wanted to play Magic with me when I described the hobby to them.

I don’t think I’d be quite so interested in gaming today if it wasn’t for her, and this fact makes me even more sad about the conditions women have to face in gaming, beyond the general idea that we should, you know, just be kind to each other because it’s inherently the right thing to do. I know she would really enjoy some of the games I play or have played, but I also know that she would be really offended and disheartened by the racist, sexist, homophobic and downright mean attitudes of frankly too many people.

We’re too frequently told to “ignore it and it will go away” or that they’re “just teenage boys” and they’ll “grow out of it.” But there’s at least two problems with that, the first one being that the statistics aren’t backing it up. If you’re in your 20s and you’re still saying “that’s gay” in a derogatory way or some version of “you fight like a girl” in a derogatory way, then it’s time to “grow up,” meaning that it’s time to evaluate your contributions to the world and try to make them more positive in nature.

The second problem with that is that ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. Studies show that young (Approximately pre-pubescent) children respond best to positive feedback, while crucially adults (Approximately post-puberty humans) have a greater response to negative feedback. So passively ignoring unacceptable behavior is more likely to allow it to perpetuate vs. giving someone a “Hey man, that’s not cool” negative feedback experience. More people need to speak up more often then, especially those in the same general social grouping as the people causing the problem. Speaking out is something I’m generally terrible at, I freely admit, but it’s something I realize that I have to do better at if this problem is going to go away.

The other trope that gets perpetuated is that women have an inherent lack of preference for games, or for certain types of games. While there is some scientific research that clearly shows that males and females will inherently prefer certain types of toys, it’s also true that there are more adult female gamers than there are young boy gamers. So something else is happening here.

My speculation would be that too much of gaming is still seen as something “for boys” and the environment is so toxic for young girls, that they’re coming to gaming only when they’re comfortable enough with themselves to be able to put up with that toxicity. I’m saying that based on my experiences, even as a cisgenered white male, there’s games I’ve walked away from because the negativity was too much to handle, and that negativity wasn’t even directed at me. In other words, I’m not trying to say that women are weak, I’m trying to say that the attitudes need to change, for the benefit of everyone.

Another aspect of the “lack of preference” argument is that women don’t like certain games because they’re not successful at them, so they can’t enjoy them because they’re just not good at them. There’s a really interesting piece of research in this area, which I think is supremely relevant to Magic. The research was performed in the world of chess, and is summarized in this article.

To further summarize, it basically shows that of the women who do play chess, they’re not statistically different from the men who play chess in terms of skill. There’s never been a female world champion simply because there’s so few women who play chess that it’s statistically improbable for that to happen. The article also shows that of children who take up the game, there’s a similar rate between boys and girls of people who just don’t like the game and stop playing it. The only reason why there’s so many more male chess players in the world is because so many more boys take up the game than girls do. The other factors like aptitude and enjoyment of the game are essentially equal among the sexes. Think about that for a moment.

I think the things that we can do to make Magic more open for women are the same things we can do to make the world a better place for each other. Allow people to experience things without bias, and let them decide what they like because they like it, not because they’re supposed to like it. Be more thoughtful of the impact of your words: just because the people around you use certain words doesn’t mean you should. Be kinder to other people and more accepting of others’ points of view. Be more open and willing to share your love of gaming. Understand that the moment you share something it’s no longer yours, and is going to be influenced by the people you share it with. While that may be scary at first, ultimately the thing you love will only get better the more inclusive it becomes.

All of the above is my white, male, cisgendered, WEIRD perspective on these issues. I don’t claim to be right, I don’t claim to be speaking from a position of authority, but it is my perspective on the situation based on all of my observations and interests. I’d love to hear different points of view.

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