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The gender gap within the gaming community has narrowed significantly in the past ten years (Sveningsson, 2012). Thirty eight percent of all women are now gamers. However, a lot of women gravitate to games that are solitaire or other casual games that are not seen as real games by the male dominated gaming community (Sveningsoon, 2012). This gap itself is evidence of how gender identity influences choices in the virtual world just as much in the real world. The virtual world often provides a place where anonymity can give rise to gender bending or taking on genders that are not the same as the real world. However, in the final analysis, gender norms and cultural constructs that are part of wider society are largely upheld in the gaming world (Todd, 2012; Sveningsson, 2012 Royse, P et al., 2007).
Women not only play different games than men, games that uphold gender identity constructs found in wider society. Cassell and Jenkins (2000) found that women characters in computer games are often that of damsels in distress who need to be rescued.
Feminine social constructivism is the theoretical framework within which gender identity and gaming is most often viewed (Royse, P. et al, 2007). Feminist social constructivism is the theoretical framework that Judith Butler also uses to describe the inherent, male dominated social structure that dominates and oppresses women (Butler, 2004). Butler subscribes to Foucault’s view that regulation is imposed via laws and that laws come from social norms. However, she diverts from Foucault in her insistence that to the framework of regulation and imposition is itself gender specific i.e. male. This constructed gender, formed by interaction or by ‘gender as doing’ (Wajcman, 2009, p. 8) provides a theoretical framework for how gender is constructed in its interaction with technology. In other words, both gender and technology are part of relationship that is intertwined within the various interfaces it provides, and ongoing process of gender imposition that is an extension of society (Wajcman, 2009).
Within social feminist constructivism there is general agreement that gender is a result of interaction. It is an identity that is formulated by society and imposed upon individuals. In particular, a male centric superstructure that informs all facets of society is imposed upon women (Butler, 2004). There is, however, disagreement about how these “performances” as Hansbury (2011) are transformed in the relative obscurity and disembodiment of cyberspace. Hansbury believes that cyberspace provides a transitional space that allows a “queer embodiment” (p. 315). Todd (2012) acknowledges that “gender bending” that occurs in cyberspace, citing the example of men who take on the female avatars and interact with other women. However, he also notes that these very same men enjoy the fact that the anonymity that this gender subversion provides enables them to act upon their sexual attraction of women. Thus, in the words of Todd, the “female avatars effectively works to reaf?rm their identities as heterosexual men” (2012, p. 104). Research by Todd seems to contradict Hansbury (2011) and points to the fact that the social gender constructs that are such an integral part of our identity in the real world extend into and take hold of our virtual gaming identities as well.
Female game players play less video games, are less involved and report more of their past time in non-gaming activities. Females also report feeling more guilty if they play. This aligns with the fact that they report having less time to play because they are engaged in activities such as household chores. Thus, the feminist social constructivist theory on male dominated cultural and social norms contributing to female guilt for gaming while unburdened males play as much as they want is supported by research (Phan, Jardina, Hoyle, & Chaparro, 2012).
Royse, P.et al. (2007) found that the convergence of social constructs such as gender and cyberspace are not as cut and dry as to be applicable to all women. Women tend to perform their gender identities and deviate from non-virtual gender constructs based on their levels of comfort with the medium they are interacting in. The common thread that binds them all is anonymity and disembodiment that allows them a gender malleable experience. How this virtual environment is performed within depends on how comfortable the women are with their virtual space. The interactions of women in gaming environments was based on their level of user experience and computer expertise. They divided the subjects into three categories: power users, moderate users and non-users. Non-users did not play any games, moderate gamers spent about one to three hours a week playing while power users ranged from three to 10 hours per week. Power gamers were obviously most comfortable in their environment and had no trouble navigating the gender pitfalls that they came across, pitfalls that are similar to the real world but more robustly expressed due to the anonymity that male players enjoyed. They prided themselves on their competitiveness and asserted their femininity by earning the respect of their male colleagues by virtue of their skills. When they did come across abusive language, they often looked upon it as a challenge, something that could be answered back by asserting their femininity via their skills as gamers. As one power gamer put it: “Sometimes, if I blew a guy up he would type ‘Bitch’…Well, that just makes me smile and go after him more” (Royse, et al, 2007, p. 563). Non-users, on the other hand, used their gender and the femininity associated with as a reason for avoiding games. They resorted to traditional female stereotypes to explain why they held the gaming community in such contempt.
It is hard, however, to find the line that delineates women’s attitudes towards and in gaming environments since the approach to the very medium being studied is based on gender norms that are part of the social constructions that are embedded in their minds. In other words, women who become expert gamers in male dominated and competitive environments such as Call of Duty or Halo are a minority. This minority status is itself a function of gender identity based on interactions and performances within the greater social and cultural paradigm (Hartmann & Klimmt, 2006). Hartmann and Klimt (2006) found that women had the greatest preference for games that provided social interactions instead of competition. Women were also averse to games that sexualized their characters. Interestingly, women were not put off by games that sexualized women within a story rich environment with character development and the chance for social interaction. This seems to be a reflection of women’s compromise with social gender stereotypes in society in general so long as they serve the desire to be entertained. The fact that women in Hartmann and Klimmt’s study preferred gender specific games that were more geared towards socialization and less aggression strengthens the argument that gender bending in gaming environments is limited to the surface and does not affect the deeply embedded social constructs that form gender identity.
Kapidzic and Herring (2011) explored the possibility of time and its impact on social interactions and gender in virtual space. The question they asked is a valid one. Have gender preferences and stereotypes changed with the millennial generation? Could it be possible that the interactive nature of gender and technology along with the more liberal political and social leanings of this generation have contributed to a true bending of gender that is different from prior and more traditional generations? Their answer seems to be no. Kapidzic and Herring (2011) found no discernible change in gender based attitudes and interactive habits from studies conducted in 1990s that probed the same question. They found that as in 1990s, “young females in 2010 still tended to present themselves as emotional, friendly, good listeners (reactive), sexually available, and eager to please males while young males appear more assertive, manipulative, initiating, and visually dominant…(p. 52). A study by Kuznekoff ad Rose (2012) found that female voice communication in a gaming environment was three times more likely to receive negative or aggressive comments. The language directed at female voices in online gaming communication was often misogynistic and hateful. For example, in one specific game almost every verbalization by the female participant was met with negative and derogatory responses. When the female voice said “hi everybody,” she was met with “shut you whore.” A few seconds later she made a comment which was met with “fuck you, you stupid slut” (551).
Thus it appears from the available research that the social constructs that feminism has identified as being imposed upon women through a gender based and male centric cultural and social framework persist in the gaming and virtual world as well. There are a minority of women in gaming who, as women do in other spheres of society, venture bravely into male dominated structures and achieve remarkable things without compromising their identity (Royse et al., 2007). The majority of women are trapped in all pervasive male centric social net that technology does nothing to compromise.
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