Author: Jenson, Jennifer
This paper examines gender and computer game playing, in particular questions of identity, access and playful engagement with these technologies. Because computer-based media are not only central tools for learning and work, and because games are increasingly being recruited as educational and instructional genres, it is likewise exceedingly important, from an educational equity standpoint to examine the ways in which rapidly evolving computer game-based learning initiatives threaten to compound and intensify girls’ computer disadvantage, a cumulative dis-entitlement from computer-based educational and occupational opportunities. The video game industry, as so many have noted, is one of the largest entertainment industries in the world, last year (2003) making more money than the Hollywood film industry, $7 billion USD (http://theesa.com/pressroom.html). In the field of education, that video games have the capacity to capture and hold the attention of players of many different ages, and to "teach" new players the functions and controls of a new game with far greater alacrity, and to greater functional effect than schools teach comparably, and even far less complex, skills and knowledge, has not gone un-noticed. Working as we both do in faculties of education, our own studies of gender and computer game playing, examine questions of identity, access, and playful engagement with these technologies from the following premises: (1) As Henry Jenkins and others have argued for some time, far more boys than girls play computer/video games, and boys’ early and sustained exposure to and experience with gaming places them at an advantage with respect to computer competence and confidence when they enter and as they continue their schooling. (2) There is a tendency in the literature on girls/women and computer game playing to construct their gaming choices and play styles as distinctly, and essentially "female," characterizing those who choose to play as "liking collaboration," "non-violent" and "easy" computer games. Its worth noticing that the stranglehold these kinds of stereotypical and essentializing identifications and characterizations have had and continue to have on received wisdom, both popular and academic about gender and play interests, styles and preferences by no means originates with video game playing, but is indigenous to the culture of computing more generally, and that this gendered computer culture always already mediates girls’ interactions with those technologies, among which game playing is only the most recent subject of attention. Because computer-based media are now central tools for learning and work, and because games and simulations are increasingly being recruited as educational and instructional genres, it is likewise exceedingly important, from an educational equity standpoint to examine the ways in which rapidly evolving computer game-based learning initiatives threaten to compound and intensify girls’ computer disadvantage, a cumulative disentitlement from computer-based educational and occupational opportunities. In educational settings, the tendency has been to presume that technologies are "neutral" tools deployed by educators for ameliorative ends. Video and computer games, however, are far from neutral and we have seen little evidence of new educational gaming work being informed by attention to girls’ perspectives on gaming, their participation in and exclusion from game cultures, and an absence of theoretically adequate and empirically grounded studies of the kinds of games, characters, and overall approaches to ‘play’ that might better engage and involve girls. A case in point is Jim Gee’s recent book on learning in video games, in which he summarily dismisses "gender" from his own consideration of video games and learning. This dismissal is typically justified by reference to the recent proliferation of data from large-scale quantative research "studies" reporting that women are playing and buying at least as many computer and video games as men are, and in some cases, reporting that they play more often, not less. A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, for instance reported that 57 percent of female U.S. teenagers play on line, while another study on college gaming finds that "Surprising, slightly more women than men reported playing computer and online games (approximately 60% women compared to 40% men), with about the same number of men and women playing video games". This study goes on to explain that, "Part of the reason more women than men play computer games may be that video games are generally focused on action and adventure (often violent in nature), while computer games are typically traditional games (e.g. solitaire, board games)." In both of these studies, and indeed in all of the studies we’ve examined thus far, statistics like these are used to dismiss the question of gender and computer game playing from the outset (it is no longer a "problem" since so many more women are indicating that they are playing). Once gender has been excised as statistically in-significant, there is typically no further gender-based dis-aggregation of data, even when it might seem that statistically relevant distinctions should be made with respect to game preferences and time on the game (c.f. http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/resources/research_documents/studies/video_games/vgc_preferences.cfm), silencing in turn any follow-up research questions about whether and what women/girls are actually playing, and whether or how their engagement with game play is actually playful at all. In the initial empirical work that we will discuss in this paper, a study of girls and boys after-school video game playing clubs, we find no reason to believe, and in fact, many reasons to disbelieve the ways in which these large studies are reporting on game play, and good reasons for concern about what of significance is being actively obscured by them.
Contact: Jennifer Jenson, York University, Canada, email@example.com
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