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Gamer Equality: The Non-Existent Cognitive Disparity Between Genders in Gaming

"Real Gamers" and brain plasticity.

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Girl gamer. It’s what all women who play video games are being called. With the “girl” comes the mentality that we’re not “real gamers” and could never survive in an environment where the real gamers (i.e. men) are carrying AK’s and swearing at each other over their headsets. Girl gamers are supposed to like pretty games where we get to use our social skills, because that’s all we’re good at, right? Talking and being pretty?

Come on.

Female gamers have been fielding such comments their entire lives. The worst of them is the idea that women can’t possibly be as good as men at gaming because of their poor visuospatial skills. The idea that, if dropped into the same gaming environment as men, women who have the interest and drive to play will still never reach the lofty standards set by “real gamers.” Well frankly, the science just doesn’t support that.

You know how sometimes, you reach a level or a boss and you just can’t beat it? You keep trying, dying over and over again hoping for a tiny incremental improvement in your performance. And eventually you improve; either you learn to recognize the boss’ fighting patterns, or you level up your weapons by playing side missions. You use this process in your daily life too, in any situation where you have to learn something (which is, essentially, all of them). The brain is plastic, meaning that it (and by extension you) can change based on your experiences and learning. This plasticity allows you to recover from brain injuries, learn languages, and overcome nurtured gender differences.

Gender-different brains

People like to emphasize the differences between male and female brains. And yes, their brains are different; for example, ancient brain structures like the amygdala (responsible for the three f’s: fight, flight, and reproduction), the hippocampus (responsible for helping you navigate through the wilderness), and any areas affected by hormones are going to be different. Everything else, though, like the brain areas and functions that make us human (i.e. the regions and pathways for using words and driving cars) can be different between the genders, but they’ve become different through experience. Everything we learn and do changes the structure and function of our brains. The biggest trap people fall into when discussing gender differences in brain structures is to discount the cooperation of nature AND nurture. That’s right. AND. Because nature VS. nurture is essentially a myth.

There are a couple things I can think of that are the result of nature/genetics on their own. Your natural hair color, eye color maybe… and that’s kind of it. Your height? Nurture and nature. Skin tone? Nurture and nature. Tooth strength? Nature and nurture. You’d be hard pressed to find many things that are the result of nature or nurture singly. The reason is that the second you are conceived, you are being nurtured in the environment of the womb. And then once you’re born, you’re around your parents/guardians more than anyone else for the first few years of your life, and what do primates like we humans do best? Learn by modeling. So yes, you might act just like your father when you argue, but that’s not nature. Even people who have Type II diabetes and colon cancer on both sides of their family may not develop them, even if their genetics dictate that they are likely to. It is impossible to completely separate out the influence of either, especially when you’re discussing humans.

We humans love when things are straightforward and easily placed into categories. Like the idea that among early humans, men were the hunters so they needed better spatial skills and now that’s what men are forever, and women were the gatherers so they needed better social skills and now that’s what women are forever. And we think we see this same old story playing out among our male children who play sports and our female children who play house. Please stand by as I roll my eyes at this nature-based argument. I’m sure many of you would recount stories from your youth that involved an adult telling you, “girls/boys don’t do that.” When I was a kid, I played pharmacy (my friend and I nearly poisoned ourselves trying to ingest our grass-dandelion-moss-pebble creations), war (until we held some kid hostage and tried to “torture” him for information and got in trouble with our parents), arcade games, and sports. I grew up playing with the neighborhood kids, boys and girls, and was lucky to have very few adults around me that cared whether I stuck to games prescribed for my gender. Many kids don’t have the luxury of growing up this way.

So kids that grew up playing social games probably have well-developed social skills, and kids that grew up playing sports and physical games probably have well-developed spatial skills, because they had an environment to practice these skills in. Simple as that. To prescribe these traits specifically to one gender versus the other by virtue of gender alone is a mistake. To think of these traits as dichotomous is also a mistake. Lots of mistakes here. And thanks to our friend brain plasticity, even if you practiced one set of skills more than another, you’re not stuck with it and only it for the rest of your life.

Video games change brains

The outermost layer of your brain is grey matter, which is made up mostly of neuron cell bodies that connect to each other via synapses. These cells process and send to other cells the brain chemicals that make it possible to do pretty much anything you do. So when you learn and practice a new activity, new neurons can grow and create connections, increasing your grey matter volume. Therefore, the simple act of playing a video game can change your brain. For instance, one study found that playing Super Mario increased grey matter volume in several areas of the brain that are involved in navigating maps and environments, planning, and working memory. Playing video games can also improve reaction time and attention, and help patients with amblyopia (lazy eye) improve important visual skills.

Early studies examining the effects of video game playing by different genders found that, while playing improved spatial skills in females by a lot, they still didn’t perform as well as the males. In one study, female participants did worse than males on complex computer-based spatial tasks after playing Tetris, even though their performances on simple computer-based spatial tasks did not differ; however, several recent studies have found that playing video games can overcome gender differences in spatial skills. In one, researchers found almost no difference in spatial attention between gamers of different genders, and found that 10 hours playing Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault (a first-person shooter) greatly reduced or eliminated these differences between men and women, whether they were gamers or not. The difference in the results between these two studies can be explained by several factors. First, they measured performance on slightly different tasks. While both studies used mental rotation tasks (MRT), the Tetris study used more 2D MRT and figure completion tasks to measure spatial processing speed, and the Medal of Honor used 3D MRT and field of vision tasks to measure visual attention. Second, the differing complexity of the games may have had an effect on the skills being trained and how immersed participants were in the games.

While you shouldn’t take the results of any single experiment as holy writ, most studies have supported the idea that video games can improve the spatial skills of people of either gender. But whether gaming improves real-world cognitive skills or not, the abilities of a gamer should mainly be judged in the context they’re practiced in. In the Tetris study mentioned above, males and females played at the same skill level after 6 hours of training, even though males were generally more skilled when they started playing. If you think about it, the idea that the hours you’ve logged in to shooting frost trolls with a bow and arrow in Skyrim could translate to real-life archery is kind of ridiculous.

So who’s gaming?

So are women playing video games? A 2014 study conducted by the Entertainment Software Association found that 48% of gamers are women, and video game purchasers are split right down the middle. A common response to the idea of “girl gamers” is that women prefer games generally eschewed by men, like strategy games or ones with a strong social component (e.g., The Sims). But given that the largest percentage of console games sold in 2013 was action games (31.9%), followed by shooters (20.0%), this response falls a bit flat. Looking at these numbers, it’s a safe bet that a large chunk of that female gamer population is playing action games or shooters.

However, the game categories themselves are problematic. Category divisions like “action,” “shooter,” and “strategy” can seem really artificial, as games are becoming more complex and more difficult to classify. Just look at some of the top selling games of 2013: Grand Theft Auto V, Assassin’s Creed, The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite. Can you describe in one word what type of game each is? Lately, game developers are blurring the lines between types of games to create immersive experiences for gamers. These goals are being assisted by improvements in game tech and developer skills, and ultimately it pays in real dolla dolla bills to be inclusive.

So who’s gaming? Everyone. As it should be.

(image via Jose Martin Jimenez)

Eugenia works as an online product manager for an academic publishing company. Her background is in cognitive science, specifically in a field called psychophysics where she studied human motor learning. She is also a bellydancer. You can follow her thoughts on art, science, and being really busy at https://personwhodoesathing.wordpress.com/.

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