Video Games: my new frontier?

Video Games: my new frontier?


Hi everyone,

I don’t play video games. In fact I don’t really play any games at all. But that’s not something I take any pride in. In fact I’m convinced I’m missing out on a lot of fun and opportunities to learn different skills. Lately I’ve been reading about video games. In these times of social distancing and sensory deprivation, I would now consider exploring the world of games.

Halt and Catch Fire Season 3 Finale Recap: 3.10: NeXT

There are multiple reasons why I don’t play video games. One of them is that nobody in my family played them. Another is that they have a history of sexism and misogyny that has made them unappealing to me. Some women are attracted to all-male worlds (finance, tech, venture capital, Formula 1, brick masonry, plumbing) but I tend to find them terribly boring.

I’ve never made a conscious decision not to play them (like I’ve never made a conscious decision not to read much about finance). Sexism doesn’t have to be violent or explicit to work its exclusionary wonders. The mere absence of women is often enough to make me feel uninterested in something. Though to be fair, video games also have a history of violent sexism.

So it is with a lot of interest that I read a newsletter by a woman about another woman who studies the psychology of video games. The newsletter is one of my favourites, Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study, one edition of which was an interview with Dr Rachel Kowert titled "Parents deserve so much more when it comes to the ways video games are discussed in our popular media."

I interviewed Rachel Kowert and I absolutely loved the conversation we had. Her words about the psychological needs (competence, autonomy, relatedness) you can meet with games really resonated. So did her rant against the moral panic surrounding video games that mass media keep spreading. I came out of this conversation determined that games should be my own new frontier.

🎧 You can listen to my conversation with Rachel Kowert titled “Let Children Play Video Games” by using the player above ☝️ or, if you prefer, on Apple Podcasts or Spotify (and why not seize this opportunity to listen to other Building Bridges podcasts?)

To say the history of video games is not inclusive to women would be an understatement

The sexism in computer science is closely intertwined with the sexism of the gaming industry. And vice versa. In fact today’s extreme gender segregation in both these worlds is fairly recent. Up until the 1980s there were a lot more women in computer science. (Watch the series Halt and Catch Fire to see wonderful 80s female characters in computer science and gaming.)

In the early 1980s nearly 40% of computer science graduates were female. But starting in 1985, those numbers suddenly plummeted. Today it is less than 20%. One of the main reasons for this dramatic shift is video games marketing. The dude-centric computer marketing campaigns of that time may be to blame.” Computers were used mostly for games which targeted boys.

For example in 1985 Apple’s ad for its new PC featured a boy who wants to be an astronaut (“there’s no telling how far it can take you”). In the ad the boy sits in class near a sulky girl in front of her own computer whose sad face probably broke every computer-loving girl’s heart. The boy teases the girl, thus subtly implying she can’t be any good at using it.

And voilà. After 1985 the male computing culture needed only to perpetuate itself. It became a chicken-and-egg problem. Games were sold to boys who were the only ones buying them because of all the marketing targeting them. Ten years later it was all too natural for Nintendo to release its “Game Boy”. And computer science lost its women too.

Because girls didn’t play as many games they didn’t use computers as much, which is what led to the “experience gap” (addressed by Jane Margolis’s research as early as the mid-1990s). In the introduction of her research paper, she mentions the story of a girl named Lily who loses interest in computer science:

Lily was a first-year undergraduate computer science major who entered one of the top computer science departments in the country with a great deal of enthusiasm for the subject. Her interest was first sparked in high school, when she took an advanced placement computer science course at the suggestion of her guidance counselor. "As soon as I started taking that course in programming, I realized I loved it...I absolutely loved it," she tells us in her first interview. Her enjoyment of a summer programming job solidified her decision to major in CS. She enjoyed "the challenges the programmer faces," and found the problem-solving to be fun.

Yet by the end of her second semester, she has decided to transfer to the English department. Her enthusiasm for computer science is extinguished. She says, "In high school, when I’d go home from class, I would be like ‘Oh, let’s program a little.’ But, now I am just like, ‘Let’s not bother.’" Struggling with the course work, perceiving her peers (mostly male) as doing much better with much less effort, feeling a misfit between herself and a cultural norm that associates success with an all-consuming love of computing, she questions whether she belongs in the department. Several semesters after leaving computer science, Lily describes her disappointment in having transferred out. It is not that she is unhappy in English. She loves the humanities. But she remembers how much she loved programming, had wanted to major in computer science, and feels dismayed with how her interest has been extinguished.

Lily’s experience is not unique. Her story highlights a key struggle experienced by many women studying computer science at the college level. Once enthusiastic about the field, their interest dissipates.

And so sexism in the gaming industry did not get better. It became worse and worse. Games featured only male characters and stereotypical hyper-sexualised female characters, which made them less attractive to women, which incentivized the industry to continue to target male gamers only. As Rachel Kowert explains in her book A Parent’s Guide to Video Games:

“The problem is that constant and prolonged exposure to the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of women in video games is thought to cultivate sexist thoughts, attitudes and behaviours among mostly male video game players. That is, the overwhelming portrayal of women in unflattering and stereotypical roles is believed to turn the interactive space of a video game into a highly influential method of teaching prejudice against women, whether intentional or not. This concern grows in regard to teenage players, as they are at a greater risk for influence via media.

Research have found that male players who are exposed to stereotypical representations of women in video games report being more tolerant of sexual harassment, and they are more likely to agree that women are weak and need a man’s protection.”

Why I would now consider making video games my own personal new frontier

  • Social distancing and sensory deprivation have taken a toll

To combat the toxic effects of isolation and sensory deprivation many people have turned to gaming. And right they are. Good video games meet some of our most basic psychological needs. As Rachel explains in our interview:

A good game is one that meets our three basic psychological needs. This is called self-determination theory. It gives us a sense of achievement, a sense of competence and a sense of relatedness. We get a sense of achievement by achieving things in the game. We get a sense of relatedness by playing with others or even the relationships that we have with the other computer-generated characters. And it gives us a sense of competence. We're able to progress, we're able to get better. 

So those three elements, competence, autonomy and relatedness are three basic psychological needs. And when we get them met, we feel good. And good games are capable of helping us get these needs met.

  • Cultivating brain plasticity and developing cognitive abilities

I’m 42 years old, the perfect age to look for the (now quite distant) child in me and find great joy in playing games. 40 is an empowering age in so many ways (I feel more confident, more powerful, more free than I was at 20 or 30) but it’s also an age of work work work responsibilities duties and no play. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

In addition there are many cognitive benefits to playing video games, which could help cultivate brain plasticity. It is said to help improve sustained and selective attention and visuospatial skills (a person’s ability to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects). 

But I wouldn’t buy too much into the idea of playing games just for the sake of fighting Alzheimer as most of these claims are dubious marketing claims. Really the most important thing is to have fun. That’s what’s ultimately good for cognition, memory and mental health!

  • Video games should play a part in the future of work

As an industry, video games will only grow in the future and call for more creativity and diverse talent. But that’s not all. In fact gaming may come to replace some of the everyday informal, yet essential interactions that take place at the office. Gaming is already used in team building. But it could gain more ground as a tool to create serendipity. 

So much has been said about the water cooler effect and the many virtues of random physical encounters to spark a sense of belonging and generate new ideas. Well, video games can do that too! We’re not about to find out about virtual serendipity by using Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex… but apparently there’s loads of serendipity in Animal Crossing or Minecraft!

The main reason why we assume that nothing can ever replace the office is that we’ve been using very disappointing tools. So far our online experience has been pretty shitty. It’s basically like going from 3D to 2D: you lose a lot. But couldn’t our online experience be a lot better and a lot more fun?

Managers, take note: virtual gaming can be a great way to engage and enrich your teams, especially in a time when bonding opportunities may be scarce. (...)

For one, playing games mirrors the kinds of interactions that help teams work better together, like pursuing mutual goals, allocating shared resources, negotiating task ownership, and collaborating to solve problems. A Brigham Young University study of 80 newly formed teams found that groups that played video games together for just 45 minutes were 20 percent more productive than those that engaged in more traditional team-building exercises. Notably, this was true for novices and avid gamers alike. 

(...) strong interpersonal connections are an important ingredient for more effective teams. “Playing games with someone means interacting in a different space. You’re making an agreement with them to navigate that space together, and you’ll see a different side of them than you normally would in a professional setting,” says Matt Parker, professor at the New York University Game Center. (see the whole article here)

  • Supporting feminism by playing video games

The industry has gotten so big. It is worth tens of billions of dollars and it is growing every year. Women can’t afford to continue to ignore it. And the fact is that many women do not ignore it: it is said that the number of female gamers is on the increase and that roughly 40% of US gamers are women. [*as of July 2022, women gamers in the US have reached 48%, slightly trailing male gamers at 52%] But the percentage of games created by women, marketed to a female (or mixed) audience is significantly lower than that: “Women and non-binary people make up approximately 14% of game audio professionals.”

It’s time to end the chicken-and-egg cycle. The more women play games and the more they communicate about what they’d like their games to be like, the more gaming professionals will start developing such games and hiring and promoting more women. We’re not there yet. But there’s hope. Cinema is changing. The video games industry can change too.

As you may have understood from this newsletter, I’m very clueless when it comes to games. I’m open to all your suggestions. What would be the best way for me to get started? What’s the game that YOU like best and why?

🏔️ I’ve finally taken up hiking in the Bavarian Alps! Thanks Clotilde & Klaus for getting me started. It’s going to be a weekly thing. I feel like a new woman 🤗

🚀 For Nouveau Départ we’ve recorded new podcasts, among which: Laissez-nous jouer aux jeux vidéo !, IKEA : une entreprise en transition ?, Merci mais non merci : j’ai choisi une carrière d’un autre genreTout comprendre sur la crise au TexasLa viande est-elle la nouvelle cigarette ?,  … Subscribe to Nouveau Départ!

👩‍💻 For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote new pieces: Télétravail : soignez la paranoïa de vos équipes !Conjuguer carrière et vie privée : les secrets des couples qui marchent, Soif de pouvoir, égo démesuré... souffrez-vous du syndrome d'Hubris ?, 15 conseils pour favoriser l’inclusion dans une équipe distribuée

🎙️ After Rachel Kowert there are more fantastic Building Bridges podcasts to come. 🎧 Subscribe to Building Bridges and receive the next one in your mailbox.


  • 📚 Imagine Your Flexible Office Work Future, Anne Helen Petersen, Culture Study, March 2021: “The idea of “boundaries” has become so porous when it comes to cultivating work/life balance that it’s lost all meaning. People don’t respect boundaries. You don’t respect them. Even when the pandemic is over, it’s going to be very, very difficult to try to rebuild them. What we actually need are guardrails, big and sturdy ones, to protect us from the runaway semi-truck of work.”

  • 🤓 The Woody Allen vs. Mia Farrow story is also a story of workplace abuse, Constance Grady, Vox, March 2021: “the story of Woody Allen and the Farrows is not just a story about child abuse and incest, although it is both of those things. It is also a story about workplace abuse. The power dynamics of this family were deeply shaped by the power dynamics on the sets of the movies they made together. Intentionally or not, Allen molded his relationship with Farrow so that he was in control of how she earned her money. And when their relationship ended, he took full advantage of that position.”  

  • ✉️ E-mail Is Making Us Miserable, Cal Newport, New Yorker Business Review, February 2021: “The missed connections in an ever-filling e-mail in-box sound these same Paleolithic alarm bells—regardless of our best attempts to convince ourselves that this unanswered communication isn’t critical. This effect is so strong that when Arianna Huffington’s company, Thrive Global, explored how to free its employees from this anxiety while they were on vacation (when the knowledge of accumulating messages becomes particularly acute), it ended up experimenting with an extreme solution.”

Until next time, let’s try and hike or play more 🏔️ 🕹️

The future of work, with a feminist perspective