Sex, Stereotypes and Video Games

By Gordon Aplin (January, 2003)
In the very first Quandary editorial back in 1995 I touched on the subject of perceptions of computer game players and the blinkered perspective of the mainstream media. Little seems to have changed.

A couple of articles that appeared in 2002 prompted me to revisit this issue. A few months ago I came across a piece called "Computer games lure older players" on the respected BBC News website. Attempting to shatter the myth largely perpetuated by the mainstream media themselves it opens with the words, "Computer gaming is no longer the preserve of teenagers or youngsters." As if it was ever solely the preserve of this small segment of the population. If they had bothered to do some research they would have known that a sizeable number of people long out of their teens have been playing computer games for many years - more than two decades in some cases. Still, the article looked promising and quoted European survey results showing the "largest game-playing group is actually aged between 25 and 34." They also mentioned, "that women are starting to be a significant proportion of Europe's gamers". So far, so good. Actually, that's about as good as it gets as the rest of the article reverts to trite mainstream reporting.

For example: "In recognition of this growing group of ageing players, many games companies are producing titles, such as Grand Theft Auto 3, aimed specifically at this over 18 market." Once again the mainstream media singles out a controversial game and claims it is for 'adults' when it is merely 'not suitable for children'. But more on this later. The article then goes on to suggest that for really old people (over 40?) there are computer programs "such as gardening or genealogy". No suggestion or awareness here that there are many games to challenge and inspire this group of old dodderers who must surely be in their dotage.

The other article comes from the 60 Minutes II program that aired in December, 2002, and I must thank Louis at GameBoomers for pointing this one out. Entitled Sex, Lies and Video Games it also takes the line that games are "not just for kids anymore", and like the BBC article it features a controversial game, BMX-XXX, and claims it is one of a number of "mature titles aimed at people over 17". Apparently you get to meet a pimp and carry a hooker from place to place, presumably on your cool and sophisticated BMX bike, then you are "rewarded" by being allowed in a "virtual strip club". Here again it is suggested that a game aimed clearly at teenage boys is a game for 'adults'. The article goes on to say: "Racy titles like BMX-XXX or violent action thrillers are not the only games adults are buying these days. The vast majority of video games they play range from driving games to contact sports." No mention of adventure or role playing games.

Game players may be growing up but sadly it seems some game developers aren't. Unfortunately, they seem to have convinced the mainstream media, who constantly seek to emphasise sensation over substance, that 'juvenile' now means 'adult'. (For more detailed discussion of this issue see Adult Games)

Some interesting figures from the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA) are quite revealing. In their 2002 consumer (US) survey they note that 40% of frequent PC game players are over 36 years of age, 26% are aged 18 to 35, and only 34% are under 18. The figures for frequent console game players are significantly different with 45% being under 18, 36% aged between 18 and 35, and only 19% aged over 36. The gender breakdown is just as revealing with frequent PC game players being 62% male and 38% female, but for frequent console players it is 72% male and just 28% female; reflecting perhaps not just the sort of games available for consoles (a preponderance of largely teenage male pursuits) but also the nature of the interaction. An interesting commentary from this survey makes the point that "sixty-two percent of people who have been playing computer and video games for less than a year are women, concrete evidence that more and more women are being drawn to games." I doubt that they are attracted by titles such as BMX-XXX or Grand Theft Auto 3. The two articles mentioned here credit The Sims as the game that women want to play, which conveniently absolves them from looking deeper at the issue.

The mainstream media rarely distinguish between PC and console games and tend to lump both under the category of 'video' games and no doubt that is why they still see teenage male players as the 'norm' and are constantly surprised when survey results challenge that comfortable assumption. Even when they do report on the age of gamers, as in the two articles quoted here, they overlook the real story of the growing numbers of 'mature' and female gamers (see this thread on the GameBoomers forum) to focus on a controversial game for its 'shock' value. The impression that most non-gamers who perhaps may be interested in trying a game will take from these articles is that the new crop of 'adult' games are still aimed at the stereotypical teenage market.

As for me, I just can't wait to get back to my gardening program.

Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2003. All rights reserved.