Boys play with cars, girls play with dolls. Enter computergames?

In the last weeks Norwegian media have been filled with discussions regarding gender in a nature vs nurture debate. The setting for this has been a TV show entitled “Brainwash” (no: Hjernevask, if you understand Norwegian you can see it here) that took a critical approach to social sciences, and how fields such as Gender Studies were too quick to dismiss biological explanations for the differences between men and women. After all, our fight for equal rights and opportunities which is based on ideas of gender as socially developed and changeable have been going on for half a decade now – yet women are still underrepresented in certain occupations such as engineering, while dominating others such as nursing. Are we barking up the wrong tree?

In this context a comment emerged, reminding us that gender differences are also present when it comes to games. Boys prefer games with action and violence, while girls prefer puzzles and social games. While MMORPGs as well as new consoles are breaking up this stereotype with more games with equal representations from both genders, this statistical trend across most western countries cannot be denied. With the “Brainwash” debate in mind, a question that floats to the surface is if this difference in use, preference and interest is based in our genes?

Now, biology is a factor. After all, we experience our life and ourselves through our bodies. Our bodies are central to how we form our identity and how we access events in our life. Gaming would not be what it is without the release of adrenaline during action sequences, or our synapses working hard during a puzzle. However, the discussion is not about how our body is a part of how we live our life, but the body as a potential manuscript of who we can be and who we are.

Evolutionary psychology is based on the idea that superior (or atleast adventageous) traits are passed down as they have enabled survival and reproduction. Evolutionary psychology (broadly speaking) then attribute current traits, abilities and interest as a part of that selection. When finding traits that are recognized across a large sample, that is seen as an indication of psychological adaptations. This include fear of spiders, our gift for language to the ability to cooperate with others. Following this, the idea about gender based interests (such as girls being interested in people and boys preferring things) is a result of traits that helped our species survive, and show themselves today through f.ex. choices of games.

It’s tempting to explain such differences between genders by pointing to the genes. It would not only indicate it as a “natural state” of things (meaning we don’t need to get too worked up about it), but it would also give a tangible explanation of why girls and boys are different. After all, most of us experience ourselves as being “who we are” as men or women, not “positioning ourselves for/against masculine identities” or “performing gender” as Gender Studies have proposed as reasons for such gender differences to happen. It almost feels natural to think about it in terms of “being born that way”, as it confirms what we see every day when watching girls and boys behave and develop differently from a young age.

So, if it seems like a natural explenation that we are simply “born that way” – why am I all huffed up about it?

Because when studying society – in particular such pervasive and ever present topics such as gender-  Occam’s razor does not hold. A simple answer is not the best one. Reducing the many possible answers into one easily acceptable “fact” doesn’t make it more right, it is in fact removing it further from reality.

When looking at Gender and Computergames, several appraoches is possible. In this post I have outlined what the evolutionary answer is, but in my upcoming posts I will do my “regular” social scientist approach and look to what factors in our history, society and technology that could have produced such a marked difference in use between boys and girls.

First up will be the history of games and how computer games growth is still part of it’s masculine identity.

EDIT: This kinda got away from me, and my mind isn’t really on this anymore. However, it does blossom from time to time – so I’m likely to return to it. Apologies for promising more then I delivered.