Gender Bias

"WoW's like Texas.
Once you live there for a while, you always come back. Always" - Lara Crigger

A few weeks ago, I came back home to World of Warcraft. I'm not necessarily proud of this. WoW doesn't even make my top 3 MMOs of all time (Lord of the Rings Online, Neocron, Star Wars Galaxies). But no matter how often I stray, WoW has all the right ingredients to be addictive. Addictive in a good way. The combination of work, rewards, power and society are just right for scratching that particular itch.

WoW is just the latest in an endless rotation of serial addiction. For weeks at a time, occasionally months, I will get into a groove with a game. I'll think about it in the corners of my day. I'll bathe in the anticipatory light of when I will play next, and revel in the reality. This is a good thing.

Which is why I was particularly annoyed to discover a study last week suggesting that this wonderful fugue isn't the result of any predilection of mine towards gaming. It's just because I happen to be male.

Last week, some folks at Stanford University (who are undoubtedly smarter than I am) announced the results of their study on game addiction and gender. They took two groups of subjects, 11 male, and 11 female, and hooked them up to a functional MRI - a device designed to show brain activity in real time by measuring increases in blood flow in the brain . They watched them all play a game.

They didn't pick a real game like Tetris. Instead, here's what they came up with:

The researchers designed a game involving a vertical line (the "wall") in the middle of a computer screen. When the game begins, 10 balls appear to the right of the wall and travel left toward the wall. Each time a ball is clicked, it disappears from the screen. If the balls are kept a certain distance from the wall, the wall moves to the right and the player gains territory, or space, on the screen. If a ball hits the wall before it's clicked, the line moves to the left and the player loses territory on the screen.

Click on things as fast as possible before it gets too insane. I've played this before, I think it's called Missile Command.

They had these 22 folks play this game over and over again in 24 second bursts. They used a functional MRI scanner to track brain activity. And based on this, the findings are presented at Stanford Med's web site. This is not, I feel obligated to point out, what is in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. Somehow I must have let my subscription run out. Either that or my darn neighbor is stealing it off the driveway again.

In the interests of brevity, allow me to Fisk the Stanford article.

"The females 'got' the game, and they moved the wall in the direction you would expect," said Reiss, who is director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research. "They appeared motivated to succeed at the game. The males were just a lot more motivated to succeed."

This strikes me as a rather unscientific conclusion to draw. First off, I have a problem generally with small sample size studies. Yes, I understand that a carefully constructed small sample can have huge statistical significance. But even though I understand confidence intervals and Z-scores, I can't get around the fact that we are talking about 22 people here. How were they selected? How many of them play games on a regular basis? I can guarantee you that if I sit a non-gamer down with a "generic" reaction-time and mouse-accuracy game next to one of the Gamers With Jobs crazy-good Team Fortress 2 players, the non-gamer is just along for the ride.

Further, to somehow suggest that motivation in a game is somehow gender based solely because of this observation seems a bit of a stretch.

After analyzing the imaging data for the entire group, the researchers found that the participants showed activation in the brain's mesocorticolimbic center, the region typically associated with reward and addiction. Male brains, however, showed much greater activation, and the amount of activation was correlated with how much territory they gained. (This wasn't the case with women.)

Games are addictive!? Shocking! But the point here isn't that as much as the continued conclusion that males are more stimulated by success - meaning the better someone did at the game, the more excited this particular part of the brain became. On the face of it, this makes sense. They've already stated that in this group the men did better, and after all, if the little bell didn't go off in your head for each level-up, why would you keep playing? So why would it be surprising that these particular women would also show little involvement when you look at the brain scan?

The findings indicate, the researchers said, that successfully acquiring territory in a computer game format is more rewarding for men than for women. And Reiss, for one, isn't surprised. "I think it's fair to say that males tend to be more intrinsically territorial," he said. "It doesn't take a genius to figure out who historically are the conquerors and tyrants of our species"”they're the males."

And here, ladies and gentlemen, is our Fox News moment. We've gone from "we found 11 guys who are good at games" to the tired old saw of "men destroy everything" in one quote. No, I don't have a long list of female torturers and tin pot dictators to rebut with. But I do think that one-liners like this coming from the supposed cognoscenti do nothing to help the world understand the subtlety of human history, to say nothing of the world of videogames.

Reiss said this research also suggests that males have neural circuitry that makes them more liable than women to feel rewarded by a computer game with a territorial component and then more motivated to continue game-playing behavior. Based on this, he said, it makes sense that males are more prone to getting hooked on video games than females. "Most of the computer games that are really popular with males are territory- and aggression-type games," he said.

I have a feeling he started out trying to say "well, for this game ..." in an effort to not paint with a ginormous brush, but by the time he was done talking he'd put his foot back in his mouth.

What the heck is a "territory- and aggression-type game?" As far as I can see, this includes essentially any game that is not a form of puzzle solving solitaire, and even then I think I could survive a bar-stool argument. Freecell? All about claiming the stacks. The Sims? More stuff, bigger house. Every real time strategy game. Ever first-person shooter. Every arcade game in which you must press a button to keep the game alive can be considered "aggressive."

I can come up with a few exceptions. Phoenix Wright. Myst. Deduction and exploration games. But even Endless Ocean is ultimately about exposing more of the map - gaining more territory.

I'm not so naive as to suggest that there are not differences between men and women. I defy any parent of a matched-set to think that gender is not genetic. I'm also not going to suggest that games aren't often violent, aggressive, and hyper-stimulating in the same way as a high-energy action movie. But the way the results are presented here, and which will most assuredly be trotted out onto Fox News for years to come, are insulting. We know from sampling a much, much larger group of people that almost 40% of gamers are women. Through the sound bites summarizing Reiss' study, the general public will be led to believe that this 40% are not only "bad gamers," but somehow an anomaly.

Gamers, game developers and game journalists (myself included) are all complicit in this. Just as we fail to take our passion seriously enough to defend it, we also fail to debunk the very stereotypes this study is reinforcing.

Millions of women play games of all kinds. Let their experience of gaming - not that of 11 study participants playing lo-res Missile Command - speak for itself.


rabbit wrote:


I want to thank you, deeply, for de-cloaking and weighing in. I take every one of your comments and arguments seriously, and you've made me walk through the article one more time. Your distinction between significance and validity is an important one, as is the issue of underlying science vs. actual deployed methodology.

I'll hope you keep uncloaked. Great ideas here.


PS - Zen, hard to see the location of tongue in your mouth, but I can assure you as someone who spends 10 hours a day trying to get ideas across to vastly different kinds of audiences, being able to walk over and read about a word can be a powerful and stimulating process. It's not understanding that the color "red" describes a particular spectrum. It's reading about how the word has been used over time, perhaps extracting a few quotes where the usage was changed, suggesting alternate ways of describing whatever it was I was trying to describe. I see it as similar to looking at code samples to understand how, say, a conditional syntax can be constructed in an elegant way, instead of just reading the man page for "while."

I don't spend a lot of time looking up words like "red," but I do spend a lot of times using it as a thought-prod.

I'm with you 100% on the first point my fuzzy friend, welcome Mahni. I'll also apologize for your confusion about the placement of my wicked tongue.

I'm just jealous because I don't own a complete edition of the Oxford English Dictionary Collection. I am all smoke and mirrors on this end!

I may, as you implied, do the same job you do as a writer for the general masses but I have found that I can always find the inspiration to word-riddles within the very hearts and incredible minds of the public when I seek it, but that is just my own way of thinking which should be highly doubted. I apologize for my seemingly abrupt attack on the use of the OED.

As a child I, my father, and my grandmother (his mother) used to end up in rather ridiculous battles of who could get the highest score on various video games when she would visit. I seem to recall one summer with Frogger where I would wake up in the morning, play the hell out of it until I had the highest score. Then my dad would come home from work and play until he beat my score. Then grandma would come along after he was satisfied with his lead and play until long after everyone else was asleep to gain the lead. The next day the cycle would repeat. I'm sure it wasn't any desire to conquer or by no chance a fierce sense of competition that kept a 60 year old mother of four who wouldn't normally look twice at a video game up til the wee hours of morning hopping a silly little frog through oncoming traffic.

This doesn't prove anything by any means but I don't think it would be too hard to find 11 people like my grandmother or even a good number of the women I have gamed with over the years. If the female side of the study had been made up of such women I think the results would have been significantly different. *shrug*

Thanks for the welcomes! I've loved the site and the thoughtfulness of the people who post here, so I'll definately try to stay decloaked.