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The games industry is wrong about kids, gaming and gender (update)

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Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The results of a new study, revealed yesterday at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, show that today's young consumers are far more progressive than the games industry gives them credit for.

To ignore this study, say its authors, will inevitably lead the games industry astray. They conclude that by ignoring young people's appetite for strong, dignified, self-possessed female protagonists, game developers will not merely alienate a growing audience, they will leave money on the table.

These are the consumers game developers will be selling to for the next decade

Rosalind Wiseman and Ashly Burch collaborated to create their survey in the spring of 2014. Wiseman, herself a teacher, educator and author, was able to deliver the survey to 1,583 students aged 11 to 18 over the course of the year. The results, the authors say, are enough to turn the games industry's understanding of gender issues on its head.

The most compelling data point for game developers is the fact that girls in high school are far more likely to prefer to play female characters than boys of the same age are likely to prefer to play male characters.

Only 39 percent of high-school aged boys surveyed preferred to play as male characters, while 60 percent of high-school aged girls preferred to play as female characters.

That 21 percent delta, the authors say, is more than enough reason for game developers to rethink who their main characters should be going forward.

"We as developers," Burch said, "understandably ... are afraid of our games not selling.

"It’s terrifying to imagine that your game’s not going to sell. But it could be that we are falsely attributing the success of past games to things that don’t actually matter to the kids that are playing them."

Less than 40 percent of high-school aged boys who responded to the survey prefer to play as male characters.

To emphasize that point, the authors noted that fewer boys than girls had strong feelings on what the gender of their character was at all.

When high-school aged students were asked "Are you more likely to play a game based on the character’s gender?" 28 percent of girls said yes, while only 20 percent of boys said yes.

Therefore, to ignore girls' stronger preference to play as a female characters is to ignore the potential to fuel their appetite for games. When developers push male protagonists to the forefront, they're not encouraging sales among boys. They're actually stifling sales among girls.

In contrast, 60 percent of high-school aged girls have a strong preference for female characters.

"There’s a higher percentage of high school boys that don’t care either way," Burch said, "than there are high school boys that prefer playing as a man. But the inverse happens when you ask girls."

Burch and Wiseman took their study a step further by asking students if they identified as a "gamer." While 65 percent of girls said no, and 65 percent of boys said yes, both genders displayed anecdotal evidence of being just as invested, and just as knowledgeable about games.

Furthermore, when gamer boys were asked if they want to see more girls play games, 86 percent said yes. When asked if they wanted to see more female heroes, only 19 percent disagreed. This data, the authors said, means that the majority of boys are welcoming to the girls that enjoy the hobby, and that they are eager to share it.

GamerGate is suppressing the voice of the progressive majority of boys

"We have this perception of what 'gamer' means," said Burch, "and what people that associate themselves with that title think it means. As we saw with the girls — all of those girls — that you couldn’t tell the difference between whether or not they identified as a 'gamer' or not."

This makes the ongoing struggle the industry is having with the GamerGate movement all the more tragic, the authors said. The majority of young girls and boys who play games want to share the hobby with one another, and they want to see it change to meet their innermost needs for self expression and personal validation. When a vocal minority dominates the conversation on social media and elsewhere, the authors said, it drives this majority into hiding.

"You’ve got kids who care deeply [about games] but don’t feel that they have a voice," Wiseman said, appealing directly to the game developers in the audience. "I’m asking you ... to help them and to affirm their voice, and to not make assumptions about kids, assumptions that so many adults in so many other areas make about young people."

"Girls don’t have superheroes to look up to"

For all the assumptions that the gaming industry makes, she said, "the kids have a very different opinion."

In conclusion, Burch pointed to the onrushing wave of strong female protagonists in comics and movies. These industries, she said, had already come to the conclusion that women were valuable consumers and were adjusting their products to appeal to them.

"You all know Frozen right?" Burch said. "So let’s talk about Frozen. ... Why do little girls like Elsa? Because she makes ice with her hands. How cool is that? Girls don’t have super heroes to look up to. That’s why Elsa resonates so much with them.

"If you look at any of the Marvel titles that are coming out; there’s Captain Marvel, they’re including more Black Widow, there’s the female Thor ... Squirrel Girl. There are more and more titles with female leads, and it’s not just because it’s the right thing to do.

"It’s because they know that girls have purchasing power, and they want more girls buying their comics. Because girls are nerds, guys, and they want to buy your stuff."

Update: Polygon reached out to Ashly Burch and, with her permission, have updated the photos above with slides from her GDC presentation. Additionally, we intend to have the full deck embedded here soon. For those interested in looking at an overview of the study's demographic information, as well as other interesting data points not covered in this article, including the fact that the boys surveyed perceived girls as playing many more types of games than they actually do, see Burch's link below.

During their presentation both Wiseman and Burch both said that they plan to publish a more comprehensive analysis of their data in the future.

Wiseman and Burch GDC 2015 study

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