What do you think of when you hear someone described as a 'gamer'?

If you're like most people, you will likely think of a young, white male, hunched over a controller or pc in a dark room lit only by the bright blue light of a screen. It is the image fed to us by much of media and, in many cases, by video games themeselves. But this is a skewed and potentially dangerous view of video game culture.

Who Plays Games?

Data collected by Pew Research in 2015 reveals that the population of people who play video games is much more diverse than many have been led to believe.

The first blow to the ‘white male gamer’ stereotype targets the ‘white’ portion. As it turns out, the Black and Hispanic participants in the study were more likely to say they play video games. What’s more, white participants were the least likely to identify as a gamer, with the most likely being Hispanics.

The second blow is how evenly men and women play video games. The unweighted data from Pew’s website shows equal amounts (46% each) of men and women regularly play video games regularly. The weighted data that can be found in this article shows 48% and 50% for women and men respectively, but these are still very nearly even. An article from Statista shows a nearly even split of men and women making up the total gaming population as well. The self-identified gamer population of men, however, is double the population of gamer women.

Other oddities pop up when we compare the ‘plays games’ percent to ‘gamer’ percent. Participants with less than a high school education were the least likely to say they play games yet were the most likely to identify as a gamer. Similarly, participants with less than $30,000 household income also were least likely to play games but had a relatively high population of gamers compared to other income groups.

% of participants that play video games vs % that identify as gamers.

The most basic answer is 'A person who plays video games or participates in role-playing games.’ If it were that simple, however, women and other groups wouldn’t be so hesitant to call themselves gamers. In fact, there would be no need to have 'gamers' as a seperate population from 'people who play games'. They would be one and the same.

In reality, the term ‘gamer’ can be very polarizing. Some claim playing video games as a hobby is all it takes. Others place specific limits on the term, claiming that true gamers never play games on anything other than hard mode and reject what they consider ‘casual’ experiences.

Are Most People Who Play Games Men?

The same Pew study asked whether participants thought most people who play games are men. Most men and women said they agree in equal amounts. But if we break down the answers into those who play games and those self-identify as gamers, we see interesting differences between men and women's responses.

It seems that the larger a role video games play in their lives, the less likely women are to agree that mostly men play games. However, nearly the opposite looks to be true for men. There is a significant increase in the percent of men that agree with this statement from total to ‘play games’ and total to ‘gamer’. So gamer men are much more likely to agree that mostly men play games than gamer women.

Another thing to note here is that, in both cases, the amount of ‘unsure’ decreases significantly. This points to stronger feelings about the issue in general for gamers than for non-gamers. It is also important to point out that the amount of men that disagree also increases as video games become more important to them, but they are still in the minority.

The women in the study stay in the ‘agree’ majority until they cross into identifying as gamers. It is likely that women who identify as ‘gamers’ play games more regularly, are more likely to attend gaming events and follow gaming news. Therefore, they are more in-tune with gaming culture. So, if they think that ‘mostly men play games’ is a false statement, why do male gamers think it’s true?

It seems that the larger a role video games play in their lives, the less likely women are to agree that mostly men play games. However, nearly the opposite looks to be true for men. There is a significant increase in the percent of men that agree with this statement from total to ‘play games’ and total to ‘gamer’. So gamer men are much more likely to agree that mostly men play games than gamer women.

Another thing to note here is that, in both cases, the amount of ‘unsure’ decreases significantly. This points to stronger feelings about the issue in general for gamers than for non-gamers. It is also important to point out that the amount of men that disagree also increases as video games become more important, but they are still in the minority.

The women in the study stay in the ‘agree’ majority until they cross into identifying as gamers. It is likely that women who identify as ‘gamers’ play games more regularly, are more likely to attend gaming events and follow gaming news. Therefore, they are more in-tune with gaming culture. So, if they think that ‘mostly men play games’ is a false statement, why do male gamers think it’s true?

Part of the answer may be that male gamers are more likely to subscribe to the stereotypical version as gamer culture, where female gamers are naturally excluded, as they already fit the mold. Female gamers, on the other hand, would have a more open viewpoint. After all, they are already the outliers, which puts them in a better place to view gaming culture more objectively.

Video Game Characters

A large contributor to the perpetuation of the ‘white male gamer’ stereotype lies within video games themselves. Take a second to think through games you have played or heard of. How many of them had female specific main characters? The table below shows video game protagonists by gender announced at the E3 conference from 2015 through 2019 pulled from this Wired article.

YearGenderPercent

The highest percentage of female protagonists was in 2015 at only 9%, while 2019 was even lower at 4.8%. Meanwhile 21% were male in the same year. This is much lower than some previous years, but the drop comes from more and more games containing multiple options for a character’s gender (meaning the choice of female, male, or other in some cases). While it’s great to be able to choose which gender you prefer, male only protagonists are far more prominent than female only. Considering the gaming population is roughly even between men and women, it seems like game characters do not reflect game consumers.

Video Game Developers

What the E3 characters are closer to reflecting is the distribution of men in women creating the games they star in. Women make up 51% of the U.S. population, yet they are only 21% of game developers. By contrast, men are 71%, over three times more than women. There are also drastic racial differences between the U.S. population and game developers. Both White and Asian are overrepresented while Black and Hispanic are drastically underrepresented.

Gaming Diversity

A lack of diversity like this can and has led to some serious blunders by companies targeting their services to gamers. In March 2019, the Cranium Apparel company decided they wanted to target female gamers specifically with an Esports dress resembling a cheerleading outfit. The dress was short, sleeveless, and had a chest zipper. The company marketed the dress on Twitter, claiming it “gives a new identity to female gamers.” Female gamers were not very happy with this claim and stormed Twitter as well as several other social outlets to call out the dress as a very male-centric attempt to connect to them. One even asked if any women were involved in making the dress, and the company responded with “no”.

To Cranium Apparel’s credit, they did apologize and accept the criticism, promising to do better in the future, but the mistake highlights a serious problem in gaming culture. The people making games and game merchandise are mostly white men who continue to perpetuate the ‘white male gamer’ stereotype when the gaming population is becoming ever more diverse.

Diversity efforts of three major gaming companies.

Boasts that 48% of its employees in major development programs are women and that the company is devoted to equal pay standards. Lists several employee resource groups on its site. EA has a robust page on its website about diversity.

A 2019 report that outlines Microsoft's inclusion and diversity states that their workforce is 27.6% women, 4.5% Black, and 6.3% Hispanic. While this is above the industry average, it is still far below the national population. It is, however, a significant increase over previous years for the company.

Nintendo has often claimed high levels of diversity and offers diversity programs to its employees, but they have not shared their actual employment numbers. At the time of writing this, the diversity page on the nintendo website is fairly empty.

An important part of breaking down a stereotype is at its source. The gaming industry has a long way to go to achieve the kind of diversity that will reflect the changing gaming community, but diversity must be a priority. We should also consider how we use the term gamer. This article will not advocate that the term should be dropped, but game players and non-players alike tend to associate it with a negative stereotype. It may be time to consider how we use it to describe others and keep in mind that the group it is often used to refer to is not representative of game players as a whole.

Copyright © Emma Chapman 2019