14 min read

Computer science stereotypes as barriers to inclusion for women and how they extend to videogames

A review of studies in how computer science stereotypes act as psychological barriers to women from majoring to computer science. These barriers are extended to videogames.

In my previous blog post, I reviewed a study on the associations between career interests and videogames preferences of which I argued the need to go deeper than just looking at associations. The study piqued my curiosity about why so few women major in STEM careers and how this affect women’s career interests with videogames (see Wikipedia). To my knowledge, most universities offer videogames design courses through computer science, a major predominantly populated by men. There are many researchers who studied the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers and they found different kinds of barriers (i.e. cultural, psychological, etc.). I will summarize studies focused on a single aspect and consider its relation to videogames, which at this point referring to interests in gaming and careers in videogames.

There is an underrepresentation of diversity in STEM occupations and by extension to videogames. According to the National Science Foundation (2013), less than 20% computer science graduates are women. The issue is more pronounced for minority women where 4.37% of computer science graduates in 2006 are black women and 6.7% are Latina (Simard, 2009). In a similar vein, a 2014 survey of videogame developers commissioned by the IGDA (Edwards et al., 2014), women comprised 22% of the survey and 79% are caucasian/white. The connection between videogames and STEM is that the latter provides courses and skills necessary to work in videogames. On the consumer side, 48% of people who play videogames are women (ESA, 2014), but there are gender differences in what games women and men preferentially play (see Ghuman & Grifffiths, 2012; Eden et al., 2010; Jansz & Martens, 2005).

The 2014 IGDA survey found that the majority of developers felt that diversity was important for their workplace and the industry. However, their perceptions of this diversity is less rosy as over half reported of not knowing whether their company had diversity programs or know their company did not have any such programs. The benefits of diversification in STEM and by extension to videogames is summarized by Laralyn McWilliams (2015). The gist is that diversification means more perspectives leading to greater benefits.

Research on barriers to STEM and videogames

There are challenges in encouraging underrepresented individuals in considering STEM and videogames careers. I would reason this can apply to videogame playing as well. There is considerable research about promoting STEM to underrepresented individuals and I will focus on a specific area I familiar with: stereotypes. I will review research from Sapna Cheryan (University of Washington) who examines the stereotypes of computer science and its effects on women’s interests.

Cheryan and her lab conducted series of experiments to examine how stereotypes act as a psychological barrier to majoring in computer science. The common elements of these experiments consisted of inviting non-computer science students. They interacted with the independent variables, either objects in a room or with confederates posing as computer science majors. Then, afterwards the participants indicated their interests and/or feelings towards computer science.

Stereotypes about computer science as a field

Cheryan et al. (2009) experimented how objects in a room can influence women’s interests to computer science. When you are at an unfamiliar environment, you look around to get some ideas of what the people are like, their personality, taste, etc. A gamer’s room might have videogame posters or geeky memorabilia that tells a stranger that you are gamer and they’ll infer about you from what they know about gamers.

In experiment 1, participants were invited to a room in the computer science building either filled with stereotypical objects of a computer scientist: Star Trek poster, comics, videogame boxes, soda cans, junk food, electronics, software, computer parts and technical books and magazines) or non-stereotypical objects: nature poster, art, water bottles, healthy snacks, coffee mugs, general interests books and magazines). In experiment 2, they read descriptions of two all-female companies whose rooms are descripted matching to that of experiment 1. In experiment 3, they changed to gender equal companies, the companies were left vague, again with different room descriptions. In experiment 4, they assessed the participants baseline interests before the experiment, and they were invited about joining a web design company, which is less stereotypical than computer science.

Cheryan et al. found that stereotypical objects (e.g., Star Trek poster, comics, videogame boxes) decreased women’s interest. This decrease happened even if participants were told there was an all-female or gender-equal team or a more generalized company. The stereotypical objects were masculinity cues to the women and that the environment (team, company, occupation) is therefore masculine. These cues signaled to the women that they do not belong.

In relation to videogames, introducing women to gaming in a stereotypically gamer environment may make them feel less welcomed. Perhaps you might want to start introducing video games in the living room or at least in a casual setting. Furthermore, gamers can be more inclusive by having a genuine interest in games they currently play, this would make them feel welcomed. A dismissive opinion about ‘casual games’ from a hardcore gamer would probably make a more awkward situation.

Commercial interests may benefit in re-examining their brand image. Videogames retail stores may want to refashion their brand image, such as reducing gender stereotyping cues in their stores, or adding more cutouts that cater to both genders, maybe Pokemon or some other games popular to both boys and girls. A tangential relation is reducing the employment of promotional models at trade shows (see Chen, 2014). Furthermore, this apply on the internet. Videogame websites may benefit from a more inclusive appearance in attracting a more general audience or new gamers starting by excluding those Evony ads. A cursory academic search reveals studies of website design and gender that could help attract more users (e.g., Moss et al., 2006). However, this does not mean branding images on the likes of female fashion (video example), you might attract potential female gamers, but it does not truly represent what you are selling for. A change of environment is only one aspect of the computer science stereotype, another one is the interpersonal kind.

Stereotypes about computer scientists

Cheryan et al. (2011, 2012) experimented how people embodying computer science stereotypes can influence women’s interest to computer science. When you meet strangers, you look at how they dress and infer about their personality, tastes, and interests. Some may be wearing shirts of their favourite music bands communicating their love of the band. Some might be wearing office wear communicating their professionalism and you would never guessed that they might be gamers or cosplayers. A T-shirt with a slogan “I code therefore I am” plainly communicates their computer hobbies.

In these experiments, participants were involved in a “getting to know each other” task. The task involved asking questions from a list to a confederate, such as name, year in school, major and where they are from. The computer science confederate either responded stereotypically or like an average college student to the following questions: hobbies (video games, anime and programming vs. sports, listening to music and hanging out), favourite movies (Star Wars vs. American Beauty), television show (Mystery Science Theater 3000 vs. The Office) and magazine (Electronic Gaming Monthly vs Rolling Stone). The confederates even dressed differently (Glasses with a T-shirt slogan “I code therefore I am, unfashionable pants, socks and sandals vs. solid-colored shirts, jeans and flip flops). Two different settings were tested, one with a live confederate and another in Second Life. Participants interacted with either a male or female confederate.

Cheryan and company found that interactions of a few minutes with stereotypical computer science confederates had adverse effects relative to the non-stereotypical computer science student. The effects were that women had decreased interest and beliefs in succeeding in computer science. The decrease held despite interactions with female confederates, if they displayed computer science stereotypes. The women felt less similar and had lower sense of belonging with the computer science stereotypes which in turn affected their beliefs in succeeding in computer science. The effect were true in both live and virtual interactions. The effect even lasted two weeks after such interactions (Cheryan et al., 2012).

In relation to videogames, introducing women to gaming from stereotypical gamers, regardless of gender, may make them feel less welcomed. Combined with the findings about the stereotyped environment, it might doubly make it difficult to recruit women to the gaming industry or even to play a ‘hardcore’ videogame. Cheryan et al. proposed one way to downplay these stereotypes is to present aspects of gaming that women find important, perhaps social interaction as an part of the gaming experience (see Lucas & Sherry, 2004; Reinecke et al., 2008). Second, the author emphasized that female role models are important sources of support among women who are already in the field. For potential recruits, careful attention should be given to male and female role models where they can convey a sense of belonging, something that both role models and recruits share in common. Unfortunately, this may be difficult as stereotypes are strong mental images and the media is not helping matters much in dispelling the myth of the lonely and socially awkward gamer.

Stereotypes of computer scientists in the media

The stereotypical characterization of computer scientists in the media are shown in the likes of television programs, such as The Big Bang Theory, The IT Crowd, and Silicon Valley. These television shows portray computer scientists as obsessed with technology and computers, lacking any interpersonal skills, highly intelligent, unattractive, pale, thin, and wearing glasses. Most notably, computer science is masculine. These characterizations are shared with the online gamer (Kowert et al., 2012; Bergstrom et al., 2014). Despite many gamers who don’t fit these stereotypes, there are some who do and they are brought into the online spotlight to reinforce these stereotypical perceptions.

Cheryan and company (2013) had participants read a short newspaper article about computer scientists. There are two versions of the article: one that reinforces that computer science is dominated by ‘geeks’ and one that affirms computer science is no longer dominated by ‘geeks’. What the authors found is that women were less interested in majoring in computer science after reading the stereotypical article.

In relation to videogames, South Park was infamous in its depiction of gamers in their World of Warcraft episode. Google search results of “gamers” and “girl gamers” turned up interesting as well. How women react to gamer stereotypes and online portrayals of female gamers could influence their interests in video games. Would these portrayal affect women’s sense of belonging, similarity and support once they get serious with video games?

Stereotypes are not always bad, but one stereotype is not one size-fits-all

Cheryan and company (2015) noted that stereotypes are not always a bad thing, some portion of men and women are attracted to these stereotypes. They argued to diversify and broaden the image of the computer scientists, avoid sugar-coating that it is suddenly female-friendly, but prepare women of the obstacles in the field. For videogames, a singular mascot of the guy and girl gamer is counter-productive as the mascot communicates a narrow image of what gamers should be, which can affect our feelings of belonging and similarity. A variety of stereotypical and non-stereotypical portrayals would indeed be more welcoming for men and women.

Videogames may potentially affect youth’s career interests and it would be great to see videogames having an important role in promoting STEM careers. However, stereotypes about STEM and videogames create psychological barriers limiting such interests among women and ethnic minorities. Such barriers create these beliefs that they are less likely to thrive in those fields because they could not see themselves belonging there. By diversifying the image of computer science and videogames, we can break down its singular stereotypical image and create a more welcoming field for future engineers and game developers. There already have been some efforts in changing the gamer image, Claire Hosking (2015) recounted her efforts in changing the gamer image. I particularly liked this quote: “Don’t meet them as a gamer, meet them as a person with a full life who loves games.”

I must note that attracting potential women and minorities to STEM careers and in turn to videogames is only one part of the problem of STEM underrepresentation. Other parts of the problem are unequal access to technology at a young age, some minorities may not have access to technologies that can elicit such interests, lack of support from other minorities, and female game designers dropping out due to many reasons recounted by those who experienced it (see Frank, 2014; Wu, 2014; Weinberger, 2015).


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