Tag Archive for gender

Who Cares About Character Gender?

As someone who does research on gender and games, I often hear the conventional wisdom that men prefer to play male characters. For example, that’s Mark Rosewater’s explanation for why there are twice as many male planewalkers as female planeswalkers.

Well, guess what? Conventional wisdom is wrong.

A team of researchers from MSU, led by Robby Ratan, looked at game logs from 18,000 League of Legends players. Unlike many studies on character gender, the research team didn’t have to rely on what people said about the kinds of characters they wanted to play. They could look at what players actually did play. This is important because people often present themselves as they’d like to be seen – even when this doesn’t reflect their real behavior.

During the period of the study, around 70% of available characters were portrayed as male, and around 30% were portrayed as female. That makes 70% male and 30% female the “chance rate” – the distribution you’d expect to see if gender weren’t a factor and people were just choosing their characters randomly. In other words, if men prefer to play male characters, you’d expect to see men choose male-gendered characters more than 70% of the time.

It turns out, though, that men play male characters 70% of the time, and female characters 30% of the time. In other words, male League of Legends players don’t seem to care about character gender. You get the same distribution as you would if they were picking characters at random.

Women, on the other hand, played female characters nearly 50% of the time. Only 30% of characters were female, so this rate is significantly more than what you’d expect if female players were choosing randomly.

In other words, women, not men, are the ones who care about playing characters of their own gender.

This implies that designers should make sure women get plenty of opportunities to play female characters; men, on the other hand, will play whatever they’re given. In other words, worry about women, and men will take care of themselves.

Obviously, things are a bit more complex than that. For example, ability types aren’t randomly distributed across character genders. During the data gathering period, there were no female tanks, but plenty of female support characters. That means that the “pure” gender data is probably distorted by the fact that the male and female character pools aren’t equivalent. Character gender choice is going to be partly influenced by the player’s preferred team role.

Another thing to note is that only 4% of the subjects surveyed were women. That’s an unusually small percentage, suggesting that League of Legends is among the most male-dominated games out there. It could be that men only feel secure playing female characters when the activity is so heavily coded male that it doesn’t threaten their gender identity. Alternately, women might care much more about playing female characters when they know they’re in a tiny minority. That might be because they feel they have to work extra hard to maintain their identity, or because only women with strong ties to their gender identity make it into the community in the first place.

Still, game designers can no longer make the same old lazy assumptions about player and character gender – and that’s got to be a good thing all around.

Reading List 2011 (8/166)

Recent reading:

  • Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, Joan C. Williams
  • Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race and Family Life, Annette Lareau
  • Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua
  • How to Tutor Your Own Child, Marina Koestler Ruben
  • Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
  • Good Wives, Louisa May Alcott
  • Little Men, Louisa May Alcott
  • Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott

Today, I am grateful for books that change the way I see the world. While I read Williams and Lareau quite a while ago, I still find myself referring to them at least a couple of times a week. In my own head, I probably refer to them a dozen or so times a day, because they both expose and name some pervasive elements of modern American life that otherwise appear perfectly normal. Between the two, they’ve given me a much better awareness of how pervasive class is in our so-called classless society.

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Install This Extension!

My brilliant friend Danielle made a thing! A really cool, mind-blowing, brain-breaking thing!

Jailbreak the Patriarchy is a Chrome extension that swaps the gender of the Internet. Man becomes woman, girl becomes guy, he becomes she and her becomes his.

Here’s why this matters: because most of the time, we can’t see just how strongly gender affects our day-to-day experience. We have expected narratives for women to fit into, and schemas for what male behavior looks like. When those are subverted, we feel a sense of strangeness – and noticing just how often things feel strange, when genders are swapped, is a pretty good start to noticing just how much your own life experience is shaped by some of the same things.

Conceptual change only happens when people are confronted with experiences their existing concept can’t explain away. I hope that for at  least a few people, Jailbreak the Patriarchy will provide experiences of that sort.

Laundry, Wikipedia and Cognitive Surplus

Several people have asked me what I think about this article on the gender gap in Wikipedia contributions. A study, which seems reasonably well conducted, found that under 13% of contributors to Wikipedia are women. Now everyone wants to know what it means – so here’s my take.

I’m not surprised by this finding, given what the research says about womens’ experiences. For example, as the article points out, women are socialized to think their opinions aren’t important. (See Sadker & Sadker’s research on the systematic ways girls get ignored in school, just for example.) The Internet is also full of misogynistic assholes who defend their behavior on ideological grounds. Encounter enough of those guys, and you don’t necessarily want to participate in forums where they’ll be.

What I am surprised about is that no one’s mentioned the leisure gap in this context. Clay Shirky’s brilliant article on cognitive surplus points out that Wikipedia is a product of leisure. But leisure, in our society, is not equally distributed. Young people have more leisure than older ones. This is because young people tend to have fewer time-consuming life responsibilities, such as children and extremely demanding jobs – and we see that reflected in the average age of Wikipedia contributors. Men have more leisure than women, on the other hand, because women subsidize the free time of men. We may be working fewer hours as a society, but the laundry still has to get done – and because women are doing it, men end up with the time to contribute to Wikipedia.

Just consider one example: married women self-report doing 70% of housework, while married men self-report 37%. You’ll notice those numbers add up to more than 100%, so let’s suppose women are big whiners and the mens’ numbers are correct. This means women would actually be doing 63% of housework, not 70%. But notice! Even by this most lenient standard, women are doing almost twice as much housework as men. This does not even get into other traditionally female responsibilities like eldercare, family relationship management, or the maintenance of social networks, nor does it address the fact that women are generally assigned low-control tasks that break up their leisure into dribs and drabs, while men are more likely to have uninterrupted chunks of free time. When you look at these realities – and how they’re domestically enforced – it’s a lot less surprising that cognitive-surplus activities like Wikipedia are often dominated by men.

Wikipedia is ultimately built by the people with the most free time. In our society that means men’s time, subsidized by women.

Merit vs. Background … Fight!

The other day, a friend of mine was talking about her (white) uncle and why he hates affirmative action. She summarized his take as, “He was applying for a job, and it was down to two candidates. He had more merit, but the other guy got it because of his background.” Who hasn’t heard a variation on this story a million times? But something about the way she told it* made bells go off in my head.

In describing her uncle, she perfectly encapsulated the common thread of many anti-affirmative-action arguments: that considering someone’s “merit” and considering someone’s “background” are two different things. This can be framed overtly or covertly, but “merit” is one category, and “background” is another.

This categorization is, I think, precisely the problem with debates about affirmative action. It’s cognitively easy to assume that two categories are non-overlapping, especially when there are only two of them. For example, I read a great study about how parents stereotype their kids the most when there are exactly two of them, because they sort them into opposing categories on all kinds of factors**. Setting up “merit” and “background” as the two categories therefore implies – incorrectly! – that having more of one means having less of the other.

Treating “merit” and “background” as separate categories is problematic for other reasons. First, it implies that those are two different reasons why people get hired. We know that if there are two reasons given for an event, people tend to give less credence to either of them***. Affirmative action (as opposed to “pure merit,” whatever the hell that means) as a possible explanation for hiring a woman or a person of color makes people less able to see the actual merits of that individual, even when affirmative action was not used in the case at hand. Second, it makes the very specific cultural positions of whiteness and maleness invisible. Whiteness and maleness are certainly not coded as “backgrounds” because they are so very pervasive as the norm in our society – which puts them, thanks to our tendency to reason exclusively about binary categories, in the “merit” column.

The real answer, of course, is that “merit” and “background” are not separate categories. Instead, we need to reconsider what we mean by merit. Merit needs to be considered in the context of background, because if we judge people entirely by outcomes we are not getting the real picture of what they are capable of. Consider two people who want to be your investment manager. Candidate A says, “I have $100 in my last client’s investment account,” while Candidate B says, “I have $105.” Would you stop there and hire Candidate B? Or would you ask, “Well, how much did your client give you?” What if Candidate A answered, “I started with $50” and Candidate B answered, “I started with $100”? Who would you hire now?

Our ideas about “merit” are largely outcome-based. This makes about as much sense as only paying attention to totals in the example above. Merit can and must include the individual’s background and experiences, because you need to know not only what someone can do, but also just what kind of investment of resources it took for them to do it. Me, I’d rather hire someone who can do more with less, instead of investing a larger proportion of my own resources to get a number that looks larger on paper.

Unfortunately I think it may be too late to save the term “affirmative action,” because it’s become so tied to the merit-background binary. I do believe, though, that we need to change our ideas about what merit means, who has it, and where it comes from, because merit and background are not different things. And that, my friends, is what affirmative action is really about.


* And, just to clarify, she was reporting on her uncle’s opinions – not her own.

** I can’t find the link and still post this before Shabbat, but if you’re curious, ping me.

*** As per the previous footnote, I’m pingable.

You Know, For Girls

Every time I see technology being marketed “for girls” I prepare myself to cringe. (Hello, Della.) I’m doubly cautious when it’s gaming-related, like the new PSP for girls.  However, there’s been some interesting discussion on the IGDA’s Women in Games mailing list that’s made me think it’s worth working through the problems – and some unexpected opportunities – of ‘pinkification’.

The problem isn’t, of course, the color pink itself. A lot of girls like pink. In fact, I like pink! But making your device pink and saying it’s ‘for girls’ has some unfortunate coded messages. First, it implies boys are the norm for this activity, from which the ‘girly version’ deviates. Second, it implies that if this one is for girls, then all the other ones are for boys. Sure, there are lots of women who will ignore that implicit message, but that doesn’t mean the message isn’t there. Third, it gives boys a wide variety of choices and identities, while asking girls to all be one thing. (“Of course you can have a PSP, girls – as long as you’re willing to be defined first and foremost by your gender!”) Finally, the packages aimed at women are often dumbed down; just for example, notice that the pink PSP comes with a carrying case instead of a game.

The most depressing thing, of course, is that many of these messages are avoidable. They just don’t get avoided. This is for the very simple reason that both boys and girls learn, from a very young age, that boys’ things are high-status and girls’ things are low-status. Girls, therefore, can and will play with “boy toys” while boys refuse to play with anything that too many girls like*. Of course, girls may get told they shouldn’t play with ‘boy things’ – but it’s done in a way that makes the relative status of girl things and boy things, and their messages, quite clear. Creating a pink-PSP ghetto, therefore, keeps the bulk of the product line untainted by low-status femininity.

As you might imagine, this drives me batshit.

During our discussion, though, Kimberly** pointed out that her daughter actually loves pink things. Having a pink PSP might just get her daughter to look twice at it. “Hmm,” I thought to myself, “She’s right. There probably are lots of girls who want to feel like the PSP is theirs and theirs alone.” It made me think of Sara McNamee’s amazing work on how the physical resources of gaming (space, computers, consoles) are contested between the genders – and how girls generally lose out.  What if we thought of ‘pinkification’ as a strategy for making sure that girls actually get a fair shake at using their own devices? If we make technology so girly that boys won’t touch it, maybe girls will finally get to hold the controller even when boys are around.

As great as it sounds, I’ve got a conceptual problem with this approach. It implies that the only way girls can have access to gaming is if boys don’t want it anymore. Boys’ needs still come first, and girls get whatever’s left over. This is not the message I want to send! It also doesn’t take into account the rise of gaming on mobile and portable devices, which tend to belong to a single user. While I suspect families still spend less on girls than boys, I also would be willing to bet that the ways in which the technology is contested are rather different than for computers and consoles***.

But there’s also what I’ve started calling the Dot Diva Effect. A recent study (well summarized here) found that a sense of ‘ambient belonging’ changed women’s attitudes toward computer science. Perhaps that sensitivity to environment means that having a feminine-coded, pink PSP might make a difference in womens’ game-playing lives. Unfortunately, I think women are also sensitive to all the negative implications I outlined above, so I think it’s at best a wash.

In my ideal world – you know, the one where I run everything – we find ways to make girls’ devices clearly their own, without resorting to ‘pinkification’ as I outline it above. Complex, satisfying personalization for girls and boys alike would be a great start. However, companies would also have to follow through by not reproducing messages about “girl things” being either stereotypical or second-rate.

In this world there are also cupcakes for everyone.


* Statistically speaking, of course, on both sides.

** Who regularly says smart things, and who should give me a link to her site if she has one.

*** Yes, someone should do this study. No, I have a dissertation to write.

Impostor-Shaped Hole

Over on Laurian Vega’s blog, she shares a story about a student who undervalues her own work because of Impostor Syndrome. She writes the student a letter in which she gives her support, recognizes her accomplishments, and suggests practical remedies for her situation. All these things are great! Laurian is clearly a compassionate and thoughtful teacher with useful advice to offer.

There’s just one problem: this response can easily be incorporated into the internally consistent narrative of feeling like a fraud. The student can easily conclude that they’ve just managed to fool this particular teacher as well. Now the stakes for keeping up the facade are even higher! What was meant as a loving and supportive gesture instead adds to the weight of self-deprecation and fear. Saying things like “You alone are going to hold yourself back from a great career” only makes things worse. Now you’re not just an impostor, your feelings of being an impostor are going to make you fail no matter how hard you try! The only thing worse than anxiety is meta-anxiety …

I say all this with some confidence, because I have had conversations of precisely this sort. Yes, friends, I have spent much of my life feeling like an impostor – and it really, really sucks. On the other hand, my experience led me to do research on everything from attribution styles to feedback types, and the way I’ve dealt with this problem in my own life helps me help my own students more effectively.

I’ve never sat down and distilled my approach into a letter, but here are the things I try to help my students understand.

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Reading List 2010 (5/122)

Still behind, but my sister encourages me to persist!  (Perhaps I ought to refer to her as my persister?)

  • The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, ed. John Joseph Adams
  • Med Ship, Murray Leinster
  • The Cardturner, Louis Sachar
  • The Outlander, Gil Adamson
  • The Mismeasure of Woman, Carol Tavris

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The Last Refuge of the Bigot

From the MIT report on women science faculty:

Each generation of young women, including those who are currently senior faculty, began by believing that gender discrimination was “solved” in the previous generation and would not touch them. Gradually however, their eyes were opened to the realization that the playing field is not level after all, and that they had paid a high price both personally and professionally as a result.


Once and for all we must recognize that the heart and soul of discrimination, the last refuge of the bigot, is to say that those who are discriminated against deserve it because they are less good.

In my research on racism and sexism, I encounter many, many, many people who want to say the problem of discrimination is solved.  Consequently, if we’re still seeing unequal opportunities for women and people of color, it means there must be something wrong with them.  My dissertation work looks at how to change exactly these ideas, which means I struggle with when to engage and when to walk away from the inevitable Stupid Internet Arguments.

Books like Microaggressions in Everyday Life, Racism Without Racists and The Mismeasure of Woman do a wonderful job of shredding these approaches and showing the harm they do, but I can’t pull out a book-length argument every time these issues come up.  As my brother pointed out, I need an elevator pitch for what I’m working on, or no one’s going to listen to me but other academics.  I think I’ve found mine in this report, or at least a direction for shaping one.

Beware of Just Do It

I just read Eileen Burbidge’s post on women in technology.  Here’s the quote that left me boggling:

Within tech, I don’t think we need to give more women a chance; I think we need to tell more women to go for it — if they want it.

At one level, she’s completely right.  Women have to put themselves forward, not wait to be recognized.  This was the most important lesson I’ve learned in the past few years; just ask Clay Shirky.  It turns out that if you decide you don’t have to wait for anyone’s permission to be excellent, you can do amazing things.  If you’re willing to talk about the things you do to the point of monomania, you’ll find other people who think your work is amazing too!

What Burbidge’s piece doesn’t recognize is the costs of putting yourself forward.  You can step up all you want, but if you’re a woman, you should expect the rewards for stepping up to be less than those men get, and the risks far higher.  Not only that, but your decision-making processes are probably already being influenced by this unconscious knowledge.  All your life your efforts have been met with less reward, more dismissal, and a higher level of risk, whether you’re aware of it or not.  “Going for it” is an activity that’s conditioned by your prior experience.  If your prior experiences have been negative, it’s going to be harder for you to do.

(There’s an extensive literature on this, but the best summary I’ve encountered is in Anna Fels’ Necessary Dreams.  Every woman should read this book, period, whether she’s willing to admit she’s got ambition or not.)

So, along with Burbidge, I’ll say to women out there, “Just do it!”  But unlike her, I’ll also say, “Beware!”  Burbidge may pretend that all women have to do is try harder to be recognized, but that’s just not the case.  Ladies, it isn’t you; it’s the world you live in.  But there’s also no better solution than putting yourself out there.  Go for it … with courage, if you’re a woman.  Sadly, you’ll need it.