Dev8D: open session: sexism in video games

Feb 16, 2012 by

Are there fewer women in computer science because of the sexism in computer games? That was the provocative proposition put to Dev8D in an open session triggered by the success of a lightning talk on the subject.

Patrick McSweeney opened the discussion with a statistic: at his university, Southampton, the 38,000-strong student body is slightly skewed towards females – they make up 53%. But of the 125 undergraduate computer science students, just 20 are women.

Patrick argued that there are many reasons for this but the one he favours is that what gets children and young people interested in computers and computing is computer games. Men overwhelmingly create these games and they make them according to male power desires and aesthetics. This attracts male players who then become the target audience which in turn creates a feedback loop with more of these kinds of games, featuring powerful men and scantily clad women, created to feed the target market. If this is the arena in which girls are brought up, is it any wonder they do not go into computer science?

From that starting point the discussion ranged widely. The notion that men may be more physiologically inclined to be developers was swiftly quashed. The majority of programmers in the 1950s were female. This gender imbalance does not exist in maths, arguably the closest subject to computer science.

“We can’t start society again, it’s got to be a gradual change process and it’s going to be difficult”

What can be done to positively address the gender imbalance in computing? The consensus that action needs to start early. The findings from Coding for Kids suggest that year eight is too late to change the perceptions of young girls about what computer science is, and to challenge the whole notion of ‘boy-friendly’ or ‘girl-friendly’ subjects.

“I think if girls can only experience computing through schools and that’s crap and boys have something else – computer games – then that’s going to have an effect. But if there is something exciting in the classroom for both boys and girls then the driver of computer games for boys would go”

Looking further along the school system, to GCSE, it was agreed that there is a massive image problem with GCSE computer science and how it is taught in the UK. “Patronising” was the verdict from one female developer, who pointed out while she was following the “formulaic” GCSE syllabus, she was also earning money building databases for a local company.

However, it seems that she is was lucky to even have a syllabus to follow – the education secretary, Michael Gove, has discontinued the GCSE in ICT and the subject is now in a limbo period with exam boards still deciding what they are going to require and teachers at a loss to know what they are expected to teach. In 2010 just three teachers out of the 26,000 that got accreditation chose ICT as main subject.

“We want the best people in our industry as we have some big problems to be solved. We are missing out by not having the missing 50% of the population”

Does it matter if women aren’t represented in computer science? On a practical level, if software development teams do not reflect their user base, then they are likely to create products that fail to meet the needs of all their users in some way. They might also be missing a trick. How many apps that would appeal to women never get made because of the dearth of female developers able to go from idea to prototyping stage? A women’s clothing size app hit the headlines to much acclaim yesterday – how many other similarly brilliant ideas never get made because they never cross the minds of the all-male developer teams that dominate computer science?

“I have female friends who are addicted to Skyrim even though it’s advertised in male magazines and context. Games shouldn’t just be a ‘boy thing’”

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  1. Matthew Spence


    For me it was computer games directly and messing around with scripted missions in Operation Flashpoint that first ignited my passion for coding.

    Hopefully the growth and success of “casual” gaming will help spark the same interest in girls.

    Disclaimer: Yes I am aware there are “hardcore” female gamers out there, but they are undeniably a tiny minority. And no I dont think that females only choice of for gaming should be limited to the cheap and short lived thrills of “casual” gaming.

  2. Rikki

    I am inclined to think the notion that people go into computer science for games is a fallacy. I know I did but that’s not because it was obvious. I asked all the people I knew in the games industry and they said a Computer Science degree was the best thing to get. In fact if you ask them today, they’d probably say Maths and Physics come ahead of even Computer Science.

    In support of this, I have even been unable to get the Interactive Entertainment Systems 4th year module at University of Southampton to run for the past few years due to lack of interest. Our Computer Science undergraduates just aren’t interested in making games (even though a large proportion play them).

    From my experience the drivers for Computer Science are the guarantee of getting a job, the lure of high wages in some industries (banking) and already being a computer scientist as a hobby.

    As for the sexism angle, plenty of girls and women play games. Not a lot of them develop. The mindset for creating games is a creative one, which is not a necessary skill for playing them. Most people who read books or watch films do not become an author or director.

    The gender imbalance in Computer Science is fundamentally cultural. In other countries (for example Malaysia) Computer Science courses are dominated by women in the same proportion as western computer science is dominated by men (in Malaysia “real men” do engineering). The reason there is an imbalance is that the toys, activities and expectations are heavily biased from the moment the gender of the child is born.

    Boys are bombarded with toys that are functional and encourage making things (because of an expectation of the careers they will have) whereas girls are assaulted with toys that enable them to simulate social situations (because of an expectation of what they will do when they are older). Until this stark contrast is narrowed the imbalance will not change.

    Lastly, the point about introducing how computers work (rather than how to use them) being too late in the educational cycle is spot on. I teach programming to foundation year students and one of them recently told me that he understands the maths on his course, but programming is a completely alien concept. The reason for this is that he’s being doing maths and the underlying processes and concepts since he was 5 years old! He has been programming for 2 hours a week for 6 weeks, of course he doesn’t “get it” as easily.

  3. Just a related thought. In academia there seems to be an increasing move to make conferences family-friendly – to help women continue with their careers even when they have small children (women are still much more likely to be primary care-givers to small children than men are). Things like providing childcare, making it clear small babies are welcome, or at least keeping activities to family-friendly hours so people can get home for bed time.

    Computer science, like academia, is very R&D-focused and being able to go to conferences, talks, etc is a big part of participation in the profession.

    Not to dig at you guys – everyone’s at it – but it was the Dev8D Rules of Engagement that got me thinking about this really…
    “ We start early and work til late.”

    Of course it’s fine for some tech events to be like this – but if the majority are, even if you get young women interested, you risk them dropping out before they have chance to be the next generation’s role-models.

    (There are related issues around family-friendlyness common to IT and academia: working hours and workloads, the need to be able to travel – often internationally – if you’re good at what you do)

    Hope this doesn’t sound too negative. Always sounds like a good event you run (but, given the lack of tech in my work these days, not one I’d be going to even if I didn’t have a toddler).


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