Gaming has evolved dramatically over the years: from a scientific experiment to a national pastime to a booming, multibillion-dollar industry. Part of this development includes a major shift in gaming culture; headset-wearing men hovering around computers and consoles no longer define the “poster image” for gamers. Today’s research shows women are downloading and playing games on their smartphones more than ever before.
In fact, a whopping 65% of women aged 10 to 65 in the U.S. play mobile games, according to a 2017 Google Play and Newzoo study. That same report also discovered women make up nearly half of all mobile gamers. But there’s a problem. While women are gaming in unprecedented numbers, they still have complex feelings about gaming at large, with a grave majority feeling unrepresented and unwelcome.
In partnership with Google Play, Refinery29 dug into the modern woman’s experience with gaming, interviewing a host of avid players and industry experts to gain a holistic view into industry practices.
A wide variety of game experiences — many of which are available for little to no cost at all — helps explain the present-day bias towards mobile gaming apps. Developers and publishers are “doing a better job of marketing games that have a broader appeal than handheld, console, or PC,” Electronic Entertainment Design and Research founder Geoffrey Zatkin said at the 2016 Games Developers Conference.
Above all, however, gaming on a smartphone is more convenient when compared to classic platforms. “Prior to the advent of mobile, a person might sit in their basement and play for an hour at a time,” Joe Lazarus, former CMO of Backflip Studios, a mobile games studio, told Forbes. “[Now] the games are always with us.”
The ability to instantly download games while at home or on the go further speaks to mobile gaming’s seamless integration into the busy lives of contemporary women who seek greater flexibility. “Historically, women have not been particularly well served by the sedentary nature and limited distribution of traditional games,” Lazarus said. “[Now] we play waiting for a sandwich or waiting for the bus.”
Lazarus’ views are consistent with the Pew Research Center’s 2015 investigation into Americans’ views on mobile etiquette. The organization found that, although we rarely put our cell phones away, games can serve a valuable purpose — filling time when there’s nothing else to do.
Google Play and Newzoo analysts dug deeper, presenting evidence that women play five times per week or more and for other reasons beyond entertainment, too. Many of the women surveyed said they see games as stress reducers, offering much-needed moments of rest. Likewise, 60% of women in the U.S. who play mobile games say doing so makes them feel good.
For Refinery29’s in-house research on the subject of women and gaming, we gathered similar feedback from real women. “It allows me to escape my reality for a little and enjoy something,” one survey participant said, while another noted, “[Gaming] is relaxing — definitely stress reducing.” A third woman described mobile games as tools to build relationships, saying, “It’s a way to bond and have fun with your friends or significant other.”
According to Rachel DeMario, gaming is an even greater part of her life. “Games have definitely shaped who I am,” she tells Refinery29. As a full-time mother to an infant son, she also finds they’re a unique source of relief: “Gaming is like my little piece of something just for me.”
Once her son is older, DeMario plans to share her passion for gaming with him. “As kids grow up, they normally want to spend less time with their parents. I feel like gaming will help me bridge that gap, and we can spend more time gaming together.”
Frances Troche, who works for a tech meetup group that specializes in making mobile games, started gaming when she was 5. “I was introduced by my mom and grandmother, actually,” she says. Years later during high school, Troche received her first cell phone and developed an interest for playing on mobile. “The reason I love gaming so much is because it helps me get out of my mind for however long I’m playing… I can be a different character, and it’s usually a strong woman. I always pick female characters.”
Despite the growing female interest in gaming, Google Play and Newzoo determined mobile games across the board still put men front and center. Of the top 100 grossing games on Google Play, 44% more app icons feature male faces than female faces. Additionally, 60% of women in the U.S. who play mobile games think that no more than 30% of mobile games are made for women. Even fewer women “embrace their play” and call themselves gamers.
“I feel like there’s always going to be a stigma when you’re a female gamer,” DeMario says. “You always get stereotyped, even though people don’t really know you.” Additional research suggests women feel pressured to mask their identities while gaming. “Most girl gamers out there don’t say [they] are a girl because if a guy loses to a girl in any of the games, he’ll freak out,” one woman told Refinery29.
In 2014, the “GamerGate” video games scandal led to a national debate concerning misogyny and online attacks against female gamers, many of which included violent threats. Since then, not much has changed. According to Google Play and Newzoo, 25% of men in the U.S. who play mobile games agree they’d spend more time playing if they knew they were playing with or against players of their own gender. That figure increases to 47% for men in the U.S. who play games 10 hours or more per week.
Only 27.8% of the gaming industry is female, transgender, or another gender identity, reports the International Game Developers Association in its 2016 Developer's Satisfaction Survey. This lack of diversity and inclusivity has multiple negative trickle-down effects — from the way women are physically depicted within games to the limited amount of female game developers.
“Any female character in a video game is made to have obscenely large breasts, a tiny waist, and a big butt. It’s all about sex appeal,” one woman told Refinery29. “There really isn’t much more depth than that involved in female video-game characters.” Another person suggested skewed perspectives are to blame, saying, “Games are usually made by men, so it's a [man's] point of view of the world. We need more women creating games.”
Yuxin Goa, a student and budding developer, aims to help break the mold. Through her mobile games, she emphasizes female protagonists and heroines instead of vixens or princesses in need of saving. “I [want] to use my games to talk about bravery, intimacy, connection, vulnerability,” Goa tells Refinery29. “Those themes [weren’t] really being [talked] about before in video games.” Looking ahead, she has one hope: “That the gaming world can be more encouraging, friendly, and inclusive to all kinds of different [experiences] and artistic expressions.”
As several of the most powerful industries continue to evolve and create equal opportunities for women, so should the market for gaming, says Stephanie Llamas, the VP of research and strategy at SuperData Research. “Representation is always going to come from first-hand experience,” she tells Refinery29. “To represent women, you need female developers.”
For Troche, who ultimately turned her hobby of gaming into a “dream job,” this seems more than possible. “If you want to get into gaming, in any kind of capacity, just do it,” she says. “Just find other people who also share your passion, [because] they’re out there. Just believe that you can do it, and it will happen.”