Gender in Comp Sci & Computer Games

A few things have had me thinking about gender stereotyping and role enforcement recently… not normally a topic I’d tackle, but as ‘blog o the month’ at ISTE Island I guess I’d better try and be erudite and wise… ;-)

It started pre-Christmas, reading in the Grauniad about how pink is being used more than ever in marketing and packaging for toys for girls. Becky Francis, an educational researcher at Roehampton reviews the gender divide in toys and notes:

“The very clear message seems to be that boys should be making things, using their hands and solving problems, and girls should be caring and nurturing,” she says. “It is likely that many of the boys in the study sleep with a teddy, but this was not noted by parents as a favourite toy.”

A similar article appeared a few days ago in the Torygraph bemoaning the ‘Pink Plague’.

I recall a genuine feeling when I was an undergraduate that the strictly defined gender roles were being eroded and greater equality between the genders was being reached, so its a bit of a shock to realise that in the world of toys the differences are more entrenched than ever. For example, buying what I considered a very gender neutral toy a few years ago – a basic Lego set – I noticed that the store had decided it was a ‘boys toy’ and it had been stickered as such.

JeongMee Yoon has been making a pictorial archive of the blue/pink divide, and it makes interesting viewing here. There is some scientific work trying to determine the origin of this preference, although I think this has some way to go and is open to criticism currently – such as for studying the colour preferences of adults who are presumably already affected by cultural factors (Hurlbert & Ying, 2007) or for failing to take account of the history of colour/gender ties. As JeongMee notes:

Pink was once a color associated with masculinity, considered to be a watered down red and held the power associated with that color. In 1914, The Sunday Sentinel, an American newspaper, advised mothers to “use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention.” The change to pink for girls and blue for boys happened in America and elsewhere only after World War II.

Indeed, had pink always had the same associations it now holds, perhaps Fenton Tower in the Scottish Borders might not have seemed particularly fearsome because of its girlish hue…

But what has this got to do with computer games and computer science? More below…

The gender divide in Computer Science has long been an issue of some concern. While the world’s first even computer programmer may have been a woman, and the current president of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery – the largest professional/academic computing society worldwide)  may be female, but the career path does not currently attract good numbers into university.

Many of my colleagues have pointed out to me that female recruitment into CS degrees is actually behind what it was 20 years ago. We are somehow going backwards, not forwards. (Although there are some pockets of progress… see, for example, Joanna Goode’s NSF work on bringing the under-represented into CS – some details and wider discussion here.)

When it comes to computer games, however, there has been dramatic changes. 20 years ago the general perception (and no doubt figures existed to back this up) that computer games were almost exclusively a ‘boys’ thing. Today, without doubt, games have moved beyond this narrow demographic – with a wide range of titles aimed at all children and at families. Nintendo deserve special praise for their impact in this area – the ‘Touch Generations’ titles on the DS and Wii in particular. And aside from making the DS also available in Pink (from a large range of colours to suit all tastes), they have achieved this by making games interesting to as wide an audience as possible – not by trying overhard to make ‘games for girls’.

But where Nintendo have shown that girls will play computer games…

… the more marketing led have been busy producing wide ranges of games for girls. In any colour as long as it is pink. Gender stereotypical role enforcement now available on DS. Making games for girls is not a bad thing as such – but the ‘make it pink, make it girly’ approach is selling short, IMHO. Nintendo show that games can be made that appeal to all children, or to entire families – but I fear that over time the marketers will win. The games shop of the future may well have the blue shelves on the right, the pink shelves on the left.

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