/ Mimi Ito / 5 am Thu, Dec 17 2015
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  • Networked gaming is the new social media, and it's a boys' club

    Networked gaming is the new social media, and it's a boys' club

    Earlier this fall, Pew released the results of a new survey documenting how digital networks are key to how teens connect with friends. What was most striking was the gender disparity. Girls socialize via text and social media, and boys tend to connect with friends through video games.

    The Entertainment Software Association has been documenting how women now comprise almost half of the gaming population in U.S., but the Pew survey highlights persistent differences in how they are gaming. Not only do boys play more, they tend to be networked gamers; 55% of boys play with friends online at least once a week, compared to 25% of girls. And to top it off, boys seem to have a lot more fun playing games online. They say they feel connected to other online gamers at higher rates than do girls who game online (84% versus 62%).

    Plenty of folks are concerned about videogames promoting violence and antisocial behavior, but we need to pay more attention to what kids miss out on by not engaging in the positive social aspects of gaming. For example, while investigating links between videogames and violence, Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl K. Olson discovered that boys who don't game at all showed the highest risk of getting into fights. These days, video games are what boys do together, so if they aren't gaming, it means they might not be part of the boys' club. While it's not exactly basketball or football, being a great League of Legends player or Minecrafter can be a source of peer status. In Silicon Valley, coders bond on weekends through the After Hours Gaming League and the angst over who gets invited to high status Settlers of Catan games is reminiscent of elite old boys' networks' bonding over golf and tennis.

    In addition to conferring social benefits, gaming can be a gateway into science and technology related interests, skills, and careers. Progressive researchers and game developers have long sought to make games more attractive to girls for this reason. The recent firestorm over Gamergate recapitulates these concerns over gender representation in the gaming industry. The National Academy of Sciences released a report in 2011 that argued that educators should do more work to tap computer games as an avenue to science learning and interests.

    I'm part of a small group of women gamer researchers who have been advocating for and developing ways of bringing girls into social and creative forms of gaming. Some of my peers include Yasmin Kafai and Elisabeth Gee who have both done extensive research and program development for girls and gaming. Constance Steinkuehler, Jane McGonigal, and Idit Harel have also been strong voices in this arena. I'm proud to have partnered with Katie Salen, who has been a bright light for women game developers, in co-founding a new startup for games and learning together with Tara Tiger Brown.

    Our startup, Connected Camps, looks to Minecraft as a gateway to learning digital citizenship, coding, and design. We also see Minecraft as an opportunity to bring more girls into creative and social forms of gaming. It's difficult to know the gender breakdown for Minecraft, particularly since there are so many different ways to engage with Minecraft content. But, Minecraft boasts high-profile women Youtubers, and we know it is appealing to girls. When we first opened up our Minecraft server designed to offer a free, safe, social moderated learning experience for kids, we found girls flocking to our community, and many were playing multiplayer for the first time.

    Our educator-moderated servers mean that parents are likely to be more comfortable letting their girls play multiplayer. Still, even with active outreach to recruit girls, counselors and players, we've struggled to keep their numbers up. Boys are signing up at twice the rate of girls, and we have two women counselors out of a group of 10. Minecraft and other gender neutral games and platforms give us an opening to draw girls into the boys gaming club, but it is still an uphill battle.

    Our experiences at Connected Camps reflect the sober reality that it takes more than gender neutral games, free access, and encouragement to get girls to jump into social and tech-intensive forms of gaming. Gaming needs to be better supported at home, to have higher status in girl peer groups, and girls need to feel like they genuinely belong in gaming culture. The good news is that an aging and diversifying gaming demographic and growing research evidence mean greater awareness of how to mine gaming for positive social and learning benefits. Whether it our Minecraft Kid Club, new schools like Quest to Learn, or parents who game with their girls, options for opening up the gaming clubhouse for girls abound.

    (Image: Pax Prime 2015 892, Parker Knight, CC-BY)

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