There is no question of the popularity of video games and how ingrained they have become, not only in American culture, but others as well (for example, gaming is essentially a national sport in South Korea). What makes them so appealing? As Yee (2006) puts it, “different people choose to play games for very different reasons, and thus, the same video game may have very different meanings or consequences for different players” (p. 774). Indeed, Royse, Joon, Undrahbuyan, Hopson, & Consalvo (2007) found that technologically-savvy women who game regularly (3-10+ hours a week) “reported that they actively choose specific genres to fulfill their desires for particular pleasures…” (p. 563). Research has supported the known idea that males play video games more than females (Bonanno & Kommers, 2005; Ogletree & Drake, 2007; Winn & Heeter, 2009; Padilla-Walker, Nelson, Carroll, & Jensen, 2010), but females are a growing group of gamers, increasing in 2009, especially on console systems (NPD 2009, Jun 29).
Motivations for gaming have been broken down into different categories for different studies, but they can generally be broken down into the categories of achievement (gaining power, competition, character optimization through game mechanics), social aspects (socializing, relationships, teamwork), and immersion (discovery, role-playing, character customization, escapism) (Lucas & Sherry, 2004; Yee, 2006; Jansz et al., 2010).
A study by Olson et al. (2008) explored boys’ uses of video games, finding that boys use violent video games “as a means to express fantasies of power and glory,” “to explore and master what they perceived as exciting and realistic environments,” and “as a tool to work out their feelings of anger and stress” (p. 69). They also found that “[a] substantial number of girls also used games to cope with anger (29%) and other emotions” (Olson et al., 2008, p. 71).
Boys also utilize violent or sports games as social tools that allow for socialization through competition and cooperation (Olson et al., 2008). Furthering the idea of video games as sources for socialization is the previously mentioned example of LAN events, another male-dominated domain, whose “foremost gratifying property” is “[t]he possibility to game in each other’s presence…. Apparently, actual face-to-face presence at a LAN event is more gratifying than online gaming on the internet at home” (Jansz & Martens, 2005, p. 349). A result of particular interest was found in Yee (2006), “there is a gender difference in the relationship [motivation to play] but not in the socializing [motivation to play], although these two… are highly related. In other words, male players socialize just as much as female players, but are looking for very different things in those relationships” (p. 774).
Though LAN gamers are primarily male, one of the main motivating factors for females to game is also social. A study of young German women performed by Hartmann and Klimmt (2006) found that “women prefer rich social interactions in computer games… and [they] also… dislike… violent content and heavy gender-stereotyping in the presentation of characters” (p. 925). However, finding that “the relative importance of social interaction was much higher than the relevance of gender role stereotyping and violence in the game,” some women are willing to overlook gender stereotyping to “experience enjoyment on some dimensions” (Hartmann & Klimmt, p. 919-920). There is another side in motivation (or de-motivation) to play games that employ sexualized gender stereotypes, which may be turned around and seen as a way “to enact new definitions of the gendered self” (Royse et al., 2007, p. 565).
Royse et al.’s (2007) study focused on women and their levels of technology integration and gaming time, finding that women who played 3-10+ hours a week (power gamers), were the most technologically-savvy and actively chose particular genres or games to fulfill their current desire. Power gamers are more motivated by and enjoy the aspect of challenge, where “[c]ompetition provides an arena in which power gamers are able to define and extend their definitions of self and gender” (Royse et al., 2007, p. 563) through “game combat…a space which permits them to challenge gender norms by exploring and testing their aggressive potentiality” (p. 564). For these power gamers,
digital games are not a problematic technology. Even as they themselves admit to the hypersexualization of some female images in games and the sexism of some male players, they have defined games successfully for themselves as being about pleasure, mastery and control. Technology here is not a problem but an integral part of life (Royse et al., 2007, p. 564)
Instead of degrading pleasure for these women, many may choose characters that are both sexy and strong, combining femininity and masculinity (Royse et al., 2007). One of the women they interviewed puts it as, “When I create a character in an RPG, I like to make them as sexy as possible. Haha! I love a sexy and strong female character. A character who is sexy and strong and can still kick a guy’s butt 10 ways to Sunday!” (quoted in Royse et al., 2007, p. 564). For moderate women gamers (1-3 hours a week, control is also a motivation for play, but it is different from power gamers, “[w]hereas control for power gamers relates to the characters that they use to explore new definitions of gender and self, for moderate gamers, control is largely environmental” (Royse et al., 2007, p. 566). These moderate gamers also cite one motivation is distraction or escapism, which may be seen as a form of self-control, “a way to cope with the demands of women’s daily lives” (Royse et al., 2007, p. 566). Interestingly, female power gamers see gaming as a way to expand their gender identity, whereas moderate female gamers still see the gaming culture as primarily masculine domain and their gender is thusly outside of it (Royse et al., 2007).
Bonanno and Kommers’ (2005) study on Maltese men and women found a “high percentage of females opting for puzzle, adventure, fighting, and managerial games” that indicates “females’ top reasons for playing include challenge and arousal” (p. 36). They also found that “males’ preference for first person shooters, roleplaying games, and sport and strategy games indicates gratification of different needs – challenge and social interaction” (Bonanno & Kommers, 2005, p. 36). Their study identifies possible underlying reasons for these preferences:
The preferred games of females capitalise on their natural propensities and skills such as perceptual speed, fine motor skills, and sequenced hand movements (Watson & Kimura, 1991). Games preferred by males demand a higher visuospatial ability involving localisation, orientation, mental rotation, target-directed motor skills, greater reaction speed, increased aggression, and greater risk taking (Bonanno & Kommers, 2005, p. 36).
Returning to the fact that men play video games more frequently than women, this difference has often been cited to lead to or exacerbate relationship problems. In Knox, Zusman, White, and Haskins’ (2009) study they found that women are much more likely to have a partner who played video games compared to men having a female partner who played (75% and 42%, respectively). As a female power gamer involved in a relationship with another male power gamer, I find that both of us are rarely upset by the other’s frequent game play (though sharing a computer can be challenging). Both of us play WoW, and I’ve found that this not only provides what some people call “quality-” or “couples’-time,” but it and other games also help to identify and develop a common interest. As a power gamer, technology and gaming are completely integrated into my life. I also identify with Royse et al.’s (2007) findings that competition in games, or even gaming in general, has provided me an opportunity to expand my gender identity starting from a young age. While I disprove of degrading sexual representations of women in games, instead of shrinking from that, I want to challenge and change that idea. Instead of viewing sexualized women as weak or unintelligent, I want my avatars (and myself) to both look sexy and be powerful.