Since the first coin-operated arcade machines hit the market more than four decades ago, video games have largely been dominated by male players. In the past decade, however, more and more women have joined in and now make up 47 percent of the industry, according to a 2012 survey. The boom is largely due to the growth of social, mobile and role-playing games, all of which are more popular amongst female players than violent, first-person shooter game (though plenty of women still enjoy those, too).
Beyond being entertaining, video games are proving to have widespread benefits to women, from boosting some forms of cognitive function to being associated with active sex lives.
Generally, men more capable of mentally manipulating 3D objects than women, a skill known as spatial cognition that is vital for the engineering and technical industries. In 2007, researchers at the University of Toronto published findings that women aged 19-30 years old who play just 10 hours of action video games—games like Halo, for example—virtually eliminated the gender difference, improving their spatial cognition so much that it equaled their male counterparts. A 2009 follow up study found that women also improved their spatial skills at the same rate as men, meaning they need the same training to achieve the same results.
“Basically, we saw that video games can have huge implications in improving cognitive skills in women,” says Jing Feng, a co-author of the studies who is now based in the Center for Brain Fitness at the Rotman Research Institute. “They also have the potential to be important tools in getting more women interested and competitive in scientific fields.”
Playing video games also has several psychological and physical benefits for women, like boosting self-confidence and happiness. According to a 2011 survey of more than 2,000 American adults by Harris Interactive, 50 percent of female gamers said that playing online games on their computers, social networking sites and phones makes them feel smarter, and 55 percent classified themselves as happy,
Also shattered by the study is the belief that gamers are universally antisocial and lonely: 42 percent socialize in person at least once a day and 57 percent have sex, with 38 percent having sex at least once a week. More sex means better health—having a healthy sex life has been shown to relieve chronic pain, make you look younger and increase immunoglobulin A levels that help you fight off infections, colds and flu.
Nearly two-thirds of female gamers are in serious, happy relationships, which have been shown to reduce stress levels and the chances of depression, as well as boost a women’s overall health.
The survey also found that contrary to stereotypes, female gamers aren’t more likely to be couch potatoes than the average American (they’re just as active through working out or playing sports), and a study by researchers at the University of Southern California found female gamers also have lower body-mass index (BMI) than the national average.
The plethora of console, computer, social media and mobile games has major benefits for younger generations of female players as well. Researchers have long struggled to figure out how to boost interest and performance among school-aged girls in math and science, which later play a role in how many of them pursue careers in technical fields like engineering that are dominated by men. Researchers have found that video games might just be the key to fueling this interest.
A 2006 case study by researchers are the University of Memphis found that fifth and sixth grade girls who played and designed video games had a more positive attitude toward technology, leading the researchers to suggest that they could be used as an entry point to engage them more in science and math. Furthermore, a 2011 case study of fifth grade girls found that game design led to more interest in computer programming, a field seriously devoid of female professionals.
Though studies and surveys have demonstrated several benefits for women of playing video games, there is still a long way to go to understanding just how they impact us, says Feng. At the moment, the majority of research is focused on the benefits to male players. However, as scientists and companies grasp the rapidly changing gender dynamics of the industry, Feng says we can expect a deluge of female-focused work, as well as female-focused games.
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