Girls and Games: What’s the Attraction?

| January 14, 2013 | 12 Comments
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Games are increasingly recognized by educators as a way to get kids excited about learning. While the stereotype of a “gamer” may evoke the image of a high school boy holed up in a dark room playing on a console, in reality 62 percent of gamers play with other people either in person or online, and 47 percent of all gamers are girls.

Game developers and academics who have been studying the elements that go into making games more attractive to girls found that those very same qualities are also important components of learning. For instance, girls are more drawn to games that require problem solving in context, that are collaborative (played through social media) and that produce what’s perceived to be a social good. They also like games that simulate the real word and are particularly drawn to “transmedia” content that draws on characters from books, movies, or toys.

“A tremendous motivator for girls to learn about math and science is that they need to see the connection from the classroom out into the real world.”

“Something we’ve seen as a tremendous motivator for girls to learn about math and science is that they need to see the connection from the classroom out into the real world,” said Victoria Van Voorhis, the founder of Second Avenue Learning in a recent webinar. Her company has received funding from the National Science Foundation to study how to reach girls through gaming with the help of the Rochester Institute of Technology. They tested a physical science game called “Martha Madison’s Marvelous Machines” with middle school girls in urban, suburban, and rural environments to gauge whether playing the game would increase their interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), whether it appealed to them and if it could improve their understanding of fundamental mechanical devices.

[RELATED READING: What's the Secret Sauce to a Great Educational Game?]

“When we asked them about springs and levers, they had no understanding of why they were important in the real world,” Van Voorhis said. “But when we were able to situate those kinds of tools in a real-world context, where they were solving a problem that was directed towards social good, we saw the engagement numbers pop.”  girls were talking about physics or game play 76 percent of the time and were only off topic 5 percent of the time.

One of the biggest draws for girls to gaming are the passionate communities that spring up around the games. Affinity groups, or what’s sometimes referred to as the meta-game, often involve users creating their own story lines, interacting with each other and sharing. Jayne Lammers, a professor at the University of Rochester, spent extensive time studying affinity groups of girls that play SIMs, the game that allows users to simulate real life through the game, and watched girls go from consumers to creators in the space. They wrote stories, solicited feedback from peers, demonstrated self-awareness, and even learned elements of programming and design through their creations.

“As we think about how girls are developing these skills outside of the classroom such as affinity spaces, I think it’s important that we think about how to bring it back into the classroom,” Lammers said. But it can be hard to convince parents and administrators that a video game is helping students learn, especially when game-producers have upended some foundational thinking about how to educate – like allowing a student to interpret and analyze a subject on their own before giving them explicit content instruction.

“Invoking their interest in the topic through play is a great way to get them to come to their reading or lectures or small group work with an explicit agenda,” Van Voorhis said. She advocates for thinking of learning as a non-linear path, where steps are taken forward, but also backwards and sideways.

“The critical thinking and the problem solving that students experience in games create spontaneous innovation,” Van Voorhis said. “It can be the catalyst and the spark to get a kid to that ‘ah ha moment’ that inspire a kid to get deeper into that content area.” And games allow kids to experiment, try new methods and fail without consequences.

Van Voorhis constructed a different version of Bloom’s Taxonomy based on game play, in which students first explore a theme informally, and that process helps them understand written text afterwards.

“Invoking their interest in the topic through play is a great way to get them to come to their reading or lectures or small group work with an explicit agenda,” she said.

A flipped version of Bloom's Taxonomy, informed by game-play.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1207611233 Melanie Link Taylor

    The 21st century invites girls to be the starters on the team–in the previous centuries, girls needed to sit on the bench. (Sports metaphor for the boys.)

  • http://twitter.com/IDaughterofMaat Daughter of Maat

    I’m a huge gamer, in fact I met my husband through gaming and my
    daughter has been playing video games since she was old enough to hold a
    controller. Video games don’t just stimulate critical thinking, they also enhance what’s know as visuo-spatial attention, and strengthens the connection between the eyes and the occipital lobe and how the occipital lobe processes information. Not to mention what it does for hand-eye coordination. Gaming has gotten a bad rap I think, and it’s unfortunate because in moderation it can be extremely beneficial. I really enjoyed this article.

  • gericar

    Well we know it is hard to get through the day without a good justification… but take a look at SIMs and see if you think this has anything to do with math or science unless we are talking about recipes and makeup….

    • Ciafer

      I believe the inclusion of the SIMs was based on the fact that it encourages creativity, “girls go from consumers to creators in the space.” Since you can design your SIMs, where they live, and tell stories with their lives I can agree with this point. However I would still place the SIMs on the level of entertainment rather than educational. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=593540842 Kathy Christie Hernandez

    Hi! You don’t need to post this comment. Just wanted to let you know you’ll probably want to add “from the” between “funding” and “National” in the sentence: “Her company has received funding National Science Foundation to study how to reach girls through gaming with the help of the Rochester Institute of Technology.”

  • http://twitter.com/ceitfianna Kate K. F.

    I enjoyed this article and all the great information about research and games out there, but found the title worked against it. Girls already play games, acting like this is big and surprising is insulting to them and acts as if this is surprising. That’s insulting to women who consider themselves gamers because they started playing as girls. Maybe consider shifting it to a question that reads less, wow, what mysterious thing makes girls play and more how do we make better, educational games for everyone.

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  • Ashley Shea

    What I take away from this article is the elements necessary for a girl to be attracted to and engaged by games, not, as Kate thought, that it is surprising that girls like games. I’m a gamer, but I have been bored to tears by the current crop of educational games that boys seem to enjoy. Game developers need to know that “girls are more drawn to games that require problem solving in context,
    that are collaborative (played through social media) and that produce
    what’s perceived to be a social good.”

  • Lauren Jackson

    I appreciate the ideas about how games can help students learn math and science concepts. As an English teacher, however, I’m more interested in the broader ideas about how kids learn, “Something we’ve seen as a tremendous motivator for girls to learn about math and science is that they need to see the connection from the classroom out into the real world.” I think this is a very important concept in the study of literature as well. I’ve recently been watching my students become very involved in their analysis of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because they relate to the patients in the mental ward, their marginalization for being different.

    I’m wondering whether any games are being developed to help students learn about how to analyze literature or to write. Perhaps this is the wrong question, though. Maybe what we understand about learning from games can be applied to other media that are appropriate for each subject area, like fan fiction sites for writing. How will we capture the idea of playing (using the informal exploration of a subject as the Deconstructed Bloom’s Taxonomy suggests) to access a subject, of helping students create their own transmedia starting from the text, of helping students to create social groups around their studies?

    The other idea I take away from this report is that we need to think more about interdisciplinary learning. If students are writing stories as they play SIMS, then we should be teaching writing in the context of where kids interests lie.

    • http://profiles.google.com/hoppingfun Lorraine Hopping Egan

      Lauren, have you seen Inanimate Alice? Born-digital storytelling with a strong digital literacy education community that has adopted it. http://www.inanimatealice.com/ Kids mix and mash up their own stories using tools such as Snappy and Mozilla’s X-Ray Goggles and PowerPoint or just plain paper and pencil.

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