Girls Who Game Three Times More Likely to Study STEM, UK Research Finds

Video games could play a surprising role in getting young women interested in PSTEM research and in closing the gender gap in those fields.

Want more young women in science and technology? Hand them a video game controller. Young girls who play video games are more likely to find themselves studying STEM subjects down the road, according to a new study from the University of Surrey. 

Girls who play video games and identify as gamers are three times more likely to choose physical science, technology, engineering or maths (PSTEM) degrees compared to their non-gaming classmates, the researchers found. This could mean breaking current expectations of girls and gaming could drastically help close the gender gap in PSTEM leadership and development. 

Closing the gender gap through gaming

To qualify as a "heavy gamer," girls between 13-14 years old had to play over nine hours of games each week. It was within those demographics that the gamers were found to be significantly more interested in pursuing PSTEM degrees. 

The researchers also looked at the reverse: whether women in PSTEM identified themselves as gamers. Nearly all of the women studied who have PSTEM degrees identified as gamers. However, the same could not be said of men who had PSTEM degrees -- regardless of degree type. This led the researchers to believe that boys experience far less pressure to conform to a stereotype about gaming even while studying a PSTEM degree. 

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The study conducted by the Surrey team was funded by the British Academy and published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. Director of PhD in Higher Education at Surrey Anesa Hosein led the study. Hosein herself identifies as a "geek girl" gamer. She believes there aren't enough women in the PSTEM field, 

"Despite the pioneering work of people like Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Surrey's own Daphne Jackson, the first female Physics professor, there are still too few female PSTEM role models for young women," she said. 

"However, our research shows that those who study PTSEM subjects at degree level are more likely to be gamers, so we need to encourage the girl gamers of today to become the engineering and physics students and pioneers of tomorrow.

And it won't just boost the numbers of women going into STEM. Expect the world of gaming itself to shift. Recent numbers have shown some video game designers only assume 5 percent of players are women, but that's far from accurate. A 2016 report from the ESA estimates nearly 45 percent of women play video games on a regular or frequent basis. 

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While women might not play the tactical or shooting games associated with male players, there's a larger portion of women who play RPGs, survivals and interactive drama games than expected. 

Girls experiencing the disparities in gaming -- both in character limitations and in programming flaws -- are more likely to become the women who develop new video games in the future. 

How to get more girls involved with gaming

Hosein and her team made recommendations as to how girls can get more involved in both gaming and PSTEM. A large part of that comes in a shift in education. 

"School educators could also start including gaming in PSTEM degrees to increase engagement of girl gamers," the researchers explained in a statement. "It is also important for girls who do not fit a geek video gaming stereotype to meet and see more alternative PSTEM female role models during their school education."

As Hosein noted, educators who want to close the gender divide in the sciences can rely on girls who game to be one of the first ones interested in pursuing PSTEM research.

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"It therefore makes sense, in the short-term, that educators seeking to encourage more take up of PSTEM subjects should target girl gamers, as they already may have a natural interest in these subjects," Hosein said. "We need to get better at identifying cues early to recognize which girls may be more interested in taking up PSTEM degrees."

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