Is the Gaming Gender Gap Finally Closing?

Women make up 46% of the gaming population, yet this isn’t reflected in the industry. Development studios and training courses are still dominated by men, and many gaming companies still target men exclusively in their marketing. There are some differences in the way men and women use video games, but largely these are exaggerated: everyone uses games, and everyone gets some benefit from them. One key difference, however, is that 70% of people who consider themselves to be core gamers (which is to say that gaming is a significant part of their life) are men. Continued research and development into the benefits of gameplay for mental health could change this though, and there are exciting developments afoot in the development of games specifically for managing mental health.

How can video games benefit mental health?

Research has shown that gaming theory can help to improve decision-making and willpower across a number of mental health conditions because of the motivation built in to the design. Video gaming can also reduce stress in instances where there are no threats to the central character and the game is a relaxing and immersive experience. Indeed, this year has seen a rise in video game sales as people look for ways to ease their stress during challenging times. When so much of the population has been living in isolation, gaming has provided a way to stay connected, establish much-need routine, and distract us from distressing news stories.

The power of video games in mental health management can be seen in the rise of mental health apps. We tend to think of apps as distinct from video games, but apps that guide us through relaxation techniques and guided meditations are essentially a form of video game specifically designed to aid mental health. Both women and men who wouldn’t consider themselves gamers use these apps and benefit from their stress-reducing effects.

Taking it a step further

Gaming with the specific purpose of managing mental health conditions is on the verge of being taken to the next level. Ninja Theory, a UK games developer, has been working with psychiatrist Paul Fletcher on The Insight Project. Tameem Antoniades, Ninja Theory’s creative director, has collaborated with Fletcher before: they created the game, ‘Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice,’ which was highly praised for its portrayal of psychosis. It was during the creation of this game that they began to investigate the potential of video games to measure and reduce mental distress. They are now working on games that utilize biometric signals for this purpose. Rather than players manipulating the game using a controller, their biometric data will lead the game. One prototype is a sailing game based on pulse readings: as a player’s heart rate increases, the ocean becomes more story, slowing your progress through the game. The idea is to slow your heart rate to make it further through the game. 

Gameplay that relies on physiological signals may not be new, but it has failed to achieve much commercial success in the past. However, with improvements in technology and an increased interest in wellness and meditation apps, there could be a new era on the horizon. Video games like those being created for The Insight Project will forge a new niche in gaming, and this could change the gender gap in the industry. Games designed solely for the purpose of mental health management are more likely to include a greater balance of men and women in the design teams, and marketing is more likely to be gender-neutral. 

The understanding of the potential to manage mental health through gaming has reached an exciting moment. Not only do collaborations like The Insight Project promise to create useful tools for stress reduction, but they could redress the gender imbalance in the industry too.

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