Will video games solve sex-discrimination in science?

ResearchBlogging.orgLast year we discussed a great deal of research about the gender disparity in math and science. Even while women are more successful overall in school than men, in certain fields there is a very large deficit in the number of women participating. We mentioned one explanation in particular:

The male math advantage in a number of different studies appears to be directly related to visuospatial skills, the most important being mental rotation. In tests on calculation or other mathematical problems that don't require visuospatial skills, females perform just as well as -- or better than -- males.

What's more, at least one study has found that it's possible to teach these visuospatial skills. Such a course has been offered at Michigan Tech for many years, and students taking the course have not only shown measurable improvement on visuospatial tests, they have gotten better grades in subsequent engineering and graphics courses.

But where did men acquire these superior skills in the first place? One possible answer is video games. While obviously video games weren't available to boys more than about 30 years ago, prior to that, boys may have acquired similar skills through male-dominated sports like baseball and hunting.

Shortly after our report, Jing Feng, Ian Spence, and Jay Pratt found that men and women who played action video games for more than four hours per week showed no disparity in one test of visuospatial ability, a Field of Vision task where they had to spot a dot flashing for 1/100 of a second in their peripheral vision. They were significantly better than men or women who didn't play action games. But male non-players were still better than females.

Could video game training erase this gender gap?

Feng's team recruited 20 new students with no gaming experience. All the students were tested with the same task and a mental rotation task, and placed in pairs scoring similarly. One member of each pair was trained in a violent action game -- Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, while the other member was trained with Ballance, a 3-D puzzle game. They played their respective games for ten hours over a four-week period, then tested again. Here are the results for the field of vision task:


While men scored better than women before training, after playing Medal of Honor both women and men improved significantly. The difference between males and females after the training was not significant -- the gap between women and men was almost completely erased. Even more impressively, the researchers retested both groups five months later and found that both groups were still performing as well as they had right after training. The group playing Ballance showed no significant gains.

There were comparable results for the Mental Rotation task, which also remained in effect five months later.

So, could encouraging girls to play action video games actually improve their math and science skills? It's certainly a possibility. It's intriguing that not just any game will improve these skills -- even a three-dimensional puzzle game didn't help; only the serious life-and-death action game seemed to work. But I think another step is needed before we start promoting Halo as the answer to all sex discrimination -- these effects need to be extended to academic skills themselves. It's possible that playing these games only increases a few key spatial abilities without affecting the underlying reasoning skills.

And, as we pointed out last year, there are social and institutional problems that may also affect women's success in math and science.

Finally, I'd be interested to know if there are any games out there that improve visuospatial skills without all that violence. Girls might be more interested in those games, the games wouldn't have the adverse affects of violence, and everyone would be interested in seeing girls improve on the key abilities to help them succeed in math and science.

Feng, J., Spence, I., Pratt, J. (2007). Playing an Action Video Game Reduces Gender Differences in Spatial Cognition. Psychological Science, 18(10), 850-855. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01990.x

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So, if boys spend more time doing things that they are culturally encouraged to do, being boys, they get better at things that boys are culturally expected to be better at.

If girls do things that boys are expected to do, they, too, get better at culturally boys' domain skills.

Huh. Forgive my EXTREME cynicism here, but it's almost as though the difference between boys and girls is due to cultural expectations, and not biological differences.


Yes, this is a hot button issue of mine.

Thank you so much for the analysis, DM. Every small, well thought out post makes a small difference, but hopefully eventually we'll educate enough people to make a difference.

I don't understand how the title of this post relates to the research. You seem to imply that that sex discrimination can be solved by actually bringing (more) women to the same level as men. But, to me the definition of sex discrimination is denying success to women who already have qualifications that meet or exceed the requirements.

First, I suppose sports simulation games could be used to avoid most of the violence.
But, if all the test subjects, male and female, were non-gamers prior to the test, wouldn't the exposure to action games have a similar benefit to everyone. Shouldn't we see a corresponding spike for males? Why would the females be able to "catch-up" rather than both groups increase at the same rate? Is there a ceiling plateau for the mental tasks results?
Either way, I can see a new marketing campaign forming for Medal of Honor!

Does the paper explicitely says that this progress concerns only action games?

Based on your article I would think it's mainly the point of view (First Person Shooter) that improve this aptitude and not the type of game.
A game like Portal could have the same result without the violence (the involve also some twisted portal gameplay).

Usually women have more difficulty with game involving an immersion in a 3D world and are more confortable with 2D games or game with a single viewpoint (even with 3D graphics).

Link to portal:

I could say this is total BS just from my experience. I've played games since I was oh.. 6? I am a woman and I suck completely at math. I get A and B grades in all other courses but math I fail utterly. I gamed obsessively from a young age up until a few years after high school so... where's my magical math solution?

By kcanadensis (not verified) on 07 Jul 2008 #permalink

I'm female and I love video games! I don't have children, so I am free to have fun periodically ;)

But, to add to Lama's comment- even more than FPS, I would think navigating a constantly changing 3D environment would be the kicker. And perhaps the hand-to-eye coordination helps as well, so I wouldn't altogether discount games course games like Mario or whatever.

I'm not much of a fan of FPSs because I dislike the fact that I can't see myself in my environment. Just that stupid disembodied hand or gun! There's no sense of self and I just do not like that. And believe me, I have tried to like them. I have a dearth of $50 unfinished video games to prove it :`(

(It confuses me. Attacks from behind usually leave me whirling spasmodically until I irretrievably wedge myself into a corner and panic shoot the crap out of the wall while the baddies carve my dude up like a Sunday ham. I just can not orient myself in first person.)

I've never played Portal, but I can think of a few others.

Especially RPGs and some Puzzle games. RPGs do typically have fighting, but the emphasis is usually on character development so the gore and violence often takes a back seat. You still have to fight, but they usually aren't as creepy and/or gross as say Resident Evil. Some of my faves (and presumably girl friendly) not-super-violent games:

Oblivion (PC): Especially with the user made content. The ability to add or subtract things to or from your game more or less at will is awesome (called "modding"). There are a decent number of female modders out there, and a lot of mods to appeal to those fans who aren't fifteen year old boys. (Or their annoying, presumably Amish parents.) There is a lot of fighting, but it's not terribly violent or gory and other character elements to keep it interesting (magic, stealth, etc).

Okami (Wii): This is fighting/quest game, but is not violent in the typical sense. Also, it's the most visually interesting and stunningly beautiful game I have ever had the pleasure of playing. It's done in the style of traditional Japanese prints and your character is a Shinto wolf-goddess. Definitely appeals to women. There is no gore, and also you must (get this!) draw pictures to vanquish your enemies. Lots of exploring in a massive 3D environment.

Other possibilities: Mario Cart, Zelda, Final Fantasy, Tomb Raider. Dare I say it? World of Warcraft. I know a few women who play it, although I don't.

I can think of two key things that Medal of Honor has over Ballance: A much more detailed (and cluttered) environment, and a much faster action pace. It can certainly be more taxing to spacial perception when you have fast moving graphics, changing environments (with visual clutter) and some emotional stress.

I've never played Ballance, but I've played similar games before; and from what I see from it's website, it seems to lack the aforementioned qualities. It's comparitive simplicity and leisurely pace just doesn't seem to provide the same challenge.

Adverse effects of violent video games?

...educated people still believe that?

I'm not much of a fan of FPSs because I dislike the fact that I can't see myself in my environment. Just that stupid disembodied hand or gun! There's no sense of self and I just do not like that.

Wow really? Thats actually what I really like about FPSs, I actually feel like I'm much more intimate with the character, and it makes the action/tension greater. I guess it's because it feel like I'm not controlling the protagonist, but rather I am the protagonist.

I will admit though, the disembodied hand or gun is especially notable when you look down and notice that your character doesn't have any feet! You're just a camera floating in the air!

An interesting study for sure.

As for non-violent games that might help, Oblivion might be worth a try-it does have some violence, but not the ultraviolence of Halo.

Ironically, I started getting B's in math this year (up from D's to C's last year) and last year I started engaging in the ultraviolence. I wonder if there is any connection.

That said, my science marks have always remained constant.

By linkthewindow (not verified) on 08 Jul 2008 #permalink

boys may have acquired similar skills through male-dominated sports like baseball and hunting
Ha ha ha! As opposed to, say, thousands of years of human development during which men were out in the world hunting, chopping trees, building habitats, etc. Nah, must have been (i) ball games at which men were at first not any better than women, (ii) which they decided to "dominate," then (iii) _became_ better at than women. Makes sense.

ossicle - He's not talking about an evolutionary advantage when he mentions the fact that boys are more likely to hunt or play baseball. "Male-dominated" means that males much more commonly engage in those activities, not that they are inherently dominant. Go blame the patriarchy somewhere else.

Finally, I'd be interested to know if there are any games out there that improve visuospatial skills without all that violence.

There's an article over at Not Exactly Rocket Science ( Single Memory Training Task Improves Overall Problem Solving) that talks about an experimental task designed to enhance fluid intelligence. Although described as having a generalized effect on fluid intelligence (presumably visuospatial ability is representative of this type of intelligence), i'm uncertain to what extent the task would influence visuospatial ability or gender differences in this ability.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 08 Jul 2008 #permalink

Of course, this will never help women, since women don't play video games (though there are obviously exceptions to this rule).

And yttrai: I suppose the physical differences between males and females are also due to cultural expectations, eh? You feel free to keep peddling your nonsense, though.

And yttrai: I suppose the physical differences between males and females are also due to cultural expectations, eh?

Dunno; do the physical differences tend to disappear when men and women are given similar exercise regimens?

I want to see how the Ev Psychers (per David Buller, the Ev Psychers, not the ev psychers), explain away this latest kick in the pants, which once again shows there's a big difference between the quasi-metaphysical storytelling of Evolutionary Psychology (with caps) versus the legitimate, evolutionary biology-driving evolutionary psychology.

I cover the basics of the difference between Ev Psych and ev psych here, based in fair degree on the writings of philosopher of science David Buller, which he explains in further detail in this Scientific American interview.

I love the hostility between nature/nurture groups. Some thoughts that seem trivially obvious and may be drastically oversimplified:

If you never *perform* visio-spatially challenging activities, you'll never *improve* them. Cultures that choose to avoid these activities (e.g. sports, video-games, logic puzzles, etc.) will suck ass relative to those who do practice spatial manipulation .

The result: some culturally created performance differences. Why does this threaten people? Why do they get so angry? It's as if some people need to feel inherently superior at some level, or else they blow up in a rage.

This doesn't mean that biological differences do not dramatially affect ability - of course they do. Just compare a born genius's scores with a regular joe's. And males, selected for superior survival skills - some of which would tax visio-spatial ability - could definitely inherit a strong advantage. But I think there is also a tendency to imagine that females never needed or used these same skills, and to exaggerate the role they played in male development, and also to ignore the deceptively minor effects of sport and play.

Nature and nurture: There's a balance some where, different for each individual, and I don't expect it will be solved for anytime soon.

"Finally, I'd be interested to know if there are any games out there that improve visuospatial skills without all that violence. "

Yes there are some, there's a game called 'Portal' that uses a first person action perspective to create an intriguing puzzle game. It's excellently written, and the protagonist is even female.

I play a lot of multiplayer action games online, and although the subject matter is shooting, I prefer to think of it as a sport. In the best games, and at the higher levels of playing them, it feels much more like that than a war anyway.

Also, the reason so many games are about war is that they are playing to their demographic of boys and young men. If women start buying games in large enough numbers they will start making the kind of games that they want to play. Supply and demand can be a powerful thing.

I agree that there are differences between males and females in certain domains such as math and spatial abilities and these differences result in an apparent female underrepresentation as well as a male bias in the sciences. However, every indication seems to be that most of the differences can be overcome. We are currently doing some VR spatial research and there does not appear to be any gender differences in ability or in the learning curves.

Additionally, compared to the literature of the 1960's, the current "social and cultural influences on sex and math/science" may be a bit of a misnomer. Consider the list of items previously posted as influences. http://scienceblogs.com/cognitivedaily/2007/09/why_arent_there_more_wom… They are all correlational and none may be causational. There was a big uproar in education beginning in 1984 when DW Chambers published a study of 4,800 drawings generated by grade school children. The children were instructed to "draw a scientist." Approximately one-half the sample was female, but only 28 female scientists were drawn. These results have been replicated in several countries with different populations and various instructions. The immediate, and I might add Freudian, conclusion was that little girls had no self-efficacy toward the possibility of being scientists. Indeed major educational reform in the UK resulted from this perception. The basic idea was the stereotype of scientists being male was a problem. We did the same draw a scientist task with 212 psychology and computer science undergraduate college students. We had 5.6% female scientists drawn and our sample was about 63% female. My point is, these women were primarily science majors, yet they still appeared to have the stereotype of scientists being male which was incongruent with their behavior. Therefore, the apparent gender bias in scientific disciplines may already be going the way of the dodo bird. It may only be that our research has not caught up with the phenomenon. Our paper can be found at http://www.cavs.msstate.edu/information.php?eid=176 or on Psychinfo.

My kid - ok, daughter - has poor visio-spatial skills, but she's so averse to violence that it's hard to teach her even basic history. So like you, I would also like to see a more peaceful solution.

As a female scientist/gamer, I've found these studies to be very interesting. I've been a gamer since I was 12, but back then it was all 2-D Super Mario stuff, not these 3-D MMORPG's that we all seem to play today. (ok, ok, there was Marble Madness! lol)

I have to say that it wasn't video games that made me good at spacial visualization. I've always been good at it, which prompted every IQ tester, and every teacher to say I "think like a boy" or have male intelligence. Didn't do wonders for my self esteem. My father was an electrical engineer and I always took after him in math/science aptitude. My parents never told me I couldn't do it because I was a girl. They were proud of my spacial visualization capabilities and encouraged them. Yes, I love video games, too, and I'm no noob to MMORPG's, but that's not what made the difference.

What's going to end gender discrimination in science & math is when everyone realizes that women can be just as good as men in these fields and stops telling little girls otherwise. It's cultural encouragement at a young age that's going to make the difference. However, it's encouraging that the difference can be erased in older females with some training. That's why I love these studies! :)

I would be interested to see a "draw the scientist" experiment that used a typical female role as a control task ("draw a scientist" and "draw a teacher" for example). I think part of this is not ingrained gender bias so much as what is considered a "generic human". In this culture, it's a white 30-something male. (How many people drew a black or asian scientist?).

(I'm trying to relate this to the old 'Linda the bank teller' social science experiment. Not sure how.)

I would have to guess that 3D games are more conducive to visuospatial training than puzzles, mainly because puzzles are an overwhelming number of relationships between objects that dramatically increase as you expand from the inner two objects in the puzzle to all the remaining. 3D games have a much more linear increase in relationships, and the relationships remain much more static, allowing for memorization. Considering that vast majority of our math and science education is about static relationships between objects we quite frankly are just memorizing (even if we don't try to), puzzles in which you very rarely encounter repetition is very poor in training for memory of any kind.

It's always good to hear from other lady gamers. :) I've been into it since I was about 7 or 8 and I wouldn't say I have stellar math skills, although I did enjoy calculus a great deal. When I was a kid I had to play nice with some realllllly annoying, sexist little boy-pigs to get my hands on certain games and consoles, but it was SO worth it. I love everything, really-- the MMO's, RTS's, Resident Evils, Descent, RPGs like Torment, Tekken-type stuff, simple hidden object games like Madame Fate (creepy carnies + bad puns = love). But my favourite genre by far is the Craptastic Bargain Bin RPG PC Game. Best three bucks you ever spent. :)

On the subject of games that test spatial skills, is anyone else obsessed with FoldIt right now? I worked an 11-hour day yesterday, came home and ended up spending another 6 manipulating some ungodly globular protein...

(Incidentally, I've found female gamers to be quite variable in their tolerance of violence in games. Would anyone care to expand on the implicit assumption commonly deployed above that women will inherent categorically avoid violent games?)

What about Lego?

I grew up a long, long time ago before video games,
and was pretty obsessed with Lego.

Maybe it's not a coincidence that I have always
been good at math and I have excellent visuospatial
skills (despite being female).

I think that the more data we have the more everyone will listen to the people. We need to invest more time into this subject. I have noticed that I do better in science and math then my sister scince I play action video games


That is all I can say on the subject. I plan on doing my own research.

Hmmm. A Woman graduating at the exact same time as the male standing next to her and obtaining the exact same degree will make .23 cents less per dollar than that male. Additionally, no matter how well she performs professionally she will receive less in benefits and bonuses due primarily how much she makes. (AAUW)

Socially boys who spend tons of time playing games all day miss out on fundamental social skills. I can't tell you how many young people I meet be it at a relatives home or at work that can't seem to communicate or connect with others at a social level. Just some facts and observations.

I am a female video game player that plays shooter games. I am better than 99% of the guys I play with, and for that fact alone I am discriminated against! I am constantly called a cheater. I have had comments such as "Females are out of their league when it comes to video games, its for men." "I like to pick on females that play, cause they are fat and ugly and don't deserve to play." "I hate my wife so I pick on females in video games." It goes on and on not to mention all the names I have been called. I excel and have excellent "visuospatial skills" I guess. Video games deal with a lot of reflex, foot work aquired by hand eye coordintation. I personally think with practice and learning the controller and knowing maps like the back of your hand women can be just as good as men if not better, being we do have smaller hands and fingers to hold a controller. Anyway I am sick of the discrimination of females concerning video games! Come on guys get over it female video game players can actually be better than you!!

Oh and yeah I have always been excellent in Math! I love Math!