Baby Games, Boy Games, Games for Nerds: Class and Gender Gaming Disparities among U.S. Youth

Gus Andrews

Within the field of education, identity is seen as having specific uses. It has been cited as a means of engaging students. It is also seen as integral to behaving as and belonging to academic communities of practice.

James Gee discusses how many schools fail to introduce students to academic “ways of being” – ways of constructing knowledge and investigating the world which scholars use in their work. Gee’s recent work has investigated games’ ability to teach these kinds of roles. He suggests the immersion into the narrative world of a particular identity which is offered by games – a businessperson, a city planner, a soldier in a historical battle — could be far more compelling than most of schools’ introductions to academic thought. His suggestions echo observations made by Turkle on the ways MUDs and MOOs provided opportunities to try on identities in a space of "psychosocial moratorium." (Gee, 2003; Turkle, 1995)

Schools’ routine failures to engage student identities with technology have also been described. Lankshear and Knobel follow students interacting with technology in and out of the classroom, and conclude that the technology-user identities their teachers model conflict with students’ senses of identity as technology users outside of class. (Lankshear, 2003) Leander and Lovvorn follow one student through the MMORPG Star Wars Galaxies as well as his writing of a history project, and find his interaction with the game to be far more engaged and textually rich than his work for school. (Leander, 2006)

Other studies of youth have documented some ways technology-related identities differ across national borders, gender, and age. Suess et al. investigated student identification with games across Europe. (Suess, 1998) In Finland, where adults are enthusiastic about technology use and afterschool programs allow students to play games, they found that students enthusiastically played computer games. In Spain, middle-class parents are similarly supportive; however, computers are seen as "too complicated" for younger children, who play console games instead. Older children thus view console games as "for babies" and prefer computer games, or exercise their newfound freedom to spend time outside the home by heading to arcades (a highly male-gendered space in Spain). In Switzerland, where technology is viewed less positively by adults, games play a less important role in youth social life. Children under 18 are legally barred from arcades, so there is little youth arcade culture. This study makes it clear that gamer identities must be viewed in context and understood in relation to dominant cultures and local/national social arrangements.

Kafai has described many differences by gender. In a study of nine and ten year old students, she found differences in games that boys and girls designed by themselves. (Kafai, 1998) Boys’ games were more likely to be violent and use fantasy characters, which Kafai attributed to the models available to them in existing games. Girls, by contrast, tended to use characters and settings which they liked or might find in their own lives. Kafai posited that girls were not offered role models in video games, and thus had to invent their own from more familiar subject matter. Girls were also more likely to adopt a “teaching” genre for their games.

The study presented here set out to learn more about high school students’ gaming practices. Specifically, the study investigated whether these students’ gaming differed along social class lines. While some differences by class emerged in surveys, interviews revealed stronger influences on their gaming identities. Gender, age, and youth subcultures – particularly jocks and nerds – were the lines along which students drew their gaming allegiances. The identities described by students in this study reflect and reinforce trends in the games industry, in society at large, and in particular social strata; considered in the light of identity’s role in education, they suggest potential obstacles to the effectiveness of educational games.

Population and Methods

Two high schools were included in this study. The first, Miranda Nell High School, 1 is a public high school in New York City. Between 350 and 400 students were enrolled at the time of the survey; 162 of those students responded to the initial survey. 2 The second school, Tarnover Academy, is a private college preparatory school in suburban Connecticut. The high school had 163 enrolled students at the time of the study; 133 of those students responded to the initial survey.

Surveys were administered by teachers in school advisory groups, collecting basic demographic information about the students, as well as some information about their gameplay habits and the social configuration of those habits.

Based on information from the surveys, I identified a smaller group of representative students at each school to interview and perform pile sorts. My aim was to find students who were “average” for their school' s socioeconomic status (SES) level and gender. Thus, I picked students who reported preferring and playing genres, platforms, and hours which were near average for their gender and school (using data only from high-SES students at Tarnover and low-SES students at Miranda Nell).

Pile sorts are intended to give the researcher a sense of the organic categories a culture uses to define themes, people, or other beings or inanimate objects. To that end, I gave the students a selection of game boxes and gave them the following abstract guidelines for sorting, in four successive rounds:

  • Which of these have you seen(/heard of) and not seen(/heard of) before?
  • Sort the games into the piles "which make the most sense to you."
  • (If they did not develop these criteria already) Sort the games into piles based on what kinds of games these are.
  • (If they did not develop these criteria already) Sort the games into piles based on what kind of people would play them.

All games were used in each round of sorting, even if students had not seen a game before. If students asked for categories, I reminded them I was most interested in their own. After students confirmed final piles, I asked them for more detailed explanations, and recorded which games ended up in which piles.

In all, I interviewed and did pile sorts with three males (Davon, George, and Eduardo) and three females (Marianne, Amanda, and Shameka) at Miranda Nell, and four males (Robert, Liam, Janak, and Dave) and three females (Lacey, Brecken, and Lauren) at Tarnover.3 Pile sorts were conducted individually, with dyads, and with triads, because of scheduling issues at both schools. Interviews were conducted individually. I recorded interviews on videotape or audiodisc.

I used some genre categories which emerged from the pile sort and interviews – sports games, fantasy games, casual games, and computer games – to guide a re-analysis of the survey data. To do this, I used categories from the pile sorts to classify games students indicated (on the survey) they had played most over the past year. When a student reported playing a game not included in the pile sort, I used the genre attributed to the game on the popular website to sort games into similar categories invented by students.


Genre distinctions

The survey suggested that students who played fantasy games or sports games generally played one or the other, rarely both, suggesting distinct player identities. Out of 71 students at Miranda Nell who reported a sports or a fantasy game among the top three they had played in the past year, only four had spent time on both; out of 45 students at Tarnover, only six had spent time playing both. When sorting out piles, students tacitly or explicitly made a distinction between games for athletes and games for quiet people or nerds.

Casual games and long-form computer games also emerged as distinct organic categories in the pile sorts. Girls’ reports of what they had played most over the past year indicated that they, like their older female relatives (IGDA, 2004), preferred casual games like Tetris, TextTwist, or Bejeweled. However, these games were not exclusively gendered; most students sorted these games into some sort of “general audience” category.

Conversely, computer games which take more intensive engagement – like World of Warcraft, Civilization, or Sim City – were isolated as the badge of a particular, marginalized group of players. A minimal number of students reported these games as one of the top three they had played in the last year. The group most likely to play long-form computer games were high-SES males.

Gender, denial, and role models

Though my research did not set out to catalog gender differences in gameplay, they were overwhelmingly apparent. It was often possible to tell whether a survey was from a boy or a girl from the first page, even though students’ names and genders were listed on the last page. Surveys on which respondents had begun to check boxes to indicate they played with their friends, at home – then crossed these out and checked “I don’t play” – were invariably from girls. Some girls went out of their way to write “I don’t play games” in the margins – in one case, “I don’t play these baby games!” This was even though when asked which consoles they had played or owned, they generally listed as many as their male peers!

“I don’t really play games” was a recurring chorus in my interview with Brecken at Tarnover. She claimed not to care about games. In her interview, however, one finds contradictions:

I would say my favorite kinds of games would just be like, um, the desktop? Like Freecell or Solitaire. Cuz I don't — I wouldn't consider myself a big player, at all. […] I wouldn't consider myself like a big video games or computer games (sic). […] I don't think I got really into them? It's just that in my free time, if I'm bored, I'll go on the computer and I'll play freecell or I'll play solitaire. Those would be like the top two. And video games? Um, I've played them before with my brother, because he has tons at home, but, you know, (chuckling) I get, I get frustrated with them because I get so into the game and then if I don't win or something it's not good. (emphasis added)

A “gamer” identity appeared to conflict with being a girl:

I would say like the girls play like the non-violence ones, […] you know, the nice friendly ones? (laughs) […] Cuz you know, like, guys go for like the ugly, and just, you know[…] I guess it's our interests, and maybe — I just think that girls are probably more caring, like, you know, we're the mothers, we're the nurturers, and the guys, you know, they're the fighters.

It might be a stretch to call Brecken’s take on gender representative. Other girls at both schools spoke of game violence as distasteful, but did not explicitly link it to boys.

Still, Brecken’s tendency to contradict herself was characteristic of girls I spoke to in both schools. Another Tarnover student, Lacey, made a similar statement in her interview. “They’re not for the violence,” she said of her female peers. This quiet, deferential girl then promptly contradicted herself: “I have one game people think I would never play – the Godfather.”

There were exceptions to the “girls don’t play games” rule. Shameka, from Miranda Nell, was atypical, owning her gaming fully. As it turned out, her grandmother was, in her words, “a game freak:” not only did she play games and buy consoles, but she had also subscribed to Nintendo magazines! Her grandmother’s open-mindedness seems to have impacted on Shameka:

When she had her grandkid(s)… that was the only thing basically that we did was sit around and play games. And maybe she was like, “Let me just try this,” and then she got into it. And like, it’ll be her and my uncle just sittin’ there, tryin to get down to the root of somethin’, and they’ll get it, like they’ll finish the whole thing. She’ll finish something better than I can!

In general, role models provided crucial support for girls’ accepting game play. Lauren was supported in her play by her older brother. Eduardo had been taught to play by his elder sister, who was advanced enough that he would sometimes hand her the controller to beat a difficult level. Considering himself a role model, he was actively nurturing his twelve-year-old sister’s gaming.

Sports games and their devotees

In general, sports games were closely associated with an identity. Four interviewees said they were played by “jocks,” “athletic people,” or “sports people.” Boys at Tarnover and girls at Miranda Nell identified them as “athletic people” or “jocks.”

At Miranda Nell, sports figured strongly in students’ identities and in the identity of their school. A majority of Miranda Nell students – 59.66% of them, boys and girls both – reported a sports game among the top three they had played in the past year.

Boys at Miranda Nell identified sports games with themselves and their classmates, calling them “games we would play.” Within this identification, there were nuances. George and Davon called their school “a basketball school;” they didn’t have a football team and didn’t know many students who cared about baseball or soccer. George personally prefers football, so he plays NFL games. He spoke knowledgeably about the details of the real-life game of football, and of his desire to pursue a career in the sport; he said if he could not become a professional player, he wouldn’t mind being a commentator or writer. Davon, meanwhile, prefers basketball, and plays NBA games.

Girls at Tarnover agreed sports games were played by “guys.” George, at Miranda Nell, said he thought girls wouldn’t play sports games because they “don’t understand it.” But each girl at Miranda Nell had played specific sports games. And when I asked game-allergic Brecken about sports games, she allowed that she might play football, because she liked the sport.

Fantasy versus reality

Fantasy-themed games also tended to be grouped together, but the labels this group was given were inconsistent. Students labeled them “fantasy,” “mystical,” or “spiritual.” Being identified with fantasy games was not acceptable to most students. Out of the 214 students, only 23 reported a fantasy-themed game as one of the top three they had played in the past year. Three of the four pile sort groups at Tarnover said these games were played by “nerds.”

Computer fantasy games were derogatorily labeled “computer head games” by the dyad of boys at Miranda Nell, while they labeled console fantasy games “for kids” and said they wouldn’t play them. Further delineating this category in opposition to others, Eduardo said some of these games were for “quiet people who don’t like sports.”

In the pile sorts, Davon and George indicated greater affinity for “realistic” games and rejected fantasy games. George listed the “mission” games he preferred, like the reconnaissance game Splinter Cell; aside from those and sports games, he said he only played boxing games. He spurned Tekken, a martial arts game which features cyborgs, mystical powers, fighting bears, and mutants. When asked why, he said, “I guess it’s fake. It has no point.”4


While the stigma on fantasy games also existed at Tarnover, by the end of the study a majority of boys at the school were rumored to be playing World of Warcraft. Hence the stigma on the fantasy genre was perhaps not as strong.

Instead, the ways of playing associated with these games were seen as “nerdy” or otherwise unacceptable. Janak worked hard to distance himself from a “gamer” archetype:

I'm not the kind of kid who goes home every weekend, and, you know, spends — and locks himself in his basement, and, you know, plays video games all day all night. I'm not — I'm not crazy like that.

When asked about his play habits, however, his claim unraveled:

During the year? My playing time — nothing! But lately, since school is ending, [I have a] new [XBox 360] system […] yesterday, I just went crazy. Like, I kind of locked myself in my basement all day. […] You need — you need to do that once in a while. But once in a while.

Playing too much or too broadly is clearly a risk which, when taken, should be quickly hidden. Robert, another Tarnover student, addressed this too:

World of Warcraft, some of the people with like […] the best armor sets and everything, they play like their entire life and have, like, no life or job. But other people— like, I play World of Warcraft, but I do other things, like I go out to the movies and stuff like that. […] the more you play, like, the more you seem like a nerd. Like, those people who start talking about it, like memorizing things in it.

The girls at Tarnover were most overt about the risk of playing too much. “Those are like – I don’t want to, like, sound mean, like, nerdy guys who play all the time,” Lauren noted as she sorted Zelda and World of Warcraft into one pile. The girls identified “nerds” around school by how much they talked about the games.5

The social risk of being “addicted” to games was not limited to Tarnover, but it was less evident at Miranda Nell. Male students at Miranda Nell also linked too much gaming to unacceptable identities. The first indication was Eduardo volunteering that he was “not addicted” to games on the survey. With George and Davon, the meaning of over-commitment to games changed slightly; it was more linked to computer games than to fantasy-themed games:

George: These? Tss. These are all computer games. I only play Call of Duty.
G: Mm. So who would play those games?
Davon: I know Beatrice would play it; the Sims—
Geo: Computer-head. People that be on the computer all the time. […] People that be on Sconex [the NYC public school computer network] 24-7.

Their critique of computer games was leveled at simulations, role-playing and strategy games, and first-person shooters. It did not apply to “casual” puzzle, card, arcade, and word games on the computer. These games tend to have simpler controls and interfaces, do not require navigating in 3D space, and are often playable on other devices as well. Most of the students I interviewed at Miranda Nell had played casual games on the computer. In general, they expressed a preference for console and handheld games. They rejected longer-form computer games because of frustrations with their more complicated controls.


Differences in game players’ identities clearly confirm and may reinforce other facets of their identities – class, gender, educational background, subculture, possibly even religion. While there were clearly exceptions to patterns among boys and girls, high- and low-income students, this study found “average” students expressing strong norms, through which girls were discouraged from playing much beyond casual games, low-income students stuck to “real” sports games, and “obsessed” fantasy gamers were shunned.

Certain themes – girls’ public disavowal of gaming and their isolated game play, accessibility of casual games to all groups, and ostracism of fantasy games — appear to cross SES barriers and be applicable in the case of the average gamer. Other attitudes seem more class-specific – for example, the strong popularity of sports and other “realistic” games at the lower-SES school, and high-SES students’ concern with games’ “addictiveness.”

As the patterns in the surveys indicated, there is a deep tension for many girls between the games they play and an identity as a “game player” with which they are really not comfortable. Brecken pegs competition as a male trait, but then mentions she only plays unchallenging games because of her own desire to win. She fleshes out this apparent contradiction: winning and losing at “complicated games” are social experiences for boys, while her own disappointment at losing appears to be a solitary affair; unsurprising, as she and her peers repeatedly said they don’t know anything about other girls’ play habits. When asked on the surveys who they played with, girls were more likely to report playing alone.

It was not clear from the discussions I had with students, but one wonders if girls in high school do begin to identify casual games as for grown-up women, and thus acceptable, as opposed to the “baby” console video games and violent games they think they should avoid. The development and advertising of video games by an industry with a severe gender imbalance (a high point being the 25% of female employees at EA, CITE) can’t help but further alienate many young women.

To many academics, I imagine the observation that “jocks” and other “normal” kids marginalize “nerds” seems to state the obvious. I suspect it is a story which resonates with some of us personally. However, treating these attitudes as givens leaves us with little understanding of why “nerdy” identities are not available to many students.

Why must fantasy be nerdy? The Dialectic of the Enlightenment’s argues that science, as a means of understanding the universe, pervades modern capitalist culture. Horkheimer and Adorno posit that in such a culture, all things inexplicable within the rules of science – including spirituality and human feeling – are ignored or marginalized, if not eradicated. (Horkheimer, 1947)

Such cultural tendencies played out in literature as Western countries moved into modernism. Novels and poetry about fairies, monsters, and other fantastic or mythological subjects were increasingly branded as for children. (Grossman, 2007)

Some Christian sects maintain a criticism of fantasy from another angle. The proselytizing pamphlets of Jack Chick, for example, take on a number of fantasy themes.

The primary concern driving the marginalization of fantasy – both by the scientific culture of capitalism and by some elements of Christianity – seems to be a misconception that reading, watching, or playing with fantasy texts indicates a belief that these texts are a representation of how the world works. Readers or players who hold this belief would not be sufficiently devoted to scientific or Christian ways of thinking.

The perceived antagonism between mainstream religion and fantasy texts was underscored by one boy and three girls at Tarnover, who referred to the games other respondents called “fantasy” as “mystical” or “spiritual.” One might hear a science-culture echo of this accusation in Robert’s description of “nerds” who played “too much” and “don’t have jobs:” by spending all their time in a fantasy world, they might be failing to participate in the capitalist “real world.” There was, however, no indication among the students who played fantasy games that they believed fantasies were real.

Whether or not fantasy players conform to others’ beliefs about them, it is clear that for religious and cultural reasons, identification as a (heavy) fantasy games player by others presents a significant risk of marginalization.

For educators who study the ways gaming identities might be harnessed to teach, these findings are a sobering call for investigation of all different types of gaming identity, rather than looking where the light is good – at the games which academics feel comfortable playing. This is particularly crucial if we wish to understand the technology activities of low-income youth, and support their development of cultural capital. If, as has been suggested in the popular press, World of Warcraft is “the new golf” in the technology industry, how does rejecting fantasy games as “fake” and computer games as “too complicated” hurt the social standing of low-SES males? If low-SES students prefer sports games, does it behoove us to research the use of these games to engage them in school?

Suess et al.’s study suggests that generalization of these findings across national and cultural boundaries may be problematic. What may be warranted instead is further investigation by class and gender in different countries. In any case, it is clear we cannot assume “gaming” is a monolithic preferred activity of “today’s wired, multitasking youth.” This research suggests that in video games, one size does not fit all.


1 The school names used here are pseudonyms.
2 The survey was distributed in advisory sessions at both schools, and the lower percentage of respondants at Miranda Nell on the first survey was largely due to whole advisories not returning their surveys.
3 All names are pseudonymous.
4 None of the students considered that representations of sports could be construed as unrealistic.
5 I should note that on the day I did pile sorts at Tarnover, the school was hosting something called a “Nerd Bowl” – essentially a quiz show assembly. The principal let me know that there had been some controversy over the name of the event; this was the first time in a few years that it had been called the “Nerd Bowl,” as faculty had been concerned that the name was pejorative. Before their pile sort, the girls and I talked a little about the controversy over the assembly’s name. This could have put the word “nerd” high in the girls’ minds. However, I do not feel it unduly influenced their categorizations; this appeared to be a category agreed upon by boys and girls at Tarnover.


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