Hey, girl, don’t put down that Xbox controller
Study reveals how being an avid gamer can set girls on the path to careers in maths and science
Today, Grade 8 Johannesburg pupil Layla Khumalo is a girl with a joystick in her hand, playing her favourite game of Sims or Minecraft twice a week. But tomorrow she could be the next Marie Curie, making groundbreaking discoveries thanks to her love for gaming.
New research in the UK has suggested that girls who play video games are more likely to choose physical science, technology, engineering or maths (PSTEM) degrees compared with their non-gaming counterparts.
Published in the Computers in Human Behaviour journal, the study found that 13- to 14-year-old girls, classified as “heavy gamers” (playing more than nine hours a week), were three times more likely to pursue a PSTEM degree compared with girls who didn’t indulge in games like Fortnite, Minecraft and League of Legends.
Khumalo, 14, who is part of Afrika Teen Geeks, a computer science NGO, believes there is a link between her love for maths and science and gaming.
“I think gaming helps me a lot with my problem-solving skills, which you need with maths and science. I find it easier to decipher,” she said.
Khumalo, who usually scores an average of 90% in maths and 75% in science, has her sights set on a career as a software architect.
One-time self-confessed “geek girl” gamer and physics graduate Dr Anesa Hosein wanted to find the connection between her love for science and video games.
For the research she looked at the records of 3,500 girls to determine whether their level of interest in video games when they were 13 or 14 had any relationship with the degree subject they later studied. The study found that girls who played more than nine hours of video games a week were 3.3 times more likely to study PSTEM.
This was the case even after accounting for their socio-economic background, their ethnicity, past performance and how good at their chosen subject they felt they were. The study also found that 100% of women who were already studying towards degrees in PSTEM, identified themselves as gamers.
Video game-playing boys, meanwhile, were only 1.5 times as likely to take up a PSTEM degree.
Hosein believes video games could be the short-term answer to science’s gender problem.
“It therefore makes sense, in the short term, that teachers seeking to encourage more take-up of PSTEM subjects should target girl gamers, as they already may have a natural interest in these subjects. We need to get better at identifying cues early to recognise which girls may be more interested in taking up PSTEM degrees,” she said.
Dr Lanette Hattingh, a Johannesburg-based educational psychologist, believes that girls are more empowered because of the rise of social media to play video games and make smarter career choices.
“We know that girls can be very good at maths. We only need to convince them to believe that as well.
“In the rural areas, where I often work, many girls are not exposed to video games. But I have seen their enthusiasm and interest when they are exposed to information on careers in the maths and science fields,” she said.
A 2017 University of Stellenbosch study of gender and the performance of Grade 9 maths and science pupils found that, despite improvements over the past 10 years, SA women continued to be underrepresented in tertiary studies and professional careers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths.
Sam Wright, founder of popular blog Tech Girl, believes female gamers, “especially young ones, are less afraid to move into the PSTEM space”.
“Historically women shied away because it was a male-dominated field but gaming, notoriously also male-dominated, is a way to squash those stereotypes and allows women to feel more ‘equal’ for want of a better term - as they’re less likely to see those gender divides,” she said.