Rosalind Wiseman, probably best known for the book that inspired “Mean Girls,” also happens to be a dedicated teacher and activist. Wiseman talked about a recent study she and a team of researchers did with Charlie Hall at Polygon earlier this week. The original survey was fairly small, but it found some interesting results. A thousand teenagers were surveyed, and it turns out that girls want to play as female characters. We already figured that, but the interesting part was that only 39% of boys preferred to play as male characters, compared to the 60% of girls that preferred to play as female characters. It’s a statistically relevant finding. Girls evidently care more about playing as women than boys do about playing as men.
The why of this is perhaps a more complicated question. It’s possible that girls are more cognizant of the lack of characters that resemble them, simply because there are so few. Boys may care less about the gender of protagonists because nearly all protagonists are boys anyway. It’s clear from the survey that teenage boys would like to see more girls playing games (86% responded in the affirmative). And 81% of boys wanted to see more female heroes in games.
Wiseman’s real focus is not video games, though. It’s conflict resolution. She travels around schools and gives presentations on conflict resolution—a central theme of “Mean Girls.” It’s not the most glamorous topic, especially for teenagers. Adults coming in and telling kids how to solve their problems is bound to meet some resistance, and when adults prove themselves illiterate in teen culture—video games, often—they lose even more credibility. It makes sense, when you think about it. As much wisdom as adults have, if we don’t understand and respect this huge part of their lives, how can we pretend our advice has any meaning to them?
Of course adult wisdom isn’t actually negated by a lack of knowledge about gaming. There are myriad ways in which teenage-hood is the same across generations. And many of the lessons we want to impart to students are true for humanity at large, not just a specific age group or locale. But teenagers often don’t have the experience to recognize what pieces of their lives are relatable to adults and which aren’t.
This is why Wiseman uses video games as an icebreaker in her talks on conflict resolution. She told Polygon: “Those moments of being with 400 kids screaming in joy because they see a video game character—you can’t put a price on it. It’s literally invaluable.” And, most importantly, Wiseman found that the same video game imagery and scenarios that resonated with boys also resonated with girls. While the survey found a huge divide between those who identified as a “gamer” and those who didn’t, it became clear that all kids were playing games.
If you’re interested in reading more about the survey and Wiseman’s work in schools, definitely check out the Polygon piece. Wiseman’s work is just one example of how games have become an integral part of our media landscape. And how we need to work on changing our preconceptions about who plays and loves them.