Picture in your mind a hard-core video gamer, and 27-year-old Christina Winterburn may not be the first person who comes to mind. But Winterburn, a blogger for theGirlGamer.net and a gamer since the age of 6, says she feels no guilt about gaming and that playing video games is one of her favorite activities with her boyfriend.
Indeed, women now represent 40 percent of the gaming community in the United States, and new research that sheds light on the world of online gaming shows that female gamers -- or "girl gamers" as they are often called -- already may be bucking gender stereotypes.
In research presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago, a group of researchers reports that female players are more hard-core -- playing more hours per week on average than their male counterparts -- and are happier when playing with their romantic partners while male gamers prefer to play on their own.
The study, one of the first of its kind, involved thousands of players of EverQuest II, a popular online role-playing game, also known as an MMO, short for "massively multiplayer online." Dmitri Williams and colleagues were granted access to the EverQuest II database and linked the data to a survey of nearly 7,000 players who agreed to participate in exchange for a virtual prize.
The study's authors have previously reported that, contrary to stereotypes, online gamers are healthier than the general population as measured by body-mass index (BMI) and exercise habits. Williams, a professor of communication at the University of Southern California, and his colleagues also found that women were the most dedicated players, spending on average 29 hours per week online, while men averaged just 25 hours per week.
"Players who played the game with their romantic partners enjoyed the game more and spent more time playing," says Scott Caplan, one of the co-authors of the study and a professor of communication at the University of Delaware. He also noted that the study raises more questions for future research into gender stereotypes and cautioned that their results shouldn't be generalized yet.
Interestingly, female players under-reported their hours spent playing more than men. While men under-reported their average playing time per week by one hour, women under-reported their playing time by three hours.
Guilt may be one reason, suggests Mary Koss, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona.
"Do they feel guilty not doing other activities, such as cleaning, cooking, which we know women still do more of than men, or do they feel that it is less than ideal female behavior to spend time this way?" asks Koss.
Also interesting to some was the finding that the majority of female gamers played with a romantic partner.
"Men are happier when playing without their partner. Women are happier when they play with them," says Williams in a press release.
So what does this trend mean for relationships? It's not so clear. One thing the study suggests, in terms of players' motivations, is that men may be playing to win while women may be playing to connect socially.
"Women may be playing more to keep an emotional connection and companionship with their partners," says Koss.
Alternatively, Dr. Richard Pesikoff, a psychiatrist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, says that women may feel more comfortable working with their partner while men like to do things on their own.
Winterburn says that when she plays video games with her boyfriend, she will try to find the right game for them to play together.
"We're still women. ... It's just an emotional thing. I think we probably like to spend more time with our boyfriends than they like to spend time with us," she says.
She also suspects that men may not like playing online with their partners because they feel the need to share in-world "loot" lest they suffer real-world consequences.
"Men also might not want their partner to be better than them in a competitive setting," Winterburn adds.