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Could Virtual Reality widen gaming’s gender gap?

3 min read

Weird science

I think by now everyone realizes that women are gamers, too. Sure, it’s still a pretty male dominated industry, but women have become more prominent and representation has become a bit of a big deal. However, if the future of gaming lies in Virtual Reality, I can’t help but wonder if that gender divide will widen once again.

I foresee two major obstacles: physical hardware and male oriented software. The first issue was highlighted in this article from The Verge. In it, a woman describes her frustration with a range of virtual and augmented reality experiences – headsets that didn’t fit, body wear that didn’t even touch her skin and motion control rings or gloves that fell off or bunched on her smaller hands. But it’s more than making sure headsets and motion controls fit a wider range of body types:

One eye-tracking headset stubbornly ignored my pupils until an employee asked if I was wearing mascara. When it got recalibrated perfectly a few minutes later, I was surprised — not by the fact that it worked, but by the fact that anyone had thought to troubleshoot makeup.

Women might be excluded from some experiences simply because they’re smaller or wear makeup? While that’s frustrating on an expo floor, imagine the irritation of buying such a product only to discover upon getting it home that it doesn’t work? Plus, with families and friends often sharing their entertainment at home, imagine how many women will be alienated from VR when their friends’ headsets don’t fit or the motion controls are completely off kilter due to differing sizes. Women should be half the market opportunity, and hardware manufacturers will need to account for smaller physiques if they’re going to engage with them.

Thankfully, I didn’t have those issues when I used the Hololens or PlayStation VR. However, I can certainly foresee issues surrounding content. VR is at its best when players are totally immersed in the experience, essentially forgetting that they are in a virtual reality. I experienced such immersion when I got to play London Heist – I was so busy shooting and engaging with the content that I wasn’t too worried about whether my hands looked masculine or feminine. However, if I had looked down on my body and seen a man, I would definitely be aware that I’m playing a game, breaking the immersive moment.

When playing traditional games, I’ve never minded playing as a man or woman. It doesn’t change my enjoyment factor for the most part; while I like having customization options in games to make characters look the way I like, if I’m playing as a predetermined character, I don’t mind if it’s male or female. However, when it comes to VR, these aspects will matter more, but be much harder to implement. It’s hard enough to make an enjoyable experience in VR, imagine expecting studios to also make them customizable so that players can state if they’re men or women? And why stop there – players might also lose immersion if their character has a different skin tone to their own, or a different BMI. Where do we draw the line?

With Virtual Reality almost upon us, these aren’t just theoretical questions anymore. How much immersion do we expect? What standard of diversity will be expected, or will VR just reinforce the stereotype of all gamers being white males?

Last Updated: March 22, 2016

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