Is it the Brain or the Game? Gender Differences in Gaming

Neuroscience_Neurology.jpgNew research findings from the Stanford University proves that men find playing video games more rewarding. This wouldn’t appear surprising to the millions of console and PC gaming widows worldwide, but this gives us an opportunity to have a look at the good old chicken-and-egg conundrum in the context of arriving at sweeping generalizations on gender difference issues on the basis of imaging alone.

The abstract of the study (1) recently published in Psychiatric Research begins with the statement “Little is known about the underlying neural processes of playing computer/video games, despite the high prevalence of its gaming behavior, especially in males.” The study carried out on 11 men and women, on a “simplified” computer version of a game involving clicking on balls moving away from the centre of the screen in an attempt to gain “territory” on the screen, which was the object of winning. It concluded that men were more motivated to win territory, and therefore performed better despite the fact that both groups perfectly understood the objective of the game. (2) Functional MRI imaging performed at the time showed that the men’s meso-cortico-limbic centers, traditionally considered the brain’s “reward center” were more activated as they were winning. The authors concluded that territorial dominance is hardwired in the male brain, which is why men enjoy playing and winning computer games more than women.

While the study and its conclusions have a lyrical simplicity to it, observations from the real world contradict the hypothesis. Data from the ESA (3), dedicated to research of the trends in the video gaming industry, reveal the steady increase in the number of women gamers over the years. Currently, 38% of American videogame players and 48% of gaming parents are women. Gaming for women is not always about winning — consider the fact that 70% of the players of Sims, considered by some to be the most successful game ever are women; the game focuses on the intricacies of relationships and urban life. (4) Two recent reports are also worth mentioning – first, a recent report from the Australian gaming industry (5) that women are the fastest growing market segment along with old adults in a rapidly changing gaming demography. In Japan, in what has been described as a “seismic shift” (6), women gamers have actually overtaken their male counterparts with newer consoles like the Wii and DS, both from Nintendo. Lifestyle games on cookery, personal grooming and simulated sports are at the heart of the boom.

Reconciling the Stanford study and industry statistics is not easy: I suppose that the design of any psychosocial experiment largely determines its outcome under its unique circumstances, but is not necessarily applicable to real life. If we take video gaming out of its narrow context of two teenage geeks furiously clawing their consoles in a death match to outbid each other, to its broader modern context, I do think that the problem why men have “traditionally” found video games more rewarding, lies in the games themselves which have focused on competition and visuospatial skills.

But there are many ways of firing our meso-cortico-limbic centers when it comes to video gaming — it depends mostly on the games we choose as well as what the industry is designing for us.


1. HOEFT, F., WATSON, C., KESLER, S., BETTINGER, K., REISS, A. (2008). Gender differences in the mesocorticolimbic system during computer game-play. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 42(4), 253-258. DOI: 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2007.11.010

2. Video games activate reward regions of brain in men more than women, Stanford study finds. Stanford School of Medicine – News Release. 2008.

3. The Entertainment Software Association

4. Darren Waters. Games industry is ‘failing women’. BBC News. 2008.

5. Gaming on the rise. The Sydney Morning Herald. 2008.

6. Leo Lewis. Nintendo’s women gamers could transform market. Times Online. 2008.

Sudip Ghosh, MD

Sudip Ghosh, MD, is a surgeon at the University of Manchester, UK and a medical writer.
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