Written by Bana Shriky

Bana Shriky is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Faculty of Engineering and Informatics/School of Engineering at the University of Bradford. Her research involves looking into soft matter properties for applications ranging from drug delivery to efficient plastics recycling. In July and August 2019, she undertook a BSA Media Fellowship with the Daily Mail, sponsored by the University of Bradford. 

The long summer hours I spent playing video games as a kid influenced my decision to study a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) degree. Although I cannot imagine how saving Princess Peach in Mario brothers or pursuing a virtual career as an Olympian sprinter could have affected my subject preferences at school, new research says it did. At this year’s British Science Festival, researchers from the University of Surrey shared their latest findings.

Girls who play video games are three times more likely to study physical science, technology, engineering and maths (PSTEM) degrees compared to non-gamers, according to the results of this new study. The study’s author Dr Anesa Hosein, a senior lecturer at the University of Surrey and a proud gamer herself said she was not surprised by the findings since they reflected her own experience as young girl gamer and scientist.

The study followed a group of 7,342 teenagers for twelve years, from when they were 13 or 14 through to adulthood to determine whether their interest in video games had any relationship with the degree subject they later studied at university.

Findings indicated a low uptake of PSTEM degrees among females in general, though both female and male gamers were more likely to do a PSTEM degree. Interestingly, the relationship was stronger for girls. Girls who played over nine hours of video games a week were 3.3 times more likely to study PSTEM compared to only 1.5 times for boys.

Credit: Unsplash

Dr Hosein explained that the connection between gaming and degree choice is deeply affected by media stereotypes and their interactions with it. STEM stereotypes are usually portrayed as male, academically gifted, wear glasses and play video games, or simply look someone who walked out from The Big Bang Theory.

She added that PSTEM girls often try to fit this traditional ‘geek’ stereotype by 'appearing less feminine' and playing video games. This stereotype had detrimental effects on some girls, who found it off-putting and rejected STEM subjects because they didn’t want to fit the stereotype, even though they were more likely to achieve equivalent results to males.

When asked to recommend video games, Dr Hosein clarified that not all video games are created equally and that "priority should be for games that enhance spatial recognition, improve problem solving capabilities and computer literacy."

Dr Hosein advised to end the gender bias when it comes to toys gifted to children from young ages and instead actively encourage girls to explore more interests. This year’s top 5 buys for boys were diverse (tech, sport and books), while only two tech items (toys with remote controllers) made the girl's list.      

It is widely known that STEM professions are the force driving innovation in modern societies. These fields, however, may not be the most welcoming environments to women, and a lot of that is due to decades of stereotyping often dictating what a scientist should look or behave like.

Efforts are being made to make STEM more inclusive, including providing more support and encouragement for girls at school since they are more likely than boys to discontinue science later in their studies. Dr Hosein also suggests stereotypes can be used for positive change by encouraging girls who are more likely to pursue PSTEM subjects in the first place to take them up. 

Looking back, while I personally enjoyed being a moustached plumber who saved the day, my favourite games were all strategic games. I loved playing Age of Empires, Command & Conquer and when I needed a dose of sport, I switched to my greatest discovery: FIFA -  Football Manger. All of this fits the recipe for the ‘ideal’ game Dr Hosein recommends, so perhaps the science here is correct, at least in Anesa’s case and mine.