My mom gifted me a Quest 2 for Christmas. Since she had been talking non-stop about VR for the last month, I laughed and asked, “Did you buy this for yourself?” She smiled mischievously and pulled out a system of her own.
I was a little shocked. My mom, now in her mid-50s and adjusting to an empty nest with my brother back at college, didn’t seem like the target audience for the console. Actually, it seemed weird that she had bought any console. But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. My mom has been playing video games for years, whether it was Tetris on her Game Boy Color before I was born, Wii Sports with my brother and me, or more recently, Animal Crossing: New Horizons on the Switch — no matter the decade, she has always been up to date with the latest gaming technology.
Her hobby technically makes her a “gamer,” but why do I have such trouble imagining her as one?
Perhaps because the term gamer, itself, is contentious. It often conjures up a specific image: typically, a white young man, mashing a video game controller in his parent’s basement for hours. When asked to describe this person, words like lazy, introvert, irresponsible, and smart might be brought up. However, this prototype is far from representative. Statistically, gamers are older than we imagine, the average age hanging around 34 years old, with 45 percent of all gamers identifying as female. However, these women often face backlash when trying to penetrate such an insular community.
Mom of two, Susie B Cross, details the misogynistic pressures that influence her relationship with the term gamer. “I think of myself as ‘playing on my phone’ when I whizz through a few rounds of whatever,” she wrote for Scary Mommy (Disclosure: Scary Mommy is also owned by BDG, Input’s parent company), “But gamers aren’t just about the Nintendo Wii or PlayStation, we are playing across mobile, tablet, and PC platforms too. And, since my phone is ‘mobile’ and I have two sons, I actually fit in quite nicely with the other gamer moms.”
“Maybe it’s a judgment on our use of time... Maybe we’re expected to ‘act our age.’”
On the stigma, Cross says, “Maybe it’s a judgment on our use of time when we should obviously be feather-dusting the mantle or plucking a chicken to fricassee for dinner. Maybe we’re expected to ‘act our age.’ Maybe gaming is not considered ‘lady-like’ enough. Whatever the reason, while 71 percent of moms report that they play video games, less than 50 percent describe themselves as ‘gamers.’”
This gap in identification may arise from the toxic online community. One popular text post bashes those who try to call themselves “gamers,” outlining the qualifications a “real” gamer must meet. Though the post is often shared to satirize a culture built upon gatekeeping and harassment, its content reflects real beliefs many gamers hold.
To be called a gamer, one must put “300+ hours into a game” and can only play on specified consoles (like the Xbox or PlayStation). Obviously, there is a special note to “ALL WOMEN” in the post, a comprehensive list of titles that are not considered “real games” (in case you were wondering, it includes Pokémon, Animal Crossing, The Sims, Mario, Stardew Valley, and all mobile games). These “qualifications” are at direct odds with the way some moms game; due to the demands of raising children, many moms cannot game for hours on end or play on their phones due to logistics. Because moms game differently than those who currently dominate the community, their hobby — and, by extension, sense of self — is ridiculed and invalidated.
Despite these difficulties, self-proclaimed gamer moms are carving out their own online spaces. Moms are building communities — from Facebook groups dedicated to the VR exercise game Supernatural, to online forums devoted solely to moms who game. One group of mothers even has a monthly podcast focused on gaming and a YouTube channel highlighting mom streamers.
“Historically, women gamers, and especially moms, have been written out of the narrative around gaming.”
To better understand the budding demographic, Activision Blizzard performed a study in May 2020 which adds the support of quantitative data to the experiences many gamer moms have previously spoken about. The report acknowledges that “historically, women gamers, and especially moms, have been written out of the narrative around gaming.” It goes on to condemn the trivialization of gamer moms and their exclusion from gaming discourse. “In these stories, their gaming was a novelty, and they certainly were not considered to be part of the broader gaming community.”
Per the report, the demographic is “a rich kaleidoscope of women with different motivations and preferences for games.” Moms game for entertainment, social interaction, and community like anyone else. Additionally, the authors note, they play to bond with their children, increase their problem-solving abilities, and express themselves creatively. The report finds that moms game across multiple platforms, challenging the stereotype that they only use mobile devices. This study simultaneously challenges stereotypes surrounding the mom gamer, while validating the existence of women who game casually. According to Activision Blizzard, there are only two qualifiers to be a mom gamer: you simply have to be a mom who enjoys video games.
However, the report is still propelled by deep-rooted gender bias. To better grasp the characterization of the language employed, it's best to explore a previous study run by Activision Blizzard in the same year. That study explores the loyalty Millennial gamers have to video games. The report praises Millennials' emotional intelligence and artistic appreciation when it comes to games, utilizing uplifting language to describe the generation as “the most powerful gaming generation today” due to their “unique combination of passion, dedication, and investment in gaming.”
There is little focus on Millennials from a marketing perspective; they have entered a post-marketing stage, their consumeristic beliefs already aligning with Activision Blizzard’s marketing strategy. There is no need to commodify Millennials because they are already owned by the industry. Now, Activision Blizzard labels them as “smart, sophisticated consumers who are breaking the stereotype that gaming is ‘just for kids,’” to benefit from their continued support.
More than marketing
Conversely, the language in the mom gamer report is overly capitalistic. Moms are described as “content consumption machines” and “mega-consumers” numerous times throughout the study, reducing women to their capitalistic behaviors. They are not celebrated for their intelligence and emotions like Millennials — instead, moms are honored for being “an influential target for advertising partners” and for their ability to be “primed for brands.” Moms are only valued when they can be exploited for profit. Additionally, moms are described as “[content hungry] content advocates” that can increase the market’s reach due to their maternal social networks, suggesting Activision Blizzard has no qualms about exploiting these moms and communities for profit.
The company, though progressive with some aspects of its reporting, overall reinforces harmful stereotypes surrounding women. Its toxic misogyny may be a reflection of Activision Blizzard’s workplace — one filled with numerous alleged cases of sexual misconduct and a CEO intent on covering it up (who, by the way, is possibly receiving a $400 million payout from the recent acquisition by Microsoft. Great).
Ultimately, being a gamer mom is complicated. Not only do they contend with the typical negative stereotypes surrounding gaming, but they also face an additional set of gendered challenges. Though their voices are beginning to blossom, their agency is habitually invalidated by the very companies they support. It’s time to stop acting like video games are a niche aspect of your personality. Everyone plays video games, including moms. Get over it.