Women account for almost 50% of gamers in Australia, but the nuanced and varied experiences of mothers who game are lost among these statistics.
A 2020 global survey of mothers found more than 70% of mothers play games daily on consoles, smartphones and computers. The report highlighted the commercial benefits of marketing games to mothers – but did little to address the social factors that influence mothers’ gaming behaviours.
We think societal expectations and gendered perceptions of the mother’s role in the home may be an impediment for mothers wanting to game, and the reason why research in this area is scant.
But understanding what motivates mothers or deters them from gaming is important for comprehending how family dynamics are structured or negotiated in the modern digital home.
What a mother should be
In Australia, mothers continue to provide the majority share of household labour and care to children, often balancing these responsibilities with paid work. Time for gaming may be a luxury few mothers can afford.
The first and only known longitudinal study to research mothers who play computer games was conducted in 2009. The three year study involved analysing representations of gaming mothers in advertisements, news articles and blogs, and by interviewing mothers and observing their gaming practices in the home.
The study highlighted discourse related to gaming mothers is entrenched in gendered tropes about parenting and expectations about what a mother should be. Mothers are portrayed in popular culture as “domestic guardians” who should devote their time to the family instead of “self-indulgent” gaming.
This ideology is evident in the gaming industry today, where a game is said to have passed the “mum test” if it has a soft and feminised design.
A decade later and limited or conflicting demands on a mother’s time remains an issue for those wanting to game. Even in households where gaming is an accepted part of family life, the games mothers play may be influenced by expectations about their role. Fast-paced games such as PUBG (Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds), Among Us, and Bloodborne, do not allow players to pause or save progress in the game, which means they are not conducive with child caring duties.
Managing time for gaming
Findings from a recent doctoral study (by one of the authors) about digital mothering suggests mothers’ gaming practices are associated with how they perceive their role in the home. In-depth interviews were carried out in the homes of 17 mothers in South Australia to uncover their experiences as both users of digital media, and as facilitators of children’s use.
Time constraints were identified as an issue that limits mothers’ opportunities for game play and implied a possible loss or relinquishing of a previously inhabited gamer identity:
My friend and I used to play Crash Bandicoot and Raiders of the Lost Ark like addicts before we had children, we were terrible […] But this was a long time ago, I just don’t have time anymore.
Several mothers mentioned playing games on a casual basis on their mobile phones, especially word games with friends. Unlike the more immersive experience of gaming on consoles, participants were able to dip in and out of mobile games at their convenience.
Mothers would, on the one hand, dismiss their gaming as nothing of consequence but, on the other, implied gaming is justified once other responsibilities have been attended to. This “time-filler” gaming profile is more common among female players – and especially those who live with children.
Guilt about the time spent gaming was associated with how a mother should and shouldn’t act. One participant explained the need to self-regulate her mobile gaming to protect its impact on her family:
Those real-time games are terrible. They play with your mind once you start. You realise you’ve been playing it for two hours and not got anything else done. It did become really addictive so I’ve learnt not to get caught up with it now.
Only one mother in the research study self-identified as a “hardcore gamer”, and described how she played action role-playing games, like Fallout 4 “daily and all day”.
Rather than defending or downplaying her gaming, she embraced gaming as an integral and valuable part of family life that strengthens her relationship with her children and husband:
I get frustrated sometimes when I hear parents, mothers in particular, complain about Minecraft and I just think ‘if you would spend a little bit of time trying to understand it you would know there is lot of really good potential there’.
Unmasking mother’s game play
Industry statistics show mothers enjoy gaming – or at least they do if given the time to do so. Yet, mothers’ participation in game culture is often underestimated and overlooked in academia.
To unmask mothers’ experiences of gaming we need to explore more fully how structural forces, such as stereotypical assumptions about mothering, may influence their perceptions and enjoyment of gaming.
We know when gaming is shared with other household members, family cohesion is enhanced. There are also significant health benefits from playing games, including a reduction in stress and anxiety levels, conditions mothers are all too familiar with.
Exploring mothers’ gaming practices in more depth will also increase the visibility and representation of mothers in gaming culture and in game studies research.
But it’s not just about research, it’s also about what happens in the home. When you’re compiling your Christmas list for Mum this year, maybe give the novelty slippers a miss and think instead about giving her uninterrupted time to play – or you could offer to be her player two.