By Tamsin Osborne
Online games' emphasis on combat has led many to paint them as male pursuits
Picture a typical player of a massively multiplayer game such as World of Warcraft and most people will imagine an overweight, solitary male.
But this stereotype has been challenged by a study investigating gender differences among gamers.
It found that the most hard-core players are female, that gamers are healthier than average, and that game playing is an increasingly social activity.
Despite gaming being seen as a male activity, female players now make up about 40% of the gaming population.
The study looked at gender differences in more than 2,400 gamers playing EverQuest II.
The participants, who were recruited directly out of the game, completed a web-based questionnaire about their gaming habits and lifestyles. They received an in-game item as a reward for taking part - a condition which has led to some questioning of the results.
In addition Sony Online Entertainment, Everquest's creator, gave the US researchers access to information about the players' in-game behaviours.
The results showed that, although more of the players were male, it was the female players who were the most dedicated players, spending more time each day playing the game than their male counterparts.
Lead researcher Scott Caplan of the University of Delaware said the result demonstrated how out-of-date stereotypes can be.
"In many cases, stereotypes reflect what I would call a 'cultural time lag'," he said.
"What we think about men and women and videogames may have been true 10 or 15 years ago, when there were mainly console video games or single-player games.
Attitudes to games may date from the early years of consoles, say researchers
"But what were seeing now is that games become social, and as these online games become communities then the attraction for that kind of behaviour might increase for women," said Prof Caplan.
"I think a lot of our stereotypes are based on the way computer games have been, rather than where they're going."
The pressure to conform to traditional gender roles might mean that some women are put off activities seen as "masculine", whereas women who reject traditional gender roles might be more likely to play MMOs such as EverQuest II.
Perhaps in support of this the survey revealed an unusually high level of bisexuality among the women who took part in the study - over five times higher than the general population.
"These are not people who are following strict gender stereotypes," said Prof Caplan.
"I think that the game itself is right now a very non-traditional activity for women, and so I think what you would find in this population are going to be people who are in other ways less traditional than the majority population."
Another unexpected finding was that the online game players - particularly the women - were healthier than the general population, though this was drawn from self-reported levels of exercise and body mass index.
Dmitri Williams, a researcher at the University of Southern California and a co-author on the study, said one possible explanation could be that playing computer games reduces the amount of time spent in front of the television.
Consoles such as the Wii have won a cross-gender audience
"What we think might be at play is that it's not that games are good for you, it's that TV is bad for you," he said.
"With television, what you get is an endless stream of commercials telling you to buy things and to consume things, and what we think we're finding is that when you remove all that consumption impulse you are probably less driven to consume."
In games such as EverQuest II, players spend their time completing quests and killing monsters, so it's possible that such in-game activities might influence players in real-life, said Prof Williams.
"It could be that games inspire a more active lifestyle, instead of sitting in front of a TV."
The study also found that men and women played computer games for different reasons, with men more likely to play to win and women more likely to play for social reasons.
Furthermore, a high proportion of women reported playing the game with their romantic partner, supporting the idea that game playing is becoming an increasingly sociable activity. The researchers say that this trend is reflected in patterns of general computer and internet use.
"If you go back 20 years and talk about people using computers and the internet, I think the stereotype would have been of a young male," said Prof Caplan.
"Nowadays, if you look at MySpace and Facebook and all of the social uses of the internet, the number of women who have it as part of their everyday life has gone up phenomenally," he said.
"In the same way that the stereotype of a computer user has become more gender-neutral, I think we'll see that with games too."