Spend time playing some of the blockbuster video games drawing fans to this year’s Comic-Con in San Diego and a familiar trope emerges. Female characters are relegated to supporting roles, accessorizing battlefields and racetracks in skimpy, impractical, cleavage-baring outfits. This, gamemakers say, is what young gamers want: to play as virtual men and ogle virtual women.
They’re wrong. My colleagues and I recently surveyed 1,400 middle- and high school students across the U.S. about their gaming habits. What we found upends the industry’s tired stereotypes about gender.
Three-fourths of the boys we surveyed were not any more likely to play a game based on the gender of its protagonist. Of those who identified as “gamers,” 55% said they wanted more female heroes. Moreover, 47% of middle-school boys and 61% of high school boys indicated that, in general, female characters are treated too often as sex objects. As Theo, an eighth-grader, puts it, objectifying female characters “defeats the entire purpose of” games like Mortal Kombat, which is to fight.
And in growing numbers, it’s women who are playing video games. Of the girls we surveyed, 36% played role-playing titles like Grand Theft Auto and 26% played shooters like Call of Duty. Roughly half of all fandom convention attendees are women.
It’s time for the gaming industry to stop assuming that half its market share is interested only in sex–and that the other half isn’t even playing.
Wiseman is the author of Queen Bees & Wannabes and Masterminds & Wingmen
This appears in the July 20, 2015 issue of TIME.