So now we get to the juicy bit of this series of articles on video games; namely existing and perpetuating gender issues in the gaming world. A bit of warning in advance, I will be brutally honest but respectful however do not just expect a feminist rant… but also a gamer rant.
Let’s get a few fact straights : men and women both play games, apparently it seems that female gamers are on the rise according to (again) the Entertainment Software Association :
“Forty-two percent of all players are women and women over 18 years of age are one of the industry’s fastest growing demographics.” (Source)
I could corroborate this number with yet another survey conducted by Harris Interactive for GameHouse® stating basically that 55% of people who play games online are women. It is completed by a nifty infographic showing that women are also happier and have more sex than non gamers. First of all, I’m clearly happy about those numbers as it corroborates the fact that, yes indeed, they are women gamers out there. But I still get a queasy feeling (I am not the only one but for different reasons) when I see the Gamehouse survey conducted by a): a male (he is clearly depicted as your geek-tech-guy in the infographic) b): refers to women gamers as a “new breed” of gamers (are we really an oddity?) and c): fuels the well-known and much debated stereotypes about female playing games by inserting a bra in the title (why?) and mentioning our sexual activity level.
So where should we start? Let’s attack the core of the problem without hesitation: gender based-stereotypes. For those who have read the first part of this series, you know I love video games. I consider myself lucky to have grown up playing them with my dad and my younger brother because this meant that there were games all over the place, all the time. So no, I wasn’t raised to think about the fact that I would get resentment or crappy remarks because I am a woman who enjoys video games. I first experienced these when I started playing dice-and-paper RPG’s with a group of male friends in late high school. And, surprisingly, I got it from people on the outside of our gaming circle : I was dubbed as a geek, uninteresting and definitely un-sexy by some male counterparts. I did not fight it, nor answered any of it because it seemed like a waste of my time and energy: which I much prefered to be focused on gaming.
So now, twenty years later, games have matured, genres have diversified and yet I still get surprised looks in my male entourage when I mention that I play a lot of video games. Why? I thinks it’s a safe bet to answer that this is all based on assumptions.
Assumption 1 : Video games are not made for women
Wrong. They always were, there were not only men playing Pac-Man at the local arcade when I was a kid, I was getting in there and played with the same passion as anybody. Yet, most games available today were designed by men with their specific mindsets. We get clantily-scad female characters with oversized bosoms, big guys with rippling muscles and big guns, big-bad monsters, zombies or orcs and enough explosions to make you deaf. This is where the big money went a decade ago with the launch of video games consoles. So where is it now? The industry has realised that girls want to play games too so they went out of their way to create games that are specifically aimed at female consumers, assuming again that it would satisfy our thirst for the game. Well, it worked, after a fashion. Social games are on the rise, mostly played by women it seems, cooking & dressing games are abundant on the web and there are games genre designed for female gamers. So right there you would say :” Hey, some guys like to play those games as well and there are some girls who don’t like them!” I totally agree. Remember, this is about audience and money, the gaming industry are widening their games genre to sell more and be successful as a franchise. I am not disatisfied with the variety of games available, I am disatisfied because I have to defend myself for being who I am.
Assumption 2 : Women don’t play hardcore games
Wrong again. Some of us get tired of brushing our character’s virtual hair or slicing a digital pizza, we get more demanding, we want a game that will challenge us. So yes, I started playing the Halo games last year, after more than a decade of abandoning the first-person-shooter genre. The reason is quite simple, I fell in love with a Halo fanatic. At first, I teased him about his gaming habit (who I am to talk when I can have a 5-hour marathon on Oblivion?), and then I got curious about the game. Of course, his teasing comments about me being a girl gave me the impulse to try it out… just to prove a point. I started with Halo 2 : it took me 3 months to finish. It was my first experience of an FPS on a console, I was utterly terrified everytime a grenade landed near me and was turning running into walls into an art form. Second was Halo 3 : it took me 3 weeks to finish. I was less scared, the increased graphics quality helped, I was capable of aiming properly and landing a few choice grenades. Next was Halo ODST: took me 3 days to finish. I got stuck on the first mission because of a large groups of enemies that kept killing me but I polished my tactics and eventually got the better of the game. Halo Reach? Finished it in a couple of hours. I will get around to playing Halo CE when I have the Anniversary copy. Nowadays I routinely go on Xbox live in Halo Reach with or without my significant other, I’m getting better and better every time I play, I learn from my mistakes and I don’t assume I will be treated differently because I am female as well my online avatar.
So no, I will not flaunt the fact that I’m a girl online playing games, I am, that’s it. I sometimes get nasty comments, it happened to me a while back on a Living Dead Halo Reach playlist. I had a group of english guys on my team, it must have been the first time I played a:) with the headset b:) the zombie killing game. Bottom line: I got it handed to me. Big time. And the thing is my fellow male players laughed outright at me. You know what I did? Instead of arguing and throwing a fit… I took my headset off and carried on playing. Frankly, I don’t care if some men think of me as fat, ugly, bitchy or feminist because I play “their” video games, it’s their problem, not mine. I play because I love the game, always did. This post was initially more about how stereotypes affect women in the gaming “industry” and not just female gamers, but I do admit getting sidetracked after reading a some articles on stereotypes in general in the gaming world, have a look at some of them at the end of this post.
I have already said that I am a huge strategy games fan, I think I must have tried every single one that came out in the last few years because I wanted to see new features in the layout of units, the replayability of maps, multiplayer capabilities, etc. I disliked certain additions or features like the Total War series, even though it’s turn-based too much of the game is concentrated on rendering the combat scenes in 3d cutscenes than on the actual game engine itself. Nevertheless, I am faitful to strategy games because I like their pace and, of course, the preparation phase of your units before sending them to a horrid virtual death. I was handed a few years back a copy of Supreme Commander on PC, with it came the notion that I probably wouldn’t like this game because it relied too much on military strategy and I, being a female, clearly could not understand that. Not saying a word, I installed the game, it did take me a few moments to understand how to deploy my units in proper fashion, control my production and prepare for a strike. Even with my aging PC, I managed to finish the first campaign (and win it) in a couple of hours much to the dismay of the person that handed it to me. He eventually had to rescind his earlier comment about women not understanding strategy and left me the game…probably because it was too hard for him.
So no this is not a list of my gaming exploits but a means to demonstrate my point: there are some type of games that demand a higher level of concentration, where you have to be on the lookout for anything. Some other games demand skill and precision: press that button at that specific time for the action to compute. Some games rely on strategy: prepare and build up your troops initially before launching a strike against an enemy. Each of those games are as diverse as we are, so no, there are no “girly” or “un-girly” games, I will not accept being categorized (yet again) because I don’t play Wii games nor will I insult any female gamer who likes to play them. It’s a question of personal taste, it is not about gender.
Assumption 3 : Female characters are not realistic
Part of this assumption is the case some women have against some video games is the portrayal of female characters in the stories; let’s go back and have a look at Lara Croft with her oversized bust and tight shorts in 1996. I am not here to make the case against her, it’s been in the making since then with her unrealistic breast size that either attracted a legion of fans or fierce adversaries. In this, I will not pick a side because I really don’t mind the way she looks but prefer the way she re-acts in the game. This is a strong female character, she will take you out even if you’re six feet tall with oversized muscles, and her hair will still be gorgeous. What does that tell us: that we (females) should endeavour to look like her? Certainly not, but there is much to be admired in a female heroine that stands her own.
Let’s look at this from another angle.What is the most common stereotype associated with male hardcore gamers…. need I spell it out? The majority of these boys would either be shunned by (some) girls because they are “weird” or “geeks”: it clashes with the stereotype that says that men should be big, strong, productive and certainly not indulging in the dubious pleasure of playing silly video games. In other cases, even they admit feeling scared of revealing their passion to their new girl in case they are made fun of (aka the single most destructive blow you can hit a man with). So, when it comes down to it, characters like Lara Croft might reassure them that as lonely geek gamers they could still attract wonderful looking girls, if only they could go beyond….stereotypes!
So, was there ever a game that made women feel better about themselves? When I play Dragon Age, Mass Effect or Oblivion, my husband always asks me why I choose to portray a female character (when in reality it doesn’t change my gaming experience; NPC’s don’t care if I’m female, male or just an oversized scaled fish, they react to my character race, skills and attributes) instead of a male one. My answer was (and still is) why not? Early RPG’s like Dark Sun AD&D or Baldur’s Gate made it possible to portray a female hero with the same skill set as a male one. When playing Dragon Age 2 you have many female characters that will join you on your quest : for those who played the game did anybody forget Isabella’s massive chest? Or the fact that Varric, your dwarven narrator, depicts your character’s sister Bethany with unrealistic cleavage when he tells the story for his point of view? I asked myself if I wanted to see Fenris or Sebastien (or any other male characters in video games) with a huge codpiece to make things even but it holds little interest for me but I would like to see it in a MOD someday, just to see the reaction of my male counterparts. Don’t say no, it would be funny.
So, the bottom line is both men and women are trapped with their stereotypes : men for being female-fearing-cave-nerds playing endless video games and female for being afraid (or feeling pressured) to act (or portray) like men in games. Aren’t we all “gamers”? Isn’t it time to go beyond that and let anybody with skill participate in the development of our future video games? I guess that might sound a little bit over optimistic, especially for women who want to pursue a career in video games design (in the USA mainly) but times are changing.
Assumption 4 : Video game design is for men
Considering all that has been said until now, is it really a surprise that the video game industry are still missing the mark with female game designers? Apparently not. We are clearly considered as customers by the marketing departement but what about game design itself? Let’s look at what has been happening recently.
The fact is that since the industry is predominently made up of male designers and requires of them to be avid video game players, it was never assumed that there would be a place for women in it. Or so we thought. A look back on a New York Times article in 2004:
“It’s a chicken-or-egg thing,” said Ms. Fulton, who sees a lot of résumés in her job, almost all from men. “If more women were playing games, they might get interested in games as a medium and might choose to pursue that as a career. But it’s still stigmatized as a boy thing.”
There you have it, we should play more games, but remember that this was written seven years ago and we have seen just how much women have been getting in the game since then. I outlined earlier how female character development have pushed away female gamers because they felt that too much emphasis was being put in breast enlargement and skimpy costumes, clearly male designers are missing something: a female’s point of view. If you have a look at this article on Geeks Are Sexy, the author Natiana echoes some of my concerns :
“I’m not saying that sexy women have no place in video games. On the contrary, I’m not calling for the obliteration of sexiness—I think the female form is beautiful, and ought to celebrated. But we should, like in the real world, have a choice whether or not to let it all hang out, so to speak, or look just like any other soldier in the army.”
This is why female developers have their place in the gaming industry, we can bring these modifications that, while not changing the game experience, can attract more female players without antagonizing them because of gender issues. So do we want a female-designed Halo or Modern Warfare? I can hear some fans screaming already, but that is clearly not the objective that female designers might want to achieve, they want to create video games and make them better… for everybody. Of course that does not change the fact that women still have a hard time being accepted as skilled and capable individuals in the gaming industry. Most women in any technology career are already being confronted with the same old boring stereotypes. My answer: ignore them, carry on with what you’re doing and stay focused. You can’t change mentalities in a hearbeat. Your work and contribution will make the difference in the end.
So yes, there are recurring stereotypes in the video game industry but these are ultimately failing because the bigger the audience gets, the more you will need skilled designers to make it work : both male and female. Paris’ Ubisoft CEO, Yves Guillemot, said :
“[…]he’s proud of the fact his company has about a 20-per-cent female workforce, which is significantly higher than the industry average of about 11 per cent.” (Source)
So what are we waiting for girls? Get your game on!
Next week, the final part of this article on gaming : specifically about video games and libraries
- Women in the video game industry (crenk.com)
- The player: women play games too (guardian.co.uk)
- Gender and games (libraryjournal.com)
- 9 things real female games hate about gaming (gamesradar.com)
- New stats on female gamers shatter myths (gamingangels.com)