I’m recently interning as a copywriter at a game developer. Someone noticed I am of the female persuasion. I was asked to write the following article. Which is fine, and fairly important for the general gender equality discussion hoo hah that despite not really wanting to take on that sort of responsibility, seems people pay more attention to my genitals than I do, and that’s saying a lot. ANYway. Am tired, end of intensive-writing-ness week, but wanted to share since occasionally I remember that it took plenty of these thoughts and ideas spread by many others for me to find my own self actualized gender apathy. Which is usually the reverse for things I write about. Less caustic than normal even though my office lets me run around barefoot, is still an office.
I’m a girl, and I play games. That doesn’t make me a gamer girl.
I’ve never considered myself a “girl gamer”, but then I’ve never considered myself a “gamer”. I play games, sure. I also read, but I’ve never called myself a reader. I surf, but I’m not a surfer. I even dabble in the kitchen occasionally but I am by no means a cook. A hobby doesn’t define your identity. I enjoy some games just because they’re fun, I like others because I can play with my friends. The exact same reasons every other self-identified gamer plays for, be they male, female or transgendered. It’s for this reason I’m always loathe to write about ‘my perspectives as a female gamer’, because it’s such an overdone cliché. But it still seems to be a topic that the gaming community, and predominantly game developers, still seem curious about.
Being a city-bred teenager, after-school options involved sports, school clubs, extra tutoring or hanging out with friends. Being uncoordinated, lacking in school spirit and trying to avoid any more academic spoon feeding led me to spend most of my time with friends. And my friends like going to the arcade, so I spent a lot of time at the arcades. Playing DDR (yes, I know), Street Fighter or whatever F1 car racing game was available. Girls and guys alike, that’s mainly how we all learnt how to drive shift.
Then Counter Strike became popular, Halo, Ultima Online and then Diablo opened up the idea that games weren’t all about slash and run and shoot and bomb. Sims grew on the sociability appeal, drawing on the stereotype that women are driven by cute and social gaming rather than blazing explosions. However, strategy and logic games tapped into the female market even more accurately with Minecraft and Portal. Then Final Fantasy came out and people started realizing that games can be a beautiful way of telling a story.
I’ve never personally faced overt sexism in gaming environments. Nothing more than the general shit-talk that everyone gives everyone for any inane reason be it sexual orientation, age, race or even body type. Though I have heard stories from girlfriends who frequent Xbox Live and are mercilessly trolled by thousands of friend requests or verbally abused. This is why I stick to PCs, a much more civilized platform. I have heard claims from women that as soon as they speak, someone would be harassing them. “I would be asked if I was a woman or 12 year old boy, if I answered woman, then the next question would be how fat am I, or who did I think I was trying to impress. This would be followed by penis pics being sent to me. I just stopped playing my xbox because I was afraid to communicate with my team while playing.” Stories like this make me sad.
It makes me paranoid to be a non-traditional (whatever that means) female in male dominated industries. There is constant pressure by the feminist movement to be a representation of female empowerment in everything I do. That’s a lot of pressure. Shot-gun not it. I’m not girly, but I’m not a tom-boy. I’m equally comfortable on a mountain bike, at a LAN party or in cocktail dress. I like FPSs but I’m not competitive in the slightest, I just like the big explosions. I also like immersive RPGs like Final Fantasy because they’re pretty. So the only justification I can buy as to why people still care about the female demographic in games, is marketing. Which is fair enough, nothing says gender-neutral like money.
In recent years, there has definitely been a positive change in culture as more gaming has become an accepted hobby for adults, less the domain of neck beards living in their parent’s basement and more realistically a past time for people wanting to unwind after their full-time jobs and in between social engagements. More enlightened individuals in the gaming sphere have changed game environments to focus on mutual enjoyment, and less about trolling in 733t 5p34k. Supportive female groups and mature males are helping fight the outdated stereotype that women shouldn’t, or can’t, play games.
There are still some insecure younger girls (as there are anywhere) that over-embrace the increasingly backwards identification of “gamer grrl” tags (or other alternatives of retarded spelling), but the majority of the gaming population simply rolls their eyes and mutes. I dabbled for a while with this infliction; the notion that you’re a special snowflake is always appealing. Sure, you do get special treatment, and showers of gold, when you unmute your mic, but it isn’t as fun that way. Every gaming forum discussing female gamers comes up with these phrases, “I don’t hide my gender, I don’t refer to myself as a girl gamer, and I care less and less about gaming culture. It’s just something I do for fun. I don’t want to be asked for proof, I don’t want special attention, I don’t want your gold or riot points or gifts on steam, I just want to play the game, same as you.” Most servers now have a blanket rule of “no harassment”. The first time someone stupidly asks “Are you a giiiiiiiiirrrlllll????”, he gets muted. The first time HotGamerGurl69 starts yelling at everyone not to hate her just because she’s “a grrl who plays games, so you all must be jealous”, she also gets muted.
While it’s great to see, especially in the last few years, a greater acceptance and recognition of the females in the game market, there is still the issue of how to create games that appeal to this emerging group. As much as gamer culture continues to evolve and mature, a heavier responsibility will always lie with the source. What can the gaming industry do to promote a healthier attitude towards gender that encourages females to play and supports an equal opportunity playing field?
Given the historic imbalance in the game market (and people working in the game industry), the presence of sexist stereotyping in games is not surprising. However, it’s interesting that most successful female game characters are often portrayed as powerful and independent. No one likes Princess Peach, yet characters like Lara Croft and Ashe B’nargin Dalmasca from Final Fantasy XII drew me and many other women into gaming. Everyone wants to play an appealing character. No one customizes their character to look bad, or sick, or weak, or stupid, unless it’s a joke. So it makes sense that characters will always be designed as fit-looking, toned, well endowed specimens. Clothing, however, is often a big deterrent for girls when faced with overly sexual, unrealistic styles. Sex sells, but sexual imagery isn’t exactly immersive. Showing skin is fine, the same way that male characters are often portrayed as topless, but functionality should always be key. Which is why action movies where women are running through war zones in heels always bugs me. Do you know how hard it is to run in heels? With more female developers and designers employed in industry, a lot of character styles are changing to suit realistic female attire. Designs are slowly becoming less what men think women wear to what women actually wear.
PC games also have the advantage of being more accessible to new gamers, including female gamers. You don’t need to purchase an entirely new setup. Everyone knows how to use a keyboard and mouse. There’s also the added appeal, legitimate or not, of a broader intellectual application with PC games. Browser-based games and RPGs, especially those with good graphics and interesting story lines, are more appealing to most females than mindless shooters. This is where the complex discussion tangles with the definitions of hardcore vs. casual gaming experiences. I’m not even going to begin to qualify that discussion, but for myself, I prefer games as an alternative story-telling device, with pictures.
I guess I’d never thought about sexism in the gaming industry because I’d never faced it before. The only reason I’m facing it now is because it came up in conversation at my new job, which happens to be at an indie game development company. People ask me what it’s like being a female in a game company. Honestly, I face more irritating sexism walking on the street outside. Though I do like sitting in the office with the administration girls because they have the best food.