I’m a female gamer – but I try not to admit it. The female part, not the gamer part. This isn’t out of shame, but out of necessity – if you don’t want to attract the wrong kind of attention, you have to fly under the radar. I played WoW for the better part of five years, and it was there I learned that the instant you open your mouth in Vent, every year younger than eighteen implied by your girl-voice lowers the maturity level of the raid by ten years.
Also, I work in IT, where HR deliberately pursues a policy of hiring for gender parity in order to make their workplace more attractive (“Maybe we’re making them feel uncomfortable. Should we hide our Star Wars posters?”). So when I play games, I play to kill bosses and acquire loot, not to advance some agenda of women’s equality. Hell, when I applied to write for this site, I purposefully avoided mentioning I was a girl gamer because I knew they’d have some kind of policy around getting the “female opinion” and I wasn’t terribly interesting in filling that hole.
Thus, the idea of Saucy Saturdays struck a chord with me. It was the exact issue I had been trying to avoid – but, as it turns out, you can’t just pretend you don’t have opinions, especially on critical issues like the portrayal of women in an activity that is such a big part of your life. Just like you can’t repress the fact that you spent an entire afternoon of your life searching for crimson nirnroot in Skyrim – and you were okay with that.
My own mixed feelings on the issue seem to be reflected in the industry at large. Clearly, on some level, gaming companies realize that women are a vast untapped market with money and free time and that making games for single white males between 18 and 30 is limiting their potential, to say the least. And male players also seem to want more females to take an interest in their interests (which is exemplified by such services as Game Crush, where males pay for female companionship on Xbox Live, like a better monetized version of a babysitting service).
So, why is it that you get comments like “Bitches take everything from us !!! /s Make me a sammich ,.. JOKE!!! I love women,.. but it is a pinch of truth in it” and other such philosophical gems in the comments of a post made earlier this year on N4G? Why does the professional StarCraft II community always talk about forming an all-female league, which would only play against other females? Gaming is a hobby for which a paraplegic is as well equipped as Chuck Norris, so why does the fact of being female impair our ability to push buttons on a keyboard? Why is it that sometimes, I get the feeling we’re not all that welcome?
It’s really strange when you think about it, because usually, people who like things are thrilled when other people start to like the things they like. Normally, you only get defensive about your interests when you’re ashamed of them.
Some game developers still seem to be stuck in this same caveman mentality (no offense, cavemen) where they make a point of pandering to some lower male denominator. An extreme example is the Japanese game RapeLay, which involves stalking and raping a family of women until they become your slaves, but tamer examples abound, from the ladies of Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball to the princess in Fat Princess (a game where you feed the captive Princess cake to make her so fat that the opposing team will have trouble rescuing her).
Not that there’s anything wrong with this approach per se – obviously, it’s your game and you can target it at whomever you please, be they teenage boys or closet rapists. My feeling is that as gaming continues to attract a more and more diverse crowd, this approach will start to feel more and more archaic – not to mention that you’re basically perpetuating the sausage fest.
And it’s not about the skin-tight catsuits and the breast physics, either. Honestly, I don’t really even mind that. I’m willing to bet most male gamers don’t look like a Kratos or even a Nathan Drake, either – we’re all pretending here, in artificial worlds of our own creation where we can be the hero of our dreams (or someone else’s dreams). Neither the idealized male nor the idealized female seems to have been designed for function. Yes, the males have muscles while the women are stuck with clumsy big breasts, but putting aside the fact that half these heroes have magical powers anyway and it’s not clear what benefits, if any, their physique is conferring, it’s hard to argue convincingly what kind of body is ideal for physically impossible feats like staying suspended in the air for sixty seconds flinging enemies around like paper clips. And really, if your sole job was to fight dudes who are attacking you with sharp pointy things and spitting acid at you, would you really dress in nothing but a loincloth?
The typical video game hero (and his or her body) is embodying some kind of ideal that developers think players will latch on to. However, whereas the ideal male is usually strong and capable, the typical female is usually relegated to the background, used as eye candy or backdrops, of little importance and having little impact, displaying no useful abilities or agency. They don’t do anything interesting, are often incapable of self-sufficiency, and mostly exist only to glorify or support the male character.
If you wanted to get more women into video games, these make for very poor role models. Ever wonder why you get that annoying girl in your WoW raid who always asks for help with simple things and flirts madly with everyone for attention? Some of it is exploitation, sure – but can you really blame them for thinking that this is what gamer guys want in a girl?
And then there are some games that seem to be trying to draw in female audiences but seem confused as to what exactly female gamers want, as if they believe that the mechanics of what makes a game fun is different for males and females. The textbook example is Purple Moon’s Rockett’s New School, a game whose sole purpose seems to be making friends, like Mass Effect 2 without the combat and the sex. When it came out in 1997, it faced allegations of sexism because the game seemed to be implying that females wouldn’t enjoy the more action-oriented games that boys liked.
Sure, that game came out in 1997 (a year after Tomb Raider was released) but maybe the industry just didn’t understand its audience that well back then? Enter Playdom’s Sorority Life, a Facebook game which is like Mobsters, but supposedly for women. In this game, which I have to imagine was made by guys who have no idea what sororities are actually like but think it probably has to do with mandated pillow fights in little pink fountains and stealing each other’s boyfriends, you level up to wear different outfits and… fight other girls for their boyfriends. Incidentally, the only people I know who play this game are males. I was in a sorority. There were no pillow fights. A few of us played WoW together.
However, Sorority Life does recognize that people play games to gain some sense of accomplishment in their lives, which usually manifests by acquiring better gear. So there is some semblance of a mechanism that is actually fun, at least. And both Rockette’s New School and Sorority Life seem to be marketed to a younger generation of pre-ladies, which admittedly was and still is a somewhat new and not well understood demographic in terms of gaming proclivities.
Of course, in this day and age, there are many games that actively go the other route and embrace the large amount of diversity in their player base by allowing the playable character to be whatever combination of traits they desire (Mass Effect, the Elder Scrolls series). The female alternative is still only that, however — an option, like the color of your paint job, and not the top-billed star. The Mass Effect and Dragon Age series, which allow a female protagonist, still feature the male version of the hero on the cover. And out of the top twenty best-selling games on Amazon for 2011, only four games even allowed the option of a female protagonist. None of the heroes were, by default, female.
Sometimes, this is because of plot reasons. For the sake of being able to tell a good story, you can’t just shoe-horn a female protagonist into your game all the time. Take Red Dead Redemption or L.A. Noire – two games whose historicity makes it so that having a female lead would just not make sense. There weren’t a lot of female detectives running around Los Angeles in the 1940s. In fact, Red Dead Redemption has faced its share of criticism for so-called misogynist trappings, since the vast majority of female characters were backstabbing liars with whom the correct action was usually to just shoot them. Now that I think about it, there were a lot of cheating broads in L A. Noire too, although Phelps did work the Homicide desk, so maybe he saw an unrepresentative sample? We’ll never know. The game’s world, like the gaming world, is a man’s world.
And you know what? I don’t really mind. If it doesn’t make sense to have a female protagonist, you shouldn’t have one. And no, there haven’t traditionally been many examples of a triple-A blockbuster game starring an unequivocally female player character – but there are some and there will be more. Since Tomb Raider (and, I guess, Metroid, although that’s kind of cheating), there has been Chell from Portal, and BloodRayne, and that girl from Mirror’s Edge, and, uh…I know there must be a few more. Female Zealot, I guess, or Kerrigan?
Maybe the real question here is whether the gaming industry is obligated to create worlds in which females are treated the way females presumably want to be treated. Since you’re creating fake worlds in which to make-believe anyway, why don’t you make-believe a world where attitudes towards women are positive? And how far does this go? Do you need to sacrifice historical accuracy in order to spin a more positive world-view?
I believe you shouldn’t, because covering up the dirty parts of the past is just as bad as glorifying them. However, it is worth remembering that in creating a game, you’re in charge of the game world and whatever you create reflects the mentality of the people whose money you want and, to a large extent, the community you want to be associated with. If you want to be part of a community filled with twelve year old boys, then, by all means, keep being ashamed of your interests and making games where the girls are chesty, vapid bimbos. And remember, twelve year old boys typically do not possess much disposable income.