Women are gaming more now than ever.
What will it take to get more of us picking up the controller?
I am a girl gamer. I am an anomaly. I am a minority in an industry dominated by males. I’m a girl, I play video games, and this is freakish.
This may have been true five or six years ago, but nowadays there’s only so much we can riff on this theme. The gender lines within gaming are quickly becoming blurred, inevitable considering the youthfulness of the industry and its fast-moving technical and sociological evolution. What used to be a big deal – a ‘my god, you play games?’ response circa 90s and early 00s - now elicits a tentative ‘might see you online, then’ from the average male gamer. It’s slowly – very slowly - dawning on everyone that the Xbox plus two X chromosomes does not equal the world imploding.
While our presence may be accepted then, it is certainly not sought after, and rarely acknowledged by the industry. A study conducted by the ESA (Entertainment Software Association) in 2008 reveals that approximately four out of ten gamers are female. This is a large part of the current market; a percentage that could surely increase if there were more games marketed towards a ‘female sensibility’ - as slippery as that term might be. Nonetheless, woman gamers tend to fall through something of a target-marketing loophole, and invariably introduce ourselves to gaming, rather than gaming tipping its hat to us.
This may be a hangover from the mainly media-driven myth that gaming is for boys, and more specifically, boys who are looking for escapism through macho, violent pursuits. This myth is self-perpetuating; it seems the industry struggles between catering to us and leaving us out in the cold with nothing but a copy of ‘Imagine: Babyz DS’ while the boys sit in the living room blasting their shotguns.
For years now, mainstream video games have, on the majority, told stories about boys, for boys. There is a saturation of traditional male pursuits in videogames: battlegrounds, money soaked professional sports-fields, racing tracks and fighting arenas still par for the course. Given that women are still struggling to break these ‘glass ceilings’ in the real world, they make unlikely arenas for female characters in the virtual world. Women who have grown up on games rarely question playing as a male character, accepting it as one of the conventions of the medium. In fact, when they do crop (top) up, one often wishes they hadn’t bothered.
Traditionally, females in video games are generally camped into two areas: either as the smart, spunky sidekick/love-interest/scientist providing moral support (Alyx from Half Life 2, Sheva from Resident Evil 5, Elena from Uncharted), or as highly sexualised creatures, designed not to conquer their virtual terrain but to be leered at by their frequently male puppet masters (Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, Ivy from Soul Caliber, anyone from the Tekken or Dead Or Alive series et al.)
There are exceptions, female protagonists who are distinctively feminine but exercise strong, assertive leadership - Jade from Beyond Good & Evil and Faith from Mirrors Edge, for example - but these characters are few and far between. Fighting games such as the Street Fighter series and Tekken have always produced strong women, but they tend to lack any identifiable human characteristics (that goes for the men, too). Indeed, role-playing games are quite possibly the only genre in which females feature as heavily as males, and as such, the genre has a strong female fan-base.
There is room here to develop. It is not that we need equal amounts of representation in every title that is released, and we certainly don’t want to play as a nurse fixing up the troops in Call of Duty, or the cheerleader on the sidelines of FIFA 09. It is a simple suggestion: female characters need to be represented more faithfully, more frequently.
Perhaps the changes that need to occur, however, can’t be forced onto the current gaming landscape, but will evolve gradually as the landscape transforms. More recently, developers have begun to think outside of tradition, producing celebrated, original titles that will appeal to either sex. Sony’s creation tool LittleBigPlanet is a good example of this, as is Microsoft’s RPG Fable 2, where one can play as an equally conditioned male or female. Mirror’s Edge introduced the concept of parkour running to the action genre, and took an admirable risk in having a female lead the way.
As developers look beyond the battlefield, beyond the boy’s playground, they invite more opportunities for a strong female presence in video games. Once we begin to see ourselves as a pixilated reality, more and more of us will feel invited to pick up the controller. Perhaps one day, when the game industry realises it can communicate with females - the frightening other - it will open doors of communication to further minorities within the gaming world. An identifiable black protagonist? A gay one? Then the world really would implode.