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AFTER YEARS ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF VIDEO GAME CULTURE,
WOMEN ARE TAKING BACK THE CONTROLLER.


With all the first-person WWII combat, sports simulators, button-mashing beat ’em ups, and pudgy, princess-rescuing Italian plumbers, the world of video gaming can seem like a boys’ club. Attempts to target the expanding demographic of female gamers have tended towards beauty/adornment simulators (like Ubisoft’s Nintendo DS double whammy of Style Lab: Makeover and Style Lab: Jewelry Design) or stuff like THQ’s My Boyfriend, which allows tween girls to gossip, dress up, and digitally charm the boy of their dreams. Even more adult-oriented female protagonists, like the Barbie-proportioned Lara Croft from Eidos Interactive’s popular Tomb Raider franchise, seem like little more than busty pin-up girls whose appeal lies mainly with male players.

In targeting males, the video game industry did very well for itself, gradually evolving into the cornerstone of home entertainment that it is today. Acknowledgement of female gamers was minimal and, in the rare case when developers made the effort, largely consolatory. Women were pushed to the periphery. For years, it seemed as if most heroines in video games were pale, distaff imitations of their male counterparts. Lara Croft is Indiana Jones in hot pants, Perfect Dark’s Joanna Dark is a female James Bond, Dixie Kong is the gal-pal equivalent of... Well, you get the idea. Meanwhile, Samus Aran, the intergalactic female bounty hunter of the Metroid series, hid her femininity under clunky plated armour. And complex role-playing games like Square’s female-centric Final Fantasy X-2 employed “Dresspheres” and “Garment Grids” to advance player progress, a perhaps laughable feminization of the series’ more typical “Job System.”

The male-centric attitude lingers today. In Sony’s recent commercial campaign for the PlayStation 3, women appear in order to moan that their God of War III-obsessed boyfriend won’t pay attention to them, or, while their partner blazes through Uncharted 2, they sit munching popcorn, thinking they’re watching a movie (albeit one where the hero, a male Lara Croft named Nathan Drake, dies six times in a row after failing to execute a complex series of parkour manoeuvres). While they may not be represented in the games themselves, there exists a large number of women who refuse to assume the role of beleaguered girlfriend and who, in fact, play video games themselves. These are the so-called “gamer girls.”

The Rise of the Casual Gamer
A 2009 study conducted by the Entertainment Software Association found that approximately 40 percent of the video gaming population was female – a massive number considering the pastime’s close association with children and nerdy men. “When I was younger there was a stigma against spending all your time playing video games. I never really gave it much thought,” says Sarah, an avid 29-year-old gamer. “It just seemed to be boys that were doing that.”

Gaming’s rise in popularity among women may be attributed to the increase in so-called “casual gamers,” those who play the occasional title, such as popular party games like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, or the annual instalments of sports sims like Madden football games, but do not necessarily identify as “gamers.” As processing advances have rendered graphics and gameplay more realistic, and as home entertainment units such as PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 have become more affordable, the general audience for video games has expanded beyond the pimply dweebs who can tell you how to breed a gold chocobo in Final Fantasy VII (pro tip: use a zeio nut).

In Sarah’s opinion, it was the popularity of the Nintendo 64 console, and the success of its banner launch title Super Mario 64 (released in 1996), which inaugurated the widespread shift in attitudes towards gaming. “When Mario 64 first came out, that was a game you could play over and over,” she says. “It seemed to have more sophistication than the other Mario games. And that’s when I think people started taking games more seriously.”

According to Michelle, who manages an Electronics Boutique in Oshawa, Ontario, the profile of the average gamer has noticeably shifted in the seven years she’s been with the company. “When I first started at EB, it was nerds who played games,” she says. “When Madden came out, you’d get that kind of guy buying it. But otherwise it was kids and nerds.”

The “Gamer Girl” Stereotype
Many new gamers are women, and the tag “gamer girl” has emerged to account for this shift. Some may find it condescending, but many female gamers cheerily use it, as proved by a quick glance at such online communities as girlgamer.com and hotgamergirls.com, with their polished pink logos and profile pictures of scantily-clad women brandishing console controllers. But there are many other female gamers who harbour misgivings about the term.

Sarah, an active gamer involved in online gaming communities (operating under the handle blazingbetta) who is also pursuing doctorate studies in education at the University of Toronto, refuses to be put into any sort of box when it comes to her interest in gaming.

“There’s this expectation that I’ll be totally hardcore about it, and I’ll be into absolutely nothing else,” she explains. “The other stereotype I came up against is that I’m just pretending to be interested in it for the sake of making friends, or for the sake of being an alternative girl or whatever.”

While the gamer girl label may seem a tad vapid – like an update of the “girl power” message popularized by the Spice Girls in the mid-90s, a female empowerment sentiment possessing very little substance – there are some women in the industry who relish the manner in which the term is breaking down long-standing gender stereotypes in gaming culture.

“‘Girl gamer’ is reactionary in the same way ‘girl power’ was,” says Judy Tyrer, a game programmer at North Carolina-based Red Storm Entertainment. “It is a reaction to ‘girls don’t play games.’ Oh yeah? Eat my dust!”

To someone like Michelle, the term isn’t something to get hung up on. For her, “gamer girl” merely serves as a handy designation for a certain kind of hardcore female gamer. “To me, more hardcore means more versatile,” she says. “You play different types of games. You don’t have to live, eat, breathe games, but you have to be passionate about it.”

Although the passion, visibility and sheer number of female gamers may be steadily increasing, problems of equity still exist in the industry itself.

From “Gamer Girls” to “Women in Games”
Whether or not they identify with the labels, women may indeed be chipping away at the beleaguered girlfriend stereotype as more of them become gamers themselves. Still, within the industry of game development, gender disparity remains a pressing issue.

“There are some very prominent women in key roles within the industry and many others who work in the trenches. But they are still a disproportionate number,” Tyrer says. “I think the representation of women across the board is low with the possible exception of HR and facilities administrators which are traditional women’s roles in many industries, not just games.”

In an effort to close the gap between the women who play games and the women who make them, organizations such as the Women in Games Special Interest Group (to which Tyrer belongs) have sprung up to expand the role and visibility of female professionals in the gaming industry. Affiliated with the International Game Developers Association, the Women in Games SIG represents a widespread shift towards reconciling the prominence of female gamers within the standards and practices of an industry still very much geared towards men.

As Tyrer notes, many popular gaming genres simply don’t jive with the female set. “I don’t think the boys’ club mentality is what keeps women from flocking to fighting games,” she says. “I think it’s just that we don’t enjoy fights. The game fan base is probably similar to the female fan base for WWF. It just is not our cup of tea.”

Another part of the problem, according to Sarah, is that many would-be women gamers are as turned off by the hardware – namely, the console controller – as they are by the content of the games. “Girls are not really interested in mastering this plastic piece of equipment,” she says. “It’s a self-replicating problem, basically: girls don’t want to try out this controller, and as the controller becomes more and more complicated, girls become more removed from the gameplay experience.”

To Sarah, games are less interesting for their tactile pleasures – learning how to aim, shoot, and generally manoeuvre the equipment – than their immersive ones. For her, and many other gamers, both male and female, advances in games – photo-realistic graphics, increased focus on story and character development, complex decision-trees offered by next-gen console processing capabilities – have made the games more compelling than ever. (Many new games, such as Bethesda’s Fallout 3 and BioWare’s Mass Effect series, allow players to fine-tune their personality and moral compass, in addition to customizing their weapon and armour caches.) It is these kinds of technological advances that have piqued the interest of people formerly uninterested in games.

In-game representation may still remain a hot-button issue for some – perhaps best represented by Lara Croft’s desexualizing redesign for 2008’s Tomb Raider: Underworld – but, regardless, many women are more than content to be actively interfacing with the console. As stronger female characters are introduced into mainstream, typically male-centric genres (like the titular gun-toting witch of Sega’s recent Bayonetta), the mostly obsolete view of video games as a platform for side-scrolling princess rescue missions has been blown open.

And with it, the doors to the boys’ club.

Written by: JOHN SEMLEY
september 13th, 2010

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