Bridging the Gap
I love video and computer games. I started early with Pac-man and Mario, and I remember my initial shock and fascination watching blood splatter across the screen in early fighting titles. Playing games taught me how to type and play chess; now I do logic puzzles, yoga and dance routines, landscape virtual houses, pilot through space, and battle with Greek gods. In order to keep playing the latest games I have learned about the inner workings of my computer by replacing parts and rebuilding. It has become a game in itself with trials and errors, frustrations and breakthroughs. I have a feeling of accomplishment when I am victorious in a battle with a level boss or the infamous blue screen of death, and I am inspired to continue playing and troubleshooting. In my lifetime games have shown huge growth in scope and scale; the childhood hobby of many is now an industry that annually rakes in billions of dollars.
Players are quickly becoming a more diverse group of people, but divides are growing in gaming culture. Looking at shelves stocked with games, I am reminded of being a kid at McDonalds. I could choose a Barbie or a Transformer; I liked both, but I had to decide between the girl toy and the boy toy. I would have been so much happier with a long-haired doll that could turn into a robot. If video game culture carried over into the toy choices and surrounding social behavior, other girls would have looked down on me for choosing the robot. It didn’t have hair to brush or a pink outfit, so it must not be intended for girls. The boys might have concluded that a doll wasn’t a real toy, so if I chose the Barbie, I must not like toys. In game aisles, I am again in a rut, torn between games meant exclusively for males or females when there is so much middle ground. Stereotypical attitudes towards gender permeate game culture, and the potential of games is lessened by keeping game titles and players in categorical boxes. Not wanting to step too far outside the social boundaries, most players, developers, and publishers adhere to what is familiar and culturally acceptable.
Video games are filled with stereotypes; most of the images gracing the box covers both entice and exclude. University students wanting to ascertain the effects of stereotypic game imagery conducted a study using a surfing game, a violent shooter, and a golf game with bikini-clad avatars(Brenrick et al. 399). Adolescents with an average age of 19 participated, giving interviews before and after playing all three games (411). The results fit closely with original hypotheses, “a video game with neutral content was deemed as [sic] all right to play, a violent game was viewed as negative, and a sexually exploitative game as the most negative.” The female participants and “low-frequency players” were more likely to find the stereotypic imagery unacceptable (415). The study shows great insight into how players react to the themes presented, but it is slanted by not including a better array of games. Games with stereotypic themes aimed mainly at women would help improve the data. While the surfing game had gender-neutral characters dressed in wet suits, it seems all three games would only be marketed towards the male demographic.
Big-budget games largely ignore women even though the number of female gamers has been growing; the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) reported in a 2009 press release that females comprised forty percent of game players. These statistics aren’t being reflected during game development. An article aptly titled “The Gender Gap” grabbed my attention in the April issue of Game Informer magazine which examines the lack of female protagonists in high-profile games. Developers cite sales demographics, time and budget constraints as reasons for the absence of women (VanBerkleo 19). Art director at Gearbox Software, Jennifer Wildes, was quoted in the article noting that while there is still a lack of main characters, the male to female ratio has improved in games (21). While I agree with the author that the addition of female protagonists is a step in the right direction, I don’t think it is sufficient in closing the gap.
The games that do feature women as primary characters tend to have hyper-sexualized and violent representations; this serves to alienate women, not attract them. I enjoy games where I can identify with the protagonist, so I don’t want to invest my hours and dollars into a game with one-dimensional characters. I sometimes question a protagonist’s violent motivations, but in a game meant for adults I don’t find blood and guns to be off-putting. Often it is the way characters are objectified that keeps me from making a purchase. Author and gamer Jane Pinkcard shares my views concerning one primary example in game history, Tomb Raider‘s Laura Croft:
I never played Tomb Raider, though it looked fun and a female protagonist seemed exciting. […] I was immediately turned off by the way Tomb Raider was marketed and talked about. It was clear that I wasn’t supposed to identify with her. For that matter, the game seemed to go out of its way to assure young teenage boys that they shouldn’t identify with her, [sic] they should just ogle her (Pinkcard 79).
Games that have been created specifically for girls reinforce just as many stereotypes as the more masculine equivalents. There have been a few portrayals of women in video games in which the lead is identifiable and a role model; unfortunately these are not the games marketed towards women. In From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, a collection of essays from game players, creators, and teachers, the girls game movement receives quite a bit of attention. Game publishers and the public alike were stunned by the amazing sales of game Barbie Fashion Designer (Cassell and Jenkins 15). Wanting to capitalize on the success and attract more girls to technology, many games were created with girls in mind by companies like Purple Moon, but critics worried that bending to girls wants helped gender stereotypes persist (18). I remember seeing some of the games mentioned, but even as a teen I would have been embarrassed to buy a game with pastel ponies on the cover. The website for Cosmopolitan magazine is an example of how the girl game movement has stayed stagnant. In one browser game the player matches shoes instead of the familiar jewels. This does not make the game better or more interesting, just derivative. The shoe game can also seem condescending to players, not because of the stereotypic themes, but because of the simplistic, copycat gameplay presented.
Game publishers are not the only ones upholding gender stereotypes; gamers put themselves and others into categories. I realized on a recent trip to Game Stop how easy it is to fall into the void of bias thoughts. I was in line to purchase an M-rated game with warnings of horror and nudity on the back cover and watched a woman in front of me buy a title with gameplay consisting of shooting zombies. I immediately assumed it was for her son. I’ve been trying to analyze what it was that brought me to that haste judgment. It wasn’t the violent nature of the game alone, as I know women who enjoy games with fighters and mobsters. Was it because she was older than me? Was it her business attire? Would I have felt differently if she bought a Wii or PC game instead of an Xbox360 title? I wonder how many times I have unconsciously made similar assumptions and how many fellow gamers have judged me that quickly.
It is not uncommon for me to encounter raised eyebrows in the aisles of game retailers, computer stores and classes; I receive both questioning glances and more direct inquiries. I am often asked which games I play. This question is not to find common interests, but to make sure I am deserving of gamer status or to determine how much time I am wasting. It amuses me when a player ten years younger than me feels the need to fit my habits into his definition of a gamer. I’m not exactly adept at playing first-person shooters, but I dealt with blisters on my thumbs from console controllers when those questioning adolescents were toddlers in diapers. I am sometimes labeled as a novice or a non-gamer solely based on my love for casual games even though I enjoy an array of genres, and I imagine this social stigma intensifies for men venturing out of their assigned genre. As game culture upholds certain gender biases, men are often looked down upon for enjoying casual games instead of more manly equivalents.
The casual and hardcore divide in game culture mirrors the gender labels. Most people consider casual PC games to be for women and hardcore console games for men, but the beauty of some casual titles is that they can be enjoyed by anyone. Classic games Tetris and Asteroids are both considered casual games, a fact often ignored by hardcore gamers. A market report released by the Casual Games Association shows some of the numbers and misconceptions. The male to female ratio of casual gamers is close to evenly split, but women make up three-fourths of paying casual gamers (5). I am familiar with websites containing pirated software, and casual games seem to be very popular torrents. After reading the market report, I would guess that many people downloading are men who don’t want to be seen purchasing a game marketed towards women. One of the men questioned by the Casual Game Association, a 29 year old player, admitted his love for casual hit Zuma, but added, “I tell my co-workers it is my wife playing.” One women surveyed named her grandson as the only gamer in the family and went on to explain her casual gaming habits that total ten hours a week (59). The grandmother is considered a gamer by the industry based on her time and purchases even though she and other players may think otherwise. Owning and playing a Playstation3 may put me in the hardcore gamer demographic, but most weeks I don’t have ten hours to spend gaming.
The women with the largest presence in game culture are rarely an accurate portrayal of the typical gamer, yet recognition is growing for designers and game titles that break down boundaries from within the game industry. Amy Hennig is Creative Director for the award-winning Uncharted series; she was recently featured in an LA Times article describing her path into the game industry. Hennig had already earned a bachelor’s in English literature and was planning a career in film, yet dropped out to pursue video games. Her knowledge of film and literature has enhanced the game industry. The latest Uncharted game contains a “treasure hunt, a love triangle and ‘set pieces’ such as a gunfight on a moving train.” Hennig states her responsibility for the realistic proportions of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves‘ female protagonists while noting progressiveness and lack of sexism in the still-young game industry (Fritz). Her success is inspiring to men and women alike, and she has shown that even a person without a technical background can push game development forward. The main characters in Uncharted 2 are classic flawed heroes combined with a realistic amount of wit and sass which is a refreshing take on game character development.
Ten years ago the game industry was shocked at the undeniable success of Maxis’ The Sims; a game so wonderfully gender-neutral that a large number of gamers found refuge in the virtual worlds. It is considered to be the best selling PC series of all time. Some called it a boring virtual doll house, but to me it was a perfect example of varied gameplay. One player might spend all his time creating houses, building them from the ground up, adding stairs, windows, and walkways. Another might skip the house building all together and dive immediately into the life of her sim, tending to needs, and readying for the next promotion. Some players were more interested in telling their own story, supplementing screen shots with a detailed narrative. A huge online community grew around The Sims even though it is a single-player game. It inspired people to master graphics editors in order to create new clothing, furniture, and even skin tones. Players learned to program bits of code, adding hacks and mods to make their game better reflect their lives. I downloaded creations and stories made by people around the world. An astonishing range of players including young boys, their grandmothers, and everyone in between shared content and tips to enhance the game. The virtual world was idyllic to me. Things like gender and color didn’t matter; a sim could get a job and find love (with anyone) without the usual effects of unconscious stereotypes so familiar in the real world.
Occasionally games come along that are meant to question gamers’ stereotypical thinking, but the message is contradictory when combined with marketing tactics. Sony and Quantic Dream game Heavy Rain is a murder mystery with four protagonists which incorporates ethics and consequences into the gameplay. It includes some scenes that are difficult to watch, heart-wrenching, and violent. In one particular scene, journalist Madison, the female protagonist, is held at gunpoint and strips for a nightclub owner in order to get closer to uncovering the identity of a serial killer. On popular website Eurogamer, Heavy Rain creator David Cage expressed his intentions after the scene was shown at an Electronic Entertainment Exposition, “We had a couple of people who felt uncomfortable watching the scene, which is perfect because this is exactly what we wanted.” (Bramwell). His message is not apparent by looking at the cover of the game published in the U.S. The characters are absent from the European cover, but following American marketing trends, the woman is prominently featured. The title of the game is displayed across the very center of her chest, while the top of her head is cut out of the image. The trademark of the serial killer, a piece of origami, is strategically placed to make her waist appear smaller than her in-game appearance (“Heavy Rain”). This image goes against any intended message of the game, and probably repels as many players as it entices.
I don’t believe the complete abolishment of games featuring chiseled men and buxom women is necessary, but it is essential that game creators and players question the social implications of the current norms. In the International Journal of Technology and Human Interaction, Janet C. Dunlop ponders the effect of the images in American games will have on the rest of the world. Referring to popular U.S. Games she states, “In the majority of these best-sellers, ideologies of capitalism, white male-dominance, and violence is blatant.” (96). She goes on to say, “The possible effects of misogynistic images and racist ideologies on any country currently struggling with women’s rights or civil rights could be disastrous.” Video games can be an introduction to technology, and have a large impact on gender roles (99). Within the U.S., exclusion from game culture could lead to similar feelings towards technology, leaving women out of a growing career field. If game creators considered these ripples more often, games that have a positive effect on cultural norms could be created.
Through examination of gender stereotypes in gaming, the many layers of the problem have become apparent. Though the presence of women in games and the surrounding culture is lacking and bias, they are not the only ones subject to misrepresentation. Considering the social constructs of race and gender, it is difficult to think of an example game in which a black, Latino, gay or lesbian person is shown in a positive light. Green aliens get better press. The employees of game companies are straight white males by an overwhelming majority (IGDA), so it is no surprise that games tend to be created for that demographic. This lack of diversity in games and their development has a larger effect than just sales figures. Games are more than mere entertainment; they can serve as a learning tool, an art form, and a path into the world of technology. The minorities of game culture are missing out on these advantages, and the divides in gaming must be bridged in order for the future of games to have a positive push on stereotypical societal roles such as gender.
Bramwell, Tom. “Cage Defends Madison Striptease scene.” Eurogamer. Eurogamer, 27 Aug. 2009. Web. 20 Mar 2010
Brenrick, Alaina, Alexandra Henning, Melanie Killen, Alexander O’Connor, and Michael Collins. “Social Evaluations of Stereotypic Images in Video Games: Unfair, Legitimate, or Just Entertainment?” Youth and Society. June 2007: 395-419. Academic OneFile. Web. 3 Apr. 2010.
Cassell, Justine and Henry Jenkins. “Chess For Girls? Feminism and Computer Games.” From Barbie to Mortal Kombat” Ed. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1998. 2-45. Print.
Casual Games Association. “Casual Games Market Report: 2007: Business and art of games for everyone.” Casual Games Associations, n.d.:5-59. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.
Cosmopolitan “Games and Quizzes” Cosmopolitan, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.
Dunlop, Janet C. “The U.S. video game industry: analyzing representation of gender and race.” International Journal of Technology and Human Interaction. 3.2 (2007): 96-108. Academic OneFile. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.
ESA. “2009 Sales, Demographic and Usage Data: Essential Facts About The Computer and Video Game Industry.” Electronic Software Association. TheESA, n.d:1-14. Web. 28 Mar. 2010.
Fritz, Ben. “How I Made it:Amy Hennig.” LA Times. LA Times, 7 Feb 2010. Web. 12 Apr. 2010.
Heavy Rain. Dev. Quantic Dream. Sony, 2010. Blu-Ray Game.
“Heavy Rain” Wikipedia Wikimedia, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2010.
IGDA . “Game Developer Demographics Report.” International Game Developers Association. IGDA, n.d. Web. 28 Mar. 2010.
Pinkcard, Jane. “Genderplay Successes and Failures in Character Designs for Video Games.” Women in Action Aug. 2003: 79-82. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Mar. 2010.
The Sims. Dev. Maxis, Will Wright. Electronic Arts Inc, 2000. CD-ROM Game.
Uncharted 2: Among Theives. Dev. Naughty Dog. Sony Entertainment, 2009. Blu-Ray Game.
VanBurkleo, Meagan. “The Gender Gap” Game Informer Apr. 2010:18-21 Print.