Girls, Guns and Gaming

Love them or loathe them, computer games are forever on the rise among the young. It doesn’t take the sharpest pencil in the box to notice, however, that computer gaming seems to be widely accepted as a boys’ thing.

I’m not propagating some feminist agenda to bring girls into gaming, however; this concern has already been addressed by consumers and game producers alike since the turn of the century. What I’m interested in is the effect that this increased awareness of the need to target the “female market” has had in gradually establishing a silent consensus that there are boys’ games and there are girls’ games; these genres have remained two separate entities. Furthermore, it seems to be taken for granted that girls are eager to shoot zombies with male friends rather than sit and play The Sims; I certainly have an inbuilt assumption that my levels of achievement in COD will inevitably be lower than those of my male peers, even if we were to play for the same length of time.

If I walk into the bedrooms of my male housemates to find a gathering of males eagerly participating in a testosterone-fuelled virtual shoot-out, rather than perceiving this to be a group experience that I too can participate in, I feel overshadowed, embarrassed by the prospect of “having a go”. And I know deep down that if I ask to have a go, the atmosphere will change; the boys will unintentionally assume that I don’t play this game, and in humbly fulfilling their perceived obligation to explain which button does what, they will droop a little, as the tension and adrenaline quickly drain from the room. To avoid this outcome, I usually just become a passive audience member.
Must I feel this way? Is there really something in my genetic make-up that prevents me from wielding my weapon of an X-box controller with the same expert technique as a trigger-happy lad? These assumptions have created a vicious circle, wherein girls are discouraged from playing and thus from getting all the necessary experience to compete on a level footing with game-crazy boys, which in turn prolongs the assumption that it’s just not a girl thing.

In 2008, Walaika Haskins of TechNewsWorld highlighted the fact that, thus far, only developers of casual games have commonly targeted women and girls, with “heavier, more complex games” destined for a male-oriented market. She addressed the enduring influence of “legacy perceptions”, which position the adolescent male as the hardcore game-player, excluding females from the prospect of gaming at an equally advanced level. Yet “women are getting increasingly comfortable with the technology, and in a wider variety of games”, commented Judy Tyler of Red Storm Entertainment; this trend breaks down the long-help assumption that girls just don’t grasp the technicalities of gaming in the ways boys can. A wealth of statistics have been drawn from numerous surveys of women across the US and UK to show that 40% of all American gamers are women, and moreover that “casual games” are not all they want to be playing. Phaedra Boinodiris of WomenGamers.com noted that the assumption that women typically spend less time in a single sitting playing games is also being challenged.

Articles throughout the last decade have celebrated the sustained growth of role-playing games such as the Sims, which, apparently, appeal to the female preoccupation with forging relationships in any activity they participate in. Possibly the most significant genre that defies my so-far negative outlook is that of adventure games, with ‘World of Warcraft’ and ‘Final Fantasy’ providing apt examples of games that appeal to both sexes. Studies have shown that the quest-aspect offers great satisfaction to both the male and female gamer, simultaneously integrating elements of warfare traditionally associated with male gamers.

Outside of this genre, we find the threat of gender stereotyping an unfortunately persistent threat; a ‘Desperate Housewives’ game, which targets the apparently universal desire of women to engage in a virtual world centred upon gossip and bitching, received a multimedia advertising campaign.

So although we have seen the increasing representation of female interests in the gaming industry since the turn of the century, many females (myself included) feel that this draws boundaries between girls and boys. The male-dominated games market can now justifiably claim that women have their share of the gaming industry, so that all is fair in love and war. But what about those of us who still want to shoot zombies and launch fully-armed into secret-agent style missions that infiltrate enemy territory, killing all who get in our way? These are the games that the boys play, safe in the arms of the COD or Mass Effect brotherhood that has ‘girls not allowed’ written all over it. As Anna Larke of Argonaut games noted as early as 2003: “a dangerous stereotype persists in this business…people believe that women only like role playing games, puzzles or adventure games”. This claim is backed up by the fact that CNN found it necessary to make a story out of the casual revelation made by Torrie Dorrell, vice president of Sony Online Entertainment, that she is an avid action and first-person-shooter gamer. Must this be so surprising?

The statistics show that women on the whole are more likely to play socially oriented games on hand-held devices. That’s fine. But must that leave those of us who still want a bit of X-box shooting action within some sort of void between male and female gaming? I’m not blaming the industry – if the games now produced attract a broad and increasing female market, then inevitably the market strategy of such social-oriented or quest-based games will continue. A part of me just hopes that feistier girl gamers can somehow also find a place within this seemingly polarised industry. Maybe one day I’ll grab hold of an X-box controller and shoot to my heart’s content in front of all the lads. It’s certainly a day I’ll look forward to.

Natasha Smith

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5 Comments on this post.
  • JJJ
    7 April 2010 at 14:36
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    Great article. I’d love for my female friends to be as keen to shoot some zombies/terrorists/enemy spies as I am, and the discrimination in the gaming industry must be frustrating. Looking forward to your next article 🙂

  • Van
    20 April 2010 at 22:23
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    I know exactly what you mean! Agree with comment above too. I can’t enjoy games with most of my girl friends as its really not something I have in common with them. It’s just the way I have been brought up and I still love playing newer games like Fallout 3 and Bioshock. I wish there wasn’t this stigma attached to be a ‘girl gamer’. I’m often met with the question “Are you a…girl?” when I start talking to team mates on Halo 3 and sometimes people’s attitudes really do change.

    But the great side to being girl gamers? If guys do let you in to play a game with them, I bet they secretly love the fact you aren’t complaining about their COD obsessions like so many girls I know.

  • Dave Jackson
    21 April 2010 at 00:52
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    I wish I could pretend that I react in exactly the same way to girls playing games online with me (principally Left 4 Dead at the moment) than when I react to guys playing, but I just don’t! The atmosphere always seems to totally change in whatever game you happen to be in – don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly approve of women playing video games (in the same sense that i wholeheartedly approve of ‘anyone’ playing games), but maybe it’s a latent sense of geekiness in us guys that won’t let us believe that ‘real girls’ will grace us with their presence. And then take our heads off with a covenant carbine.

  • saphalline
    29 April 2010 at 00:02
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    As an avid male PC gamer in the US, I do not understand this stigma against females in gaming. Why would males not want to share their gaming passion with females? Of course, I know all of the canned text book answers to that question, but knowing them is not the same as understanding them. It is perpetually perplexing to me, if I may use some alliteration.

    Moreover, the gender bias present in games today is actually harmful to males as well, in the sense that most games portray the female form as, shall we say… unnatural. Just because I picked the female model to play in such and such game does NOT mean I want to go into battle with a GG chest and 3 square centimeters of armor! Nor does it mean I need to see thongs and nipples in every cut-scene! I also have a personal ban on games that add “jiggly physics” like DOA Xtreme Beach Volleyball. What messages are these games sending to young gamers, both male and female? Honestly, I cannot believe such games actually make it onto store shelves. Poorly disguised soft-core pr0n, if you ask me.

    We really need more games that treat female characters with respect and equality, if it could even be said that such games have been made thus far. I think I would try to include games such as American McGee’s Alice and No One Lives Forever in that rank, off the top of my head, although there are industry icons such as Lara Croft that still need to be erased. And in general, female chest size needs to be reduced in all games. (Why is it that no one ever needs to discuss the size of male body parts in games? Is this not an indication of inequity!?)

    But as much as the games themselves need to be changed, people need more change! I see nothing wrong with the image of a female gamer cutting up the scenery with a minigun, yet most other people do, gamers or not. Contrariwise, almost no one has a problem with the image of a male gamer playing a “female-friendly” game like The Sims. The disparity and exclusivity is truly ironic for anyone who paid attention in history class…

    Great article.

  • Anna Larke
    12 June 2010 at 13:21
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    Great article x

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