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.