Sunday, 26 February 2012

Girls Play Games Too (and They're Pissed)

I'm borrowing the title of Karen Healey's excellent blog on gender in comic books here I love boardgames. I love games with little figurines, ones with battles and strategies as well as building and playing co-operatively. When my partner recently bought an Xbox, I discovered that I also love console games. However, I am heartily sick of the way women are continually excluded, marginalised and portrayed in games.

It's pretty rare to find a game that doesn't presume players are male - most game rules use the exclusive 'he' to represent 'the player', and while women's names occasionally feature in example scenarios, I still feel like the game is telling me I shouldn't be playing it.

Far more male characters or avatars are available than female, and where there are women, they are usually sexualised and function as a spectacle for male gamers rather than characters to identify with. As one example, only two of the 'races' in Smallworld are coded as female: 'Amazons' (who wear very little clothing) and 'priestesses' who wear dresses. Not only does this sexualise and stereotype women, it makes ALL of the other races (and there are a lot) male. It also makes male the default, universal sex and female defined by its difference from that default (practically speaking, maybe that's why you have to send your Smallworld race 'into decline' after a few rounds - they also can't breed!).

The first console game I played was Halo 3, and while I really enjoyed it, I realised that I actually didn't appreciate having to play as a beefy, butch bloke that I couldn't identify with in any way. The next game we played, Hunted, gave me a female avatar! Yay! I really enjoyed the game, too. Only she's an elf with huge breasts who goes in to battle wearing only a few 'strategically placed' strips of cloth. Very practical. She also mainly fights with a bow, while her butch bloke friend fights with big swords that are much more powerful, and in the many scenes where the two characters squeeze through a narrow space, E'lara goes second, so that the gamer can stare at her almost-naked behind, centred in the frame and shot from below. It constructs an objectifying gaze, not an identifying one.

So why do game producers persist in pretending that women don't play games? That women don't want to blow stuff up (eg: Halo), plan military operations (Rune Wars), or even build stuff (Settlers of Catan) and fight pollution (20th Century)? Karen Healey points out how a marketing representative from Marvel comics explains that, when trying to market to women, they have to be careful not to alienate their (male) consumer core. It seems that games marketers are similarly more concerned with placating their heterosexual male consumers.

If this is the case, they're presuming a lot about these male gamers: mostly that they would buy fewer games if women were included, and would not buy games that did not objectify women. Perhaps they could do some research - they might discover a lot of men and boys who would buy MORE games if they were more inclusive and less objectifying.

Really, it goes far beyond marketing to women: most games actively deny that women (can/should) participate at all, or if we do, we have to play as men - often literally. Of course, what I DON'T want to see is 'women's games', created specifically for women, that insist on other stereotypes like restricting them to going shopping, looking after children and wearing pink. That might seem like an exaggeration, but Lego's attempt to attract girls by creating 'Lego Friends', rather than exploiting the gender non-specific attributes of the product, comes to mind as one such attempt to expand a market across gender. See for a great feminist analysis of the campaign.

As I'm a new console gamer, perhaps I shouldn't judge just yet, but conversations with long-time gamers tell me that this is the norm, and I've played enough board games to know how common these problems are. So, games producers: I don't need you to market to me, I just need you to acknowledge that I exist! Cheers!


  1. You know I will make this comment - I would like a game in which I can blow things up AND wear pink.

    1. And why not? Although I think in Halo Reach, where you can customize the colours of your uniform, I seem to recall pink being the only colour you couldn't choose... (I may be wrong, so don't quote me!)

  2. Incidentally, I just started playing Resident Evil 5, and my female avatar wears more clothes AND there aren't really many gratuitous close-ups of semi-nakedness!

    Donwside: you spend the game blowing up almost exclusively African zombies...