When asked to discuss this topic, I generally gravitate towards Women in the Game Industry, as opposed to Women Gamers. Today I did an interview for an article on gender and how it relates to women gamers, touching on the assault behavior towards women. It’s a complex topic. So too is women gamers and women developers, but in my mind, they are all interconnected and form a cycle.
The Mythical Unicorn
Any female gamer can tell a story of at some point where being a girl who plays games has attracted the wrong sort of attention. The belief in the rarity of women who play and enjoy mainstream video games perpetuates this myth and the responses. Start with a lonely guy that seems to be unable to find a girl who understands him. He likes books, movies, and video games. He meets a girl he thinks is cute, asks her out, and discovers that she couldn’t care less about these things that make up a majority of his passions and hobbies. She cares about clothes, shoes, celebrities, and makeup. Poor guy. Now he meets the one girl in his sphere of acquaintances that does like the things he does. She plays video games, she argues who is better Picard or Kirk, and she, miracles of miracles, revels in HIS knowledge of such topics. Queue the love at first geek scene. And suddenly this girl possibly has a problem. For some reason, lack of attraction, already taken, etc, she doesn’t want to date Lonely Guy. He tries to ply her with gifts, but despite the prevalent belief that women can be bought, it doesn’t work.
What is she to do? Break his heart? Be mean? Try to be nice, but knowing it is going to be awkward and likely will just “string” him along? It sucks for the girl. All she wanted was a friend to argue lore with! And unfortunately the skew of males to females makes this an incredibly common occurrence. Because of this women are more likely to attempt to hide their identity. By hiding their identity the problem is exacerbated and female gamers appear to be more rare than they really are.
We are not a mythical unicorn. Attend PAX Prime or PAX East and this will completely dismiss the belief that gamer women are rare. There are plenty of us running around. We just don’t like to tell people because they get stupid over it. Once I decided I would no longer hide my female status from WoW friends, I discovered something very surprising. Not only did “outing” myself lead to other girls being willing to do the same thing (it was quite a shocking day) but also we were able to develop friendships through our common trials and tribulations. According to various websites, though their numbers are speculative and not backed by Blizzard, it is believed that 1 in 5 WoW players is female. That’s alot of girls running around Azeroth.
The Greater Internet Dickwad Theory
Once people get on the internet, realize they are anonymous, they suddenly become a different person. Much like the Invisible Man changed radically when he realized he would no longer be punishable for his actions, so too do people on the internet believe they can say whatever without repercussion. This leads to XBox Live speak, Trolls, and all other number of wildly offensive things being said over public channels that would *never* be said to someone’s face.
Because of this truth, women often find themselves at the receiving end of extremely offensive behavior. I once had a guy in WoW tell me “Shut up b*tch. I will find you and I will rape you.” I recoiled in horror from my computer. It didn’t matter that this person had no idea who I was. It didn’t matter that I knew he had no way of actually hurting me. The fact that he would even physically be able to type that to a possible woman was appalling to me. I reported him, ignored him, and immediately left the guild (who’s leader responded with “well that’s just the way he is”).
For the most part however, I see these things as a new form of saber rattling, boasting, or puffery. It is a way for them to swing about their manliness. And just like in real life, I can be bothered by it, or I can ignore it. In WoW I generally ignore it and the player depending on what they say. On other sites I protect myself by having over protective security settings.
A Woman in a Man’s Field
Of course, my view of these social interactions is viewed from the eyes of a game designer. I work in a predominantly male industry. The last figure I read was 13% of the video game industry is female. This has been mathematically accurate, or lower, at every company I have worked at. Other than Guildhall women, of whom there are many, I have only met TWO other women designers in the industry. I spend most of my time with males.
The thing that always gets people is how much different I think than other designers, and they have problems realizing that most of my variant viewpoint comes from being a girl. It is different on this side of the fence. It gives me a different lens through which to look at games.
In my current game, we have a small number of female characters. I began attributing female characteristics and names to a few of the androgynous characters in an attempt to “pad” the number. Very soon after I noticed the guys followed my lead. Without a word they were willing to accept these characters as female, despite never having thought so before. When I pointed it out to a senior designer, he laughed and asked what did it matter? I pointed out the large difference in the number of female characters to male and he looked quite surprised. It never even occurred to him to think about equality in terms of sex among the characters. Needless to say, he even agreed it should be more balanced and made a point to start “female-izing” the androgynous characters.
Add to this the fact that at many of these companies I get to have “the talk” when I start working there. As if I haven’t been dealing with unwanted attention from guys for half my life. As if I don’t understand that if things get even remotely awkward I need to run, not walk, to my supervisor and nip it in the bud. As if I haven’t already had to have the conversation once where I was pressed on why I missed work and turned bright red as I explained menstrual cramps to a male. In fact it has become a rather large warning sign when I start at a new company only to find that they have a 3 hour presentation to go through about this sort of thing. Great, I can expect this to be a problem. (As a side note, there was no such talk at my current company and it was all I could do not to caper with glee.)
One step further, having to work on a game that has a woman in a metal bikini. People think it’s odd when I sigh at games that only include the mother, maiden, crone archetypes. Or the groan inducing things like in Uncharted 2 where every woman in the entire game is after Drake like he is coated in sex pheromones. They say, “But you play video games, you should be used to it. If you don’t like it, don’t make games with it in there.” I like having a job. I also like making games. You don’t always get to chose the projects you work on. It also confuses the guys I work with when I say, “Why can’t she be more like Lara Croft and less like Daphne (the princess/hooker from Dragon’s Lair)?” They immediately respond with “Lara Croft is exactly the stereotype you complain about!” A strong, brave, adventurous female that doesn’t spend her time chasing men but rather chasing history? Make her boobs as big as you want, she’s still awesome. And she is capable of having a relationship with a male that doesn’t assume sex.
The problem with all of these things is that they form a negative feedback loop. Women don’t play games because the traditional response of how to make a game for girls is “Pink it.” Women then don’t become game designers because they don’t play games, so it isn’t a career field they want to get into. Women aren’t the ones designing games, and so games don’t get made with women in mind as a valid market.
Add in that women and men view fun differently, seek different forms of enjoyment, and create different goals in games and the fact that it is hard for a guy to understand why his game idea didn’t appeal to women becomes very clear. There are not enough female protagonists in games. EA proved that games with female protagonists didn’t sell as well as games with male protagonists. I was stunned by their lack of ability to see that if you only have 20 games with female protagonists and 200 games with male protagonists, then it should be obvious that the male protagonists have had more chances to be in good games that sell well. Not to mention a female protagonist isn’t going to help if the game isn’t fun to women. They are still targeting a male audience and it is easier to connect with a protagonist of the same gender.
Why do MMOs have a better balance of men to women than other games like Call of Duty? Does it have anything to do with the ease of entry into MMOs? Or the ability to customize your character? That the design supports more cooperative play as opposed to competitive play? That MMOs are more social in a positive way than CoD? Or is it simply that the initial induction into an MMO, like WoW, is usually a hand holding one by a significant other, and this play style is supported, as opposed to CoD where it is a huge liability to play is such a manner?
I am a girl. I play games to the point I more than consider myself a gamer. I design games as a career, with the hope of making an enjoyable experience for everyone who plays my game, not just the target audience. I prefer to play a game I can take at my own pace. I prefer to play a game where I can play a female. Does this make me any different from any other gamer? Not really. Do I get treated differently because of the accident of my birth and my love for things outside of my social norm? Definitely. Should I, and do I want to be? Not at all.
The gender gap is closing. The social mores are shifting and games are slowly becoming mainstream. Every day some kid is turning 18 after a childhood of playing games and they aren’t chucking their Xbox just because they are an adult now. Every day another gamer family has kids or gets pregnant and plans how to raise their kid in the tradition of games. These issues will pass after time. And it will get better. After all, every year I have been in the industry, that percentage of female developers has gone up.