By Kristin Bezio
I recently picked up two collections of essays on gender and games compiled primarily by and for women. The first, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, was published in 1998. The second, Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat, edited by Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun, appeared in 2008, ten years later.
I decided to reserve judgment until I’d read the second, because From Barbie really shows its age. The lack of awareness of the complexity of games (which weren’t all that complex in 1998, but which were more complex than I think a lot of the authors gave them credit for), the overwhelming presumption that gamers were primarily children (grade school through high school aged), and the almost single-minded notion that there must be this magical genre of “games for girls” that appears in almost every piece in From Barbie irritated me beyond belief.
It also made me think about where I was as a gamer in 1998. 1998 was the year I graduated high school (yes, I’m old, but not yet ancient). By then, my family had a computer for fourteen years, and I’d had one in my personal room for at least seven of those years. My first computer was a Compaq portable, with “portable” needing to be taken with a small wheelbarrow of salt. It was the size of carry-on roller-bag with a screen smaller than that on my iPad, glowed green-and-black, had two 8-inch floppy drives, and needed three separate disks to boot to the C-prompt. My dad replaced that one with a 386, which is when the Compaq ceased to be the “family” computer and became mine.
I played kids’ games on the Compaq – Facemaker, the very first LodeRunner, a typing game that must have been something like TyperShark. Once I graduated to the 386 (when my dad got the 486), I was able to add a few more – and in color! Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?, an updated LodeRunner, King’s Quest, Flight Simulator, Civilization, a collection of themed 3D pinball games, and the webgames that were available on ProdigyOnline (one of them involved a quest in which I was taught by a stag that “thee” and “thou” were informal terms, a fact that came in handy decades later when I became a Shakespeare scholar). I never got the 486 because I went to college, and got my own computer (in 1998). At that point, I picked up Myst and The Seventh Guest.
For a very brief amount of time when I was a kid, we also had an Atari. I played Frogger on that, but I was very, very little, and I don’t really remember much more. What I do remember about my childhood is that my mother had (and still has) an abhorrence for violent games (oops). It wasn’t that – as From Barbie suggests – she thought they were “boys’ games,” and I was a girl; rather, she didn’t want me or my father to play anything that had shooting or violence. That was also the reason we didn’t buy any consoles – so I grew up in the age of Mario without ever having played Mario.
When I was in junior high, the best teacher I ever had taught us social studies and the history of civilizations by having us play the original Sid Meyer’s Civilization. I loved it. I became horribly addicted to it. I spent hours with it on my 386. (As it turns out, that was nothing to the amount of time I would spend on Civ II and Civ III in college.)
In high school, my friends and I would go to a place called Network Underground, where we could pay by the hour to LAN Doom, Quake, Descent (the only one I was even remotely good at), and Duke Nukem. I was terrible at first-person shooters. Terrible. But my lack of skill has nothing at all to do with my gender or exposure to technology in general (I had my own webpage in high school and college); rather, it had to do with the fact that I only played shooters when I was at Network Underground – in other words, it was all about exposure to the specific mechanics of shooters.
That’s where I was in 1998 when From Barbie came out. I was a girl who abhorred the conventional play associated with Barbies (Barbie Fashion Designer would be tantamount to my worst nightmare) – the Barbies I had went to war with one another as often as they had normal lives. I also didn’t like the “normal” Barbie – I had the African American Barbies, Skipper, Courtney, Ken, several off-brand dolls, and whatever else their names really are (I renamed them all about every other day). I also had trucks and Legos (not the kits) and trains and blocks and pretty much anything else my mother could find, except guns or swords. Nothing violent.
Yet despite being a girl, I was into games, and into computer games, yet I would have rather given up on computers altogether than be forced to play any of the games talked about as “girls’ games” in From Barbie. But I reserved judgment and turned to Beyond Barbie, hoping that it would offer a more comprehensive viewpoint.
By 2008 I was a much more hardcore gamer. I’d started playing RPGs in college – first, one of the Harry Potter games, along with Riven and the Civ titles, more shooters, some Super Smash Brothers, more Civ (there was a lot of Civ). Once I hit grad school, I started playing more RPGs online with friends, and then I met my future husband, who got me thoroughly addicted to Team Fortress 2, System Shock 2, Portal, Age of Legends, BioShock, Warcraft III, Call of Duty (several of them), Gears of War, and the Wii.
Eventually, he introduced me to Mass Effect 2, which is the point at which I ceased to be a “follower-gamer” who picked up whatever he played, and became a bit of a BioWare fiend. That game is also the reason that our household has two XBox 360s. I’ve now played games he hasn’t (including part of Borderlands, the Dragon Age games, Contrast, Mass Effect 1, and Continue…?, and he’s of course played some that I haven’t), and I’ve even gotten him to play a few (Dishonored, Tomb Raider).
But by 2008, I was definitely a gamer. Maybe not hardcore, but a gamer. Games were more accessible, more women were playing, and I knew more women who played (our regular group was split down gender lines). So I was therefore expecting Beyond Barbie to have a more mature perspective, to include a complex discussion not only of who is playing and who is designing, but how gender appears in the games themselves.
It’s better than From Barbie, I’ll give it that. But it still suffers from one of the things I consider to be a significant problem in gender-and-gaming criticism across the journalistic and academic boards. Put simply, it still assumes that there’s some inherent difference between men and women as gamers, and that if only we can get girls interested in games, that somehow we will be able to create this magical market for “women gamers.”
There are several pieces in Beyond Barbie that recognize this, but there still seems to be a continued emphasis on “hooking” girls on gaming through some magical formula that will attract them to the industry. The argument, of course, is that if women are designing games, then those games will be more attractive to women. But in order to get that to happen, we have to first attract women (the number of times the book used the “chicken-and-egg” metaphor was staggering), and attracting women comes back to the same old fallacy.
At the end of Beyond Barbie came one of the best encapsulations of this idea, from Sheri Garner Ray, herself a game designer. She points out that it isn’t that women don’t like games, it’s that they don’t play them at all: “So how can we say ‘Women don’t like these games’ if they are not even trying them? Something is stopping them at the door” (322). She continues, remarking that “There are all these things that we do for a predominantly male perspective that is uncomfortable for our female players, and they are not going to play something that feels uncomfortable” (322). And that’s the core of the “female gamer” problem: games and gaming communities make women “feel uncomfortable.”
Ray has a fantastic example that is worth sharing at length:
I actually have these wonderful photographs of the Calvin Klein underwear models, the guys. I put them up on the screen and I say, “There you go, guys, ready? Give him a sword and send him into Diablo.” Are you ready for that to be your avatar? Every guy in the room wants to crawl under his chair. Now you understand! Now you understand why I’m uncomfortable being given these hypersexualized females to play, to represent me. Because you wouldn’t want these guys representing you. (325)
It’s a simplification of the problem of identity (mis)representation in gaming, certainly, but it still makes the point that women – and other minority voices – don’t avoid gaming because it doesn’t appeal to them. They avoid it because it makes them uncomfortable, either because the avatars are hypersexualized, the female NPCs are constantly victimized, or because the players themselves are made to feel that they don’t belong for a whole host of reasons.
So while Beyond Barbie is definitely more up-to-date and thoughtful than From Barbie, it still mostly feels to me like it’s on a social justice mission rather than seeking to engage in complex criticism. And while I do think that the mission it’s on is a worthy cause, I’m just not sure that it goes about solving the problem in the right ways.
Instead of coming back to the age-old “how to attract women” problem, I think it’s time that we actually talked about what really is happening in games. What is good about games? What is bad about them? What are the things that make women, men, African Americans, gays and lesbians, transpersons, Asians, Latinos, and others uncomfortable about the games and the gamespaces in which they play? How do our games challenge us in good ways? How do they make assumptions that shouldn’t be made?
And once we know what games are doing, then we can talk about what they should do and how to make that happen. And at the same time, if we elevate our conversation about the games, then we start to elevate our conversations about the game community at the same time – because we reflect the content of our games in our fandoms. So if we want to see our fandoms become more inclusive, less hostile, then we need to work on making sure that our games are the same. And before we can make them inclusive, we need to understand what we’re doing wrong – and what we’re already doing right.
[…] My most recent post is up at TLF – part review of From Barbie to Mortal Kombat and Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat and part stroll through my past. If you can do math, you can figure out about how old I am. […]
Superbly written as usual, fellow Civ-head! I still regularly play Sid Meiers Alpha Centauri, which is even better than any of the Civ games.
Have you played Saints Row? The gameplay is astoundingly good (in SR3 and 4). There is of course the obligatory brothel, and there are prostitutes all over the streets (whom you can save from their abusive pimps), but apart from that, it’s pretty gender-neutral. You choose your gender when you start the game, and you can change it at any time by going to a plastic surgeon. All interactions with your crew seem to be the same regardless of what gender you chose, including their responses when you try to romance them.
The character creation options are wonderfully detailed, and I have spent hours trying to perfect the jawline and nostrils of my avatar.There are even three separate sets of voices per gender to choose from, so your character can have a russian or latina accent if you want. You can even set the pitch of the voice. This is almost the most impressive thing about the character creation. It doesn’t cost developers anything to add a darker hue to the skin colour selection screen, but recording hours of dialogue in three different voices with different voice actors does.
I think this make-your-own-protagonist-model may be a step towards inclusiveness or whatchamacallit. Making a game where the protagonist is a non-white non-male could be a gamble for developers, as it might alienate part of the customer base. (This, of course, raises the question of default whiteness and maleness in media.) But in a game like SR, race and gender does not matter, as good gameplay is the real star, and there’s no need for a pre-fabricated protagonist.
SR stands in stark contrast to the recently released Watchdogs, which has an almost identical basic concept, with open-city maps, mini games, and non-linear gameplay. The writing is abysmally clichéd (troubled hero seeks revenge on whoever killed his niece). The protagonist is annoyingly dull, a gravel-voiced, latern-jawed avenger who really hates crime (not counting his own, of course) blah blah blah.
(This is a separate discussion, but I find it slightly troubling that vigilantism is such a prominent theme in American popular culture. There is really no need to feed more people the notion that some murders are OK to commit if you are Doing The Right Thing.)
I don’t know why more girls don’t play games, but I’m glad you asked the question. I have a feeling that people “become gamers” at an early age, as evidenced by your story. Could it be that there is a social stigma attached to gaming, or any form of “nerdery”, that would scare off many young girls?
Teenage girls seem to be (and this is only my uninformed and imperfect theory) more focused on social status, and have a more complex social hierarchy, than boys of the same age. I don’t know exactly how stratified schools are in the US, but in Sweden it is perfectly normal for a “jock” to be best friends with a “nerd”. (We don’t even have words for these archetypes.) But girls seem to have more rigid strata, with some kind of internal ranking system of who is cool and who isn’t. The slightest misstep, and they might slip down a rung on the ladder. Now, if this is the case, and I might be incredibly wrong, it would make sense that girls would steer clear of anything uncool and easily avoidable, like gaming.
The US school I went to was horrifically stratified, with my male friends as likely to be harassed and ostracized as my female ones. My group of friends was pretty gender-egalitarian, but that wasn’t the case across the school. However, in 1994-1998, as few men as women were likely to play videogames besides Mario outside my group of geek friends. (I did know several girls in junior high and high school who regularly played Mario games and were also very popular – Mario was apparently an acceptable game for everyone to play, even if Doom and Duke Nukem were not.)
My students – coming to me now as 18-year-olds – are for the most part not gamers, even though they take a games course from me. More men than women tend to play shooters, but my most avid MMORPG player is female. Two of my students with programming experience (out of four, so half) are female.
The thing is, almost all my students invest hours and hours per week in playing games – mostly on their phones. Flappy Bird, Angry Birds, Candy Crush, etc., are all hugely popular with both men and women. These are games that don’t have an online community component, games that don’t contain people for the most part, and games that are quick and involve puzzle solving. My male and female students enjoy Portal when we play it, and they enjoy Bioshock when we play that, too.
The point I’m getting at is that the reason women and girls don’t play is social, not mechanical (to games). And it isn’t necessarily because they tried games and were harassed (although that happens), but that socially we have coded games as a “male” activity, thereby removing them as options for females. “Casual games,” though, are not explicitly gender coded (although there is an assumption among hardcore gamers that those are “girl games” or “mom games”), and therefore many, many women play them without considering themselves “gamers.”
So even though you might see a pack of teenage girls who think games aren’t “cool,” it’s not because they’ve tried those games and determined them to be uncool (and I’d bet you anything they all play Candy Crush or something similar). It’s because games have been coded as “male” and therefore “uncool” for girls. Part of the reason for that coding is a history of hostility and misogynistic depiction of female bodies in games – those girls may not know any of that, they just know that games are “uncool” and are played by teenage boys (ew). But that doesn’t change the ultimate origin of that “uncool-ness,” it simply explains why males of all ages feel comfortable in games of all kinds, where females only feel comfortable in spaces that are non-community (or Words With Friends-style community) and don’t contain sexualized representations of women.