First published June 22nd, 2013
My first experience of gaming took place in the aptly named ‘games room’ in a family friend’s house. It was a room filled with beanbags and cushions, a pool table, some dusty board games, a few even dustier books, and right in the centre of the room, with ALL the children in the house surrounding it, the GAME CONSOLE. It was the mid to late 90s, so my guess is that the console was probably a Nintendo 64. There were seven of us aged between six and thirteen; I was joint youngest at six years old, and also, the only girl. I watched in awe as my friends repeatedly beat the living daylights out of each other’s characters in some version of Mortal Kombat, and slowly, tentatively edged my way towards the controllers. After everyone but me had had roughly three turns playing, I decided it was time to speak up: ‘Can I play?’
Without taking his eyes off the TV, one of the older boys said ‘This game isn’t for girls.’
The others murmured agreement. I stared at the screen. There were girls right there. Admittedly, fewer than the many boy avatars available to choose, but they were there! I could see them! So I said: ‘Yes it is, look, there are girl characters too!’
‘Yeah, but all the girl characters are fucking shit, everyone knows that.’
Ouch. Quite apart from the shock of hearing one of my peers say the words ‘fucking shit’ (remember, I was six), I was totally distraught. All the girl characters are shit?! How could this be? Did this mean that from now on, I would have to go and play a dusty game of connect 4 against myself, while all the boys played with the fancy swish Nintendos and PlayStations? No. It couldn’t be…
Fast-forward nearly twenty years, and here I am: relatively new to the gaming scene, and eager to get stuck in. Don’t get me wrong, since the above incident, I’ve played and enjoyed a variety of computer and console games throughout my life, but never to the point where I engaged in in-depth discussions or analysis about them. Until now. We live in an age where the boundaries of the digital and ‘real’ worlds are becoming more and more blurred, be it through social networking, gaming, or the simple fact that such a large portion of the western world now feel uneasy about leaving the house without carrying a digital hub in their pockets. In my attempt to address this, I have started taking on creative and artistic projects that directly involve gaming, and am slowly trying to find my way deeper into the culture. And one of the first questions that I found myself asking is how much does it matter that I’m a girl in this community? It turns out it matters a lot.
‘Women in gaming’ is a hot topic at the moment, and why shouldn’t it be? Women make up roughly 49% of gamers, and yet only 11% of game developers, and possibly even fewer strong protagonists in actual gaming story lines. There appears to be a disconnect between the way that women are treated and represented in the gaming industry and the way that women consume or value games. As a young girl, I was interested in this world, and shooed away repeatedly. As a teenager, my involvement in gaming was always underpinned by comments about how the game play decisions I made were so female, or how it felt weird to see a girl kicking butt at shooting games, or great to see a girl failing hard and swerving manically out of control on the streets of GTA. And now in my early twenties, I followed with rage the #1reasonwhy hashtag on twitter that recounts the everyday sexism that women in the games industry face. I read in horror that when feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian started a fundraising campaign to make a series of videos that deconstruct the clichéd and often problematic tropes of women in video games, she not only received torrents of abuse and threats, but that someone made a game in which the sole purpose was to punch her in the face.
The sad thing is that this tendency to want to keep women at a distance in the gaming world is something that people are picking up through the actual representation of women within the games that they play. This is a point that is explored wonderfully, if a little one sided-ly in Sarkeesian’s aforementioned video, Women vs. Tropes in Video Games. In the first two videos, Sarkeesian explores and deconstructs the way in which women characters in video games are more often than not depicted as weak, powerless individuals in need of saving or killing (or sometimes both), who purely exist to aid the male protagonists development and storyline. While there are certainly exceptions to this, with characters like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, or Commander Shepherd from Mass Effect all being strong willed protagonists they do not come with problems of their own; namely the hyper-sexualisation of the character or general lack of commercial interest in her, as was the case with Lara and Jade respectively. Nonetheless, these characters are unique in that they are protagonists of their games, but they are the exception that proves the general rule of the distanced weak woman, in my opinion.
With this in mind, it came as no surprise when I was doing some more research on this ‘women and gaming’ topic, that there is a debate rife in the blogosphere about so called ‘fake geek’ girls.
Allow me to clarify. According to certain websites, or just male written gaming blogs that I have stumbled across recently, a fake geek girl is a lady who plays games or reads comic books with the sole purpose of seeking attention and approval from all the true gamers out there- the men. That’s right. These girls devote time, energy and money in playing video games purely to titillate and ensnare the unwitting young gentlemen, and nothing more. They don’t enjoy gaming or anything like that. The presumption is that once they have acquired and locked down the male, they will go back to their true hobbies of cooking, cleaning and weeping.
As you can probably tell from the way I’m writing about it, I find this entire debate to be totally ludicrous, and wish with every fibre of my being that it didn’t exist. And yet, it does. It actually exists. There are a frightening number of people in the gaming world who actually think that, like in the many games they play, women are not central to their own story lines, that they exist only as an accessory in the storylines of men.
But like I said, it’s not surprising. In a world that is dominated by heroic men going on crazy heroic adventures and completing cool heroic tasks, is it any surprise that the majority of men playing the games are more likely to view women as the other? What place is there for girls in this world of traditionally masculine characters, storylines and marketing? As someone who is relatively new to the scene, I must admit that it’s very off-putting to know that I might be ridiculed or not listened to JUST because I am a woman…
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
The good news is that despite the many sexist and abusive trolls, Sarkeesian managed to raise over $158 000 (well over her initial target of $6000) because of the amount of discussion and rhetoric happening about the proposed series. And just last week, Microsoft issued a statement of apology after many publications and blogs across the internet raised their eyebrows in surprise/disgust at a rape joke made in the midst of a live demo during the Microsoft Xbox One E3 press conference. My hope is that, the more the topic of women in gaming is spoken about, debated and discussed, the more the gaming world will slowly start to listen, and more women will have a voice in the community without being scorned. As someone who is exploring the artistic qualities of gaming and all it has to offer in terms of cultural merit and intelligent thought provoking debates about modern digital culture, I feel it would be more than a huge, terrible, sexist shame if half the population were kept out of the loop, just because of their sex.