Thursday, February 27, 2014

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Why Do Many Women Play the Games They Play? The Answer Is Simple

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Janine "Iris Ophelia" Hawkins' ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style

Why do women play what we play? That's the question that two recent articles about women in gaming have me asking myself. Yesterday on Kill Screen Mariam Naziripour published a piece about the history and the importance of dress-up games, while today on Wired Laura Hudson shared how the recent Left Behind DLC for The Last of Us resonated with her by portraying the relationship between a strong young girl and her best friend. These two posts might seem only tangentially related (at points even in opposition), but there is a thread that connects them. 

While it's widely accepted that women now make up nearly half of the gaming market, critics of that figure (of which you'll find plenty in the comments of Hudson's piece) are quick to point out how many of the women included in it are playing mobile games... Or The Sims. You know, not real games. While what constitutes a "real" game is a discussion for another day (as is the fact that the number of women playing "real" games isn't insignificant either) it's worth considering why many women do gravitate towards specific niches of gaming, including more "casual" games. Why are there more women playing Candy Crush than there are playing Call of Duty while others (read: me) are equally drawn to both Style Savvy: Trendsetters and the Assassin's Creed franchise? 

It's not a mystery at all, nor is it down to some sort of tired old biological formula. The answer, as far as I'm concerned, is ridiculously simple:

By and large, people gravitate towards where we feel welcomed. People, not just women. We want to take the path of least resistance. Would you rather enter a room through the door, or break a window to get in? Walk on a level path, or up a gravel slope?

When I was quite young, I would look at just about any game that had a girl on the box. Barbie Super Model was a recurring point of contention between dad and I at the rental store. It wasn't unlike how my favorite characters on TV or in movies were usually whichever character happened to be female. It wasn't a conscious choice, it was just an understanding that she was the character I was supposed to identify with. I just latched onto the one figure I could identify with immediately, because that's what I'd been trained to do by the pink aisle in the toy store. In the most superficial ways, those boxes promised the same thing. They said "this game is for you," and that message superseded everything else about the product. If you grew up in a world where just about every game box welcomed you, where your place was everywhere but the pink aisle, it's difficult to understand how powerful and alluring that message can truly be.

So genres and franchises (including frequently offensive/low-quality "Pink Software" titles) that have made a place for women to play them... Actually have women playing them. Earth shattering, I know. The appeal of The Sims series actually might be the easiest to understand, given the utter flexibility to make whoever and whatever you want. The same could be said for a lot of RPGs that have seen tremendous success with female audiences, like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and The Elder Scrolls. As for BejeweledCandy Crush and their ilk, I'm hard pressed to name a match-3 games thats as full of burly, angry white bros at every turn as most "real" games are. Their relative neutrality is more important than you might think. For every box telling 8-year-old me "this game is about you", there were ten others telling me "this game has nothing to do with you" -- and that was just my experience as a white, middle-class, cisgender girl, which undeniably pales in comparison to the experiences of members of even more marginalised groups. As crucial as representation is in all of this, being welcoming is as much about not outright excluding anyone as it is deliberately including them. 

None of this is to say that women (including myself) don't also play the games that don't "welcome" us, but let me put it this way: I'm going to think very hard before I pay $60 for the privilege of climbing a flight of stairs to see what's at the top if the dude next to me gets to use an escalator.

Mixed reality iris 2013Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times, and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.


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Arcadia Codesmith

I've noticed that Facebook, apparently solely on the basis of my likes, has decided that I will respond to advertisements for games headlined in bold print "FOR MEN ONLY!", or "Your girlfriend won't see much of you once you play this!"

I have concluded that most game designers are better than they used to be in building inclusive games, and game players have mellowed in many (though not all) forums, but game marketers are apparently all imported from the 1950's and get their inspiration from old issues of Hustler.


Arcadia, me too! I think because I read geekish/gaming/computer/science sites, they have concluded I must be a guy.


There are similar issues in other fields. Books, TV, films, comics, they all have some ugly streaks of sexism.

It's a rather big issue on SF fandom at the moment. And, frankly, there are people I once thought better of dredging up some horrible Standard Arguments.

My own amateurish writing often has female characters centre-stage, and doing a lot of the exciting, adventurous, things that the male characters do. There can still be problems (Modesty Blaise beats James Bond, but in some ways she is still male wish-fulfilment) but at least I try.

So often, I see signs that people are still not trying.

Jo Yardley

I guess I'm not a typical player, even as a woman.
I've been playing games since Pong and have always been more interested in "boys games" than girls games.
If something was pink or typically designed for girls, I had an allergic reaction.
And that hasn't changed.
I still enjoy playing shoot and war games and run away from 'women's games'.
I guess growing up in the wild 1970s, I was educated to confront sexism or try very hard to fight it.
As a girl I played boys games, got into fights, as a woman I run a company and still get into fights.

Arcadia Codesmith

I don't think you're atypical, Jo. We're not born with pink or blue genes. I always grabbed whatever toy let me build and create, and I didn't much care what color box it came in.

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