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 They said "this game is for you," and that message superseded everything else about the product.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 Bejeweled, Candy 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.Tweet
Iris 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.