Monday, June 24, 2013

Overturning Stereotype For Women Gamers

A friend of mine, who isn’t video game savvy, asked me a pretty harmless question. Why am I into games and do I have suggestions? Sure! Loads of them! I enjoy playing video games because they offer a different perspective on telling a story. They allow users to transcend traditional story models and create new, different, exciting, unique experiences unlike anything you could ever get at a movie or a book. But suggestions…okay well maybe I need to tailor them for you.

It’s important to note that this friend of mine is female. Her experience with games is Angry Birds in her iPhone. That’s about the full extent. So to throw her into the deep with The Last of Us or Metal Gear Solid would be a waste of our time. She wouldn’t experience gaming that best fit her needs and pursuits, and it’d leave a bad taste in her mouth. And really, I don’t want to be the one to discourage another woman from playing video games.

To note: I’m not saying that phone games and casual games are terrible nor am I being an elitist. I feel that they hold an importance in our current entertainment culture. It would be silly to not recognize them as valid forms of gaming. But my friend wanted to move beyond that and get into more of the console realm. She’s perfectly happy sticking to her phone and tablet games, but wanted to try something new. And we should discourage that.

Since I didn’t really know what her play-style with her phone games were like, I started out with a few questions. What games do you enjoy on your phone? Do you prefer strategy or puzzle? Do you like the action of the games? Do you have any squeamish tendencies? Are you okay with blood and gore, within moderation? I know the answers to some of these already, but it didn’t hurt to get an affirmative response. She’s the type of friend that I can talk about “scary” movies with and they don’t freak her out. (Tip 1: When introducing a gamer into the world, ask what their interests are! Don’t immediately force them to play a game that you like because they may have 0 interest in it and be turned off of gaming.) So she rattled off the list. Apparently she was really big into ParadiseIsland, which is a SimCity-like simulation game where you build a resort island and work to keep it maintained. But there was also Angry Birds and Tetris. Tetris…that surprised me too.

She was inheriting a DSi from a friend, so I rattled off a few suggestions, and that she was welcome to stop by and try out Journey. When I thought all was said and done, she threw another question at me: are the women all naked in these games?

Um…what? Thrown into the loop, I have been.

Her reasoning was pretty simple, and sadly straight-forward: That she has heard so much about games and how they portray women, that they are mostly naked or nearly-naked in every game. While we know that’s not true, the way games are advertised and discussed these days, that assertion really shouldn’t have been surprising.

My initial response was: No. I like men. Boobs are okay and the female body is a beautiful thing. But if there, honestly, that much nudity in video games, I would have bowed out ages ago.

My follow-up response was to address her concerns. (Tip 2: Be honest about games if someone has a genuine question. Many of the reasons that women and girls are turned away from gaming are due to inaccurate stereotypes.)

Yes, there are quite a few games that feature scantily clad, large breasted women. Yes, there are a small minority that feature full-on nudity (99.99% of the time female, .01% male thank you GTA4). But for the most part, women are dressed. The titles that I provided her had women that were fully clothed or not in an outlandish bikini armor set. But it was important for her to understand that these are real concerns. Women shouldn’t always be portrayed in such a manner; they deserve the same respect as their male counterparts. The biggest issue is that women are typically side-characters acting as damsels in distress, trophies, or objects of desire. This doesn’t mean that females should always be the primary protagonist, but by subjecting them to such a closed-minded point of view, we are devaluing their status. That’s what so many of us are unhappy about the direction of the gaming industry.

And that’s how I explained it to her. You are going to find games out there where women are scantily clad and are merely there as eye candy. And you’re going to find some games where are scantily clad, but they are dominant, powerful, strong, feminism-enlightened characters. It’s an unfortunate fact that many games are not directly marketed towards women and girls. The industry is very much under the assumption still that the target audience, and the only ones that play their games, are 18-25 white men. The industry won’t change overnight, but there are plenty of options available that are female friendly and don’t make you feel like you’re garbage at the end of the day.

She mentioned that someone suggested she play Gears of War. Immediately I put my foot down and said no. Her style of play was more geared towards platforms and puzzles. First Person Shooters are not the way to go. Although if she were looking for something in the gory, horror genre, Dead Rising would be a good place to start.

This conversation made me realize how powerful the stereotypes in the industry have taken hold. It’s more than simple advertising techniques that focus on the male audience. Video games have become so pervasive in our society that women expect them to not be played by anyone but men. And that…that just isn’t the right way to approach any market. By ignoring women you’re overlooking 50% of the world’s population. That’s a pretty big market to not consider. (Tip 3: Don’t suggest Barbie or Imagine series games. Women are insulted such items exist on the market.)

I was honest with her. I said that these are things that are part of the gaming culture. It's not fair and it's not something that we should be forced to deal with, but there it is. As games mature, we'll see more changes. And there are a lot of great games out there that don't involve any of this sexism crap. It's just unfortunate that a number of them do, and tend to get the most media exposure. So don't focus on the negative. Think of the positive. Think of all of the fun times you had with Angry Birds or talking to someone you met in ParadiseIsland. Those experiences are what makes gaming worth it.

Happy gaming!

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