Women and Girls And Gaming

woman1Meeting a woman who plays video games is no longer a cause for surprise; instead, it’s gone through a weird variety of reactions from “you’re obviously a poser” to “man, I wish I could wife that!” Both are equally generalizing, obviously, but the concept of women in the field of video games seems to fascinate people.

For anyone who’s perused my author page, you’ll know that I have a degree in Creative Writing and English Literature but what it doesn’t say is that my specialization was in feminist and gender studies literature. I’m not an activist, I’m not even an outspoken person, but I am interested in watching out gender dynamics play out in everyday life and more and more lately, the video game world has become my everyday life.

I realize there’s been a lot of articles and lists and editorials about women in the gaming industry, although a lot of them miss the mark, focusing purely on statistical representation (i.e. how many women are making/playing games) instead of symbolic representation. This incredibly insightful Polygon article by Tracey Lien does a good job of avoiding pure statistics to make a point and instead opts for a more semiotic approach.

“Without signs and symbols, human beings would have no souls, no point of reference for their own existence.”

It’s really easy to try and use the whole “50 percent of gamers are girls now so what’s the big deal” argument or “look how many programs exist to help women get what they want” but the reality is that it’s a whole lot deeper than that.

What I really like about Polygon article is the use of symbols that Lien uses. These are the real building blocks of a society: without signs and symbols, human beings would have no souls, no point of reference for their own existence. That’s why the symbolic representation of women can be so powerful.

malefemale washroomThe lack of representation on a basic level is an easy place to start. The debate that’s currently going on about the lack of a female avatar in Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a good example of that. Simply being able to choose an avatar that matches your gender can be a big step in getting that total game immersion that developers are always chasing.

But there’s also the question of a more abstract representation in video games. A news article (also on Polygon) recently interviewed the developers of a mobile game called Egg BabyThe developers said that 85 percent of their players were women and that they were going to specifically target a female audience in the future.

Something about Egg Baby–which I admit I haven’t played–draws women to it. What is it? Could the answer be as simple as “women have babies and this is about taking care of a baby”? Probably not. I’ve heard that Animal Crossing also has a strong female player base, another game where patience and organization offer the greatest rewards as opposed to direct conflict.

I am not saying that women are all patient and organized. I also love Animal Crossing and am not a woman. The point I’m trying to make is that VALUES are another way that video games can represent different aspects of human nature, whether it’s gender or otherwise. It’s not just a question of “how many girls are playing this game” or “how many women were involved with making this game”.

“OF COURSE I’m not saying make every game a mixture between gun-toting violence and managing a cornfield.”

The bigger point in all of this academic jibber-jabber is that, in order to really make inclusive games, developers ought to focus on how to dole out rewards and what values those rewards teach the player. If rewards are constantly given out purely for mowing down babies with a flaming chainsaw, the values there are probably a little askew and, when it comes right down to it, will lose you some demographic.

And that’s what this is really all about, isn’t it? Demographic. If I want a lot of different people to play my game (read: a lot of people, period), I should find a way to appeal to a lot of people. OF COURSE I don’t mean try to make a game that every single person loves. OF COURSE I’m not saying make every game a mixture between gun-toting violence and managing a cornfield.

What I AM saying is don’t ignore the fact that the content of video games says as much about how inclusive it is as the audience does. Signs and symbols, people, signs and symbols.

English major, out.

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