Boy Meets Grrrl: A Gendered Approach to the Industry and Culture of Video and Computer Games.
– The Article Edition
In 1966, Ralph Baer created the first video game console to be used as a military training tool. It was designed to be used with a normal television and therefore portable – although at the time “lightweight” meant just under eighty pounds. The simple ball-and-paddle game he created to teach strategy and reflex skills to soldiers was inspiration for Pong which came out six years later in arcade form. At the beginning of the arcade game period, games had an incredibly steep learning curve and were havens for competitive young boys – girls were often confined to the supportive roles of mother or girlfriend.
Although the military had not been interested in producing consoles commercially, Ralph Baer was the first to design a home console system, The Odyssey, in 1972. It could be used with any TV, played multiple games and had graphic overlays to keep the cost of production down. Perhaps the most famous game on this console was Pong (1975) and video games began to become commercially successful; for two years that is, until an unexpected crash in the market due to the amount of Pong rip-offs being distributed. In 1978, Space Invaders was released and along with Asteroids in 1979 managed to sell so well that arcades were popping up all over the place, in shopping centres and convenience stores. Games at this time had incredibly simple graphics, meaning gender wasn’t really a problem in the characters, but as graphics improved and sales declined once again, the industry decided to close in on their target group of young boys, and games became more distinctly masculine, whether it was Frogger (1981) carrying the pink frog across to safety, or Pauline shouting to her hero Jumpman in Donkey Kong (1984).
“Research suggests that females of all ages are disadvantaged in their leisure choices and activities by constraints such as time, income, class, marital and parental status, and by the way in which gender influences access to, and participation in, leisure spaces and activities” J. Bryce, The Gendering of Computer Gaming
The first game to offer a choice of gender was the 1986 Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but in the 1992 Ultima VII Part Two the player could choose both gender and race, and all of the character bodies had been modelled on real athletes. Even more surprising, the female characters weren’t dressed in barely-concealing armour but shared the same armour as their male counterparts, only shaped to their bodies.
During the 1990s, video game companies finally became aware of the market they were ignoring – girls and women. Not knowing how to do this, they pursued the idea of “productivity” games for girls, normally on skills such as housekeeping and typing, and unsuprisingly felt that computers were just educational instruments for them, not toys for fun. The release of the Gameboy in 1989 took gaming mobile and Pokemon Red and Blue, which were released in 1996, were hugely sucessful at attracting girls without discouraging the existing male audience. The Pokemon games were fairly simple to begin with and encouraged sociability in gaming with the use of the data link cable. Since then, Nintendo have largely dominated the family market with their simple, colourful or white devices which are much less overtly masculine than the industrial, black design of the Playstation.
In 2006, the fictional character Lara Croft won the Guinness World Record for “Most Successful Human Video Game Heroine”, but is she a tough and sexy inspiration or a transgressive female for the masculine player to use and to view? Lara’s attributes originally included cooking and a degree in needlework (is that even a real thing?), and as the graphics became more realistic her more physical attributes had to be reduced due to fear that she would become “too sexy”.
By the mid-1990s, 90% of American boys were playing video games, and the companies turned once again to the issue of girl gaming; however, they were unwilling to invest any serious amount of money, meaning that most games designed for girls were either poorly made, poorly advertised or both. As third-wave feminism took off in the early 90s, it was becoming noticeable that there were far fewer women in maths, science or technology jobs than men, simply because girls had less interactions with the machines, and weren’t encouraged to see them as sources of creativity and fun. When consoles were still prevalent, playing games meant having to buy the console and then each individual game, but as PCs became more common in the household it was possible to buy just one game to play without any special equipment, making the investment much less, and unlike console games, PC games were made by a wide variety of companies, allowing for more diversity in the games available. But this wasn’t just a feminism thing – it was about increasing the freedom of video game subjects from just saving the damsel in distress.
Patricia Flanagan created Her Interactive in 1995, a company which aimed to make games for girls based on qualitative data instead of statistics, but she found herself continuously turned away from publishers and forced to self-publish. McKenzie and Co, their first title, sold relatively well, although it didn’t do much for feminine stereotypes, having a huge focus on shopping, makeup and getting dates. Barbie Fashion Designer (1997) sold 600,000 units in its first year on the shelves, proving there was money to be made; although it became pretty clear that the high sales were directly linked to the brand name Barbie as opposed to the game itself. The Girls Games experiment was considered a failure, and proof that girls just didn’t want to play games. Of course, this is entirely reductive thinking, as the video game companies had assumed that girls were the opposite of boys – by focussing on differences in gender and seeing them as binary opposites, they neglected to explore the similarities and complexities of gender. During this time, girls games were split into “pink” games, which supported traditional feminine ideals, and “purple” games which contained practical – although distinctly female – scenarios. In “purple” games girls were often encouraged to be themselves and not to lie or manipulate.
There are certain things statistics show that females are more likely to want out of games. Mutually beneficial solutions, socially significant situations, complex stories, indirect competition, flexibility and customisation and puzzles make this list among others. Physiologically speaking, emotional and tactile stimulation is more likely to arouse a response in women than the visual gore or shock which promotes increased heart rate, perspiration and respiration in men; because of this, prolonged gore or violence may not be offensive to a girl, but it may be incredibly boring. Having a choice of characters is generally speaking important, for both male and female players to engage with, and whereas traditionally masculine sensibilities aim to overcome technology, feminine sensibilities seek to work collaboratively with the machine. Zero-sum games, in which one player outright wins and another outright loses, are generally disliked by females; although this shouldn’t be taken to mean that competition can’t be enjoyed by everyone.
“I don’t want to be friends! I want to be king! That’s right, King, Hail to the King, baby! I want all the best stuff and I want it all for me and I will knock the hell out of anyone who tries to take a piece of my action. Not very community driven and collaborative, am I?” Nikki Douglas, Girls and Gaming
In more recent years, creation or sandbox games such as Little Big Planet have become more popular with men and women due to the high level of customisability and range of gameplay. The Sims, released in 2000, had a player base that was forty to fifty percent female, and a design team which was split equally between men and women. The Sims wasn’t advertised as a girl’s game but stayed successfully gender neutral thanks to the fan culture surrounding it which constantly created new, personalised people and furniture. I remember using my first ever Cheat while playing The Sims.
Nowadays, women make up 70% of the casual games market but are still largely excluded from the realm of “serious” gaming. MMORPGs (Massive Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games) are becoming more and more popular with feminine players thanks to their social involvement; studies showed that female players were much more likely than male players to dream about the game or create lasting relationships with other players. The rise in girl gaming groups in both MMORPGs and more overtly masculine games such as the Call of Duty series has shown that it isn’t the technology the girls are unable to overcome, but the culture which surrounds it. While things are improving, the console gaming culture can still be very alienating to women.
The website “Fat, Ugly or Slutty” demonstrates this by allowing gamers to post examples of sexist comments which range from asking for naked pictures to threatening to rip a female player’s ovaries out. Although gaming can be a competetive past-time with insults being order of the day, most insults toward women are directed at their gender. Reactions to the website showed that many male players simply had no idea the abuse could be so bad, and women who didn’t play games were stunned to find that the conversation they thought had been taking place for years had only just begun.
“We are angry at a society that tells us Girl = Dumb, Girl = Bad, Girl = Weak” The Riot Grrrl Manifesto
Of course, there have always been women who put up a resistance to the culture which others them. Brenda Laurel of Purple Moon distinctly remembers a period in which girls got into Pinball in order to mark some territory within the male-dominated arcades. Rhoulette, a member of the Frag Dolls, is even encouraged by the negative and derogatory comments to try harder. The concept that women are mild-mannered and non-confrontational is resisted by many female players who enjoy the opportunity, in some games, to express a masculine side without losing the right to their real-life femininity, and it works the same with men, giving them the chance to play as a female character or with women without being emasculated. On the other hand, some women prefer to bring femininity to the game and make a point of it – although these women are often accused of not being serious gamers but just attention seekers.
ESA’s Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry (2008) was already showing that 40% of gamers were female, with the number increasing to 44% for online games, and by the time the 2012 Essential Facts was released the number had moved up to 47% with women over the age of eighteen becoming the fastest-growing demographic and outnumbering boys under the age of seventeen. As video games have become mainstream entertainment and women are experimenting with new ways to define themselves within the culture, it has become less alienating to them. They are now a strong customer base and despite the misogyny which still occurs, women are more common in the gaming community than ever, making it clear that the issue is one of visibility, encouragement from a young age to interact with machinery, and a more accepting video game culture.
Image © Sean Dreilinger