Personally, I can honestly say that I never bought into the notion that women don't play games, or the pernicious stereotype of "fake geek girls." Part of that, no doubt, comes from my mother. A native American woman, groomed in the arcades in the 70s and 80s, she's got more nerd cred than anyone I've ever met. She raised me on games, and taught me life lessons from her carefully curated library of science fiction and fantasy. She tested my knowledge of culture, not as a gatekeeper of geekery, but as someone that believed that the multicultural pluralism of Star Trek was a society worth aspiring to. Looking at the state of gaming recently, though, I’ve been finding it tough to buy into the same optimistic vision of the future that my mother did.
But flipping through the schedule at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this March, my eyes settled on a talk called "Curiosity, Courage, and Camouflage: Revealing the Gaming Habits of Teen Girls." I am not now (nor have I ever been) a teen girl, but I'd like to think that a modicum of empathy can go a long way. After reading Patricia Hernandez's piece on the ludicrously popular Kim Kardashian game last year, I figured that's what most young women were playing these days, and I wanted to try to understand that. The presentation was revelatory, but not in the way that I expected.
Rosalind Wiseman and Ashly Burch were the presenters. Wiseman is an author, educator, and researcher, best known for her book Queen Bees and Wannabes, which ultimately became the 2004 cult classic Mean Girls. Burch started her career in games as a critic and journalist, but has since co-created the web series Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'?, and lent her vocal talents to a few big-budget games like Borderlands 2. Together the unlikely pair assembled a survey of 33 questions that they gave to more than 1400 students between the ages of 11 and 18. Their respondents were a solid mix of male, female, and people that didn't fall into either of those categories. Queries ran the gamut, covering average time spent playing games in a given week, favourite genres and characters, as well as online harassment.
According to their study, girls don't just play games, they are prolific gamers; although many of them have developed a negative association with that specific term. Of the girls in the study, 26% played first person shooters, 36% played RPGs, and 15% played MOBAs. In all, more than 80% played at least one type of game, with many of them playing several. These are genres that are typically considered the preserve of the male “core” gamer, but as Wiseman quipped, "we have girls who like blowing shit up." During another presentation, Wiseman said, she presented a few clips and images from Call of Duty, and the girls "went bananas… high-fiving and cheering."
Their findings were in-line with what EEDAR - the biggest data agency in gaming - has been finding in recent years: not only is the gender gap narrowing in terms of pure numbers, but women and men often tend to like the same kinds of game. This perhaps shouldn’t be such a surprise.
Before seeing this talk, I fully believed that a healthy percentage of women played games (as data and studies have told us time and time again, women make up around half of the gaming audience now). But I also assumed that most of them were playing social games like the aforementioned Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, or if not that, then Bejewelled, or Farmville, or what have you. I don’t feel that I’m prejudiced against mobile or Facebook games, but I certainly didn't think most women were playing the kinds of games I tend to. Despite my upbringing, I still have certain preconceptions that are tough to shake.
A bit later in the afternoon, Burch showed a string of data points that, when taken together, have some powerful implications. One of the most common answers that games companies and marketers will trot out any time the topic of women protagonists enters the conversation, is that people simply don't want to play as a woman. The industry tends to assume that men are their primary audience and men only want to play as men. But Wiseman and Burch's study counters that base assumption as well. When asked, most of the boys they surveyed said that they either wouldn't mind playing as a woman, or would be happy to do so. Girls on the other hand, had an overwhelming preference, particularly as they got older, to see more people that represent them in games. Burch and Wiseman suggest that it's because women and girls don't have media role-models in the same way or to the same degree that boys do.
"You all know Frozen right?" Burch said. "So let’s talk about Frozen. Everybody knows Frozen. I don't even know the name of the other girl. Don't tell me, I don't care. She's the main character and I don't give a shit, and neither does any girl on the planet. They all like Elsa. Why do girls Elsa? Because she makes ice with her hands. How cool is that? Girls don’t have superheroes to look up to. That’s why Elsa resonates so much with them."
Of everyone that answered, 57% said they'd love to see more women protagonists in games. An additional 35% said they wouldn't mind.
Representation in itself isn't everything, of course. Women are, to some degree, already the protagonists of quite a few big games. The problem there, as you may have guessed, is that so many of them are sexualised. Again, traditional industry wisdom suggests that boys, especially teenage boys, love sexualised women; tts and explosions are the primary reason Michael Bay exists as a prominent filmmaker, after all. Once again, though, Wiseman and Burch's data suggests a more complex reality.
The majority of boys surveyed said that women in games were too often treated as sex objects. In fact, only 19% of the boys said they'd be happy if more women-as-sex-objects made their way into games. Unsurprisingly, young women also took issue - and here, Wiseman and Burch uncovered something particularly interesting. Younger girls were less likely to say they had a problem with women portrayed as sex objects. By the time the girls were older, more than 83% said that women were sexualised too often.
Perhaps the most upsetting part of the questionnaire was a series of questions intended to gauge the prevalence of online harassment among students. It's nice to see that the majority said that they weren't ever the targets of harassment - but Wiseman was quick to point out one of the biggest problems with her study. Before these questions can be sent to students, she had to get them approved by school administrators and, in some cases, parents. Under those circumstances, It's difficult (if not impossible) to ask direct and pointed questions like, "Have you been called a faggot or pussy within the past week?" For many, that kind of trash-talk might not quite register as "harassment," per se, but that in itself is part of the problem: a general level of malaise or tacit acceptance of language that can be harmful.
Despite that, Wiseman and Burch's data show that more than a third of the students surveyed stopped exploring and trying new things in a game because of some level of harassment. Games should be a safe place to play with novel ideas and strategies, or to experiment with new social groups, but for many, their experiences with games have been limiting or confining. That should never happen.
I've had a couple of weeks to reflect on this talk, and I have to say I'm a lot more optimistic about the future of video games than I was even a couple of months ago. It has cemented in my mind that whatever may happen today, tomorrow will be a bright future indeed. At the same time, I’m saddened by the knowledge that anyone has ever found games to be an unwelcoming space. The next generation of gamers may be more socially conscious, but I fear for the people we may have already lost. Perhaps those people are the ones we need the most.
You can watch Burch and Wiseman’s entire presentation on the GDC Vault. It’s super interesting.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.