Asexuality Actually

Here are a few questions: Is there really anything about current games that makes them inaccessible to women? Are they really sexist? Is the game industry really excluding women from their audience?

The notion of a male-dominated videogame culture continues to be widely accepted. Any report on the state of gaming, or any analysis of the latest figures of what each sex is playing, begins with the statement: “Games are predominantly aimed at men.” It’s the required preamble. But is it really true?

As an experiment, I’ll name some games:

Worms, Roller Coaster Tycoon, Psychonauts, Zoo Keeper, The Settlers III, Darwinia, IL-2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles, Day of the Tentacle, Ratchet & Crank, Meteos, City of Heroes, Civilization, Microsoft Flight Simulator, The Sims, EVE Online, Crazy Taxi, Myst III: Exile, Descent, Mario Power Tennis, Mutant Storm, Sonic the Hedgehog, Metroid Prime, Tetris, Links 2003 and Fallout 2.

A good mix there – old and new, good and bad – across a broad range of genres and platforms. Which of them is so horribly biased toward men? I’m not trying to be clever. This is simply saying: Maybe the problem isn’t as huge as we think.

True, that’s a carefully selected list of games. Sure, it doesn’t include Postal 2 or Soldier of Fortune. But it also doesn’t contain No One Lives Forever or Dreamfall. It’s a list of games which couldn’t care less which sex you are. Something that is fairly commonplace in gaming.

Yes, big, dumb action games are more often aimed at a male audience. There’s no reason to deny this. Much as big, dumb action movies are more often aimed at a male audience. An offering from Vin Diesel is rarely met with derisory accusations that this latest film – probably about a retired cop who travels through time and fights the ghost of his twin or something – is preventing women from going to the cinema. It’s preventing decent-minded humans from going to that particular theater at that particular time, certainly, but it’s not causing all movies to be off-limits to those boasting a second X chromosome.

Of course, while games are being played by a reasonable proportion of women, they are not being made by them. When recognizing the more wonderful games with female lead characters, from Beyond Good & Evil to Metroid to The Longest Journey, one must remember these are games made by men. However, it’s interesting to note that there’s no consensus on how this issue might be addressed.

Gareth R. Schott and Kirsty R. Horrell mention in their paper “Girl Gamers and their Relationship with the Gaming Culture,” “Male designers who have developed games have traditionally preserved male dominance within the gaming industry based on their own tastes and cultural assumptions.” To combat that, one would think girl game designers need to break into the boys’ playground.

But Brunel University lecturer Tanya Krzywinska argues that it’s not that simple. “I don’t believe more women working in the industry would have more than [a] peripheral effect precisely because the game industry is market driven and, like the movie industry, has now established formal and generic patterns that will prove hard to break in an industrial sense.”

OK, according to the experts, even if a girl does get into the industry, she’s going to be making male-oriented games like everyone else. But both of these arguments fail to acknowledge the vast swathes of games that aren’t condemned to the pit of sexist ill-repute.

So, if there are already innumerous games that in no way even suggest a gender bias, this leads me to think: There’s something else keeping women from games rather than the way women are presented in them.

Well, there’s a problem with that statement, too. With each and every study of who’s playing games, the percentage of female players keeps going up. While some surveys skew the matter by including somewhat obscure qualifiers, such as a quick game of Snake on a Nokia phone, even the more carefully refined studies are regularly finding that around 38% of those playing videogames are women. Which is, you know, more than a third.

Obviously, the mainstream media can’t cope with these figures, and all coverage tends to follow the same formula: A reporter immediately rushes to the only female gamer he knows and gets a couple quotes, and then he interviews a Frag Doll and asks, “So, you actually play games, do you? All on your own?” And it’s perhaps here that the perception is born. No matter how many girls are gaming, the media has yet to gain the sophistication or maturity to express this responsibly.

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Even looking at the survey results, and then looking at the regular customers in a local branch of GameStop, it’s hard to take claims of a burgeoning female gaming population seriously. It can’t really be true, can it? Girls aren’t really gaming, are they? But all my female friends play games. Well, they confess to playing games; they don’t proudly announce it. But they all play videogames. And they’re not playing Snake, they’re playing Metal Gear Solid.

There are even studies indicating girls will delve into serious gaming under the right conditions. In 2003, Gareth Schott and Siobhan Thomas of the University of London decided to investigate how young people react to videogaming. They went into high school classrooms with GameBoy Advance SPs in hand and set them in front of 14- and 15-year-old kids. The boys immediately identified them, rushed over and dominated. The girls sat back and let them.

They tried the same experiment in classes with only girls. Without the boys to push them out the way, and once the Schott and Thomas explained the devices weren’t some sort of makeup case (no, really), the girls mostly recognized Mario onscreen, but would predominantly declare, “Oh, I can’t do these things.”

Prompted to continue, Schott and Thomas found that after a few minutes, they couldn’t get the girls to stop playing. This transition led the researchers to conclude that there was some sort of “permission” barrier between girls and gaming.

This is a barrier that’s being increasingly eroded. It’s the continued focus on demanding that games be made more accessible to female gamers that’s perpetuating the myth that there aren’t any games for female gamers, which is only more frustrating when I look at the games around me now.

Half-Life 2: Episode 1 has me play the subservient man, following the instructions of the more able, the more skilled, the more creative and the more intelligent woman. It is I that assists her, shining the flashlight so she may shoot, running and hiding while she fires the sniper rifle. She is specifically feminine, and she’s specifically in charge. Dreamfall had me alternate between April Ryan and Zoë Castillo, encountering a world through two distinct female perspectives. Metroid Prime: Hunters has me playing super-hard action heroine Samus. And those are simply the games I’ve happened to play in the last few weeks.

Pretending this isn’t the case is just plain weird. How is this a medium girls can’t access? These are, like the majority of releases, videogames that in no way enforce or reinforce sexist stereotypes. And focusing on the few games that do perpetuate stereotypes is the very device that alienates girls from gaming. It focuses the attention away from the real issue: a media that’s writing to the boys, but writing about the girls – which I may well be guilty of now myself.

However, my cry remains: Can we all stop saying that this is a medium predominantly aimed at men, and maybe see if this is a refrain that has simply been reinforcing itself for a good number of years? If we recognize that the majority of games we play don’t enforce sexual stereotypes, gender biases or sexist principles, we’ll encourage and develop a vocabulary that speaks about games to everyone in a non-discriminatory tone. We are the instigators of our own confining delusion, and by maturing beyond this delusion, we will help to ensure games are acceptable pastimes for both sexes.

John Walker is now a bit nervous of getting yelled at. He’s frequently nervous of getting yelled at for things he writes on his own site at, and in various U.K. gaming magazines, such as PC Gamer and [I]PC Format[/i]. Yell nicely. He’s a bit of a wimp.

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