The question of how gaming culture relates to women is of great importance to developers and gaming enthusiasts alike – most of whom are men. But that doesn’t mean women aren’t posing, shaping and answering this question for themselves. I got the chance to talk to Suzanne Freyjadis-Chuberka, director of the Women’s Game Conference and a scholar in women’s studies, about what changes are underway – and what changes need to get underway fast – to make computer and video games more appealing and open to female gamers.
As a woman who holds a keen interest in gaming as well as a Master’s degree in women’s studies, you’ve undoubtedly explored the links between (a) the role women are expected to fill according to social norms, (b) the way they are depicted in games, and (c) how they are perceived for playing such games. Could you elaborate on the relationship between these spheres? Does one area reflect another, or do they all reinforce one another?
I do think that the social role that women are supposed to fill affects the way that video games approach the female market. Actually, this is true in most industries. Industries like to think of women in a domestic role, it makes them easier to market to. To think of women playing Warcraft or Quake is a scary idea to many industry leaders; it messes with their market ideal.
One of the most salient marks of sexism in the video gaming industry, some contend, is the tendency for developers to portray female characters – whether lead or cameo – as mostly naked, with impossible proportions and exaggerated sexualized features. Some male gamers, however, contend this problem is overstated because, after all, most of the lead male characters in game are also depicted as dashing, debonair and handsome. How would you respond to that kind of argument?
Yes, the male leads are portrayed with exaggerated attractiveness. However, this is an attractiveness that is flattering to men and not exploitive. Yet the portrayal of female lead characters is often exploitive. I know that my ideal female lead character would wear pants and a loose turtleneck sweater.
How much of a role does the presence – or, perhaps, absence – of women in development and production roles within the gaming industry play in the nature of the end product? Do you think there needs to be an influx of female developers to change the way female characters are portrayed in games and, consequently, change the way women at large look at gaming culture? Is such a trend already underway?
I think that there needs to be an influx of different developers. The industry needs people who think differently. It is nothing new to say that the game industry is awash in regurgitated ideas. But it will take a while and a concerted effort by the industry to look for different developers. The GuildHall and WomenGamers.com scholarship is one way that the dearth of women in the industry is being addressed. However, diversity means more than adding women to the mix, it means adding people of different ethnic backgrounds and different ways of viewing the world, people who challenge the status quo. For the industry to realize that they need to challenge themselves by bringing in people with new ideas will be a sure sign of maturity in the industry.
In your view, would an increase in the number of women gamers need to be accompanied by the opening up of new genres, or serious modification of existing genres? For instance, there are more female gamers to be found online playing role-playing than there are in first-person shooters. Are some genres just too male-constructed to change without causing a serious backlash among the existing male-dominated gaming community?
One of the largest challenges that needs to be faced by the industry is the idea that women do not play first-person shooters (FPS), or that women only like to play certain types of games. The reality is that different women like to play many different types of games. The reason that the Frag Dolls and Clan PMS are speaking at the conference is to give the industry an idea of who these women are that enjoy playing FPS games so much that they play them competitively. And these women are simply representative of a much larger group of women. These women are also people who chose to play FPS games against a wide range of barriers, such as game advertising and game boxes that exclude them and gameplay that often does not consider that the player may want to play a female character.
On the one hand, women comprise half the potential gaming market, and publishers could significantly increase sales if they could find a way to appeal to women’s pocketbooks. On the other hand, by emphasizing objectification of women, publishers cash in on the oft-repeated maxim that “sex sells.” In light of this, what kind of role do you think economics will play in overcoming barriers to women in gaming?
I think that a good start for the industry would be simply to stop alienating potential female gamers through their marketing of the games and the presentation of games in game magazines. This would limit the economic liability, but still increase sales. However, the industry seems so tightly tied to the ideal gamer as being a white male 18-34 that I am not certain whether they yet feel the need to increase their market share.
You’re not only a scholar and gaming enthusiast, but also a mother. Though it’s of course impossible to lay out a blueprint, what changes do you hope will have taken hold by the time your own children are old enough to become parents, both within and outside of the gaming industry, that will make it a more inviting place for women?
My goal as a mother of a daughter and a son is to raise people who view gender as something that is driven by society and not a set of unchangeable rules. People love to use anecdotes of their children to reinforce gender stereotypes. However, people do not realize that the way we see and define people by gender simply reinforces these stereotypes. So my hope is that the world is more gender-blind by the time my children are adults. That the games that people chose to play is seen as driven by their personalities, and not their gender.
M. Junaid Alam is a journalism student at Northeastern University, a political commentary writer for the university paper, and a freelance reporter for The Sun Chronicle in North Attleboro, MA.