Games are cool because they’re a renegade art form that your parents hate. We need to figure out how [to make social impact with games] in such a way that we don’t lose our renegade status.
– Will Wright, GDC 2009
Once upon a time, a new medium emerged. It started with eccentric lone inventors playing with new technology in makeshift studios and then swept out into a passionate niche market of enthusiasts. It wasn’t an invention ex nihilo, but came from applying the combination of electricity and machines to an ancient art form.
That “new medium” was rock and roll, but the same story could be written about videogames. In the beginning they were both riotous and wild, emerging from underground cultures of experimentation. But eventually, a couple of breakout hits brought them thundering into the mainstream – bestowing fame and fortune to some of their early creators, but also marking the end of each medium’s sheltered, idyllic childhood.
From there, major publishers moved in, exploiting each medium to make money. Social conservatives, meanwhile, disdained both game’s and rock music’s rising popularity, even going so far as to legislate against them in various parts of the world. But creators and fans were not dissuaded. They reveled in being dangerous. The scorn of moral naysayers couldn’t slow them down. And anyway, sometimes it’s more fun being on the outside.
It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World
But there’s another common point between rock and videogames that is easier to miss: their historical treatment of women. Prior to the rise of rock and roll in the 1950s, women represented 30 percent of the singles charts; by 1985 that number dropped to less than 10 percent. Similarly, although women represent 40 percent of the game-consuming audience, they make up less than 12 percent of game developers, and correspondingly fewer are in decision-making roles.
Even punk rock, born in the late 1970s as a reaction to the corporatization of the record industry, didn’t buck the trend of rock and roll’s marginalization of women. Treated as novelties and oddities, the most notable women in both rock and punk weren’t taken seriously even as they managed to break through onto the Billboard charts. But when the rebellious attitude of punk rock begat the Riot Grrrl movement, all of that was about to change.
Riot grrrl began in 1991 as a series of letters exchanged between its founders discussing the treatment they received as girls in the punk scene. When the Mount Pleasant race riots broke out in the late spring of that year, Jen Smith of Bratmobile wrote to Allison Wolfe referring to “a girl riot,” and the movement’s name was born.
… BECAUSE we know that life is much more than physical survival and are patently aware that the punk rock “you can do anything” idea is crucial to the coming angry grrrl rock revolution which seeks to save the psychic and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere, according to their own terms, not ours.
… BECAUSE I believe with my wholeheartmindbody that girls constitute a revolutionary soul force that can, and will change the world for real.
– from the Riot Grrrl Manifesto
Riot grrrl embraced independence from capitalism and the mainstream media even more seriously than the punk movement. In addition to producing music, it created fanzines, photocopied pamphlets distributed at punk concerts, often gratis. This effort emphasized the movement’s core goal of increasing communication between women about their experiences and how they differed from those of the men that headlined rock shows. Riot grrrl did not impose restrictions on ideology; instead, it endorsed a flexible system in which women were encouraged to interpret and invent their own ideas.
But this flexibility made riot grrrl difficult to pin down. And because the movement had such staunch and virulent hatred for the mainstream media – which, in many members’ views, created and upheld the status quo that strangled them – when the media did attempt to discuss riot grrrl, it struck out, big time. In 1992 the mainstream press descended upon riot grrrl, and a movement that had been so assiduous about not defining itself found itself being defined almost exclusively by the very culture that they despised. In response, Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill declared a media blackout, and riot grrrls stopped talking to the press.
The damage, however, had already been done. The movement lost steam toward the mid-’90s, and the media fiasco took center stage in its fracture. But riot grrrl’s legacy is a generation of women who were inspired to channel their discontent into powerful works of art. And it’s here that game developers could learn a thing or two from their rocker counterparts.
Finding Our Inner Riot Grrrl
She wants me to go to the mall
She wants me
To put the pretty, pretty lipstick on
She wants me to be like her
She wants me to be like her
I want to kill her
But I’m afraid it might kill me
– Bikini Kill, “Alien She”
Modern videogames themes include the exploration of alien planets, the horrors of war and the idiosyncrasies of capitalist philosophies, but they have yet to ever meaningfully investigate the experience of being a woman in a world that is still significantly controlled by men.
I can tell you what it’s like for me sometimes. It’s like living as a prisoner in an alien society – you know that story – only your real enemies are your fellow prisoners. At best, the society doesn’t know what to do with you and, at worst, it wants your body, because it can’t survive without you. But when the machine isn’t trying to eat you, the other prisoners are. They hold up the machine, are addicted to it, opt out of it, fight it – or worse, some of each, alternating at random. They fight dirty, with words and mind games, until you long for something as simple and easy as “I hate your guts and I want to kill you.” But they don’t fight that way, because they know you need to be one of them or the whole thing might come crashing down. You love them, even though you don’t want to, because they’re prisoners and because they’re you. You lose who you are, if you’re lucky enough to get there in the first place.
This is the stuff of the darkest science fiction. Maybe if a game exploring what it feels like to be a woman were made, it would scare the shit out of us because it would feel too real. But it’s within the power of the medium to explore. Besieged by AAA games that seem to grow only more empty of important issues as time goes on (Bayonetta, I’m looking at you), there has never been a better moment for revolution.
The experiences of women may not be easy to portray in the aggressive world of videogames. If such a game is made – and I hope it is – it will be because its creators demanded to be heard. It will be created because women made it.
We know that there are women playing games. We need more women making games, and we need them to create from their hearts, not from what they’re told by publishers or anyone else. We need a girl riot, and we need it now.
Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.