Why Aren’t More Women Playing Videogames?

A few days ago Leigh Alexander posted this video to Sexy Videogameland that was made by Daniel Floyd with her assistance. It’s a fantastic look at some of the reasons women don’t play big blockbuster videogames. I highly recommend watching it. My thoughts follow.

The section that I want to talk about in this video is a little more than half-way through. Everything before that point is great too, but I don’t particularly feel the need to comment on it at this moment. What I do want to talk about is the section about marketing. Mr. Floyd and Ms. Alexander have managed to directly address the biggest problem with the marketing of female characters here. No matter how smart, strong, interesting and well-written a character is, it all becomes irrelevant if she is marketed as a sex object.

I wanted to specifically point this out and bring it up because one of the most common arguments you hear when the issue of how women characters are portrayed comes up is “but she’s really a great, powerful character, you’d know that if you played the game!” That’s lovely and often is very true, but the point here is that it really doesn’t matter. No matter how fantastic the character is, how empowering or how heroic, if she’s posing naked in Playboy or being featured in Play‘s Girls of Gaming that makes it pretty hard to take her seriously. It’s even harder for me to look at that character and believe that female players are being invited to play her game at all.

And yes, you do need to invite women in. This does not mean that the only way to get women to play is to build a big “kiddie pool” out of Imagine games and pink controllers. I’m starting to think that such things are doing more to keep women out than to invite them in. Making “girl games” does more to label everything else as “boy games” than anything else possibly could. Think about it, if The Sims is a “girl game”, what makes it so? And what does that mean? Does it mean that only girls can play it or that girls can only play games with that label on them? If it doesn’t mean either of those things, why have the label on it at all?

But this isn’t to say that the Imagine games or The Sims shouldn’t be made. They should. They have fans, just like Halo or BioShock do. In fact, The Sims has considerably more fans than either of those games. And Bejeweled has probably even more. So why aren’t they taken seriously? And that’s the second point I wanted to talk about from the video. The video claims that casual games could be gateway drugs to bring women into… what? “Real” games? I don’t even know how to phrase that. And that’s the problem. What makes Halo any more real or valid than Bejeweled?

The gaming community has gotten very elitist. We remember things like Pac-Man with nostalgia, but we scoff at modern puzzle games in the same vein like Zuma. Why is that? What made Pac-Man any more a “real” game than Zuma? And how can we honestly say that Halo is a more valid game than Mystery Case Files – Return to Ravenhurst, which is supposedly Pop Cap Games’ most popular download, implying it has more players than Halo ever has? How can we honestly say that my husband is more of a gamer than his mother, when I’m pretty sure she puts in as many hours gaming a week as he does, except that he’s playing Fallout and she’s playing Mystery Case Files? Why doesn’t her game count? It should.

And the fact that it doesn’t might be a reason women aren’t becoming gamers too. They already are gamers and perhaps the fact that they aren’t being treated as such doesn’t make them feel like becoming any more interested in the industry than they already are. My mother loves her Nintendo DS and the games on it and was very proud of herself for being a gamer, but if you told her she wasn’t one just because she pretty much sticks to games like Professor Layton, she would probably be annoyed. Maybe girls stop gaming, or at least don’t play the types of games the industry would like to lure them to (the ones that cost $50 or more a pop), because they get told “oh, girls aren’t as good at this stuff, they’re good at puzzle games and stuff”. Well, if you don’t think I’ll be good at it and no one will want to play with me, why should I spend the money or try this again?

It’s not rocket science, but there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle. No one change is going to suddenly bring women into “real” gaming and balance the statistics of who plays. But just because you can’t fix all of it doesn’t mean you can’t help with parts of it. In the industry? Great, work from that angle to make more women-friendly games and characters marketed as if to women, not as if to the readers of Playboy. Just a regular gamer? Awesome, invite women you know to play, don’t condescend to them, treat them like they are every bit as good as any other player. And no matter what, don’t think that just because a girl is a gamer she must be looking to hook up with a gamer. It’s a hobby just like any other. Guy gamers marry and date non-gamer girls all the time. Why should girls be any different? Don’t expect her to fall for you just because you like the same games.

It’s going to take a while for things to change, but that’s just more reason to be working towards it now.

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