The news that Ubisoft will not include a female playable character in the online co-op mode for its upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Unity has reignited the discussion about girls and women who play video games and exactly where they fit into the gaming world.
Conventional wisdom holds that video games are traditionally a male pursuit. Most games are designed and developed by men. They tell stories of male heroes fighting against male villains (or femme fatales) to save the world and/or a helpless female. Often, they depict male athletes competing in games of skill and strength; just as often, the player is in the boots of a male soldier as he fights a sanitized, Hollywood version of warfare. It would make perfect sense, given these facts and assumptions, that men would populate the gaming world at a staggering majority.
Yet since the advent of online gaming and the wider acceptance of the pursuit as a legitimate hobby for adults, everyone who has bothered to do so has noticed that girls and women play games almost as much (and enjoy as much variety) as boys and men. There’s nothing unusual about “gamer girls”; they’re simply part of the same club to which all gamers belong.
Most players are largely accepting of “gamer girls,” too. Women work at game stores, they participate in organized competitions, and they play online right alongside their male brethren.
Cherchez la femme!
That doesn’t mean that everything’s hunky-dory, of course. Women and girls who play video games are too often treated as an adorable novelty. Additionally, women are not fairly represented as producers of video games, nor are they well depicted within productions.
Two of the strongest female characters in games of recent vintage—Catwoman from Batman: Arkham City and Lara Croft from Tomb Raider—are preexisting personae, with no major original female video game character having debuted in quite some time (Heavy Rain from 2010 is the most recent major release I could find with a female lead).
Female characters more often than not fulfill traditional feminine roles: damsel in distress, girlfriend or wife, tactical support, or villainess. Also, they are rarely represented with realistic body types (Lara Croft from the latest Tomb Raider is a notable exception—she’s athletic and strong without having unrealistic proportions). If more women were game designers, developers, testers, and critics, perhaps this would change; however, there must be a shift toward accepting women in development roles.
The women behind the game
Jennifer Hepler was a senior writer for BioWare, developers of the acclaimed “Dragon Age” series. After a lukewarm reception to the second game, a fan unearthed an interview in which Hepler remarked that she wanted to find a way to skip combat sequences so that she could get to what she loved the most—story and character progression—and what seemed like the entire Internet unleashed a torrent of rage upon her. The reactions to Hepler’s comments were out of all proportion to what she said.
Haven’t we all experienced a moment when we just wished we could skip this boss fight and move on? If a female writer can ignite such ire by expressing a desire to follow a game’s story, imagine the hatred a female level designer would ignite should a game be found less than desirable.
The gaming community should promote an environment of acceptance and safety, where criticisms are fair and based on performance, not gender. It’s the only way this diverse, eccentric sphere of ours can survive—and the games themselves can only benefit.
The library can be a flash point for that culture. Gaming programs should be for all ages and all genders as much as possible. Related programs, such as coding camps, should also be gender neutral. Rules of conduct should directly address gender slurs. When conducting advisory for girls who like games, don’t assume that they only enjoy match-three puzzle games and business simulations.
All in all, be as democratic and accepting of your participants—of either gender—as you are of other patrons. Learn about—and tell your patrons about—women such as Kim Swift, whose student project led directly to a job as level designer and development team leader of Portal. Buy into programs such as Girls Make Games, a series of camps designed to encourage girls to enter game development. Larger libraries might be able to get the all-female professional gaming team Frag Dolls to come in for a program.
The International eSports Foundation recently rescinded its decision to separate women and men in their game tournaments. While women-only competition still exists, there are no men-only contests, and women can register for the “Open for All” tournaments. This is a small step toward putting female gamers on equal footing with their male counterparts, but it is a step. Let’s encourage the gaming community—creators and consumers alike—to keep making those steps.
Thanks to Liz Danforth for the tip about Girls Make Games. Until next time, keep telling yourself just one more level.