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TECHNOLOGY | summer 2006

More Than a Game
Move over, geekboys: Feminists reclaim video gaming.

"Who's got the biggest balls at E3?” yells a woman in a red crop-top. The men gathered in front of her raise eager hands.

It’s hard to imagine an environment less woman-friendly than E3, the video-game industry expo held each year in Los Angeles. And it’s not just the “booth babes” hired to wear scanty costumes and hawk games: Surround-sound gunfire booms from hidden speakers. Life-sized army tanks protrude from walls. Blood sprays across giant screens. Every display seems designed to elicit a gut-level “fight or flight” response—precisely what women enjoy least in video games, according to game-play studies.

Yet two days earlier, at an NSF-sponsored conference called “Girls ’N’ Games,” feminist academics, game designers and die-hard “grrl gamers” convened to discuss why women and girls cannot afford to ignore electronic games. Electronic gaming, they say—which includes computer games as well as video or “console” games—has become a huge cultural force. Studies show that 50 percent of Americans and 80 percent of American children play video games, and the heaviest gamers—8- to 10-year-olds—average over an hour a day in front of a console.

The rise in gaming has provoked debates over whether games are good or bad for us, but these tend to focus on whether the violence found in many games leads to real-life aggression. Less discussed is race and gender stereotyping: People of color are largely absent from video games, and when they do appear it’s as criminals or “bad guys.” Women are rarely protagonists, and instead serve as “prizes.” Almost without exception, women in electronic games are thin and large-breasted.

Despite the current state of girls ’n’ games, Harvey Mudd computer-science professor Elizabeth “Z” Sweedyk, a conference participant, envisions gaming as a medium for broad social critique in which women can participate. Students in her classes create alternative games that slyly call attention to racist and sexist tropes, as in one adventure game that follows an 11-year-old girl as she repeatedly saves her bumbling brother from doom—only to watch him get all of the credit.

Elisabeth Hayes, another conference participant and an education professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, suggests another reason women shouldn’t just write off gaming but help change it: Games are a proven gateway into technology careers. Girls and women have made impressive gains in math and science over the past 10 years, but their representation in computer science and technology has decreased—and their lack of gaming experience seems to be part of what’s held them back. Men who major in computer science tend to cite video games as what got them into the field, while women who drop out of the major often say they “lack credentials”—credentials that boil down to hours spent video-game playing.

Conference organizer Yasmin Kafai envisions a “hen-and-egg” cycle for the future in which women designers will make games that draw girls to technology. Unfortunately, the gaming industry is currently locked in the opposite cycle: Fans become designers, spitting out the same games over and over. “I wouldn’t pretend to know what women gamers want,” says Frank Pearce, a designer of the popular online role-playing game World of Warcraft. “What we do is program for ourselves.”

“I wouldn’t want to work in a game company,” responds Celia Pearce, who has been a game designer for over 20 years. “Too much of a locker-room culture.” She cites “in-crowd” events like the Indie Game Jam, a yearly get-together for top-tier programmers that typically produces kill-kill-kill games such as Angry God Bowling (in which teeming masses are crushed by a bowling ball). In the four years of Indie Game Jam, only one woman has been invited.

While programmers may want to keep their “no girls allowed” play-house, the gaming industry knows it can’t ignore women as a market. “Every man, every boy, who could buy a console, has,” explains Mia Consalvo, associate professor of telecommunications at Ohio University in Athens. “The industry knows now that if you don’t appeal to women you’re leaving money on the table.”

Past attempts to appeal to girls and women, however, have often been laughably off-the-mark. As an example, sales were predictably dismal for a 1980s Barbie game. No wonder: The goal of the game was simply for Barbie to buy an outfit that would impress Ken, and the “action component,” pathetically, was marshmallow-tossing.

New research shows that such “pinkwrapping” is not the way to attract girls to games—in fact, it repels them. Instead, studies by technology consulting company XEODesign have shown that women—and a surprisingly large number of men—find games fun when they are social, not too violent and full of creative opportunities. Games such as The Sims and Myst, which draw on these principles, have been smash cross-gender successes.

While girls and women are often unimpressed by industry games targeted at them, they have quietly found a group of games they like: “casual” games such as Snood, FreeCell and Bejeweled, which come packaged with Windows or free on AOL and Yahoo. On Microsoft’s website alone, over 6 million women now play these sort of games, which fit easily into busy schedules, don’t reek of geekdom and don’t involve unrelenting aggression. Some, like Brain Age, even offer another purpose to leisure, advertising themselves as brain-sharpening tools.

“There’s ubiquitous access to online entertainment, and women are leading that charge,” says Daniel James, CEO of the company that makes Puzzle Pirates, one of the few multiplayer, online games marketed to casual gamers and, thus, to women. “The only way companies like mine are going to survive is by following that trend.”

In other words, don’t be fooled by the hoopla and fireworks of E3: “This is an industry that’s having a midlife crisis,” says technology researcher Jacquelyn Morie. The casual game market is expected to nearly quadruple in the next five years, while the console game market grows by less than 5 percent a year. “In 10 years,” she predicts, “these big game companies”— the ones that display the tanks and hire the booth babes—“aren’t going to exist any more.

Jessica Stites is an editorial assistant at Ms.