Previously published on my personal blog.
The portrayal and treatment of women in and around video games is a sore subject for a lot of us. It’s been talked about to death, and yet it still doesn’t seem like we’re making much progress. It’s a very polarizing, but uniformly upsetting issue that lingers on in this otherwise great community like cat pee on an oriental rug.
The most common solution I see proposed to solve this problem is making more games that girls can enjoy. And while there is definitely a place for games directed specifically at girls and women – like hidden object games and Diner Dash – they don’t tend to integrate girls into the larger world of (mostly male-focused) video game culture. In some ways, making “girl games” serves only to segregate the sexes even further. So I think that, moving forward, we should focus less on making “games for girls” and more on making games for everyone.
(Because right now, these are the only games that young girls are presented with. Yikes.)
Extra Credits once had an episode about propaganda games and the harm that can come from normal game developers accidentally indoctrinating a particular point of view into the player via lazy design. For example, making Middle Eastern men a default enemy type in modern combat games has potentially increased the amount of Arabic racial slurs on services like XBox Live.
Well, I think the same principle can be applied to the treatment of women in games. Developers have mostly been making games for the core audience of young adult men for… forever, basically. But even though demographics have changed over the years to include more and more women, games have not evolved to take their sensibilities into account. We in the gaming community are a mixed bag, but the overwhelming majority of mainstream titles brought out each year still trumpet the masculine power fantasy and feature cookie cutter girls in skimpy outfits or, worse, no female characters at all. I’m looking at you, Assassin’s Creed.
(Pictured: Possibly the best ever representation of the male power fantasy in a single image. Thanks, Gears of War!)
Even games that are otherwise great often fall victim to lazy design by, say, dressing a female character up like a prostitute to sell more games. Sadly, I have to rake one of my favorite games over the coals for this. Tales of Symphonia developers, why is Sheena’s kimono top open like that? She’s a great character, but her sexy outfit doesn’t fit her personality at all. She is a determined young woman who is trying desperately to prove that she can redeem herself for the harm she has caused others in the past. The only reason she dresses like that is so that the artists could slap her on the cover to get customers to look at it.
However, sometimes these design choices can make sense. Shiki, from The World Ends With You, shows a lot of skin, but that’s because everyone in the game is dressed as a parody of Japanese hipper-than-thou street fashion. Shiki, in particular, tries really hard to fit in and look cooler than she actually has the confidence to be. Here, the skimpy outfit works because it’s relevant to the character’s personality.
Once again, there’s a time and a place for all kinds of things. There is absolutely nothing wrong with games like Call of Duty or even Dead or Alive existing. The gaming market needs a little bit of everything, and if gunning down terrorist insurgents while being hailed as a war hero or fighting as a large-boobied schoolgirl in a heavily stylized and tongue-in-cheek world where her appearance kind of makes sense is your cup of tea, then godspeed. The industry will keep your gaming library stocked for many years to come. But developers can’t just keep focusing exclusively on those customers forever, or they’ll lose the rest of us who would rather play something that speaks to our own interests.
So. Games for everyone. What do I mean by that? Well, the gist is that I think developers should be making more gender-neutral games, rather than just trying to “balance out” the many male-targeted games with female-targeted ones. If there are more games that boys and girls alike can enjoy, then we can raise a new generation of kids who are brought together by games, not driven apart along gender lines.
Take Minecraft, for example. To say that this game is popular among young kids is like saying that Tim Burton just sort of likes working with Johnny Depp. It’s astounding how much this game has taken off with both boys and girls. And why? Because it’s basically LEGO 2.0, and what kid in their right mind doesn’t love creating, exploring, and forging their own destiny? It’s like exploring the forest behind your house and building a secret fort, but without all of the mosquito bites.
We need more games like Minecraft that encourage creativity and exploration to get girls to grow up loving video games. I had Pokémon and the Nintendo 64 Legend of Zelda games, but even then I couldn’t play as a girl in the former until three years after I had started the series, and the weird gender politics of Princess Zelda getting captured near the end of Ocarina of Time never gelled well with me.
We need more developers to realize that bland, generically attractive female characters with low cut tops don’t get off scot free anymore just because they’re in a video game. We need more female role models in the industry, but we’re not going to get that if we keep treating them like garbage (more on that another time). We need more events like this camp that encourages girls to make games together and gives them the professional recognition that they deserve. If we don’t, and the next E3 conference is yet another smattering of the same male-targeted games with the same committee-designed protagonists, then I’ll have no right to keep being surprised when more and more of my female friends say that games just aren’t for them. And I don’t want to live in a world like that.