Reconstruction Vol. 12, No. 2
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Level up—A Case for Female Gamers / Kuljit Brar
Abstract: The paper addresses the notion that video games are perceived as a boys-only territory, looking into the reasons why there is a significant lack of female presence both inside games – through characters and plotlines – and outside games in the form of female gamers. The discussion examines the hazards female gamers face in attempting to enter virtual play spaces that are unwelcoming to them, and what is at stake if the video game industry continues down a male-centric path. Diagnosing the causes of these maladies, the paper focuses its attention on determining how the makers of video games can develop products that are more inclusive of all gamers, and how such an industry shift can be beneficial to both gamers and game makers.
Level 1—The Introduction
<1> It has been twelve years since Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins published their anthology, “From Barbie to Mortal Kombat”, commenting on the “Girls Game Movement” and the state of the female video game market. In this collection of studies it was clear that female gamers were a significant minority that was being severely overlooked and unacknowledged by video game producers and traditional – male – gamers alike. Since this time, the video game industry has undergone significant changes technologically and now presents a dramatically different landscape for gamers – but have these changes made any difference in how video game makers and female gamers and perceive one another?
<2> Since the mid 90’s, the gaming industry has seen over 10 different video game consoles come and go, in addition to the evolution of online and mobile gaming. Eclipsing Hollywood, with sales surpassing $65 billion (Reuters 2011), the video game industry is worth six times what it was when Cassell et al. conducted their study. With an estimated 64 billion viewing minutes in 2009, console video games (video game systems that plug into and are played on a television) are the fifth most watched “network”, quickly closing in on NBC for fourth place (Shields 2009). With this large a viewership, video games are a tremendous force in our commercial markets, and are having an immense impact on our culture. The technological advancements and widespread social acceptance of the gaming phenomenon would lead many to believe that video games are currently experiencing a golden age, and the industry has only one direction to go – up. For these reasons, it is imperative to once again examine the intersection of video games and female gamers.
<3> With video games permeating our lives now more than ever, I wish to contend that they are powerful socializing tools that - for better or worse - define and reinforce ideas of gender. Furthermore, this discussion will explore the reasons why female gamers were a minority, how the situation is currently changing, and what needs to be done in the future to ensure that video games and the industry as a whole moves forward in a direction that fosters a welcoming environment for gamers, be they male or female. The purpose of this paper is to return to the land of free-lives, mushroom power-ups, and fictitious point collecting, to reexamine the possibility of producing video games that are not exclusively for male players and audiences, and how current and future games can be more inclusive of female gamers.
Level 2—This is a Man's (Virtual) World
<4> Video games are increasingly becoming a crucial front on which gender battles are being fought. Gender, unlike biological sex, is not natural or fixed, but socially constructed. In other words, “we are born male or female, but we learn to be a man or a woman” (Ingham & Dewar 1999). This understanding is crucial to recognizing the true impact of developing video games for males and females. Oldenziel states that, “toys (are) intended not only to amuse and entertain but also ‘as socializing mechanisms’” (1997). With video games quickly prevailing as the entertainment form of choice for contemporary audiences (Nielsen 2010), the influence they have over the gender learning process of boys and girls is significant. Before delving into the current state of the video game industry with respect to female gamers, it is important to understand where this need for a female presence arises.
<5> The first question to ask is can video games exist outside gender? The simple response is no, they cannot. Video games are no less subject to the influences of gender than Barbie dolls or pornography. This does not suggest that every video game has explicit or even implicit gender defining characteristics. There are many games, which viewed uncritically, are genderless; and these games appear harmless to female gamers. However, to truly understand the issues facing female gamers, there are two important concepts to keep in mind: Tone and Context.
<6> While there may be a handful of games that are, as critics suggest, genderless, the majority of contemporary video games have very narrow and very definite ideas of femininity. This preponderance of games, which are male-only or degrading towards women, creates a tone for the industry that is unwelcoming and damaging towards female gamers. Film critic Hulk presents many of these ideas in his critique on gender issues specific to the recent game Batman: Arkham City, but these ideas are applicable and necessary in viewing the gaming industry as a whole (Hulk 2011). The tone (subtext) of the video game industry is built through the entire body of work that exists, and the direct and indirect attitudes towards females (both intra and extra game - characters and gamers) that reside in this collection.
<7> There are games that are welcoming to female gamers. Portal 2 presents an excellent example of fostering such an attitude, as two of the three characters in the game – the protagonist and antagonist – are well-built characters that are also female. The game only makes reference to the protagonist’s gender once, near the end of the game – those unfamiliar with the story from Portal 1 will be unaware that the character they control is female. In this game, gender commands no attention. However, for every Portal the industry teems with games like Batman: Arkham City. In this game, the character Catwoman – one of the two playable characters – wears skintight clothing zipped down in front to reveal her ample cleavage, while the game persistently presents camera angles that pay close attention to both her bust and posterior. The game’s transgressions only begin here, as every time Catwoman encounters a male character (which occurs frequently, making up a majority of the gameplay), they call her “bitch” or make sexual advances, to which she coos provocatively. Unlike Portal, Arkham City has very definite ideas about femininity. Games like Portal 2 are the exception. Unfortunately, games similar to and more belligerent than Batman: Arkham City are establishing and perpetuating the gender tone of the video game industry. Furthermore, this particular game is being marketed to children, whereas others targeting teens and mature gamers are much more violent towards female avatars and the female gamers who attempt to identify with these representations. Tone is what the speaker feels about the reader (Tone 2011); with adolescent males as its explicit market, the vast majority of video games, and thus the industry, clearly states a degrading and dismissive opinion of female gamers.
<8> While there may be games that appear genderless, it is problematic to view these singular instances outside of their context. All video games are part of the larger collective, and are therefore subject to the tone of the industry, especially relating to representations of gender. For example, while Portal 2 may be an excellent game for portraying strong female characters, playing the game from the beginning I automatically assumed I was a male character. Not until the antagonist refers to me as “her” did I once consider the possibility that I was a female character. While this assumption may seem harmless or isolated, it reflects the fact that nearly all controllable characters in video games are male. Female characters are not overly available for gamers to control; and if they are, like Arkham City’s Catwoman, they remind gamers exactly why they exist in the game space at all - to be looked at.
<9> This notion of tone applies to factors outside of the virtual gaming world as well. While further discussion will show how the Nintendo Wii makes great strides towards welcoming new gamers including females, in the context of the gaming industry, gamers and gaming media perceive the Wii as a lesser system that is not for hardcore (read: male) gamers, like the Xbox or PS3 (Ring 2006). Outside of the virtual gaming world, instances like Dead Island, in which part of the game’s source code contains a script titled “Feminist Whore Mode,” reinforce the anti-female attitudes of the gaming world in the real world. A handful of games with no gender references are not enough to undo the damaging effects of such attitudes. Tone and context dramatically alter the intentions and effects of every game, what exists inside those games, and how those games relate to others in the gaming continuum and the people playing them. Although genderless games may exist, male gamers have been the correct way of being, and the entire video game world (both inside and outside of the games themselves) is built for masculine consumption. Assuming female gamers will play games because their avatars wear a pink bows or the game has cartoon characters instead of realistic people is a fallacy; the choice to not play is prescribed, the issues facing female gamers are systemic and need to be treated as such.
No Girls Allowed—
<10> The first symptom of the gender problem plaguing video games is that a female presence is almost completely absent inside games, and not very welcome to enter either. The prevailing attitude in the gaming industry’s early years was stated succinctly by Nintendo when it declared, “Boys are the market” (Carroll 1994). Closing the video game industry to a female presence (reflected in the lack of focus on and availability of female characters) builds a closed system that is hostile towards female gamers, and difficult for them to enter if they so desire.
<11> By specifically targeting male gamers, the gaming industry - that is, producers of games for PCs and home game consoles - ignores the potential its technology has in closing the gender gap. The technology of video games, as will be shown, provides an opportunity to transcend gender boundaries because the virtual spaces of these games are without gender. While common sense suggests that video games, and other realms of technology, are masculine domains, this was not always the case. Huyssen posits that previous, “modernist texts tend to equate machines with women, displacing and projecting fears of overpowering technology onto patriarchal fears of female sexuality” (Huyssen 1981, cited in Springer 1991). This was primarily the case when technology was seen as a threat to the jobs and livelihood of working class men during the onset of the industrial revolution (and again with the advent of computer technology). But now, with technology’s secure foothold as a tool for increased productivity and greater efficiency, masculinity has taken hold and appropriated the threat; technology is now universally accepted as a masculine sphere.
<12> Video games are no exception, promoting this idea that they are meant for men and boys to play. Of the 50 top selling games of the 1990’s, 12 games did not explicitly feature a male protagonist (these games were either racing games, or ones that had animals or other creatures with no specific gender in lieu of human characters), and only two games had a female protagonist (Mazel 2009). Returning to Oldenzial’s point about toys as socializing tools, the lack of a female presence in these games raises concerns over what boys and girls are learning from playing games in which female representations are absent.
<13> Focusing on designing games primarily for boys creates trouble because, “a particular version of masculinity is socially constructed as the preferred version of masculinity, prestige or status is acquired by conforming to the ‘ideal’ type” (Ingham & Dewar 1999). While the hegemonic masculine identity and subsequent conformity to an ideal version is interminable, the choices of the gaming industry only exacerbate this scenario. The ideal – or prestige – male, emerges out of performance. The determination of a prestige male, as Goode explains, occurs out of performance because:
To perform and be ranked at the highest levels…demands both talent and dedication which only a few can muster. Such ‘heroes’ are given more prestige or admiration because both the level and type of performance are rare and evaluated highly within the relevant group. Most admirers recognize that such performances are possible for only a few (Goode 1978).
Game makers, in their attempts to appeal to male gamers, facilitate the nomination and escalation of the prestige male, by designing games that explicitly display performance and ranking criteria. The majority of video games produced are either combative or competitive (THEESA 2011), mediating the ascension of the ideal male through straightforward victories and defeats. Even less suspect games, such as action and adventure titles, promote this process by way of their seemingly meaningless points system. There is no simpler method of ranking and electing a prestige male than by tabulating and displaying the awe-inspiring “High Score.” The presence of the prestige male causes concern because, “prestige is allocated by acclamation and victimization” (Ingham & Dewar 1999). The victims of this process are those who depart from the hegemonic standard. An example of such victimization is seen in the game Halo and its online play, and the advent of “Halo teabagging.” Wikihow explains this as, “a form of bragging used to humiliate other players you have killed” (2011). Simulating placing one’s crotch onto the face of a downed and defeated player employs a “you’re only gay if you take it” sentiment, homophobic implications, and a subtext of rape suggested by the powerlessness of the victim. In this way, the sexual systems of power and homophobic acts victimize the weaker player while empowering the stronger, prestige player. None stray further from the hegemonic standard – and therefore, are the most likely to be victimized – than female gamers, who, even if they can excel at a particular game, will never be able to reconcile deviating in terms of their gender.
<14> Similarly, the Super Mario franchise reinforces gender stereotypes through a traditional fairytale subtext. The hero, Super Mario, must rescue the helpless Princess Peach, who needs rescuing from a dastardly villain. This theme reoccurs throughout the ethos of video games; the trope reifies the meekness of the female form and its dependence on masculinity as a savior. In the end, these concerns about the subjugation of identities that differ from the prescribed standard are what render hegemonic masculinity a hazard, and more importantly, are the reasons why a greater presence of female characters in video games is necessary.
<15> The blog Fat, Ugly, or Slutty voices - in an attempt to negate - negative, degrading, and violent comments targeting female gamers during online gameplay (Fat, Ugly, or Slutty 2011). The comments the site relays are so frequent and encompass such a diverse range of anti-female sentiments, that the creators of the blog have divided the insults into categories such as Fat, Sandwich Making 101, Death Threats, Unprovoked Rage, X-Rated, etc. The comments vary widely, but an underlying theme emerges among them: females do not belong here (in gaming). While this site relays only a small portion of online interactions, these comments nonetheless reveal violence towards females specific to this medium of games. There is no toleration for such violent and discriminatory behavior anywhere else in society, so why does it exist and proliferate in the context of video games and gameplay? Christensen observes that male gamers in the bodiless realm of cyberspace, mimic real life, “not only by taking on the physical attributes of strength, but also by using ways of talk that emphasize aggression and sexual dominance” (2006). This systematic victimization of female gamers allows the forces of masculinity to entrench themselves in the gaming arena, while female representations and other affirmations of their acceptance in the world of video games are almost completely absent.
<16> In socially constructing a discourse of male-identity for video games, the gender-neutral technology loses its neutrality. As Hall notes, “since we can only have a knowledge of things if they have a meaning, it is discourse – not the things-in-themselves – which produces knowledge” (1997). This returns to similar concerns over the threat of hegemonic masculinity. As Ouellette explains, “dominant discourses dictate the questions by which they are then scrutinized” (Ouellette 2007). Super Mario and other platform games of the 80’s and 90’s are a perfect example of this, because their main characters were exclusively male. Not allowing game players a choice in gender naturalized masculine heroes as the default standard - females were not heroes, but, as is the case with Princess Peach of the Super Mario games, victims in need of saving. Consequently, this has shaped the industry for years, because, as Connell observes, “by linking objects with masculine imagery, you define the object as a domain of masculine power” (Connell 1995). Linking games to masculine imagery, as video games have, places video games unquestionably in the masculine sphere of public discourse to such a degree, that it becomes virtually impossible to challenge this idea.
—Unless She Looks Like Barbie
<17> With young boys occupying the entire attention of the industry, video games focus on what Jenkins refers to as “boy culture,” or “male gendered play spaces” (Jenkins 1998). These games either ignore females completely, or return to traditional, degrading, fairytale archetypes in which heroic males come to the aid of helpless females – albeit with egregiously exaggerated physiques. Games have evolved since the 1980’s to include a larger female presence; however, these games include a female presence almost only to placate the male gaze.
<18> In the 1980’s, Nintendo’s Metroid series introduces a character that could have redefined how gender and video games intersect. Samus Aran, a tough bounty hunter, complete with full body armor and a helmet, was a hit with gamers. It is only after completing the game that Samas remover her armor and the player learns she is actually female. With such a coup, Nintendo had an opportunity to shatter gender boundaries. Instead, after the game ends, Samus removes her armor to stand before players in a scant bikini boasting a curvaceous figure. Nintendo’s motivation to make or reveal Samus as a female remains unclear; however, what is know is that Nintendo fell into the second unquestioned dominant discourse in video games: females within the game are objects of the (male) gamer’s gaze. This sets video games up as a space where masculinity can flourish, because it is regarded as the norm - the default game player, and the default protagonist - and where female form will be subordinated because it is deviant.
<19> By now, Lara Croft’s outlandish curvaceous figure needs no introduction, nor does the attention she draws from the adolescent boys that make up the majority of her, and most of that generation’s, gaming audience. Perhaps the inclusion of any female character, regardless of how unrealistic her proportions are, progressively steps the female gamer movement forward. However, these bodacious female figures are not so much pioneers as they are victims of Mulvey’s “gaze” (2002). Mulvey bases her concept of the gaze on Freud’s notion of scopophilia, in which the (male) viewer takes other (female) people as objects that they can then subject to a controlling gaze to satisfy instinctually sexual needs (Mulvey 2002). Lara Croft exists as a form of subversive agency. In regards to Dennis Rodman’s non-hetero behaviours, Lafrance and Rail note that he, “invite(s) status quo readers to imagine that they too can consume images of difference, participate in the sexual practices depicted, and yet remain untouched – unchanged” (2001). The level of separation between the player and the game’s Lara Croft character provides players with a safe distance from which to consume her, without fear of identifying with or being “changed” by her. Instead of being a place of identification, Lara Croft is appropriated, consumed, and ultimately subjected to the gaze of her male viewers. Even more problematic, Lara Croft allows the game players, “to engage with acceptable and marketable forms of difference while residing unchallenged and unchanged” (Lafrance & Rail 2001). As a result, Lara Croft does not challenge, but instead reinforces “regimes of the normal.” Rather than being the embodiment of female gamers wishing to overthrow the existing male oppression, Lara Croft is a figure of that very system, created solely for the consumption of its masculine patrons and the continued suppression of femininity.
<20> Unfortunately, while Lara Croft is one of the industry’s first prominent female characters, she did little more than usher in a plague of unrealistically proportioned cyber-bimbos, which ran rampant throughout the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Brownmiller observes that, “genetic differences among women are rife…yet nearly every civilization has sought to impose a uniform shape upon the female body” (1984). Large-chested, thin-waisted feminine ideals in video games existed as early as the revelation of Samus Aran’s curvaceous figure in Metroid in the 1980’s. While the list of female characters in the 1990’s is much longer than it was in the 1980’s, their characteristics - physical proportions - are eerily similar. Perhaps the lowest point for female gamers is the Dead or Alive (DOA) series, which is full of scantily clad female characters. The original game went so far as to include an option that allows players to control whether or not the giant breasts of the female characters bounce during game play. The series is capped off by its Xtreme Beach Volleyball game, consisting of an original cast of 8 bikini toting virtual vixens. These female characters function only to reinforce the current standard of beauty that all women are held to; a standard agreed upon and enforced solely by a masculine gaze. These depictions create difficulty in inviting females into the sphere of video games, which is already prescribed as a male domain, because such representations reinforce the masculine ideals that currently oppress the female form and femininity in the real world.
<21> The threat these games pose towards femininity is not purely physical. A more subtle, yet equally damaging example presents itself in Jill Valentine, of the Resident Evil video game series (Capcom 1996). Jill Valentine, along with her male compatriot Chris Redfield, are two members of a special ops team that must investigate the mysterious happenings in Raccoon City, and are the game’s two playable characters. While Jill is a fairly attractive character, her transgressions exist much deeper in her character construction.
<22> Of the two playable characters in Resident Evil, Jill is blatantly constructed as the weaker one. Compared to Chris, Jill runs slower, takes less damage, and carries more ammo and weapons to compensate for the apparent shortfalls of being female. Brownmiller explains that such decisions are deliberate to appeal to male viewers, suggesting that, “feminine armor is never metal or muscle but, paradoxically, an exaggeration of physical vulnerability that is reassuring (unthreatening) to men” (Brownmiller 1984). While at first it may seem illogical to need such reassurance in a virtual world, the intentions are clearer after realizing that Jill’s vulnerability is not being contrasted against the abilities of the game player, but with those of her virtual partner Chris. The game player views Jill from a safe distance; however, she would become threatening to the myth of masculinity if her skills and physical presence matched, or surpassed, those of Chris – for this reason she must be abated. Highly sexualized characters such as Lara Croft are rampant in contemporary video games, so much so, that they are naturalized and their destructive capabilities get disregarded. Jill Valentine, however, demonstrates that female characters are not always explicitly, but are ubiquitously, on a mission to subjugate femininity in video games.
<23> What exist are games that cater to male gamers, with the presence or representation of females, if any exist, constructed to cater to the dominant male viewer. The need for a female presence in video games is clear. The longer video games continue to marginalize female gamers, the higher the barriers of entry for females become. Furthermore, as Jenkins et al. suggest, the complexity of the issues surrounding video game development is compounded through not only a concern of the consequences of females being neglected in the process, but also what is at stake by their inclusion (1998). At the end of their study in 1998, Cassell et al. determined that there were only two paths available to remedy the “girl gamer” dilemma, and cautioned that while possible, both routes had inherent consequences that were as sinister as the current conditions afflicting female gamers. These authors believe that video games must either compromise their current designs to incorporate the needs of female gamers, risking a backlash from male gamers, or create entirely independent titles specifically geared towards female gamers, ultimately leaving norms unquestioned and ghettoizing female gamers (Cassell & Jenkins 1998). These were the concerns of the Girl Game Movement as they addressed the state of the video game industry over twelve years ago. With an understanding of where the video game industry has come from, it is now important to discuss how the industry is addressing female gamers presently, and how this is changing the landscape for all gamers.
Level 3—I Am Girl Gamer, Hear Me Roar
<24> Is it possible for game makers to navigate the narrow path that winds between these two pitfalls? Not if they continue to follow the same path paved by past game makers - solely targeting adolescent boys, without listening to what the other half of the market is demanding. Currently home video game consoles are in their seventh generation, and with this era comes true signs of change: female gamers are growing in numbers – 45% of home console gamers (Nielsen 2010) and 55% of mobile gamers (LaCapria, 2011) are female – and game makers are not only acknowledging their existence, they are granting these gamers access to a world that used to have a figurative “no girls allowed” sign teetering on the front door. So what has changed? Video game producers and gamers have matured, and in doing so have evolved ways to grant females access to the privileged world of video games and reclaim their identities and the female form.
<25> Females are no longer simply objects in these virtual worlds, but as Lury notes, “subject and object, women are both consumer and consumed, consumers indeed, of themselves (as commodities)” (Lury 1996, cited in Fraser & Greco 2005). What this latest generation of games allows female gamers to consume is identity, vis-à-vis female avatars. Just as the female avatar was the contested site of previous gaming generations, it once again surfaces as the focal point of the gaming audience’s consumption, except this time the audience is female (in addition to male). As Bowlby describes, “Consumer culture transforms the narcissistic mirror into a shop window, the glass which reflects an idealized image of the woman (or man) who stands before it, in the form of the model she could buy or become…through the glass, the woman sees what she wants and what she wants to be (Bowlby 1985). The “mirror” of Bowlby’s example is now no longer a shop window, but a video game screen, in which female gamers see different female (and even male) avatars they wish to buy and become.
<26> This brings to light two necessities for current video games: female avatars must be available, and they must be desirable (ideal) to female gamers. While older games do provide female avatars, they lack the latter quality – identifiable and ideal images that female gamers want. This concept of identity is crucial for females entering the virtual worlds of video games. Negrin’s notions about cosmetic surgery being understood as a necessity not only for outward expressions of self, but also for internal identifications and reaffirmations of self, also applies to female gamers and their avatars. She contends that, “in a context where there no longer exist shared systems of meaning which construct and sustain existential and ontological certainties residing outside of the self, individuals have turned towards the body as a foundation on which to reconstruct a reliable sense of self” (Negrin 2002). In no place is this truer than the bodiless, genderless virtual space that exists in video games. In this arena, identity is nonexistent. The avatar is the “body” that allows female gamers to create a sense of self that they can identify with and then project into this space. It is evident then, that the appropriate use of female avatars is vital in attracting female gamers and satisfying their need for identification. Unfortunately, until only recently, the choices available for female gamers have been severely limiting. More recent games and their female avatars are succeeding where many previous attempts did fail.
<27> Bethesda Softworks’ title WET (Bethesda 2009), introduces the character of Rubi Malone, a “wetwork” specialist (aka an assassin for hire, and the inspiration for the game’s title). While at first glance Rubi might appear to be yet another Lara Croft clone, after spending some time with her it is clear that this is no further from the truth. While Rubi is female, her gender does not affect the gameplay or the gaming experience. Her slender, lithe figure maintains a firm grip in reality with respect to her proportions, and is designed for function when considering the acrobatic nature of her character and the game play. Rubi’s tough leather jacket, combat-boots, and extra large guns strapped to her hips, further dampen her sexuality while stressing her purpose. Her appearance does not say “Look at me”, but rather “Look at what I’m going to do.” There is no mistaking that Rubi Malone is transgressing the males-only sphere of action-game heroes, and is donning the appropriate attire. She achieves a perfect balance, avoiding the trap similar gender-role transgressors often fall into, which is becoming overly masculinized and sacrificing female identification.
<28> With an 18+ Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), responsible for rating the content of video games, vulgar language is rampant, and some the enemies she faces refer to her as a “bitch.” While this can be read immediately as an affront to femininity, the point of view of the game allows the game player to identify with Rubi (Clover 1992), and in doing so, invests the player with the desire and ability to vanquish Rubi’s oppressors. In this way, the game player privileges Rubi’s visible difference. This is a tactic, as Walker finds, “in which participants often symbolize their demands for social justice by celebrating visual signifiers of difference that have historically targeted them for discrimination” (1993, cited in Fraser & Greco 2005). Thus, the game appropriates the term “bitch”, which historically has been used to refer to women that act contrary to the social norm, and uses it to empower Rubi and her controller. Unlike Lara Croft’s shortcoming as a “final girl” (Clover 1992), Rubi Malone destabilizes current ideas of masculine dominance. This is because, unlike Jill Valentine, Rubi is in all ways equal to her male action game counterparts, and takes game players through numerous levels of her out-witting, out-shooting, and out-killing countless male adversaries. In this way, WET is also no different than its fellow action video game titles, save for the fact that the main protagonist is female – and steers clear of Cassell and Jenkins’ assumptions that games must be compromised in order to be inclusive of female gamers. Rubi in no way detracts from the male gamer’s experience, as WET offers the same level of action and excitement as other action titles, while drawing minimal attention to the fact that Rubi Malone is not male. WET’s Rubi Malone is the embodiment of female gamers, who question the norm and decree that they can do anything the boys can do.
Mii and the Nintendo Wii
<29> The Nintendo Wii is a video game system designed with simplicity in mind, in order to make the gaming experience less intimidating and more intuitive. Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s President and CEO explains the grand vision of the gaming console, saying, “we’re not thinking of fighting Sony, but about how many people we can get to play games. We are battling the indifference of people who have no interest in videogames” (O’Brien 2007). It is this type of vision that is driving Nintendo, and allowing the Wii to redefine what video games are and who plays them.
<30> While the hardware of the Wii is impressive, the Wii’s games are where Nintendo’s newest console truly shines as a haven for female gamers. De Castell and Bryson observe that, “girls and women live, paradoxically, in a state of intimate connection with technologies while finding themselves represented as perennially inadequate” (1998). This representation of inadequacy is problematic because it stops female gamers from fully identifying with their onscreen personas. The Wii reconciles this issue of identity by placing the responsibility of developing a digital representation into the hands of the gamer.
<31> Upon playing the Wii for the first time, the system will ask the player to create a “Mii” (pronounced ‘me’). This Mii is the player’s avatar, and their representation in the Wii world. After creating their Mii, a gamer will be able to use it while playing a number of the Wii’s games, rather than selecting from a limited number of pre-created characters that is typical of traditional games. What empowers the Mii creation process is its extensive level of choice. There are thousands of possible combinations, with users being able to choose from a multitude of differently shaped eyes, ears, noses, and mouths, as well as skin tones, hairstyles, and accessories. In addition, users can adjust both the height and body size of their Miis, allowing them to create a somewhat accurate reflection of themselves. This abundance of choice satisfies Brownmiller’s critique that society attempts to force feminine identities into a single form; the Miis allow female gamers to freely embrace and celebrate difference.
<32> Despite all of the details, the Miis maintain a cartoonish quality that is traditional of Nintendo, resulting in avatars that are more or less caricatures of their respective gamers. However, the response elicited from users is constant; when designing and viewing their Miis, game players contentedly exclaim, “that is me” (Hinkle 2007). Regardless of the design choices gamers make, all Miis perform exactly in the same manner during gameplay, which speaks directly to Jenkins’ point about males and females being able to compete directly in these digital worlds because they exist beyond the limitations of the body. The Wii creates an experience where female gamers can easily identify with their onscreen manifestations. The results are evident, as 80% of female console gamers are playing the Nintendo Wii (Meloni 2010). While Kim (Kim 2009), refers to the popularity of MMO’s among female gamers being attributable to their use of exploration and socializing themes, it is interesting to note that many of these games offer similar options to create and customize player avatars. While it is wise to continue to explore the link between female gamers and the themes of particular games, it is also prudent not to overlook how these gamers are able to identify with their video game reflections.
<33> Both Rubi Malone and the Nintendo Wii demonstrate that reimagining the role and depiction of females in video games does not require sacrifice. Both products present strong sales figures and reviews from video game media. These products show that presenting relatable onscreen representations will not detract from the playing experience of male gamers, but welcome female gamers who have until now been remiss.
<34> Nintendo’s Wii signals a philosophical shift that reaches beyond the company and into the entire industry. Boys are no longer the market; there is only the video game market. The fallacy in Cassell and Jenkins’ line of thinking was the failure to acknowledge that females would want to play video games – which lead to their presumption that only two imperfect conclusions exist to draw in female gamers. Commanding nearly half of the gaming market today, it is clear that females wish to play. The question facing gaming companies is not whether to reach out to female gamers, but how to reach them.
<35> Galloway suggests, “artists should create new grammars of action, not simply new grammars of visuality. They should create alternative algorithms. They should reinvent the architectural flow of play and the game’s position in the world, not just its maps and characters” (Galloway, 2006). To this point, female gamers should not be forced into the molds of existing games at one cost or another – with the infinite realm of possibilities that this technology presents, it is more a matter of reimagining video games to appeal to gamers male and female alike.
<36> A second representative of seventh generation video game heroines is Faith, the star of Electronic Arts’ Mirror’s Edge (EA 2008) – a vital agent of an underground movement that runs information between people, in hopes of overthrowing an oppressive regime. The game is seen from a first-person perspective, through Faith’s eyes, and the basic goal is to run between specific points, avoiding obstacles and members of the oppressive government agency, in order to fulfill your missions.
<37> Faith is a slender, almost androgynous figure, which, like Rubi Malone, is an athletic body purposefully built. While Trujillo suggests the athletic body is an ideology to serve hegemonic masculinity (Trujillo 1995), Mirror’s Edge denies this possibility through its first-person perspective. This viewpoint negates reading Faith’s athletic body as an instrument, weapon, and object of the gaze – the elements Trujillo finds work as tools of the dominant discourse – by removing the body from the game, and thus denying any reading of that body. Seeing the game world through Faith’s eyes also dramatically enhances identification with the character. The end result is a female character that is easy to identify with, and also works to break down gender barriers by providing a body that is able to compete equally with male characters in the game’s challenges. Jenkins states that, “girls may compete more directly and aggressively with boys in the video game arena than would ever have been possible in the real-world of backyard play, since differences in actual size, strength, and agility have no effect on the outcome of the game” (Jenkins 1998). This video game effectively uses such advantages of the gaming medium to their fullest potential with respect to abolishing gender difference. Unlike previous games, Mirror’s Edge sheds socially constructed notions of gender disparity, rather than reaffirming them, and instead makes no distinction between its male and female characters; and, for that matter, its male and female players.
<38> In addition to rearranging how game players see (or do not see) the game’s central character, Mirror’s Edge also repurposes the game. As Thompson and Holt observe, “sports and sport media are often characterized as patriarchal training grounds where boys and men are socialized in masculine ideals of toughness, competitiveness, [and] killer instincts” (Thompson & Holt 2004). As mentioned, these same observations of socializing patriarchal objectives are applicable to video games. However, by changing the intended purposes and goals of video games, it is possible to change their socializing effects – which is precisely what Mirror’s Edge does. The focus of the game is less on action, and more on adventure, encouraging players to reach their goals with minimal amounts of violence. The game rewards players that can complete levels and the entire game without shooting a single enemy. In this way, Mirror’s Edge provides the traditional elements of action games, but redefines the challenge in order to remove the underlying patriarchal socializing elements present in the game.
Angry Birds & Mobile Gaming
<39> The mobile game Angry Birds takes the lesson of redesigning the architectural flow of games to heart, redefining its purpose as a game and the goals of contemporary players, to reach a wider gaming audience. The game presents a basic storyline: angry birds must attempt to retrieve stolen eggs from hungry green pigs. That is all. There is no further plot or character development in the game. It features even more simplistic game mechanics, as players only need to slide their finger to control a slingshot that fires birds across the screen. That is the gist of Angry Birds. The sparse narrative leaves little room for issues of gender, unlike more epic games that engage players through the development of story lines and characters. Instead, the game focuses on a large number of small puzzles, which can be played in small amounts of time, and draws players back with simplistic gameplay that has been noted in multiple studies as being highly addictive. Referring to the addictive gameplay, one usability consultant finds: “Over the past 10 years, our firm has conducted user engagement studies on hundreds of user interfaces. The vast number did not get one principle right, much less six. You go Birds!” (Mauro, 2011). Instead of encouraging play through the use of a narrative and the need to complete a game, Angry Birds, as with many mobile social games, draws players back with fun and addictive gameplay. With total downloads surpassing 500 million and over 200 million total minutes spent per day playing worldwide (Hamburger, 2011), Angry Birds is one of the most successful video game franchises in history as a direct result of its simple yet engaging user interface, and lack of gaming narrative.
<40> To this end, Mobile Gaming is changing how players perceive games and the value they provide; games are returning to earlier incarnations as challenges of skill and thinking, and away from current forms relying heavily on a narrative structure. As Crocco suggests, “games, like other cultural artifacts, reify hegemonic assumptions about the world” (2011). By peeling back the complexity of their narratives, mobile games like Angry Birds are removing these “cultural artifacts”; this change, and the consequent removal of cultural and hegemonic artifacts, is increasing the appeal of these games past traditional (male) game players. While girls were not quick to adopt traditional “boys-only” video games of the past, 55% of mobile and social gamers are currently female. James Wallis, a designer of social mobile games, suggests that,
(traditional game makers) are fools who have been designing the wrong sort of games. If the success of Facebook games proves anything it’s that there has always been a massive market for games, they’ve just been waiting for the right game to come along. (Alderman, 2011)
To his point, females between the ages of 35-44 are currently the largest group of gamers (LaCapria, 2011); this is the same group of women that, in the 1980’s, would have fit into the target market for Nintendo’s video game console – if their market had not been for “boys only.”
<41> Clearly, the direction mobile gaming is taking is precisely what Galloway had in mind when suggesting that games require a “new architectural flow”, and the resulting impact on video games and their players is proof that this idea of redesigning how games work is crucial in appealing to female gamers. The fluid nature and vast potential of video game technology demonstrates that female gamers are not doomed to the bonds of “boy games”; by redefining the nature of video games, it is possible to locate new paradigms of gaming that appeal to male and female gamers equally.
Level 5—The Game is Not Over Yet
<42> To reach female gamers, video games need to foster appropriate representations of women with which female gamers can identify, and explore different gaming architectures. New representations of characters and designs of games will invite females into the folds of gaming by clearly signifying that video games are not for boys only, but are a platform where both males and females can play on equal terms. In this way, video games can create appeal for female gamers, while they simultaneously avoid repeating discourses of subjugation and slipping into the “pink ghettos” of female stereotypes that Cassell et al. cautioned about. These issues of inclusion and exclusion do not only apply to male and female gamers, but also extend to include gamers of all gender, sexual, and racial identities. The more video games are able to offer appropriate representations of groups outside the dominant masculine ideal, the more these “deviant” identities become associated with the regimes of truth that society accepts, and the greater the acceptance these groups show towards video games. Similarly, moving past staid video game designs and pushing the boundaries of the technology towards its fundamental ability to bridge gaps of difference, will create new frontiers of gaming that will be more inclusionary than exclusionary. The result is a win-win – female and male gamers can play games that are fun without any sacrifice, while game makers reap the financial reward of appealing to a market double in size.
<43> With an increasing spectacularization of the self, manifesting itself in reality television and more recently social media, people are craving greater ways to express themselves, and participate in the shaping of their media. The issue of identity does not restrict itself to video games alone. The more technology allows people to express themselves, the more they desire means and locations to project their identities. Gone are the days when men and woman, boy and girls, were told who they were supposed to be. Today’s individual has a strong understanding of who she (or he) is, and what products contribute to her constructing her sense of self. In order to appeal to such an individual, it is important to not only understand who they are, but what they are consuming, why, and what that says about them. “You are what you eat” is no longer applicable to today’s consumer; instead, the contemporary consumer only eats what they are.
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