How the politics of gender intersect with cultures of video gaming is something that the Play Till Doomsday project is dedicated to addressing. This is the first in a series of features that aim to elicit perspectives on gender issues that exist within the contemporary mediascape surrounding digital games from girls and women who make, study, play, or report on games.
Of course, this topic has not gone unaddressed in academic spaces, as the wonderful work of Brenda Laurel, Mary Flanagan, Suzanne de Castell and numerous others attests, nor gone ignored in more popular spaces thanks to efforts of writers like Leigh Alexander, sites like WomenGamers.com and organizations like Woman in Games International.
However, it is undeniable that the spaces of gaming culture are not always welcoming and tolerant toward women and girls. This reality is apparent in mainstream game designs that still feature frequently sexualized female stereotypes, the under-representation of women as playable characters, and continued usage of archaic damsel in distress archetypes. Outside these design contentions, the place of women in gaming is also challenged, as highlighted by recent news stories about the limited role of women in game development and the all too recurrent rejection of female voices and judgements within enthusiast games media.
In terms of game development, a new study from the UK suggests that the number of women in the dev workforce in that country is actually shrinking, smaller now than in 2006, and sitting at only 4%. From the enthusiast media sector, G4tv.com’s Abbie Heppe has become the target of many Nintendo fans’ ire after her negative review of Metroid: Other M, with some of the discourse devolving into gender disparaging tirades against her on the forums.
While it is important to highlight such challenges faced by woman and girls who participate in and contribute to gaming culture, the goal of this project’s gender features is to present the voices of people who confront and overcome those challenges in terms of both work and play. At this year’s Fan Expo in Toronto, I spoke with three women who do just that.
Challenging the assumption that there are no hardcore girl gamers is Melissa, who I met just outside Nintendo’s display booth on the main show floor. Among her group of gamer friends, she attracts the most attention, with her bright yellow and kid-friendly Pikachu costume providing a stark contrast to the wave of cursing she projects at her DSi.
“Sorry,” she tells me, “I think my battery is going to die and I’m not done trading Pokémon yet.” She blames spending too much time sharing data in “tag mode” of Dragon Quest IX with her fellow convention goers.
The practices she describes, Pokémon trading and DQIX data sharing, are hardcore gaming practices that, while fairly simple to execute, demand and foster significant investment into the culture of digital games for its most eager enthusiasts. For Melissa, such investment is not impacted by her gender: She’s still gotta catch ‘em all.
“I’ve been playing video games my whole life. I’m 22 now. Sometimes my older relatives like aunts and uncles seem to think it’s weird that I play games, saying ‘that’s for boys’ and ‘that’s for kids’ – stuff like that. I think my parents get it though. They have a Wii now themselves. That’s what’s weird, watching my dad play golf on the Wii!”
When I turn the conversation towards representation of women in games, she responds with a smile.
“T&A. Yeah, it’s everywhere. That’s not just video games. That’s everywhere.”
She tells me she’d like to see more games that de-emphasized sexuality in the portrayal of characters, “but you’re not going to get me to say anything bad about Bayonetta. I really liked that game.”
After I ask about how her male peers react to her gaming, she says they can be awkward sometimes.
“It’s like they’re shocked, you know, to find out that a girl knows what Ratchet and Clank is. Even games where you play as girls, like Bayonetta, sometimes they’re amazed that I’ve played them. I don’t know. I think a lot of guys are just blind to the fact that games might appeal to girls too. And comic books and stuff. There’s a ton of girls here – just look at the cosplay! It’s mostly us.”
Melissa’s enthusiasm is well-placed. The female fan presence, at least on the show floor, seems healthy and diverse, perhaps enough to go against the assumed reality of pop cultural mediascape, even among those who produce it. When speaking with Briana McIvor, one of the hosts and content producers of Greedy Productions’ Electric Playground (EP), she expresses some surprise at the female representation.
“I haven’t been able to go to a big convention like this before myself,” she says. “To see how many women are here… I didn’t expect for it to be like this at all. But it’s a good surprise.”
Part of EP’s array of content delivery options includes a daily television series that acts as a fast-paced, one-stop shop for video game and pop culture news and info.
“When we are making the show, I’m always thinking about who we are doing it for and I’m usually thinking about 18-34 year old guys. So seeing the women and girls here, and realizing that there are female fans for Electric Playground is very exciting and it makes me want to have more programming in the show targeting them.”
McIvor’s colleague , Miri Jedeikin, is more used to seeing a healthy number of girls in the crowd at such exhibitions, with her role as a EP segment producer and co-host of EP’s companion-show Reviews-on-the-Run giving her more experience with events like Fan Expo.
“There are tons of female fans and they have a very powerful voice in the various industries they are here to represent and participate in. Girl fans have a lot of inventive and creative ways to immerse themselves into the culture. It’s nice to see.”
I asked Jedeikin if she, as a reviewer, had ever experienced gender disparaging criticism for a judgment that viewers didn’t like.
“No,” she smiles, “at least, fortunately, not to my face. Most of the responses and feedback I’ve received from fans has been positive… It’s a very constructive environment. I haven’t had any hatred or intolerance towards me for my gender. I think it comes down to being informed, and when you have genuinely informed opinions, it is tough for people not to respect that, regardless of gender. And if they don’t, they need to get their heads checked!”
Both McIvor and Jedeikin take pride in being women working in an industry perceived to be “male centric” whose roles may encourage other girls and women to strive towards similar success.
“I do get girls coming up and asking me how I got my job, or what I recommend that they do to get into the industry,” says Jedeikin. “I think there is an eagerness in a lot of girls to make their mark on video games, comic books, films and TV – and a lot of paths have been trail-blazed for this new generation of girls so they can do so. It’s really fun to see them now excited about this content, and too see what they do with it.”
“It’s good to know that [we’re] inspiring more women to join the industry,” says McIvor, “it’s a good place to be.”
As for Melissa, decked out in her Pikachu cosplay, she didn’t want her last name published for this feature, not for fear of facing social stigma by being outed as a young woman interested in video games, but because she’s a recent college grad who will soon be entering the workforce.
“I have two interviews scheduled for September… I’m worried about them enough as it is, even without thinking that my future boss could google my name and maybe find out that I sometimes dress up like a Pokémon,” she says with a laugh.
“I guess I’m okay with being a girl geek, but not a public geek.”
Even with the lack of parity and equity that affect many of the girls and women making, playing and reporting on games, such a statement should remind us that there are significant challenges within gaming culture that pervade gender, even while being inseparable from it. If it takes the continued mainstreaming of video games to bring about the mainstream acceptance, recognition and celebration of women as a part of game culture, the Play Till Doomsday project plans to be at the forefront of such a strategy.
Stay tuned for more.