On the Topic of Games for Women

In August of 1986, Nintendo released a video game under the title of “Metroid.” It cast players in the role of Samus Aran, a gun-toting super-soldier clad in a futuristic exoskeleton. Each area of the game required fast reflexes, carefully timed actions, and critical thinking in order to progress… and those who completed the entire game in a short enough span of time were presented with a surprise:

Samus Aran was a woman.

This fact has been cited countless times as an example of the inherent sexism in video games. The reveal of Samus Aran as a female came as a surprise because players had allegedly expected someone so capable, strong, and independent to be male. In actuality, though, it seems more likely that the initial shock was caused not by the idea that a woman could be a protagonist, but because male players had come to identify with her over the course of the adventure. The rationale was that since video games were made with young males in mind, they should obviously present an idealized version of masculinity.

Almost thirty years have passed since that supposedly shocking revelation, and video games have grown as a form of entertainment by leaps and bounds. Despite their enormous popularity, though, the mindset that prompted such surprise about Samus Aran has seemingly never shifted, and the perspective that gaming is the domain of adolescent males seems just as prevalent as ever. There have been some forays into creating games with female protagonists, but these are rare exceptions in an industry that apparently still regards males between 17 and 25 to be its core demographic. Furthermore, the games themselves – and the stories they tell – often fail to challenge any but the most rudimentary gender perspectives.

Perhaps the real surprise, then, might be that the number of adult female gamers is significantly larger than the number of young male gamers.

The 2015 Essential Facts Report by the Entertainment Software Association found that more than 40% of the United States’ population regularly plays video games. Of those 128 million people, only 15% are young males, and 33% are adult females. As many as 50% of all American females play video games, and that number is still growing. Even now, women already make up 44% of the entire game-playing audience.

Where, then, are the games designed with women in mind? Where are the attempts at recognizing and capitalizing on that audience?

The idea that adolescent males are the primary audience for video games is apparently still a driving force in game design. Of the 10 most popular titles in 2014, five of them cast players as a grizzled white male, three were sports titles (which featured all-male rosters), and one was a fighting game… and while it was certainly an option to take on the avatar of a female character in that last title, those choices were largely limited to dainty princesses. (Players could also choose to control Samus Aran, but she, too, has had her appearance redesigned to be distinctly more evocative.)

Clearly, there is a market for these games, or else they would not have been as successful. There remains, however, an enormous amount of untapped potential in the industry. What is more, that unrepresented audience is clearly ready to be included: In just under two months, for example, Nintendo’s “Splatoon” – a whimsical shooter in which players are armed with paint – sold over 1.6 million copies. Its success has been largely attributed to the fact that it was designed to be fun and immediately approachable by absolutely anyone, rather than existing as a piece of escapism for teenage boys. Furthermore, the latest iteration of the “Pokémon” games sold close to 10 million copies. Compare that to the 5 million copies that “Mortal Kombat X” (a brutal fighting game featuring scantily clad women and excessively muscled men) was expected to sell this year, and it begins to seem like catering to 15% of one’s total audience might be a bit shortsighted. Granted, women enjoy these games with as much passion and fervor as men, but some of that may be due to a lack of other options. At present, the only “games for women” that receive much in the way of positive attention are those titles which cast players as homemakers or babysitters, and they rarely – if ever – benefit from the production value or development time spent on games featuring gratuitous blood and explosions.

What is more, this dearth of diversity is negatively impacting the industry’s core demographic, as well.

I have been a gamer for my entire life, always eagerly awaiting the next console, the next title, and the next electronic adventure. Throughout that span of time, I have been a solid representative of the industry’s target audience, and the vast majority of triple-A video games (which are the equivalent of big-budget Hollywood movies like “Transformers” or “The Avengers,” with production budgets as high as $500 million) have been made with people like me in mind. I am not seventeen anymore, though, and I am not nearly as interested in watching an idealized version of myself spray bullets at an army of faceless adversaries. I find it irritating when the only female characters in a game are presented as either eye candy or a romantic motivation for the hero. I personally feel like the video game industry is stagnating… but often, when I mention what I would like to see in a video game, I get told that “only girls” would want to play something like that.

Well, so be it. Maybe what I really want is a game written and designed by women.

There is a phrase in popular culture, “passing the Bechdel Test,” which asks whether two women in a piece of fiction talk to one another about anything other than a man. The thought experiment is typically applied to movies and television, but some players and critics of video games have taken to running their own test. In simplest terms, they examine whether or not a female character could be replaced with an inanimate object or a pet. More often than not, the only argument against switching out a dog for the damsel is the fact that a canine companion might be hard-pressed to shout “Booker, catch!” (a catchphrase from a female character in a semi-recent blockbuster video game). Even when these female companions seem to have agency or independence, they still exist only to benefit the player... and any apparent deviations from that standard are short-lived at best.

Female characters in video games almost invariably serve as eye candy (if they’re attractive) or comic relief (if they’re not). They occasionally have other roles to play, but in those rare cases, the aforementioned roles could just as easily be filled by either a trained monkey or a multi-tool. Furthermore – and as with in other forms of fiction – women are often depicted as one of three archetypes: They are either witches, whores, or virgins. There are exceptions, of course… but while a male character’s development might reflect personal growth in an unexpected direction, a female character’s development will more than likely see her becoming more attractive to the protagonist. Even those titles featuring a player-created female protagonist offer an identical (and distinctly masculine) experience as if a male character were cast in her place. Video games suffer from the same issue of “male gaze” that plagues so many forms of art and entertainment, in that the objectivity is defined by a male perspective. As Laura Mulvey put it: Women are looked at; men look.

Where are the women with whom we identify as players? Where are the female characters who stand up to more than passing scrutiny? Where are the female heroes who are not presented as objects of lust?

A moral panic in the 18th century resulted in the claim that women should not read novels. Despite this, women read far more fiction than men. Along similar lines, there exists a still-prevalent sentiment that women are not interested in big-budget video games… and thus, big-budget video games are not made with women in mind. As the numbers show, though, and as sales figures continue to indicate, a title created for a female audience – with the intention of giving females a character with whom they can identify, a story to which they can relate, and gameplay that they find enjoyable – would likely fare incredibly well, provided that it was created as a serious (and well-funded) endeavor.

Furthermore, by taking the step to design games for women – for real women, not an outdated caricature of them – the industry could not only see increased profits, but also contribute to making a positive shift in cultural mindsets about what women can accomplish. We live in an interconnected age, wherein the popularity of even one project can drastically alter the landscape of future ones, and a realistic, sympathetic female protagonist can pave the way for hundreds more. Of course, success of that nature might require video game company executives to enlist the help of female writers and designers… but to my mind, that seems like yet another profound opportunity waiting to be realized.

Photographer & Videographer Credit: Courtesy of Max Patrick Schlienger

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