Exploring the uncharted territory of the gay videogame experience. Here, I explore the female/LGBT presence in videogame culture, media and industry.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

We are here! We are here! We are here!

Women and video games. Two words that don't normally go together. At least, that's how things used to be. Today, women make up a substantial part of the gaming audience. As of June 2009, women made up 28% of console gamers and an astonishing 46.2% of PC gamers (Meagan VanBurkleo "The Gender Gap" GameInformer). Those are mind blowing statistics which beg the question: If women make up such a huge portion of the market, why isn't it reflected in the products? The short and overly simplistic answer: sexist stigma. Don't worry, I'm not going to get all preachy or go around trying to turn everyone into man-hating, super-scary ultra feminists. I'm just offering my observations and conclusions I've drawn.

Someone in the early days of mainstream gaming (somewhere around the NES era) decided that games should be marketed to kids. It made sense; games were often based on children's TV shows/movies and had juvenile themes. Very few catered to the 18+ market. At the same time, and probably by the same person, it was decided that young and adolescent boys were going to be the almost exclusive advertising targets.

Now we have to consider the kinds of games that were being made at the time to understand why that decision was made. Most of the games I remember playing growing up were platformers, shooters and some RPG/strategy games. Platformers like Mario and Sonic appealed to both genders: simple game play/goals, fast pace, bright colors, familiar characters. The others, especially shooters, were consumed almost exclusively by boys. Why?

Two words: evolutionary psychology.

Over hundreds of millions of years, the minds of men and women have been hardwired much differently. Men were usually hunters and needed to be able to navigate by sight, focus on details (tracks, blood, etc) and be able to mentally visualize their position. Women were often left behind while the men hunted so they were wired to gauge/anticipate emotions/reactions, handle social situations, and diffuse tensions.

Hmm...what does that sound like? Sounds a hell of a lot like Call of Duty and The Sims respectively.

Now we know why games were marketed to boys then. And now; especially with the staggering number of FPS titles being vomited out by AAA studios and indie developers alike. With the need to be able to read a map, focus on details and remember where you are/have been/need to go next, it seems that males were bred for gaming.

That's science, not sexism.

Well...yes and no. It's one part science, one part sexism and a huge heaping helping of laziness. Yes, evolution had molded men and women's minds differently, but these rules aren't hard and fast laws. I know several women (myself included) who are very good at reading maps and figuring positions, as well as a lot of men who are socially intuitive.

This evolutionary difference may be one of the elements contributing to the exclusion of women by advertisers and developers, but it's not the biggest. What it all boils down to is good old-fashioned laziness.

Think about it. Which sounds easier to turn into a game: a situation where players must track and neutralize a target within a large, spatial map, or a situation where players must follow several developing story lines centered around different characters in order to achieve a social goal or attain a higher level of emotional fulfillment?

If you said Option A, congratulations. You think like a modern gaming executive.

Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say that Option B is impossible to translate into a game. Just look at Heavy Rain. I'm just saying it is exponentially more difficult and time consuming.

To make a shooter, developers follow a formula in the early stages of making the game. Establish a main enemy to be destroyed at the end. Introduce lesser enemies such as level bosses and hordes of cannon fodder. Place weapons and upgrades at strategic intervals and voila! You ship the next Halo or Gears of War in a matter of just a few years or even months (quality not withstanding).

Games like Heavy Rain are much trickier to make into effective and powerful experiences...let alone market. There were a lot of complaints that Heavy Rain is more like watching a movie that playing a game. Well...there's a reason for that.

Manipulating a social situation is as much about observation as it is interaction. think about it. Communication is much more than words. It's facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.

Say you're at a party and you see two different women. One is standing at ease, smiling and speaking amicably to another person. The other is off by herself, body tense, shoulder hunched; her eyes watch everyone with suspicion and she hardly says a word. Which one would you be more likely to try and strike up a conversation with?

But it's not just visual and audio cues. There are infinite other, more subtle, nuances that contribute to the outcome of social/emotional manipulation. Atmosphere, knowledge, acquaintance, etc.

Those elements, combined with the difficulty of animating convincing expressions and body language, make it much more difficult to produce a game like that. Though, with Rockstar's new motion capture technology used in L.A. Noir, I can see developers taking tentative steps towards making more games that cater to the female psyche.

but what about women who enjoy shooters and other action games? where is their vindication?

Well, that's much easier to solve. Developers must work to include strong, independent female characters that resonate with women today. They must embody a relevance that will sustain them for years; a nobility of character that gives current and future generations of female gamers pride and satisfaction.

This must happen soon if the industry wants to avoid another crash like the one it suffered in '83-'84. Because most of the female characters that exist now are painfully insulting at worst, and shamefully shallow at best.

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