I’ve been a gamer now for most of my life–I remember sticking an enormous floppy disk into my drive and loading a game from DOS; I remember playing my first FPS (or “First Person Shooter,” for those in the dark here); and most of all, I remember logging into the massively multiplayer online game (MMO) World of Warcraft for the first time and creating Cressida, the primary character with which I game these days. I named the character after the literary archetype, not the car–a refrain I mutter frequently into my headset to other players.
Here’s the thing: I find I’m muttering it more and more to other women. Ten years ago, my gaming was “cute” to my male friends and family, to whom I was likely their sole example of a “chick who plays games.” Female gamers were few and far between in shooters and RPGs back then. Yet, if you look at the population of gamers today, you see something markedly different. According to a 2010 study by the Entertainment Software Association, 40% of all gamers are female. Let me repeat that: nearly half of all gamers are female.
Not that you’d know this by speaking with video game companies. Not only is the production end of the industry male-dominated, but its games cater disproportionately to men. No, that’s being polite. Its games cater almost exclusively to men. Not every game is as bad as the Duke Nukem series, but the unfriendliness is clear in other ways: the design of character models (Tera has a race in short skirts whose asses are, I kid you not, perpetually tilted up at the screen); the sexist dialogue of cut-scenes and quests; and a malaise about creating a community that’s safe for women. A person might receive a week-long ban for harassing a player about being bad at the game but no punishment whatsoever for threatening to hunt down, rape, and murder another player because she declined his cyber-sex advances.
Nor have designers spent much time or money exploring games that might better appeal to women. I’m not saying women don’t enjoy Modern Warfare, because many do, but it’d be great to see a game that incorporated women into storylines as something more than just a sex toy, Princess Peach, or rape victim. Maybe we ladies want an MMO or FPS that empowers us as much as it empowers men. I don’t want my female character to be the only example in the universe of a woman who can take on fifteen enemy mobs at once and casually smoke a cigarette afterward. And this leads me to ask: in an economy tuned to every growing market, why have video game companies neglected to recognize, well, me?
The male gaming population isn’t much different. Log into a game like WoW and you have two goals as a woman: (1) conceal to all but your most trusted gaming friends, or to those in the presence of those friends, that you’re a woman, and (2) work doubly hard to prove your skill. Fail in either of these areas and prepare to hear publicly and privately from every male with an insatiate libido or low self-esteem. Trust me, they are legion. Long about the fiftieth time I read “TITS OR GTFO,” it got old. The message is this: “You are strange; you do not belong here.”
I’ve noted some positive signs of change in the past few years, however. Bioware, a company responsible for some of the biggest games of the decade (Dragon Age and Mass Effect, just to name a couple) has made leaps and bounds in developing games that acknowledge the existence of lady gamers. A sure sign this move has been a great one is that many male gamers have responded negatively to it. A player, they say, shouldn’t be forced to deal with come-ons from players of the same-sex or storylines designed to appeal to women. It’s unfair, they lament. I won’t copy the official response from a Bioware representative to these complaints, but it was a several-paragraph treatise on the disinclination of those in power to yield any part of it, even if the power they hold is disproportionate. They tossed the word “entitlement” in there a few times, too.
Yet another positive sign: many new games allow players to choose the breast size of their female characters. This change may seem insignificant, but it represents progress. Games have historically allowed its lady characters only bazonga-sized breasts–the sort of breasts that most of us would realistically have reduced before engaging in MMO-style acrobatics. Some worry that players will create even larger-breasted characters, but at least we have a choice now. When I logged into the character creator for Aeon and saw that I could shrink the breasts of my character from a 36EE to a reasonable 36C, well–it made my effing year.
I see video gaming as one of the last bastions of good old-fashioned boys clubbery. And because it’s one of the last, many of these boys are bracing the doors–despite our numbers, despite good money to be made. In a society that trains women to play passively, a female raid-lead, guild-lead, or hell, all-around kick-ass shooter may seem impossible. It may seem unmarketable. But we’re here, we’re doing it, and we’ve been doing it for a long time. We, it turns out, are legion, too.