A Matter of Assumption

I was talking to a colleague the other day, and he mentioned “I don’t know any women who play games.”

My first thought was “Really…?” My second thought was “Have you ever asked them?”

I thought that we’d be out of this mindset by now.  And fortunately, we’re getting there.  But the fact that I’ve heard this twice in the past week shows we’ve still got a way to go.

The assumption that women don’t play video games is a pervasive one, even when studies refute it. In my experience, women are assumed not to play unless they first give some outward indication otherwise. This doesn’t seem to be the case with men. Over the years, at school and at work, I’ve regularly heard men ask other men they’ve recently met if they play games or if they’ve ever played a certain game, but I rarely hear men ask women these questions (or, admittedly, hear women ask other women) unless the women has previously established that she plays video games.

For me, this started sometime around the early 90s, when I was entering middle school. It was the SNES/Genesis era, and game marketing was definitely skewing more male. It was getting harder to find people to talk about games with, especially for a shy kid like me. Occasionally I’d work up the guts to talk about games with my classmates, but I was never really actively invited to join the conversation the way the boys were.

I distinctly remember being in 7th grade and working on a class project with my sister and some male classmates. This was at the height of the Mortal Kombat controversy, and our classmates were talking about the game. At one point, one of them looked at my sister and me and asked, “Have you ever heard of Mortal Kombat?” I’ll give him credit for asking and not leaving us out of the conversation completely, but I remember my sister being pretty offended by the question (because, come on… in 1993/1994 what middle school kid hadn’t heard of Mortal Kombat?). There was nothing malicious about the question, but the way the topic was approached was to assume the boys in the class were familiar with the game and assume the girls were not.

Perhaps part of the problem was that middle school girls were less likely to bring up their gaming habits publicly, as well. I had one friend around that time who I would hang out and watch movies and play video games with, but I didn’t even realize she had an SNES until I saw one sitting in her room while going over to her house one day. She enjoyed playing games just as much as any of my male friends, but never really talked about it in school.

I saw this repeated up through college, as well. In a lot of my college classes, men outnumbered the women in the class. (On more than one occasion, I was the only woman in a given class.) Considering my field of study, games were a common topic of conversation in class, but one that was discussed over and around me, never being invited to join in. I remember one time overhearing some classmates discussing an upcoming game and getting a number of facts wrong until my nerd rage kicked in, and I couldn’t help but go over and correct them. Things changed after that, but I had to take the initiative. And that’s usually how it goes.

When I do start talking to guys (and girls!) about games, they tend to be very receptive to it and happy to talk games with me going forward. And that’s great! But the problem remains that, by default, people tend to assume that men play games and women do not. (Though maybe recently it’s been more like, “men play ‘real’ games and women play Facebook/mobile games.” But that’s another discussion.)

I think that’s part of why, sometime in the early 2000’s, the emergence of the “gamer” identity had some appeal. If you wore a t-shirt with the Konami Code on it, it took some of the guesswork out of who would be most receptive to discussing the finer points of Pikmin or your Unreal Tournament mod. It gave you that instant connection and made socialization a little bit easier. And that goes for both men and women. Honestly, it’s a crutch I still rely on today. I imagine the bulk of my casual wardrobe is probably game-related t-shirts. My cubicle at work could possibly be mistaken for a shrine to Super Mario Bros. And those things work very well as conversation-starters. I’ve talked Zelda with the girl at the register at McDonald’s and geeked out over Koopa Kids with a woman in a business suit who happened to wander past my cube.

But not everyone is going to wear their gaming habits on their sleeve. Let’s face it, the “gamer” stereotype is not doing us any favors right now. A lot of women (and some men, too) play games regularly but don’t want to be judged and associated with the negative connotations of that cultural identity. Some women may be embarrassed to admit that they spend 6 hours after work every night playing World of Warcraft. A woman who exclusively plays Angry Birds may be told that her gaming habits “don’t count,” though you probably wouldn’t hear the same about someone who exclusively plays a 20 year-old copy of Street Fighter II. Some women may play a variety of games regularly but just don’t tie that into their identity in a way that’s obvious simply by looking at them. Some women love to talk about games, but don’t want to invite interrogation by men on a witch hunt for the elusive “Fake Geek Girl.” (Don’t even get me started…)

So, while it seems that, in general, society is becoming more accepting of women who game, people still walk around with the default assumption that “men probably do, women probably don’t” until proven otherwise. But do yourself a favor and invite more women into your gaming discussions. If they’re not interested, that’s fine. Not everyone is going to be. But you might just be surprised.

Reclaiming the Ordinary

I admit I never thought I’d be compelled to write about life growing up as a girl who happened to love video games. My experiences have not been particularly interesting or unusual or exciting in the grand scheme of things, and I’m sure they weren’t too far off from a lot of other kids growing up in the 80’s and 90’s who fell hopelessly in love with the medium. It was something that spoke to me in a way that nothing else did. Video games served as both a social and solitary experience. They were a way to bond as a family, a way to live in another world, a way to express myself. And video games mattered to me. The games, the characters, the art, the worlds, the people who made them, the people who wrote about them, they all mattered to me, and I wanted to be a part of it. More than anything, I wanted to be a part of it.  

And I was. I am.  

Video games matter to me. But over the past week, more than in the past three decades of my life, I’ve been told that I don’t matter to video games.  

In the past week, I’ve been approached by friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and strangers who have all questioned not just my role in all this, but that of my entire gender. I was told, flat out, that I was not worth marketing to because I am in the minority.  I have been told that characters that I can relate to are not worth investing in because there is nothing wrong with the status quo. I’ve been asked why people are making a big deal of all of this. I have probably lost (or at least challenged) some friendships this week for speaking my mind openly and honestly instead of giving them what they wanted to hear.  

The message was that I didn’t matter. Women don’t matter. It doesn’t matter that we now make up nearly half of all people who play video games, because it’s assumed we’re not playing the “real” video games. You know, the “important” ones. Or we’re not playing them “hardcore” enough. We’re not worthy of them. 

I thought it was kind of funny hearing that I wasn’t worth marketing to because of my “minority” status, considering I wasn’t even aware of that status for a good decade after I had started playing games.  

My first game console (and, technically, first computer) was an Atari 800XL. I was probably two or three years old when we got it. Both of my parents played it regularly. I remember my mom’s epic runs in Ms. Pac-Man and my dad dabbling in programming little text-based games on it. I remember sneaking into my parents’ room to play Kaboom with my sister on a 5-inch black and white TV. I remember playing Super Mario Bros. for the first time at a (female) neighbor’s house. When we got our own NES, I remember timing my mom’s speed runs in Super Mario Bros. and watching my dad try to beat Final Fantasy with a party of all white mages. I remember playing Zelda with my mom and my sister and my little brother and my mom drawing out the map as we went. My immediate family had a 50/50 gender split, and we all played games, so I never had any reason to associate gaming with one gender or the other. I remember taking my Nintendo Power magazines to elementary school and discussing them with friends during recess, and no one ever questioned it. I talked to both male and female friends about games and never felt excluded.

Then the 90’s happened, but that’s another story.  

Anyway, I had no idea that games weren’t supposed to be “for me” until marketing started to spin it that way. And then suddenly attitudes changed about it. But I never stopped loving games, even when they stopped marketing them to me. Even when the marketing actively excluded me. And I know now that I wasn’t alone.  

Those pre-internet years of the early to mid-90’s could be lonely for a game-obsessed teenage girl. I felt an immeasurable appreciation for the other young women who sent in letters and artwork to game magazines back then. We were out there, even if we weren’t being recognized.  And then the internet happened, and we started to find each other. And then conventions happened, and we started to meet each other. And then I started attending industry events, and I found my people.  And every year, more and more of us rise to the surface. But our voices are still quiet. Not because we don’t have a lot to say, but because there’s still a lot to have to shout over.  

How many more voices would we have if we didn’t have to shout? If we weren’t still being actively excluded, even after all this time?  If the woman who loves to curl up with her laptop and a good adventure game was heard as loudly as the man whose console collects dust until the next Call of Duty release. We’re out there. We matter.  

I want to talk about some of my experiences growing up from a little girl to a woman who still loves video games specifically because that experience is NOT unusual. I want to hear other women’s stories, as well.  We’re here, and we’ve been here all along, and that needs to stop surprising people. We need to stop being considered “exceptions” and start being recognized as part of this industry and part of this culture with equal voices and deserving of equal respect. We need to matter to games as much as the games we love matter to us.

In Defense of Princess Peach

As I was browsing the web today, I noticed some conversations pop up about female characters in games, citing positive and negative examples. While the positives are easy to get behind, I had to call into question some of the negative examples that were being thrown around—Princess Peach, in particular.

Peach, of course, is a pink-clad princess with a tendency to be kidnapped by evil turtles in hopes of being rescued by heroic plumbers. The classic damsel in distress. That’s a terrible role model for little girls, isn’t it? Shouldn’t we all want to be like Jade or Samus or Alyx Vance?

Well, that’s one way to look at it, I suppose, but I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice by limiting the types of heroines that we consider to be acceptable and by discounting Peach’s influence on young female gamers. While I personally may have grown up the more tomboyish type and usually prefer those types of characters, that’s not to say that there isn’t room for a wider spectrum of female representation. I actually had to stop and ask myself, “Wait, why do I like Peach so much if she wears a frilly pink dress and is always letting herself get kidnapped?” The answer to that question starts with Super Mario Bros. 2.

When I played the original Super Mario Bros., I didn’t think much of Peach, then known in the US as Princess Toadstool. Reaching her was your goal, but the journey belonged to Mario and Luigi. That changed with Super Mario Bros. 2. Suddenly, she was a playable character, and even having the option to play as a female in the 80s was a rarity (prior to that, my experience as playing a female lead had been limited to Ms. Pac-Man… I wouldn’t get to play Metroid until later). As an eight year-old, I was thrilled to finally get to play the princess. With me in control, she wouldn’t be stuck helpless in a castle! And that was the case with Super Mario Bros. 2 and part of why it was one of my favorite games growing up. But sadly, as the core Super Mario Bros. series continued, the player was no longer given control of Peach, and she was doomed to be stuck in that castle again, game after game…

But fortunately for fans of the princess, a variety of Mario spin-off games would once again put Peach in the player’s control and also start to develop her as a character. In Super Mario RPG, following her rescue, Peach wasn’t content to sit idly by and plotted to sneak out of her own castle in order to join Mario in saving the world. In the Paper Mario series, Peach is shown to have a bit of a mischievous side as the player is able to take control of the kidnapped princess, reading Bowser’s diary and generally causing trouble for her captors. In the Super Smash Bros. series, Peach shows herself as a capable fighter, and in the various Mario sports games, Peach can definitely hold her own. And while the possible implications of the “vibe” mechanic in Super Princess Peach could warrant their own article, it was still very gratifying to finally see Peach not only get a starring role in her very own game, but also be the one coming to Mario and Luigi’s rescue.

So, with her alternating roles as damsel in distress and spunky, self-reliant hero, it’s easy to see how gamers are often left feeling torn over whether or not Peach is setting a positive example. In my opinion, she is, as long as she is being controlled by the player. A player-controlled Peach is no longer a helpless damsel. She is easily set up to be a role model for little girls who were raised on Disney princesses, letting them (and maybe more importantly, their parents) know that video games are not just a boy’s domain and that they are being welcomed and encouraged to play as well. While gender diversity among both gamers and video game protagonists has vastly improved since I was a kid in the 80s, there’s still a larger audience to reach. We need to capture the attention of those who want to play an armored bounty hunter like Samus Aran, a stoic soldier like Lightning, a voluptuous adventurer like Lara Croft, or a spunky little princess like Peach. She’s still got a long way to go in her non-playable roles (and I don’t know if I’ve ever been so disappointed in Nintendo as I am for eliminating Peach as a playable character in New Super Mario Bros. Wii over something as silly as dress physics), but every time I see a little girl in Toys R Us pointing emphatically at Super Princess Peach, I figure she must be doing something right. I can only hope that someday we’ll be given another game in the vein of Super Mario Bros. 2 where Peach is given equal status as her overall-clad cohorts.

[2013 Edit:  Super Mario 3D World!  Woooo!]

The Invisible Women of War

I have a fairly lengthy commute to work, and on my commute, I have a tendency to brainstorm ideas for art and games that may or may not ever see the light of day (thanks to spending all of my time driving to and from work instead of drawing and making games, heh).

So, this morning I was mentally revisiting a scenario that I’ve been slowly building on for a couple of months now. I don’t know what the hypothetical end result would be if this ever was to come to fruition (though in my head, I imagined the story being told in comic book-style panels), but I’m hoping that if anything, I’ll at least get a picture of this still-unnamed character I’ve been slowly developing. I won’t go into much detail since it’s still very much a mental work in progress, but I’ll just say that the main character is a woman who either has a military background or has at least been thrown into a battlefield situation by circumstance.

So, maybe that’s why this article caught my eye as I was checking my e-mail this morning:

Back from combat, women struggle for acceptance (Kimberly Hefling, Associated Press)

In this article, Kimberly Hefling writes about the lack of understanding and acceptance of female veterans and how the American public in general does not see them as offering the same level of contribution as their male counterparts–if they are even recognized as veterans at all, rather than being assumed to be another soldier’s wife or girlfriend.

Then later this afternoon, as I was trying to catch up on game news, I happened to come across this article:

Girls Night With the Most Male Game of 2009 (AJ Glasser, Kotaku)

With this article, we have AJ Glasser recount a recent “girls night” with a couple of friends where the trio checked out Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to see “what all the fuss was about.” The women finished the game and ultimately loved it, but still concluded that it was sexist. Not so much on the grounds that it was a war game, or a “typical male fantasy,” but because there was next to no female representation in the game. Obviously the military is a male-dominated field, and one of the women replied to AJ’s question of if she thought the game would be better with a playable female character with a “no.” She mentioned that she just wanted to see more women in the game.

AJ ends the article with a comment that she just wants developers to give women “room to exist within the male fantasy.” She continues, “I want to imagine myself there with them. I don’t just want to know that women are in the Army by hearing their voices on a radio — I want to see them fighting for their country the way I would if the enemy were at the gates and my country needed me. I want developers to know that I play video games too, so they should pander to me as well as men.”

While I could go on about gender exclusion in video games, this case in particular easily relates back to the earlier article about the invisibility and misunderstanding of real-world military women. Perhaps war games wouldn’t have to be marketed exclusively to men if the world would realize that there are women fighting and dying along side them, even if they’re not typically on the front lines. While female soldiers and fans of war-inspired games may both be in the minority, simply ignoring them is sure to keep them that way. Perhaps adding more female NPCs to Modern Warfare would do little to expand the game’s audience, but at the same time, it could also increase awareness of our female veterans. Could this awareness possibly result in a greater interest among women of these types of games?

Personally, I’m not a big fan of war games. I’m not a big fan of war in real life. But at the same time, war creates some really deep, fascinating stories, because soldiers are people, and these are people in extreme situations. I’ve never played through a Call of Duty game from beginning to end, but every time I sit down to watch someone play, the story starts to suck me in. Would being able to relate to the world help to push me from observer to player?

Regardless, the point is that real women do exist outside of what we consider to be traditional gender roles, and I would like to see this reflected in our fiction, because our fiction can influence our reality. And while I don’t necessarily want to see more women going off to war… well, I don’t really want to see men going off to war either, so that’s a moot point. Despite my personal feelings on war, I have nothing but respect for those people who dedicate themselves to protecting their country, and I would like to see those people get recognition, whether in the real world or in video games, regardless of gender.