Beyond the Valley of the Geeks
"When I started out, gaming was a geek thing," says Sean (not his real name), a 38-year-old senior director of product development for a major electronic game publisher. "Now, it's totally mainstream. It's clear there's money to be made."
It's not like there's any nostalgia in his voice. With a six-figure salary and a generous bonus, Sean is one of those making the money. Electronic games—which encompass both computer games and console-based games—generated nearly $10 billion in revenue last year, thanks in part to top-selling titles like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Madden NFL 2005, ESPN NFL 2K5, and NBA Live 2005.
Given the fact that electronic games have their roots in geekdom, the sheer jock/thug appeal of the above-listed games is striking. You'd think that geek boys, having been a) persecuted by jocks and bullies and b) heavily involved in the production of electronic games, might take advantage of the latter to redress the former. But somewhere between Pong and Madden, those geeks began spending their days and nights creating universes in which testosterone rules, in the process reinforcing the gender roles that made their young lives hell.
Gender and Gaming: A Primer
It's a stereotype, but it's based in truth: Despite increasing numbers of female players and women working in game development, electronic games are still largely made for guys, by guys. Of the 145 million people in the U.S. who play video games, 43 percent are female. When it comes to console games (think PlayStation and Xbox), which dominate industry sales, only a quarter of the players are women. Women do, however, make up 60 percent of the 6.3 million purchasers of games played on mobile phones.
As for the people who make the games, U.S. gaming companies are reluctant to disclose their percentage of female employees. But we do know that merely 10 to 15 percent of members of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) are women. In the UK, just 17 percent of electronic gaming workers are female, and only 23 percent of those women have jobs that include designing or having creative input.
Is it always a problem when more males than females engage in a particular activity? More men than women participate in both monster-truck rallies and dealing methamphetamines, for instance, and I haven't seen too many people wringing their hands over that. But one recent argument has succeeded in convincing me that more girls and women should be playing games: Critics such as Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, have cited empirical evidence that playing video games develops our "cognitive muscles." In other words, gaming makes you smarter, according to standardized measures in the areas of problem solving, abstract reasoning, pattern recognition, and spatial logic.
For girls, not having access to a tool for sharpening those aptitudes perpetuates the erosion of their engagement with math and science as academic subjects and career paths; this erosion occurs from childhood through young adulthood, keeping women out of a variety of jobs and public decision-making roles. So unless guys are going to stop playing games—and somehow I just don't see that happening—we have to make sure girls and women do. (And though my focus is on gender, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that the same risk stands for Latinos and African-Americans, who are also underrepresented among game players; and women and girls in these racial/ethnic groups are at especially high risk of being left behind.)
From Dungeon to Stadium
The inception of video games can be traced to William A. Higinbotham, inventor of the precursor to that granddaddy of video games, Pong, in 1958, and quintessential geek. As game development took off in the '70s and '80s, geeks, by definition, possessed the specialized knowledge and mathematical/scientific leanings required to make the games. Their creations included electronic versions of the role-playing games they loved, complete with wizards, forests, princesses, and dungeons and dragons. These were games largely made by and for male geeks. (While there have always been female geeks, their ability to influence game content and design was—and is—limited by minority status. We'll come back to this point later, believe me.)
Throughout the '80s and '90s, as gaming companies developed friendlier, easier-to-use interfaces, investors smelled profit, and marketing, sales, and executive types began steering game companies toward selling as many games to as many people as possible. "The gaming industry, metaphorically, is a nerd that just wants to be popular," says Jason Hart, 28, who worked as a game designer and programmer in the early 2000s. Achieving that popularity involved not only hitting the same geek-boy audiences with new games, but reaching out to more mainstream (male) audiences. It's no coincidence that we've seen a proliferation of sports games (including four of 2004's 10 bestsellers) and games based on movies—like 007 and the soon-to-be-released Godfather—that feature hypermasculine heroes and hyperfeminine accessory characters.
But despite the explosion of games in mainstream culture, games and the makeup of the gaming workforce still point to the industry's roots in the geek-boy experience. To begin to understand why, let's go back to the 1970s, in a midsize city in the Midwest…
This Geek's Life
As early as elementary school, Sean recalls, "I always had bruises on my shoulders and chest, because guys would just come up to me and hit me." By the time he entered high school, it was clear to him that success and popularity were the purview of athletes, and the feeling of being ostracized had a firm place in his psyche.
You'd think the kind of persecution Sean experienced might have led him—and other male geeks who went into game development—to create games that defy jock values and glorify braininess. But instead, they're helping to churn out games in which physically aggressive musclemen are still the winners. Why?
The fact is, most people aren't about changing the system, especially when it comes to our jobs. We tend to look for ways to succeed within the established rules. And for geek boys–turned–game boys, there's been no need to change the system when they can simply shift their roles in such a way as to profit from it.
Geeks have traded on the skills that made them vulnerable to their erstwhile oppressors. Their progression from making games as a hobby to professionally producing top-selling sports and action titles was inevitable: Game-making skills are transferable across genres. If you can make someone look realistic falling into a mile-deep well teeming with electric eels, you can make someone skid across a muddy football field. So it's been easy for executives to move flap A—geeky programming staff—into slot B—sports and action games. When Sean was offered a job with a company that makes massively popular sports games, he didn't think twice before saying yes: "Did I even watch football or know the rules? Absolutely not."
But from the male geek's perspective, making popular games has provided some degree of power over his one-time nemesis. Now the jocks are depending on geeks to provide what they want—football, hot cars, gunplay, and babes. And geeks have been able to outearn them in the process: In 2002, video-game programmers made 39 percent more, on average, than wholesale and manufacturing sales reps ($68,344 versus $49,235, accounting for commissions).
Playing with Girls
In her 2004 report "Why Are There So Few Women in Games?," Lizzie Haines declares that girls of all ages play video games less than boys do, and for the most part they play different games, on different platforms. Women, she says, are more likely to play on the computer, online, on interactive tv, and on their cell phones than on consoles; they also tend to choose games with short play and quick rewards, rather than byzantine universes that require months to learn to navigate. Not surprisingly, many are bored by or uncomfortable with the violent premises of many popular games.
Theoretically, it would be easy to make gaming more attractive to female players by creating different kinds of characters, missions, and settings and testing them with audiences until they hit their mark. But, says Heather Kelley, a 30-year-old game designer for Ubisoft and chair of the IGDA's Women in Game Development Special Interest Group, "it costs more to make games that are different." The fact that the industry has been churning out the same kinds of games for young white males over the past two decades suggests that companies haven't been willing to make that investment.
But they're going to have to do just that if they want to cash in: The Sims, created by a 60 percent female team at Electronic Arts (EA) and played by an audience that is 50 percent female, is widely acknowledged as the number-one bestselling computer game of all time.
Once we have games whose content appeals to women and girls, players have to be able to get that content in an appealing platform. According to Haines's research, that could mean making more games available for mobile devices and computers, both online and off. The industry is already bridging the platform gap with consoles like Xbox Live, which hooks up to a broadband connection. But more desirable content would motivate many female users to migrate to consoles, internet-compatible or not.
Having tackled the issues of mission, characters, and platform, there's one more barrier to increasing the numbers of women and girls who benefit from the cognitive boons of game play: the attraction to games that feature short play and quick rewards. These may not offer the same cognitive workout as those that force the user to invest hours of play just to figure out the rules of the game. I suspect, however, that when girls and women find more games interesting and the characters flattering, they'll be more than willing to play games that take time to pay off.
But after decades of exclusion, will large numbers of girls and women ever feel comfortable enough to play games seriously? "I played games when I was a kid, but I stopped in middle school and didn't start again until I was 24, because gaming was just something boys did," says Kat Hunter. Now, at age 30, she's working to make sure girls don't get edged out of gaming. Hunter competes professionally as one of six Frag Dolls, the all-female game team founded by Ubisoft in the late '90s. She's part of a movement of women who play in teams or "clans," making it easier for the ladies to "hop onto a Halo server and play with all these guys," she says. "It's a bonding, friendship thing as much as a serious sport. And these girls are good—there's this one 14-year-old who's like a robot!"
Avatars and Accessories
The small percentage of women who actually play console games are becoming more vocal about demanding better female characters. The consensus seems to be that while pioneering heroines like Tomb Raider's Lara Croft have taken female avatars in less purely decorative directions, the gratuitous hypersexualization of female characters is tired. On her blog, Frag Doll team member Jinx writes:
Within certain boundaries of reason, I think no one can argue that attractive game characters are awesome. Outside those bounds, well, I often find myself cocking my head and wondering how physics engines can support the paradoxes of some female models.… Usually there's an inverse relationship between the size of a character's breasts and her character development.… Developers, I'm trying to help you. If you're going to put a female character in the game, put her in for a reason.… Being buxom is not a reason, it is an excuse.
In "Strong = Sexy," an essay published by WomenGamers.com, game critic Damon Brown muses on what male gamers get out of manipulating virtual vixens. His well-intentioned argument vaguely states that this sexing up of women is about power differentials and has something to do with young men's "phobias, desires and repression." He correctly observes that male lead characters—Rambo, Bond, etc.—offer the player the chance to experience power by killing. Then he tries to establish a parallel by attempting to figure out what kind of power female leads proffer to male game players: "[Man] will never be able to stop his fascination of [sic] the womb, the place from where he came.... Women have this power. He does not."
By "this power," Brown means the ability to give birth. He reasons that male characters allow players to have power over others by killing them, and female characters allow players to have power over others by…having babies? I must have passed right by Grand Theft Auto: Maternity Ward the last time I perused the game store.
Brown does start down the right path, though: There's a difference between what male and female characters, as currently constructed, offer players, and it does have to do with power. What these female characters offer to the largest market share of game players—heterosexual men—is the chance to be aroused while going about the business of destroying bad guys or stealing cars. Just by pressing a button, the player can have game babes put on a sexual performance for him. That's an appealing power trip—one that most players take for granted, thanks to the ubiquity of hot babes in popular visual culture.
But is there something about video games in particular, and the male geeks who create them, that makes the medium more prone to characterizing women as sexual accessories? "Many of the heterosexual geek boys in this industry have a deep resentment of women because they haven't had as much access to women as they'd like," says Jerry Darcy, a 32-year-old senior game designer for a major gaming company. As a game designer, "you don't have to ask a supermodel to do something, you can create a character and do whatever you want."
For the all-too-rare female player of role-playing and action games, hypersexualized female lead characters can provide the opportunity to sport mainstream symbols of desirability and also have the agency of the killer hero. But it's the "all-too-rare" part that's telling; most women stay away from these games, and their implication that a woman's power always has to have something to do with giving a guy a hard-on.
The gaming industry as a whole is light-years away from admitting there's a problem, and that denial is even evident among female executives: The main complaint of Brenda Brathwaite, senior designer of Cyberlore's Playboy: The Mansion, regarding female characters is: "If you're going to animate breasts, animate them properly. The breasts in the original Dark Alliance drove me nuts. If my breasts moved like that, I'd go to the doctor…or call an exorcist," she told PlayStation magazine.
Where the Girls Aren't
Brathwaite is living proof that the mere presence of women in the gaming industry by no means eliminates sexist content. But bringing a realistic gender balance to design teams does affect content and characters: The aforementioned Sims franchise is the product of a gender-balanced design team, whereas EA's other games—007, Battlefield 2, the Need for Speed series—are the product of a seriously male-dominated creative staff.
In the past five years, the mainstream press has begun to make an issue of how few women work in the gaming industry. The proverbial first step to solving a problem is admitting it exists, and while the media does pay attention to the issue—in large part due to the existence of charismatic female teams like the Frag Dolls—American gaming companies have been conspicuously unwilling to acknowledge it. (One manager at EA told me he couldn't be quoted in a story about gender and gaming because he'd be fired.) The closest we come to data on women in the U.S. industry are the minimal statistics available through the IGDA and the Gamasutra annual salary survey.
The UK, on the other hand, has published studies documenting the scarcity of female gaming professionals, and the British government devotes public resources to solving the problem: Recently, the equivalent of $15 million was earmarked to establish computer clubs for 10-to-14-year-old girls. These clubs are meant to catch girls at a time during which they often fall behind boys in computer knowledge and math and science; the goal is to obliterate that pattern before it starts, using games and other computerized activities to build abilities in problem solving, abstract reasoning, pattern recognition, and spatial logic—so that these can in turn help sustain girls' interest in math and science in school and into the career world.
For women who do have an active interest in making a career out of games, there are more barriers. A significant one, according to Haines's report, is a "stubborn adherence to a garage-hacker work culture" that, among other things, "elevates the nerdy but successful male founder of the company to heroic status."
Change on all levels—from improving career-path education to making a more appealing workplace for women—is being pushed by a number of women-in-gaming organizations, conferences, and websites. A group of female members of the IGDA started a Women in Game Development Special Interest Group that promotes gender balance and equity in the field.
But it's not just a matter of profit-motivated executives hiring special female staff to make female-oriented games. Pressure from geeks in the lower echelons of corporate gaming can help bring women onto all design teams. But that pressure is far less effective coming from individual staff than from organized groups of workers.
Let's say Joe Designer gets it in his head that a game could be just as good without scantily clad prostitutes. He mentions this to his boss, who opines that, to the contrary, the well-being of millions of gaming Americans depends on the placement of three virtual hookers on three virtual Los Angeles street corners. What can Joe do but refuse, at which point he is sure to get canned? But if, alternatively, Joe got involved in one of the women-in-gaming organizations or conferences, listened to women talk about the changes they'd like to see, and organized a group of employees to push for those changes, he'd be less likely to be quashed or ignored by management.
A Personal Appeal
I care about all this because, well, I love geeks. As a punk-rock girl in a small, rural high school, I counted them among my allies.
As electronic games, and computers in general, have become more widely used, the qualities that once made geeks uncool—a combination of intellectual curiosity and the ability to solve problems using technology—have acquired tangible value. Many geek boys of my generation who went into gaming have risen to management positions in which they have more creative control than rank-and-file programmers and designers. It's not too late for these guys to use their influence to redress the gaming industry's gender bias. So, you old-school geeks, don't forget about us, the girls who truly loved to be around you—and make some games you think we'd like.
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