September 6, 2008 8:00 AM | Leigh Alexander
[Back after a few months' hiatus, The Aberrant Gamer is happy to return as a biweekly, sometimes NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]
“Why don’t women like the big console games?” Someone asked me recently.
As a female game journalist, I’m one of the few and the proud, although as a female gamer I’m not nearly as unique as the population of internet forums would probably suggest. Still, I’m often asked questions like these, about “what women like” and what they don’t.
And I usually get a little bit miffed, to tell you the truth. I tend to reject assertions that there must exist a uniquely female palate for video games. I feel that my preferences and aversions as far as video games have more to do with my personal taste and less to do with my gender, and my position is generally that it’s the same for most women.
Is it really?
It’s a touchy area. In order to parse out what people enjoy about games, after all, it makes sense to first pick out what their needs are, and then identify those games that have elements that address those needs. And while it’s generally acceptable to make a few safe assumptions on what males enjoy in games, the evolving role of women in society over the past several decades makes it somewhat easier to offend us as we wrestle with how – or whether – to identify ourselves by gender.
Take, for example, the following statement: “Men like to play powerful characters that make them feel strong.” Assert that, and we women will generally reply, “what, you don’t think women like to feel strong, too?” Say: “Men are more likely than women to identify with a protagonist who’s a 400-pound space marine,” and you might be right – but some women will say, “are you calling me fat?”
Right now, some of you already have your mouse hovered on the comment link, ready to excoriate me for generalizing. Just hang on one second, will you?
We've Got History
Yes, yes, everyone is different, I know. You don’t need to tell me there are plenty of women who like blowing things up; I love blowing things up. You don’t need to cite any of the numerous PopCap surveys that find the average gamer is a female in her 30s or older (without mentioning that like my fifty-plus Mom, she only plays Snood all day).
We generally perceive that gaming has been a historically male-dominated industry – we know, at least, that the majority of game design professionals are male, and many companies are making concerted efforts to induct more women into the professional fold. More still are making concerted efforts to diversify their consumer base by “targeting” female consumers.
More female design professionals and more female gamers is definitely a positive goal. But how can we achieve it if we’re so afraid to differentiate “female tastes” versus “male tastes?” So egalitarian are we that I think we might be losing an opportunity to broaden our audience by analyzing people.
The Boys' Club
With exceptions, myself included, it’s generally boys who like the big console blockbusters, one finger on the left trigger and one on the right. I’ve been asked by a few people recently why I think this might be – is there some innate principle of the game design that is not oriented for so-called “female brains?” Or is it the premises – Sci-fi, lots of explosions, women with big boobs and space soldiers doing the fist-bump – that turn them (turn us) off?
Those same PopCap surveys I highlighted were most likely conducted with the aim of proving that company’s favorable market positioning in the casual games biz. Casual gaming, which generally spans anything from sparkly browser-based puzzlers to The Sims, has appeared to find more traction among adult women than modern console games have. And Nintendo’s DS has done well among women of all ages too, a success generally credited to the accessibility offered by pet simulators and brain trainers.
But even though this column is proposing we embrace the differences between male and female preferences – or at least, embrace the possibility that such differences may exist – we ought to be hard-pressed to embrace the conclusion that men like intense, complex experiences and women like quick, shallow ones.
I was recently pleasantly surprised by how much fun I had playing EA and Pandemic’s new Mercenaries 2. And then I wondered why the pleasure surprised me. Part of it is that I’m overwhelmed by the fast pace at which large new releases hit the shelves, and occasionally long to just play something (relatively) smaller and more familiar, like Symphony of the Night, for the umpteenth time. But when I really thought about it, I couldn’t deny the prevailing reason. Mercs 2 is a game for boys.
How do I know this? Because you can choose either one of two big muscle men or one hot girl to play as? Nope. I played as the girl and didn’t mind being hot. Then, is it because it thrives on gunplay and explosive mayhem, instead of training, raising and nurturing, like the vaguely feminine Harvest Moon? Nope, not that either – it turns out that the explosions and tanks were my favorite part of Mercs 2 (and I know a good quantity of male Harvest Moon fans too, by the by).
In other words, I’d be hard pressed to identify any one aspect of Mercs 2’s design, gameplay or appearance that is explicitly “for boys.” That is, except for the packaging and marketing of both the software itself and the consoles you can play it on – and the way such games are positioned inside both gamer culture and society at large.
It's The Package
The perception of a “boys club” around certain kinds of games is either intimidating or offensive to most women I know. I’ve got galpals who play Rock Band and even various Mario games, but if I try to cajole them to take a shot at the latest complex console epic, they balk – even with a game like Mercs 2, whose controls are extremely streamlined alongside pacing that introduces the player gradually into their use.
The best guess, then, is that the real reason more women don’t get “into” video games is because, from a distance, it doesn’t feel like it’s “for them.” And if it’s a perception issue, not even a 50/50 ratio on the development side, nor less masculine titles and packaging will help. None of my female friends and family members have ever heard of Portal, for example, even though it was widely received as a "feminist" title.
And while having more feminine perspectives behind games will surely take us far, this long-running, self-perpetuating paradigm won’t be easily shaken up. To do that, we need more titles that can serve as a true gateway to help a larger audience of women feel as though games are something in which they can see themselves. And to create those, we find ourselves confronted with a question so large that society’s made a bit of humor out of it: What do women want?
If there were an easy answer to the broader question, we’d have quite a lot more happy men on earth than we presently do. But it’s possible to find out what women want in games – and to do that, we’ve got to ditch the politically-correct pussyfooting and stop pretending we’ve already got the level playing field we ultimately desire.
Some women may like Metal Gear Solid just as much, if not more, as they like Katamari Damacy and The Sims (ahem). But we are the exception – come on, let’s admit it – and while ultimately I still believe game preferences come primarily down to personality and not gender, maybe if we look closely at what the average female likes to play on the console, or is attracted to at retail, we might be able to pick out a rule or two we can learn from – besides "make it pink."
Sigh. All right. Now you may run to the comments section and talk about how you’re a girl who likes Gears of War, or how your sister is better at Army of Two than you are, or you and your galpals play Halo competitively.
Just remember – just because women aren’t excluded doesn’t mean they feel welcome in a widespread way, and that’s definitely something it’s possible to change. And without being unafraid to look more closely at the issue and entertain the idea that men and women just might have different needs, we’ll never really know precisely where to start.
[Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, freelances and reviews often for a variety of outlets including Variety and Paste, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.]
Categories: Column: The Aberrant Gamer