Why Video Game Designers Are Missing The Mark With Women

A Growing Demographic

The statistics and the research may vary, but it’s quite clear: girl gamers are here, and they’re here to stay. Especially in the online realm, women make up a growing demographic of gamers who are just as passionate about playing as your typical gamer guy.

But as a girl gamer myself, it’s abundantly clear that the video game industry is not only run by a majority of men, but it’s catered to them as well. And it doesn’t seem to be changing much. Of course, catering to men makes sense from a business perspective, or at least it used to. But statistics indicate that’s no longer the case. And for some reason, many video game companies are just not willing to change to accommodate that shift. Maybe it’s part of the whole industry, so deep-seeded, that executives and producers can’t think outside of the box. But really, it’s still not an excuse. It’s honestly disgraceful at times, and downright disrespectful.

The Lara Croft Syndrome

Now, my intent here isn’t to start a flame war. There are plenty of women who are completely content with video games the way they are, and have no desire to see games change into anything other than they are. In fact, they like that they’re playing in a “Man’s Realm”. And that, of course, is absolutely fine. What irks me is that, so often, playing video games still feels like crossing into a man’s territory—like finding yourself in a world you weren’t taken into consideration. Aleah Tierny puts it into perspective in her article “What Women Want” when she talks about the Lara Croft syndrome:

I couldn’t wait to load and play Tomb Raider when it first came out, but when I saw Lara, I just couldn’t take the game seriously. The giant twin pyramids mounted onto her chest look like something she could use to impale her enemies. In many ways her kick-butt presence is a triumph, but the designers’ decision to sexualize her to the point of deformity angered me. I couldn’t get past her proportions, so I put the game away.

Customization and Character Creation

I know, for many of you readers, this might not make sense. But let’s take my most recent game obsession, Dragon Age, and maybe you’ll see what I mean. First, Dragon Age gets huge props for even allowing play as a woman. Believe it or not, there is an an entire group of people who like playing as women, and not just to stare at the avatars in their bras during cutscenes in dungeons (you know who you are). Fact is, I never really got into games much until I was able to play women. Mario Brothers didn’t get cool until I could float around as Princess Peach; Warcraft didn’t have the appeal until I could log on as a female paladin. And the #1 reason I haven’t gotten into Red Dead Redemption is because I don’t get to play a gal. (I will also point out that Dragon Age also gets props for taking on gender stereotypes with Shale; but since it’s already been written about, I’ll just direct you to that article here.)

Dragon Age allows for some pretty high-level customization starting out the game. You can really mold your character however you want, down to overbites and skin tone. Which, for girls like me who were brought up with Barbies, definitely holds appeal. I’m not embarrassed to admit that a huge component of my game play is feeling as if the character is utterly mine. Not me, but mine.

So, sure, maybe I’m the Carrie Bradshaw of RPGs, but I care a great deal about how my equipment looks, in addition to my character’s general appearance. Tell me, then, why the same piece of armor on a male character which clearly covers him from throat to ankle, shows enough cleavage and leg to make a stripper blush when worn on a female character. There’s nothing wrong with a little skin now and again, but seriously? Sure, this is a magical world, but they must have some really heavy duty tape to keep everything in place. It’s absolutely ridiculous. (I should mention that Dragon Age, while transgressing in this instance—particular with mage outfits, is not a lone example; it’s pervasive, though none are perhaps as nefarious as WoW’s chain mail bikini).

Sexuality and Choice

I will not deny that sexuality plays an important role in video games, especially those in the fantasy genre (heck, the whole fantasy genre is replete with sex and gender stereotypes, so it’s not falling far from the tree to say the least). But, from my point of view, there’s something rather insidious about not having a choice—like how much skin to show on your avatar—no matter what you do. It’s saying, sight unseen, that your character’s body is the center of the story. What if I want my mage to be really conservative? Oh, it doesn’t matter. I can’t. No choice, none at all. She dresses slutty. I mean, in Dragon Age all the women are built like porn stars, and the outfits on the Chantry priestesses even accentuate their boobs. It makes it abundantly clear that straight men were the number one consideration during design.

Guys, think about this. What would it be like if you logged on to your favorite game, and every piece of armor your warrior tried on was nothing more than a metal jock strap and a halter top? Sure, I might not mind looking at it—but you probably wouldn’t find it that thrilling. With no choice other than slutty, the whole armor issue treads into some very dark territory. Objectification and sexualization to the nth degree.

Stereotypes of Gender

I’m not saying that sexy women have no place in video games. On the contrary, I’m not calling for the obliteration of sexiness—I think the female form is beautiful, and ought to celebrated. But we should, like in the real world, have a choice whether or not to let it all hang out, so to speak, or look just like any other soldier in the army.

I use Dragon Age as an example, mostly because it’s fresh in my mind. But as my Twitter pals are quick to point out, the portrayal of women in video games across the board run the gamut of stereotypes. If she isn’t the sexy mage, she’s the clever librarian, the healer girlfriend, the evil heavily accented and mind-bogglingly sexy villain. What Dragon Age, and similar RPGs, hold in common is a certain level of customization of the main character. But when you look at the supporting casts of many games—even when you’re able to make a main character to your liking—it even gets worse. Don’t even get me started on Leliana and Morrigan and the whole Alistair thing. (No, I’m not bitter. I swear.)

Sounding Off

There are plenty of other issues to note, but as it stands I’ve gone on at length on this particular subject. And there is a solution. Games don’t have to be completely “feminized” to appeal to women. We’re not asking for pink suits of armor, torrid romances, and customizable purses. Many of us get as much enjoyment out of slaughtering Darkspawn as you do. But we’re simply looking for accurate representations, respectful representations, that give us the choice to play how we want. That means putting more women behind the scenes of video game production and writing; that means being vocal about what irks us, and making sure we don’t just let things slide, that we don’t accept things just because it’s been allowed for so long.

So sound off. What bothers you about gender and sexual stereotypes in video games? Any particularly bad perpetrators out there? Anything you’d love to see changed?

(Special thanks to my Tweeps @thexmedic, @pauljessup, @jennywilliams, @aweeadventure, @mercedesmy, & @erinramos for their input!)

[Image: BioWare]

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