Friday, 5 February 2010

Ask men. No really, ask them.

Regular readers of this blog will have determined that I am a girl. This means very little in terms of how and why I play games, just as it has very little bearing on which books I read and why. It does however occasionally mean that when I go into a branch of GAME I am instantly inundated with offers for "help", followed by well-meaning questions about whether the copy of Left 4 Dead I have grasped in my sweaty mitt is for my son/brother/husband.

A lesser woman might take offense at being mistaken for the mother of somebody old enough to be playing Left 4 Dead, but I'm rather more disheartened by the fact that people actively working in the video game industry automatically assume that anyone wearing a skirt must be trying to buy a well-meaning gift for the man in my life. I expect this sort of thing from Cooper "Been There, Done That, Kept the Jewellery" Lawrence, but not from people employed for their video game knowledge.

To be fair to GAME, it tends to be the younger shop assistants who display this kind of incredulity. More experienced members of staff tend only to volunteer help when confronted by genuinely bemused people (of either gender) standing in the middle of the shop wondering what the best game for the Nintendo PlayBox is. Anyway, I can't say that being faced with slight bemusement every now and again is especially troubling. Ninety-five percent of the time, I would rather fight in the "video games are art" corner than the "girls play video games too" corner. The outfits are better.

However. There are times when even the terminally lazy must make a stand. I am not generally one to hoist myself out of a comfy chair, climb into the saddle of my high horse and gallop to the moral high ground before sundown, but sometimes I read something that at least makes me glance over to the stable. This list of "10 Video Games Your Girlfriend Will Hate", for example.

That said, my reaction to this kind of half-assed sexism is one of passing irritation as opposed to moral outrage. This is mainly because the article appears on, and I don't get angry with bears for shitting in the woods. I'm also heartened by the number of comments from actual women who point out that they are aficionados of some, if not all the games on the list. But, like any good journalist, I am not about to let a little thing like context get in the way of my indignation, so sit back and relax as I attack the fortress of misogyny with the siege tower of pedantry.

10 - Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 says: "She hates it when you have it on the television, and she’s going to loathe when you’re body slamming your way to the championship belt in career mode."

Well-Rendered says: The point being made here seems to be that women hate wrestling and thus will hate this game. Although I will first make the obvious point that women don't all hate wrestling (the soap opera aspect makes it highly entertaining, actually), that doesn't matter because all AskMen are really saying is that someone who doesn't like a thing will probably not like another thing based on the first thing. No shit Sherlock.

9 - Worms 3D says: "Your girlfriend will stand there scratching her head and complaining about how you can waste time all day playing with worms."

Well-Rendered says: Well this is just wrong. Admittedly, I am not a fan of Worms 3D, but this is only because I am such a fan of the original Worms, and thus I do not consider "all day playing with worms" a "waste" of time. On the contrary, my non-gaming girl friends at school used to love playing Worms because we used to name all the worms on our teams after men we fancied.*

8 - Final Fantasy says: "A girlfriend will not like any of these titles in the franchise simply because her significant other is eagerly anticipating the next title - and knows that he’ll go into solitary seclusion the minute it’s released because they’re just that addictive. Here’s a piece of advice: If you’re going to buy the next title in the series, Final Fantasy XIII, don’t use funds from your joint checking account; she’ll likely notice and have a conniption."

Well-Rendered says: This does not suggest that your girlfriend will dislike the game as such, just that she probably won't take kindly to you indulging in a) neglect and b) theft.

7 - UFC Undisputed says: "If Smackdown vs. Raw 2009 was about the homoerotic tendencies she was sure to guilt you with, then UFC Undisputed will surely upset her when she sees two guys in full guard position grabbing at each other."

Well-Rendered says: Erm, if your girlfriend honestly thinks you're gay (and is trying to "guilt" you about it, whatever that means), your relationship problems have got nothing to do with video games.

6 - Madden NFL 09 says: "She’s not going to like you for being a boisterous macho-beast when the guys are around; she’s really not going to like you when you have destroyed the couch and sprayed beer everywhere after a game-breaking touchdown against your buddies."

Well-Rendered says: Well quite. But I'm not sure you can blame you being drunk and destructive on a video game. Nor do I think irritation ensuing from the destruction of one's soft furnishings is solely felt by girlfriends.

5 - Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball says: "The sexual innuendo here is highly overt and unabashedly proud, with the sole intention to lure young male gamers into a borderline pornographic game that could be used as substitute for a sexual stimulant. This one is plain and simple - if your girlfriend sees this in your game library you might want to bury your head in the sand."

Well-Rendered says: Hmm. They may have a point there. Everyone has their own feelings about pornography. I'm not sure owning a copy of this is much different from having a couple of copies of Nuts (except that the Dead or Alive girls were never on Big Brother). A grudging point to AskMen.

4 - Bioshock says: "If the storyline doesn’t make your girlfriend wince, then beating up enemies with a steel wrench or massacring them into a bloody mess with revolvers, Tommy guns or chemical throwers certainly will."

Well-Rendered says: This is a bit sexist really. I'm not sure the storyline - failed meritocracy built under the sea where neither state nor church can reach it - is necessarily "wince" inducing, though I understand that the bit about possessed children is fairly unpleasant. Still, I think the art, story and concept would be interesting to anyone with a passing interest in science fiction or fantasy. True, it's violent, and I will admit that perhaps a film or a novel about Rapture might concentrate less on the fight for survival and more on the story, so I suppose AskMen might have a point. That is, if you assume that women don't enjoy other gruesome things, like horror films and Closer magazine, which they blatantly do. Joking aside, Closer headlines like "My Tummy Tuck Horror" and "I Caught a Flesh-Eating Virus from a Bikini Wax" are always graphically illustrated and quite frankly, make Bioshock look like an Andrex advert.

3 - Second Life says: "This game has sucked many people into its vast environment, and your girlfriend isn’t going to be too pleased when you start “e-dating” a random woman from Eastern Europe, because without a reality check in your life, it’s not a matter of if - but when." 

Well-rendered says: Well firstly, 45.5% of Second Life players are women. Otherwise where would the Eastern European women come from? Also, dating is just one way to use Second Life. Many people have become wealthy (in real life) trading virtual property and advertising space in the gameworld. But really, AskMen, if a man is looking for Eastern European babes, is that really the fault of Second Life? Plenty of people manage to read The Times without succumbing to the seductive charms of the Lonely Hearts pages.

2 - Grand Theft Auto says: "The granddaddy of all maligned video games, Grand Theft Auto is a perfect accumulation of all things evil in the eyes of a girlfriend. Car jackings, senseless beatings, gang shootings, and prostitutes offering cheap thrills - it doesn’t get any worse."

Well-Rendered says: Hmm, tricky one this. Grand Theft Auto IV was a wickedly clever and detailed satire on post-9/11 America which I feel anyone with a sense of humour and irony might appreciate. That said, it is awfully violent and does feature prostitutes, but I am not sure that it's something most girlfriends would lose any sleep over. A mother maybe... Actually, hang on a minute AskMen! Car jackings, senseless beatings and gang shootings are evil "in the eyes of a girlfriend"? Last time I checked, there were still lingering factions of society who would not refer to themselves as a "girlfriend" who still harbour the odd doubts about whether or not senseless beatings are wholly a good thing.

1 - World of Warcraft says: "Society and the media have stigmatized this game for having created such an epidemic of nerdiness among today's male youths and you better hope your girlfriend is as lenient with you as you are with your long-running credit card statement for your monthly subscription. If girlfriends hate games that distract guys from being good boyfriends, then World of Warcraft was programmed by the devil himself."

Well-Rendered says: I suppose that last sentence makes a fair point. But then surely anyone of either gender would object to anything which gets in the way of a good relationship? The other charge seems to be that girls don't like "nerdiness", but that's purely a matter of taste, and there are plently of female World of Warcraft players. But because I am feeling generous (it is Friday, after all), I will award AskMen a point for making the fairly valid point that girls like being paid attention to sometimes.

*     *     *

So what did we learn? Well, not that much really. AskMen make two points throughout, firstly that women don't understand the things men like (nonsense) and secondly that they object to antisocial behaviour (true, but I'm not sure what this has to do with video games).

Really, the AskMen feature was about a relationship between a gamer and a non-gamer in a (dysfunctional) relationship, and didn't actually have much to do with girls, or indeed games. That said, it's still difficult to find sensible commentary about the female gaming demographic because unlike the film or publishing industry, mainstream games don't tend to be marketed towards a largely male or a largely female gaming demographic. Film posters are almost always aimed at either men or women. Likewise book covers of blockbusters feature certain signifiers (pastel coloured covers, handwritten fonts) when they are aimed at women. Of course, a large proportion (I like to think the majority, but I could be wrong) of the female book-buying public steer clear of these as a matter of course or principal, but no-one's going to turn a hair if a woman picks up a novel by John Fowles, Margaret Atwood or Chuck Palahnuik. In the gaming world that just isn't yet the case.

Games marketing that is directed towards women or girls is patronising at best. It would seem that in order to make such a scary and technical medium accessible to fluffy-headed women, the packaging must be pink. I particularly like the ultra-feminine make-up and hair on our "Girl Gamer" above. It's ok girls, picking up one of those handheld thingamajigs won't make you grow a beard! Tee hee!

Oh well. Disheartening though AskMen, Nintendo Girl Gamer and Barbie Horse Adventures may be, it is simply the case that at the moment, publicity doesn't really reflect reality. The adult female gaming population is a largely hidden demographic. The main reason for this is that "serious" gamers (as opposed to "casual" gamers, to make a sweeping generalisation) tend to identify themselves as "gamers" as opposed to "male" or "female" gamers. Consequently, the assumption that most, if not all "serious" gamers (is that an oxymoron?) are men goes largely unchallenged.

Is this a problem? After all that, I honestly don't know. I suppose wider recognition for female gamers might lead to more engaging female video game characters, but I'm not sure what difference it makes for the medium as a whole. Really, it's just a question of faith. Any games designer with any business sense will do their market research properly to gain a good understanding of their audience. But it's something else to market a high-budget mainstream release at a female audience. The Sims is really the only one I can think of that has done this. Games like Barbie Horse Adventures and the Hannah Montana series (God help us) are aimed a small niche market of pre-teen girls who have pester power rather than disposable income. Besides, they are really just merchandise from a larger franchise, unlike Bioshock or Gears of War and as such do not have such a heavy commercial weight resting on them.

I suppose that a truly great work of art transcends boundaries of gender, race and age, but that doesn't mean that the gaming world isn't missing a few more high-profile titles written for a female audience. I would be interested to know what other women think about this.

*Brendan B. Brown, Goran Ivanisevic, Han Solo and Aragorn, since you ask.


  1. I will have to salute this post. The strange stereotypical view of women is something that still puzzles me. I mean, my ex girlfriend got me into Diablo and WoW! And some of the more dark shooters, too..

    But yeah, it's clear to me now that a lot of those sites just did not do the research.

  2. I would not claim to know what would make a good game for female gamers...altho I do have a couple of female nieces, both fairly attractive, college-age, who were/are serious WoW players.

    But I'd argue that until female software writers and female story writers get together and actually start creating games, we aren't going to see much change on this. I've played computer/video/console games since the original Pong and Tank and Star Trek in the 70s, and I've even written a couple of simple ones way back when, and modified/played others when source code was available...

    and I think the issue has been that there are too few women programmers who are going to create a game...looking at the credits on a game I've just played ("Supreme Commanders", where you are the "general" in charge of fairly large armies of mil forces), about 10% of the development staff (as opposed to voice actors) are female. 10 per cent. and none are near the top of the food chain.

    and I can almost guarantee you that if the game was "Barbie Horse Adventures" there aren't very many males going who want to work on that one...and they sure as heck would not admit to it later :)

    I'm not surprised at the misunderstood demographics. PC Gamer has said this for a long time, and I even got to ask the Q in a seminar re gaming tech 3 yrs ago: "Show of hands of who here plays computer games of some sort?" and the hands are a broad spectrum of attendees--and everyone is surprised that it's not just our teenage sons.

  3. shaddap and make me a sandwich!

  4. Love it.

    Will that be on white bread or brown?

  5. All seems a bit heteronormative to me, on top of being sexist. I'd love to hear why some of the male gamers' boyfriends or husbands might not like it.

    The other thing it made me think of, is that Kevin contributes to an open source software developers' forum and quite often the men complain that this or that doesn't work/is too complicated because their wife/gf can't understand it. This generally means that THEY can't understand it, but the old ball and chain is a good excuse.

  6. Heteronormativeness (ness? ism?) is a big problem in gaming. It's largely to do with the percieved markets for games.

    If you're interested in that, there's this, which sadly has no pictures.