Girls, Games, and Post-Feminism

One of my earliest memories is playing Snafu for Intellivision with my parents. Red and blue lines snaking across the television screen. And sucking, quite a bit, as a four year old just doesn’t have the requisite hand-eye co-ordination to be a really great gamer.

Follow along a few years later, I’ve been hooked on Final Fantasy, secretly wish I had green hair, and could be as deadly with a frypan as Paula was. No one I knew in school liked video games, it was still in the realm of nerdy- the Playstation years away- and christ! On top of that, I was a girl. So, here we are, a decade later or so. Long gone are the days of weak female mages in miniskirts and high heels, right Tifa? Am I right, Jill, Lara, Samus?

…Samus? Why are you wearing a yellow thong?!

Okay. Maybe equality isn’t here. Why not? We’ve all heard the reasons:

There aren’t enough girl gamers.

Nobody knows what girl gamers want.

My favourite: Girl Gamers don’t want change. The first two are negligible. Girls gamers are a huge and constantly growing group. We love games, we’ve loved them for a while. Really, how many of your moms were hooked on Dr. Mario, Tetris, or both. And that’s just moms. As to the second, here’s a few clues: high quality games, nice camera angles, action, real plot, and characters to whom they can relate. Not all that out there. But those are things guys want too. So let’s dig a little deeper into the girl gaming community and find out:

Do girl gamers want change?
If they do, are they willing to fight for it?

For a while now I’ve been part of an online community of girl gamers. It’s a livejournal community with close to two thousand members, and another thousand or so watching. Mostly female, but males are certainly welcome and have joined the group. Mostly it’s banter about new games coming out, new systems (“I think I need a PSP like I need oxygen.”), shouting out to find girls to game with online, FPS fans, Survival Horror, and so on. Every now and then someone will post about an experience online or in person where they were either mocked/praised/drooled over/harassed based on their sex. Some girls sympathize and groan- nearly every one has had a similar experience. Others get downright angry. Not at the mocker/praiser/drooler/harasser… But the girl bringing it up as an issue.

In fact, talking about your personal experiences as a girl gamer has become quite a point of contention in the community. Some members are supportive, share a laugh or anecdote, other members get angry that girls keep mentioned shoddy treatment based on sex. For them, it’s either an absolute: It’s a game…it’s entertainment. Women are exploited in almost every genre of entertainment. or something that happens so often, mentioning it is just redundant: As long as the male turnout overweighs the female, expect stupid reactions, and indeed, dumber questions.

In fact, even the post I made about writing this article faced a highly mixed response, from lack of faith in game developers to adequately adapt any critiques from females:Gear games for women or something? No thanks. Many’s idea of gearing games for women are those Barbie games. Not my interest. Make games as they are. Equality? Recognition? Feminists seem to be taking this a bit too seriously. to support for females actually trying to do something about the current situation in gaming, to people be outright derisive about bringing attention to the fact we’re female at all. The last point is one that really tells something not just about girls gamers today, but girls in general.

Why the divide here? We’re all girls, shouldn’t we be sticking together? There were girls who wanted this all swept under the rug, not to cause a scene, to make it an issue. At first, I couldn’t figure why people would feel so negatively about creating more awareness of their wants. Not caring about their representation, whether people would cater to their needs like they did to others- even though they were paying out the same money. It bothered me in the back of my mind for a while till I figured something out.

I’m a feminist.

In my first year of university our professor discussed feminism as pursuing equality for the sexes, focusing on females who are currently running behind in the race. I thought, this applies to me, and so I’m not ashamed to label myself in that way. After issuing this description, he asked that all the people in class who would call themselves a feminist using this definition to raise their hands. Maybe eight hands were up in a lecture of sixty or more people. Did this mean the bulk of the class didn’t believe in equality? Probably not. What it does mean, is that the term ‘feminist’, and indeed the whole of modern feminism has been so tainted by the radicals and displays of the past that even people who agree with the basic ideals are now unwilling to associate with feminism on even a basic level. Far from being proud of female, many women now seek to go quietly along and not draw attention to the fact. Beware the first label of feminist, lest the others follow – manhater, bra-burner, butch, bitch.

This is felt even more strongly in areas where males dominate. Let’s face it, some of us gamers are not the coolest, we’re a little geeky and kind of shy. So being called a manhating, cocksucking, feminist bitch is a valid fear for some girls who just want to game with everyone else and not stand out. Some girls turn this into a renewed effort to create a unified front, to find other girls and friendly guys, band together and create a positive environment for all. Others use sex-based insults as motivation to own the competition, some get mouthy, some get withdrawn.

Back to my first question: Do girl gamers want change? I would say yes. Here’s why:

The girls who answered they don’t want change, that games are fine as they are, are often the same girls that deride other girls for ‘flaunting’ their femininity or demanding change. But their declarations of things being okay seems to stem more from the worry of being ostracized for being female rather then genuine pleasure with the current state of games. Again, this is a valid fear. People play games online to have fun with other people, not to get shouted down for being bitchy. Wanting to belong in the community is natural, but it’s unfortunate that that comes at the expense of being proud of being female.

The other reason girls say they don’t want change, because ‘girly games suck’, is a case of players believing their own bad press. When a lot of people think ‘girly’ games, crap like Barbie’s foray into the gaming world come to mind. But the truth is, most girls hate this shit. Why should we, girls, use the term ‘girly’ to describe games we hate? It doesn’t make sense. If anything, ‘girly games’ should be games geared towards females or games females think are awesome. I should be more specific. Successfully geared towards females. The problem here is, any game that’s really popular that girls really like ends up just being a popular game. Instead of ‘girly’ meaning for girls or liked by girls, it’s just a synonym for suck.

So yes, we want change, whether we say it outright or not. What kind of change? How about a strong female character that fights in more than a thong? Don’t get me wrong, there are girls who like cute outfits and bikinis:
“It’ll pass, though. It was the bejeweled “bikini” that made me go “hey, shinies! must have!”
“that bikini looks deeply chafe-y”

But variety is the spice of life. Male characters all have their stereotypes, to be sure, but at least there is a variety of stereotypes. Women have approximately two, first the badass-DDcup-fighter-in-thong and second pathetic-princess/healer-in-thong. Let us return to darling Tifa. She is trained in martial arts and kickboxing. Why then, does she have flimsy ten-year-old arms and a miniskirt? This is nowhere near practical for travel. Barret gets big guns, Cloud gets a big sword, Vincent gets a big claw, Cid gets a big spear. Are we seeing a pattern? Tifa… Tifa gets big tits. You can’t fight with tits. Even ones as imposing as Tifa’s. The best are fighting games. You know, six foot ten, two hundred pound fully armoured guy with spiked mace versus… a one hundred pound waif with a handkerchief and a Chinese fan. (She’s uh… agile? I guess?) Where are the muscled females, the tanks, the ugly bitches. You know the girls I’m talking about, the real badasses! I remember customized a character in a skateboarding game. You could choose the weight. I push the female to the maximum, all that changed was her bust and butt kept getting bigger and bigger, she still had a teeny little waist and flimsy arms.

It comes down to a basic tenet of what girl gamers really want – and that is – the exact same thing guy gamers want. Variety, fantasy, representation, choice.

That and kickass gameplay. And the port of Mother 1+2 to come to North America. And a really cool new FPS. And NamcoxCapcom, we’d really like that too.

So we want change, what are we going to do about it?

Here’s the thing. Have you noticed about gamers, that as a whole, we are a remarkably weak consumer group? By this I mean, we spend a shitonne of money on games, systems, peripherals, and online services. Game companies could probably double the price of half the things available and we’d still buy it. And worst of all, we lack so much cohesiveness that we do. Not. Boycott. Occasionally we petition. Online. As a whole, we are not a very persuasive group.

There is hope for the recognition of girl gamers, however, despite our rather half assed efforts as a consumer whole. As girls gamers come out of the woodwork and grow in numbers, it is becoming more and more noticeable that we buy things. So creating games that appeal to gamers, just like creating games that appeal to niche gamers (the recent success of Katamari Damacy is a sign of good things to come) means more money in a game companies pocket. They like that.

More women in the industry could certainly help, and that is something girl gamers seem to stand together on. Everyone is supportive of people in the industry, or trying to get into the industry. I think even those who belong to the ‘things are fine, who cares?’ group, can recognize the positive effects of getting more diversity into the industry. For instance, perhaps having a female in the room could have helped the team working on Full Metal Alchemist 2 avoid the unfortunate subtitle, Curse of the Crimson Elixir.

Until even a mild consensus and admission that change would be nifty is reached, it seems girl gamers will be stuck with the slow progression that is currently the norm. Will we fight? Kind of. In the same sort of ‘I guess, if we have to’ way that the gaming public is wont to make themselves heard.

The fear of feminism and the spectre of radicals leaves many girls in a state of paralysis. And it’s not always about voicing concerns or complaints, but about appreciating things they do like. It’s hard to demand to be taken seriously when you enjoy Pokemon and Harvest Moon as much as you like Silent Hill and Halo. Especially bad when the one of the main reasons you like the first two is because pikachus and baby chicks are really cute. It comes back to the lack of real recognition that girl gamers and guy gamers really want the same things and that girl gamers are a genuinely varied group.

One problem with any type of change is that the group seeking it needs to be have clear, achievable goals. In other words, if girl gamers want to be catered to, we need a big solid group with coherent goals. We need to be an ogre with a club, bam! More female representation! Whack! Good girly games! Instead of being many lowly wisps, nitpicking here and there for a hundred different reasons. Are we willing to put aside the differences and worries about being bitches in a post-feminist world? Who knows. I hope we are. In the meantime, I’m going to go play some Silent Hill 3. Not just anyone can run ineffectually in a miniskirt, you know.

A bonus, lovely reader, some funny highlights from the Girl Gamer’s community:

I’m pretty impressed with Netflix and Blockbuster Online…but having my PS2 games delivered to me like pizza on a bad hair & heavy flow night is just too much!

Regarding EB: I asked for an app there a while ago, and they just looked at me funny. The guy got really flustered and scrambled to find one. You’d think he’d never seen a pair of tits before…

I have a request, anyone who works at a gamestore, please warn your customers when they purchase a PSP to read the quick reference guide before using the system.
An unfortunate customer opened all of his UMD’s thinking that was how you got to the game.

I don’t care that there are cheap sexual games, I’m straight, but I’m still a pervert…so I’m just annoyed that they only feature naked chicks… wheres the hot naked guys!? where’s the bishonen yaoi!?

In a lot of cases, such as myself, we guy-gamers have no courage or social grace whatsoever. So the games becomes a place to hide behind out of the way of actually being seen. That’s why when a girl comes into the room, we choke up worse than Chris Griffin on Family Guy, our brains shut off and we begin asking stupid questions.

And my personal favourite:

Dear Potential Mating Partner,

I can no longer keep my feelings for you inside; like Dante in Devil Trigger mode, I feel unstoppable in your presence. The possibility of being your [lad/lass] is more exciting than a potential sequel to Earthbound. I know you feel the same about me, unless my senses are producing an unsubstantiated illusion of StarCraft Ghost-like proportions. To spend time searching for a better possible match would be a grievous disc read error. A truer mate than me you will never find; I will never cheat or exploit your glitches, nor will I try to mod you. Unlike Mode 7, the joy of our love cannot deteriorate over time, so just tell me I’m your console exclusive. Don’t let my [Prince/Princess] be in another castle.