Females and Computer Games

By Rosemary Young (April, 1997)

With the computer game industry still in its infancy one could be forgiven for thinking it is modern and forward looking. Sadly, it is not. In this age of supposed enlightenment and equality of opportunity the industry is largely trapped within outmoded attitudes that seem to draw inspiration from 1950's mythology in which men conquer the world and women seldom venture beyond their front porch.

In short, in most computer games it is men who are the prime movers and, if they are featured at all, women are invariably in a supporting role. There are very few titles with genderless protagonists and even fewer with female protagonists, or, perhaps, a choice of male or female characters. Even when titles present a female character to direct though a story or act out a scenario she is very likely to double as a sex symbol for the entertainment of male players.

Of course, the analogy can always be drawn with the movie industry, then computer games don't really fair so badly as in most movies the lead character is likely to be a male. But surely this is no excuse. Movie culture has a long history of denying females active roles (apart from the love interest of course) and changing this will, unfortunately, be a slow process. The computer game industry, on the other hand, has no such history and no such baggage to be discarded to make way for 'modern' stories featuring interesting, active and intelligent female characters. So far the industry has been very slow on the uptake and, what is more damning, it might even be going backwards instead of forwards with the present emphasis on war games, sporting games, etc, which have practically no time for females at all.

Comparing the computer game industry with the movie industry is a fascinating exercise and though it is relevant to this argument, especially as the movie industry is having some influence on the games industry, it is not the place to begin. Consequently, I must return to the heart of the matter, computer games themselves, before going back to the movies.

Entertainment for the boys
Computer game playing is a hobby that is mainly enjoyed by males, this fact is widely acknowledged, usually with a shrug of the shoulders that suggests this is all due to some natural biological affinity. Hormones perhaps? Quite simply males have some innate affinity with technology and thus with computer games, females don't. So females aren't all that interested.

A simple truism, black and white so to speak, but this truism nevertheless denies two important facts. Firstly, that most computer games are written specifically for males and, secondly, that there ARE many female game players and there ARE games that are eminently suitable for females even though they might not escape the tyranny of blatant sexism. For instance, there are games based on fantasy and science fiction stories that don't concentrate on male-oriented combat scenarios, as well as games based on murder or mystery stories, all of which are consumed by females in other formats such as movies or literature, so why not computer games?

Let's face it, as computer game players, we all know that males aren't the only ones who enjoy this hobby. Despite the fact that they are not really invited to join in the fun, it's a myth that females don't play and have no interest in computer games. Conversely, it's a myth that only males play computer games and it is important to acknowledge this side of the equation because it is essentially this 'truth' that drives the industry.

The computer game industry pumps out male-oriented combat style games ad infinitum, there is absolutely no doubt that publishers and designers have a clear vision of their intended market -- young males. Fewer females play because there are fewer games that might interest them. Hormones have nothing to do with it. This, of course, assumes that females are less likely to be tempted by the plethora of war or sports games etc. which largely involve combat or domination scenarios. Some females do play and enjoy these games, just as many males enjoy story based games with no combat. But the bottom line is that most games are developed by males for males and are overwhelmingly reviewed and marketed by and for males. For females this exclusion has serious consequences and it may even have serious consequences for the games industry itself.

The Games
If you are in any doubt as to the target audience for computer games take a stroll around any games retailer, count up the flight simulators, the war games, sports games, shoot-em-ups, beat-em ups, etc. They are all clearly toys for the boys. Other titles such as those based purely on puzzle solving or even adventure games that are more story based are much fewer and farther between. Indeed, adventure and puzzle games themselves are not immune from testosterone overdoses as many of these have fighting sequences and demeaning images of women provided merely for male titillation.

As noted above, males represent the majority of main characters in computer games. Even with the present trend towards first person perspective games where the main protagonist is not visually represented on screen, game designers rarely allow for the character to be gender neutral, and when this does occur it is likely to be by default rather than deliberate design. Too often in these games there is some 'signal' (the use of a male pronoun or a male voice) that ultimately stamps the character as male. This is significant because sometimes great care is taken not to identify the protagonist, presumably to encourage game players to step into the role and play as themselves ... it demonstrates that the player is naturally assumed to be male.

Similarly, games that allow a choice of characters can become farcical because the female character/s is not acknowledged as female and is subsequently referred to as 'he' or 'young man' or whatever. This can occur in roleplaying games, the games in which there is most often a choice of gender, although they do have a better record in this respect. But, in any case, the illusion of being a 'female' in these games is sometimes destroyed when non-playing characters of the same gender seem to find the female protagonist/s irresistible, or vice versa. Despite ludicrous arguments to the contrary this isn't acknowledging female homosexuality ... quite the opposite. It's denying female!

That most games are intended for male consumption only is very often communicated in advertising material or on the box cover of a game where aggressive images speak directly to males. This is particularly unfortunate when such graphics might not be indicative of the actual game as it is likely to mislead players who yearn for action and 'attitude' and turn away players who might actually enjoy the game. Also, advertising and box cover graphics often feature demeaning images of women, scantily-clad or in vulnerable situations, again designed to attract male players. Surely such images don't belong in the 1990's. They are not only old fashioned, but are offensive to many women and girls, leaving, as they do, little room for the modern woman with a mind of her own.

The Magazines
Given that most games are aimed at males it is not surprising that games magazine editors and contributors are often enthusiastic, if unwitting, accomplices in the exclusion of females. Not only do the magazine covers -- full page graphics of marauding warriors, fighter planes, or racing cars -- communicate that their contents are 'men's business', but the, often, overtly aggressive language and imagery inside decidedly confirms this.

A cursory reading will reveal that most computer game magazines speak exclusively to males and cater exclusively to male tastes. There are competitions with shoot-em-ups or sports games as prizes, cover disks primarily advertising the latest action games and advertisements featuring grotesque and aggressive images that can only be appreciated by the younger males of our species. If you look closely, you will likely find reference to the reader's 'wife' or 'girlfriend' leaving no doubt as to the assumed gender of the reader.

Quite simply, the language of most games magazines is overtly masculine and so are the values that are presented, values that see 'male' as the norm. Any female, or male for that matter, reading reviews will soon learn which are the 'real' games and which aren't. Which are playable (the 'manly' aggressive ones) and which are of less value (the 'wimpy', non-action ones). This situation emerges because of the tendency to judge the merit of a game by the degree of action it contains, which ultimately means the failure to adequately recognise the intrinsic merit of other game components such as puzzle complexity or plot development. Thus non-action games are destined to flounder in assumed mediocrity.

Count the number of times games of the fantasy variety are described as 'childish' or 'tame' and generally derided across a range of publications, compare this with the positive bloodlust that games in the 'Doom' mode generate. Even allowing for the fact that there are many, many more action games, count up also the amount of review and editorial space given to these 'masculine' games compared with other titles. More often than not reviews of games that lack action are totally submerged beneath the marauding monsters, tanks, aeroplanes and racing cars. In such an atmosphere where masculine visions and values dominate it is near impossible for women and girls to feel involved.

The Retailers
And the story is repeated again and again even in the stores that retail computer games. It is an unfortunate fact that because computer games are seen to be a male prerogative many females are reluctant to step into the fray and visit computer game stores. If they do then, aside from children's titles, they are likely to be confronted with the heavily promoted action games which are prominently displayed and which invariably monopolise the hard disk space on store computers provided for game demonstration. Games that females might like are rarely easy to find.

This problem is compounded by the common practice of game store owners not to organise their stock according to game type. It's an amazing fact that in their long experience they have concluded that libraries have got it wrong, so have book shops and record shops, video rental stores, and even supermarkets. Apparently computer game consumers don't want the convenience of finding their preferred games conveniently grouped together so that they can be easily located, they'd rather waste time going though every item on every shelf.

Actually, I shouldn't be so facetious here as this practice has dire consequences for female shoppers and for the games they might prefer. Because action games are so all-pervading they overwhelm any other style of game, non-action games simply disappear into oblivion. This problem is exacerbated both because of the practice of displaying multiple copies of the more prolific action games and only one or two of the less important non-action variety, and also because of the tendency for game publishers to choose 'action' or dark, menacing cover graphics to promote non-action games. This almost guarantees that they'll be missed by the players who might enjoy them.

Of course, the tendency for store owners to 'hide' non-action games isn't a deliberate plot to exclude female customers, it's essentially a dollars and cents issue. That is they promote the games they expect to sell. But it isn't quite that simple, it also demonstrates a lack of knowledge about computer games (sometimes store owners are unfamiliar with the games they sell) and, disturbing though it is, it also indicates that the myth that only males play computer games can operate even at this level.

The sad truth is that most store owners and sales attendants in computer game stores are male and sometimes they have limited knowledge of story or puzzle based games either because of their own personal interests or because they too have absorbed the myth that females don't really play computer games. Hence very little effort is made to promote non-masculine or non-action games. The net result is that it is much more difficult to find or to learn about these titles, and it sometimes even means that good adventure or puzzle games are not even distributed or stocked for sale because they are considered irrelevant. Females who are already familiar with the titles that they might enjoy have some advantage in all this but other female shoppers (potential customers) could be forgiven for concluding that there is nothing that might interest them.

The Consequences
Because the games industry identifies its market as primarily male and targets its games and its magazines at this audience, it creates a self fulfilling prophesy. That is, males can find the games and magazines to interest them, females can't, ensuring that the market remains overwhelmingly male. This clearly discriminates against females and the industry should be brought to task for this reason alone. However, there is a more insidious and more damaging process at work.

In designing games primarily for males the computer game industry is participating in discouraging females from using computers and inviting them to see this new technology as 'male' territory and not relevant to their own lives. Combat style games are so aggressively advertised and so prominent that the games themselves are in danger of being lumped together with other boys' toys such as guns, boxing gloves and footballs. After they have grown out of the 'children's stuff' there is very little in the way of titles to retain young women's interest in computer games and, ultimately, in computers compared with the huge range available to tempt young men. Because most games revolve around male sports, war and the like, young females are essentially being given the message to 'keep out' whilst boys and young men are being offered an open invitation to join in the fun.

This is not a trivial point when considering that computer games are a primary medium through which children are introduced to computers and that through playing games they are learning about computers and learning to be comfortable and confident with this technology. This point becomes even more urgent when considering that computer literacy is fast becoming another essential skill in our society. Whilst we condone this male monopoly of games it follows that we will disadvantage girls and young women and even circumscribe their future careers. There is an analogy to be made with the written word. If the majority of books (novels) were written for males, and encouraged mainly males to read, then females would inevitably be disadvantaged.

Time for a Change
Isn't it time for games to be brought more into the mainstream? So long as they are primarily aimed at the few (young males) they will forever be thought to be suspect and never gain 'respectability'. Just why do computer game designers choose to ignore a potentially enormous market? This makes no long-term business sense at all. Surely there is room for so much more sophistication in making computer games attractive to a wider audience. This is not to say that fighting or football games should be eliminated, only that they should have their place among a sub-genre of games instead of predominating as they do now; and nor is it to say that games should be designed specifically for females ... perish the thought of more 'shopping' plots! As if this is what females want!

Imagine if all books were about trains and boats and planes! Think what we would be missing. The games industry is selling itself short. More variety must ultimately mean better games and more people playing them has to translate into more sales of computer games, magazines and computers! And this brings me ...

Back to the movies
As computer game players we all know only too well that the movie industry has begun to exert its presence on the computer game industry. We have all watched with great interest, and not all the results have been entirely successful because the inclusion of large segments of full motion video means less interaction and less gameplay. For females, however, there is potentially a more dangerous problem waiting in the wings ... as it is mostly males who do the doing in movies ... will this influence mean that females are further marginalised in computer games?

And what about the games industry itself? In pumping out 'action-packed' titles by the dozen it does have some resemblance to the movie industry even without recourse to movie techniques. So, bearing this in mind, will computer games eventually become universally popular as movies have done?

To answer this question it is necessary to look at the nature of both movies and computer games. Apart from cost of admission versus purchase price, they are very different because the former is generally a brief passive experience whilst the latter requires the investment of a lot more time and effort. (Surprisingly, computer games have more in common with books than with movies in this respect). Whilst it might be acceptable for many people (including females) to watch a movie and witness the compulsory gun fights and car/plane/boat chases for a just an hour or so, it's quite a different matter to take the driver's seat/cockpit/helm or pull the trigger and spend many, many hours seeped in intensive 'action'.

Thus, concentrating on 'action' as they do, it is very difficult to imagine that computer games will ever attract a wider audience. If game publishers wish to do so they need to broaden their horizons and maybe take a closer look at the book industry, especially if they want to attract a greater female participation. And, what is more important, some sort of strategy needs to be devised to destroy the myth that computer games are the sole property of young males. This will never happen when almost all publicity centres around action titles ... many, many people, and particularly females, are unaware that there is any other type of game ... if only they knew!

Copyright © Rosemary Young 1997. All rights reserved.