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From Barbie© to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins

When I was a sophomore in high school, I joined the school role-playing game club. They must have had signs up or something; I showed up for the first meeting of the school year and found a room occupied by a seething mass of male adolescent hormones, which, upon my entrance into the room, turned as one, gaping silently. At last their leader spoke:

"The honor society meets down the hall."

I informed him that I wasn't looking for the honor society; I was looking for the role-playing club. He remained dubious, but it really didn't take very long for me to become an accepted member of the group, even if variations on the following scene did play out more than once:

"You botch. You go into frenzy in a crowded bar." "I start making out with her so that the humans don't see her fangs!" "Okay . . . She bites off your tongue."

I was the club's only female member for the entire year, but the next year, several other female students joined—we were still in the minority, but there were enough of us that we probably represented about a third of any given club meeting (admittedly, it was a small club). At any rate, when we held the introductory meeting my junior year, nobody assumed that the new female members must be in the wrong room.

I tell this story because I think it demonstrates something important, and something that is particularly relevant to video games, which I promise, I am going to be writing about any second now. The question here is this: Why weren't there any girls in the role-playing club?

Answer: Because girls don't play role-playing games?

Question: Then why did a bunch more join?

Answer: . . . Because apparently they do.

Sometimes girls are told that they can't or shouldn't play RPGs or video games. But more often, I think, they are told that they don't. The cultural message is sometimes wrapped in hand-wringing and good intentions, but the underlying assumption beneath "Why don't girls play video games?" is still "Girls don't play video games." Technology in general, but game technology in particular, is viewed as a masculine domain. Girls use computers to word process, send instant messages, make a MySpace profile—but they don't use them to slay dragons. They just don't. And it's a lot harder to see what's wrong with that argument than a straightforward claim that slaying dragons is not ladylike.

Obviously, some girls do. Me, for instance. This is not a new development. My family never had a console system, but we got our first PC when I was six years old, and I played a lot of the old Sierra adventure games, particularly King's Quest. I played text adventures like Zork, and I was playing text-based multi-user dungeons (MUDs) avidly by the 7th grade. In college, I spent my freshman year so addicted to the PC version of Gex: Enter the Gecko that my then-boyfriend complained at great length about neglect. These days, I play City of Heroes (CoH), a superhero-themed massively multiplayer online game (MMOG); my main character is a level 37 electric/electric blaster. (That means I like to zap things dead.)

I'm not trying to argue that my experience is the norm. I'm well aware that it's not, and video games are hardly the most noticeable culturally gender inappropriate aspect of my personality or childhood. It is the case that boys and men make up the majority of the market for console video games and MMOGs, although women make up the majority for "casual" games like Tetris and Solitaire and pretty much anything you can play on your phone. The question of why this gets pigeonholed and largely ignored as "casual" gaming when it's mostly women doing it is one that I'm going to set aside for the moment, although I think it's an important one; I just want to make it clear that I'm not denying that the majority of the market for certain kinds of video games, although I and other women also play them, is male players.

The video game companies would like to sell these games to women, too. The video game companies would like to sell more games, period. They're not picky. Some people, of course, think that no one should be playing video games, but there are plenty of people wondering frantically how to get women and girls in on them. The girls are really the important market: get girls to play video games and eventually you will have women playing them. Learning basic game skills early is important if you're going to play and enjoy them later; most games will assume a certain amount of familiarity with the platform even from players new to the particular game. Much as kids learn the basics of computers early and then have a knowledge base from which to figure out unknown applications later, learning to play one game means that you'll probably have a basic idea of how to figure out other games like it later. The basics of City of Heroes were quickly apparent to me at age 24 largely from having played Ancient Anguish, a MUD, at age 11. Without that kind of background experience, games can be mostly mysterious and frustrating, rather than fun; too steep a learning curve will turn off most new players.

So assuming that you want women and girls to play games, the latter are the really important group to reach. But as I noted above, even when they're not being told that they can't or shouldn't play games, girls are still being told that they don't. The girl who does play games, therefore, is just weird, and if there's one thing that most kids don't want to be (again, I am an exception here), it's weird.

It's interesting to me that most discussions of why women don't play games focus on the content: women don't play games because the games are sexist. They are generally sexist. On the other hand, if you want to see some incredible levels of sexism, you can read a romance novel, and no one seems to be having any problems selling those to women. In fact, the covers of romance novels seem to bear a pretty strong resemblance to the art from video game ads. Men are strong and hulking and frequently wielding weapons; women are scantily clad and positioned subserviently. Men have the obvious physical agency. Studies of video game ads have found that men significantly outnumber women; this is actually probably true of romance novel covers as well, which tend to feature either a couple or a lone, bare-chested man. It's worth noting here that the content of romance novels is not usually experienced by female readers as denying the agency of the female protagonist (cf. Radway 1984), although this is the usual argument made about video game ads: women see no possibility for female agency in them, plus all the girls are wearing chainmail bikinis, so they don't play them.

The other part of the argument is that women don't like violence, and games are violent (see above: with my main character I zap bad guys with electricity; with other "alt" characters, I punch, claw, burn, or encase them in ice). And again, this may be in general true, whether you attribute it more to socialization or biology: women as a group are less likely to be interesting in hitting things than men. At this point, everyone holds up the example of The Sims, which I remember originally being touted as a 50/50 male/female game, but over 60% of its current sales of which, according to a recent New York Times article, are to girls and women.

And this is what's really interesting to me. Because if the game originally was sold about 50% to women, why did that proportion go up? The Sims got a lot of attention from the beginning for its appeal to women. Women were being told from the beginning that other women were playing it. And now, more women play it than men. The initial success with women may well have been due to the nature of the game—less violent, less specific achievement-oriented, emphasis on social relationships between Sim people—but I think there's more at play when you think about why the proportion of female players kept going up.

While it may certainly be true that more women could be drawn into games by offering a greater variety of content—such a strategy would probably draw in more people period—I think the perception of some kinds of games as exclusively masculine territory is doing just as much, if not more, to keep women from playing them. Girls and women are discouraged from even trying some games because it's just not something that "girls do," and this proscription is writ particularly large in MMOGs. You could play Grand Theft Auto in the privacy of your own home and no one would know that you were some kind of technological cross-dresser. But MMOGs, by definition, involve a persistent virtual world populated by other players, almost all of whom, most people assume, are male. The MMOG is not just a mostly male-populated world in the mainstream imagination; it is a masculine world. Women do not belong there, and this is particularly threatening for girls.

They don't belong there because, everyone insists, they just aren't there. The practice of gender-swapping, i.e. playing a character of the opposite gender, is widespread in MMOGs; some people have presented this as a form of transgressive identity play, but in my experience, it is typically done in the service of extremely traditional gender ideologies. Female players very rarely genderswap. According to Nick Yee's survey data, about one in two female characters is a male player; about one in a hundred male characters is a female player (see the Daedalus Project). When male players genderswap, they tend to give one of two reasons: either they just like to look at a female cartoon body in games that are generally third-person view or they felt that it was "appropriate" for the character to be female. The former is a pretty straightforward case of woman-as-sexual-object. The latter usually means that the character is a healer (nurturing) or some kind of magic or other ranged attack user (wimpy).

When you install City of Heroes on your computer, it runs through a fancy little slideshow about the different character classes, with a collage of images for each. Rather than showing various different characters for each class, however, each class collage shows a variety of poses for the same character. The tanker, blaster, and scrapper, all damage dealers, are male. The defender (healer) and controller (mage) are female. When I spoke to a community of CoH players about genderswapping last year, many of them independently put forth the same arguments as to why some characters "should" be female. One player who argued against the "all healers are female" stereotype did so not by saying "women aren't wimpy" or "empathy [the most powerful of the straight-up healing power sets] isn't wimpy," but "healers are like doctors, and doctors aren't wimpy!" Doctors, of course, should be distinguished from nurses. Doctors are men, and men aren't wimpy.

One way in which CoH differs from World of Warcraft (WoW) and most other MMOGs is in the degree of character customization allowed. There is a staggering array of costume options, as well as several body sliders for adjusting one's physical attributes—the body sliders, I understand, were not all available in the original release of the game; the addition of the chest slider meant that it was at last possible to create a female avatar who was only a C-cup. It is still impossible to create one who is fat, and there are actually three options for your body when you create a character: male, female, and "huge." "Huge" is, as you might guess, still basically male—just Hulk-shaped. There are many, many costume options, however, and even a C-cup female avatar may be androgynized with an appropriately baggy top. It's the male avatars that are hard to demasculinize; at one point I wanted to make a scrawny goth boy mastermind in City of Villains, but was unable to produce a male body that didn't look like it ran track at the very least.

At any rate, the most populous zones in CoH are just packed with improbably busty superheroines in high-heeled boots, and many of them are played by men—it is an MMOG, after all, and the majority of players are men. There are a lot of female characters of somewhat less epic proportions, too. My impression from spending a lot of time in CoH is that either there are actually more female players than in the majority of MMOGs, or genderswapping is more prevalent. It's hard to say. Most players acknowledge the prevalence of genderswapping, although most people are pretty confident, rightly or wrongly, that they can figure out player gender by interacting with a character. Almost everyone agrees, however, that if you see an improbably busty superheroine in fishnets and a chainmail bikini, she is, without a doubt, a 14-year-old boy. In fact, even women who have a character who is an improbably busty superheroine in fishnets and a chainmail bikini agree on this.

"I have a character like that," they say, "but I know I'm just weird. All the others are 14-year-old boys."

In a peculiar twist, the widespread knowledge of genderswapping has provided an easy account for "inappropriate" gender performance, whether it's being too aggressive or too sexy. The old adage of "nice girls don't" has been transformed into "real girls don't," and a lot of the "real girls" buy it. Even the women who actually play the games basically believe the mainstream claims that women don't play. They're not going to tell their friends that "lots of" or even "some" women play; nobody expects to go into these games and be able to play with women, unless they already personally know some. Knowledge of genderswapping in the culture has helped to erase even the women who are already there.

I know male players who play predominantly female characters, and when questioned directly about their own gender by other players, they tend towards evasion. Most of them say that it shouldn't matter. When other players ask me if I'm actually a woman, I always say yes, because I want them to know that this female player exists. Maybe this is part of why female players so rarely genderswap in general; although they do often mention incidents of gender-based harassment or other unwelcome behaviors, they don't usually seem to deal with this in MMOGs by playing male characters. More frequently, they may play desexualized female characters, such as Tauren (cow people) in WoW. And yet, these same women are still often buying into the idea that they're weird, that women don't play games, that women certainly never make hypersexualized avatars. It's the common knowledge that everybody knows: real girls don't.

I don't know what the solution is. Maybe it's time and technological development; get more girls and women to play, keep them playing, integrate streaming voice communication into games rather than forcing people to rely on text chat or third-party applications, although at least one company has hit on the great idea of marketing a voice-changing device that would allow female players to masculinize their voices; one article actually puts this forth as a great step forward for gender equality, as if nothing shows people that women can game like providing credible evidence that even real female players are actually male. But assuming that most women would not genderswap their voices, much as they don't genderswap their avatars, this might be the way to finally show people how many women are already there, and how widely their play preferences and styles actually vary. The sooner the better.


E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman photo


E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in social networks and relationships online, particularly how people maintain and develop relationships using a variety of technological channels, including MMOGs.
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