/ Juliet Kahn / 1 am Sat, Aug 8 2015
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  • No girl wins: three ways women unlearn their love of video games

    No girl wins: three ways women unlearn their love of video games

    My little sister just wants games to be for her exactly what they are for boys and men: easy to love. Why does that have to be so hard?

    “Video games are a boy thing,” my sister explains to me. “I feel like it’s a known fact. GameStop is a boy store. The commercials are for boys. It’s just something everyone knows.”

    My sister is 17. She runs a One Direction fan Twitter with 10,000 followers. She plans to major in fashion marketing. She’s a cheerleader. She is as close as anyone can get to what gaming’s sweaty fever dreams envision, desire, and shame as "Girl."

    Like me, she knows from personal experience that girls play video games, and would hotly defend it if challenged. But a second tenet holds sway, as contrary as it is simultaneous: video games are for boys. The video games we’ve played don’t count. They’re concessions, scraps, snatches at the lucrative attention of little girls. It's not that my sister and I don’t like real games; it's that the games we like aren’t real.

    I ask about Style Savvy, Cooking Mama, Super Princess Peach—games she played without fanfare, without self-doubt, surrounded by torn-out Tiger Beat posters. Weren’t those fun? Didn’t she spend hours with friends, swapping Nintendogs? Doesn’t she remember the giggly hours she devoted to Club Penguin?

    “Oh yeah, those were fun,” she says. “I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t grow out of video games. Maybe video games just didn’t grow up with me.”

    It would be easy to cast my sister and I as opposites. I received a book of essays on The Scarlet Letter for my 16th birthday. She received Our Moment, the One Direction branded fragrance. I went to a college where I devoted myself to post-war politics and anime screenings. She dreams of a higher education experience full of tailgating and adorably slouched cardigans. A teen movie would have a field day: she, the blue-eyed beauty in a LOVE PINK hoodie, blinking blankly as she holds an Xbox controller upside down. I, the frizz-headed harpy, explaining that my half-elf duchess of darkness uses water spells, not fire.

    But I nod in agreement. “Yeah. Same.”

    I have a Steam account. I have a favorite Soul Calibur title. But fundamentally, we feel the same: not gamers, not welcome, and not interested in most of what we see at GameStop. Those years we spent swapping DS cartridges were, for the both of us, our only experience of games as uncomplicated fun. Then we grew up, and an avalanche of qualifiers buried us.

    We’re not gamers. We don’t play real games. We should stay out. My proximity to nerdhood, her proximity to the mainstream—neither matters. Video games did not grow up with us; video games did not grow up for us.

    Grand Theft Auto V

    Grand Theft Auto V

    I press my sister to explain how she knows games are a “boy thing,” how everyone “just knows this.” “I don’t know,” she answers tentatively. “Y’know, the commercials, and... everything. All of it. You know?” It’s difficult to explain why and how she just knows, in part because parsing the roots of any sociological phenomenon is difficult, but also because it’s just such an immutable fact for us.

    For girls who do not fight to be a part of the club, who are not conversant in that world of quarter-circles and Konami codes, it’s as codified as all the other gendered tenets of our lives. Video games aren’t for us the way football and finance aren’t for us: sure, there are girls who break in, and we applaud them for it at a comfortable distance. But where there is a welcome mat rolled out for men, there is only a bloodied stretch of briar for women. And it’s just not something we have in us to brave.

    There are girls and women who do not feel this way. Which is not to say they feel at ease in gaming, but they at least demanded a space there, and knew it to be theirs. I understand this: it’s how I feel towards the world of comic books, where I am comfortably ensconced as both a fan and critic. I knew I was not welcome, but I fought for my right to be present, to master the lingo, to insist on entering the conversation. It was a truth I knew in my bones: comics were mine, and no jumped-up fanboy who’d never even heard of Jackie Ormes could obscure my truth.

    When it comes to gaming, however, I am bereft of such confidence. I shrug and sound very much like the dozens of women I have known who protest that their love of Raina Telgemeier and Archie Double Digests does not make them a real fan. I don’t get games, I argue. Don’t pass me the controller, I’ll only embarrass myself. It’s not my turf. It’s not for me. I’m a girl, ok?

    This is our reality, and that of so many women, one that is silent, vast, yet largely unremarked upon wherever gaming is discussed. How did we learn this, I ask her again. How did our friends learn it? How did our mother? How do so many women, even today, learn that video games are not for them?

    “It’s everything,” she says. There is a pause. “And everyone knows it. I mean, there are girls who game. But everyone knows it’s not for them. But... yeah, it’s everything.” Over the following hour, we dissect “everything” as best we can. We find that, broadly speaking, there are three forces at work in teaching girls that video games are not for them.


    The first force is disqualification: It takes into account the fact that girls almost certainly have played video games, but then carefully categorizes the games they're most likely to play as illegitimate. It’s not hard to find this attitude wherever games are discussed. A mystery thriller like Her Story, a narrative exploration game like Gone Home, bestselling titles like Animal Crossing and The Sims, all manner of virtual pet sites: Not real games! Walking simulators! Boring! Easy! Dealing with women’s emotions, not having guns, or simply being enjoyed by women en masse—all of these qualities act as disqualifiers. It's not just that women supposedly aren't interested in games; it's that the mere presence of femininity defines the games they like out of existence.

    It didn't always feel this way, of course.

    “All my friends had a Nintendo DS when we were little,” my sister recalls. “I was really happy to find games related to my interests. Like, Style Savvy—that was my first step into fashion, really, as something I wanted to do.” I remember her unwrapping a DS for Christmas, in fact, her eyes bright, the games beside it in a candy-colored stack. “Remember Elizabeth, across the street? I’d go up to her room when we were like, 9 years old. We’d play Nintendogs and Cooking Mama. All my friends did it. No one was shy about it.”

    My early relationship to video games was similarly untroubled. I played Purple Moon games on our stout little Gateway PC, Pokemon and Harvest Moon with a chunky, colorless Gameboy, Neopets during the hottest part of the summer. And for a while, it was something everyone did. A female friend painstakingly pieced together a Pokemon newsletter and disseminated it to our entire third grade class, all of us hungry for rumors of “Pikablu.” Everyone got together for Math Blasters during free time. It was the late 1990s and my friends and I were just young enough, just high enough on Girl Power! to approach video games as we approached books, movies and TVs: as ours, inherently, and may the spirits of the Spice Girls damn anyone saying otherwise.

    But something changed during those latter elementary school years, as the boys started huddling together to talk Starcraft and Grand Theft Auto—as their masculinity began to ossify around ideas of not-like-girls, our femininity limited by ideas of not-for-girls. The rules changed as we learned to mold ourselves into pleasing shapes, as the boys began to look at us less like people and more like objects to spurn and/or pursue. We were not they, and our entertainment became as segregated as everything else. And as with everything else, anything on the side of “girl” fell beneath anything on the side of “boy” in worthiness.

    “Girl games,” like my sister played—games explicitly intended for that audience, often marked by glitter and pastel colors—are the sole province of those young years, before the chasm between “girl” and “boy” rips open. And in this new light, we learned to look back at them and shrug. They didn’t matter. They weren’t real games. We left them behind as artifacts of childhood: loved, but ultimately relinquished.

    Games grow up with boys from that point forward. We are welcome as long as we don’t drag anything that might exclude boys along—as long, essentially, as we are assimilative and quiet about it. And even then, that variety of game—Mario Kart, Angry Birds, Bejeweled—are roundly derided as barely being games at all. Anything without the requisite genuflection to the almighty god of Boy’s Interests is not a real game, it turns out.

    “Girl” becomes incompatible with “video games,” just as “boy” aligns with them. “Everyone knows it,” my sister repeats. What about the girls who do play the games that "count," I ask? Surely she knows they exist.

    “They exist,” my sister ventures. “But it’s way harder for them.”


    This is the second force that teaches girls video games aren’t for them: the social hierarchy of the gaming community, and the narrow, deforming spaces it offers to the women who do persevere. “They have to become one of two types. There’s the one gamer boys think is really hot, and they want her around, and they want to play games with her. But they’re still going to make her uncomfortable and say really explicit shit. I see it happen. If she’s cute, they tell her, ‘oh, I want to fuck you,’ and if she says no, she’s a bitch. She can’t complain.”

    And the other type? “The other type,” she says, “is the ‘weird’ gamer girl who sits alone in the cafeteria with her DS while the gamer dudes call her fat and ugly. Both girls get put down by guys. And anyway, gamer boys try to own gaming. They claim it as theirs, as a boy thing. They automatically think girls are doing it for attention. No girl wins.”

    My sister’s insight is startling to me. She’s never seen the way online harassment of women in games often centers around a woman’s sex life or looks. She doesn’t know about projects like Feminist Frequency, and the way even its most basic critiques of overt misogyny inspire firestorms of hatred. She doesn’t know about “fake geek girl” jokes. She doesn’t know that something called “Gamergate” swamped everything having to do with games in virulent hatred for months, destroying careers and too many people’s peace of mind, and leaving me reluctant even to write this piece. But she doesn’t have to know these things. The collision of gaming and misogyny is apparent to her from a few cafeteria tables away.

    She has come to understand that gaming is obsessed with her as a fuckable object, but not a human being. “It’s all about women’s bodies,” she says. “It’s gross.” Women’s bodies. Not women’s words, women’s feelings, women’s dreams, women entire.

    What of those gamer boys, unto themselves? “With the really serious ones, you feel like you don’t even know enough to begin talking to them.” There is the implicit understanding of this litmus test, and of it being exclusively imposed upon girls. “Guys get older and think they’re superior and there’s just this whole other boundary put up. The older you get, the less acceptable it is for girls to play video games.” My sister pauses thoughtfully. “But it’s not like girls grow out of games, exactly... It's that can get away with it. Growing up, I stopped feeling like I could take my DS anywhere, because boys would judge.”

    She goes silent. When she speaks again, her words are tentative. “But it isn’t like those games stopped being fun. I didn’t age out of games. I... gendered out of them, I guess?”

    I describe games like Journey, Transistor, Life is Strange, and Portal to her: games with female protagonists, created by women, resistant to dominant norms of sex and violence. “I don’t see commercials for those, though,” she demurs. “I see those Kate Upton commercials instead.” marketing

    This is the third force: marketing. “There aren’t really any games that seem positive to me,” my sister explains. “They’re all about violence and nudity. I don’t like how the female body is made out. It makes me really uncomfortable. All of the commercials are for guys.”

    She doesn’t know about Never Alone. She doesn’t know about Gone Home. But she knows about Kate Upton in a strategically knotted bed sheet. She knows about Booker DeWitt and his face-shredding skyhook. Anything beneath that top stratum of blood and jiggle is invisible to her. So why would she go spelunking into gaming with no clear purpose? Why would she assume there’s anything worthwhile out there for her to discover? Without me, she’d never have heard of all the progressive indie titles I rattle off, and would have no reason to believe they exist. She doesn’t know about Steam; she doesn’t even really know about PC gaming period.

    For my sister, and so many girls and women like her, the gaming marketplace begins and ends with these mainstream visions of gaming, and the mainstream stores like Game Stop that sell them. “It’s obviously for boys. The nudity of course, but even the colors. From what I see, they mostly hire boys.” We discuss the posters and cardboard stand-ups we’ve seen in their windows: stubbly white men cradling bricks of oily black weaponry, or half-naked voluptuous women with pouting, glossy lips inviting the onlooker to ogle. Be the hero, over and over again, in a million monochrome worlds: crush the bad guy, fuck the woman, do a whole lot of shooting in between. Games are fantasy and fun, the marketing tells us. Fantasy and fun built upon our backs.


    Our phone call falters, mired by my sister’s sad insight. How could the industry and community make this right, I ask? What would make you feel welcome? What could have kept me from a lifetime of fearful distance from gaming—even the games I love?

    “Maybe if they developed games for all interests,” she says tentatively. “Stuff like the games I liked when I was little, but... grown up. Games about everything. And if the stores especially were just more friendly? And less sexual. Less violent.” She pauses. “You need to make people want to come in, you know? Girls want to be comfortable there. They don’t want to go in and be surrounded by that kind of female nudity.”

    I agree, and we discuss what changes we’d make. We remember breeding Nintendogs, not-quite-swear-words on Club Penguin, Princess Peach’s magical parasol. The fun we had, the adventures we shared, the friends we made. “Cooking Mama!” she exclaims. “I loved Cooking Mama. It was so much fun.” I agree, recalling the tricky stylus technique one mastered over the course of many digital omelets. I can nearly hear her smile travel through the phone. “That’s what I want,” she says, wistfully. “More Cooking Mama games.”

    And that’s certainly what we need: more games featuring women, made by women, willing to tell stories about pop stars, witches, and queens, willing to work in palettes beyond army drab. But that will be meaningless if our understanding of what a game is and who a gamer can be does not expand wide enough or visibly enough to reach and include my little sister.

    She wants to play games where women make the world beautiful, save the day, make friends, or romance boys. She wants to play games without killing, without rape, without weaponry. She wants to play games that don’t assume you grew up on GameFAQS or have hundreds of dollars to shell out on hardware upgrades. She wants games on her phone. She wants game in her browser. She wants to live in a world where games are just as aligned with girlhood as boyhood, and where no one bats an eye at a girl like her loving video games alongside One Direction fanfiction and scented candles.

    In a way, it's simple; she just wants games to be for her exactly what they are for boys and men: easy to love. Why does that have to be so hard?

    Illo: Rob Beschizza. Photo: Shutterstock



    Notable Replies

    1. Okay, sure, but I was back there too along with my (older) sister, as was my housemate and her sister, plus all my other female friends. We also had to go through that "Trial of Nerd Fire" to claim our space and the "nerd boys" wouldn't sit with us because we had girl cooties. The problem is all you guys grew up and it became cool to be a gamer nerd, but us girls grew up and we're still fighting for our place because we have "girl cooties".

      That's what pisses off female gamers, just like every other time we try and do something that men view as us muscling in on their turf we have to do it twice as better and work twice as hard at it just to break even.

      I get it easy because I'm a "weird girl" (though I don't think I can really be a girl anymore when I'm in my mid 30s) and I like guts and gore, robots and shooting things in the face so all the masculine marketing doesn't phase me so much. However if I wasn't a girl or women who was in to that what would be my options? Cooking Mama (she of the fiery doom eyes)? Nintendogs? Animal Crossing? 3 games and assorted sequels to hold up to the hundreds of alternatives just one Game store holds is rather poor showing. How would men react if all gaming stores stocked nothing but Beauty Parlour 4 and Cuddling Kittens and had just a few games like Stealth Murder Spree and Ultimate Death Racing tucked in a corner hidden behind a giant unicorn plushy? Because that's what a lot of women feel like when they go game shopping these days.

    2. I like this piece, but I think there's an argument to be made that the opposite is true: the problem is that the vast majority of GAMES don't grow up: they settle at early male adolescence and never mature from there.

    3. I think this is an important opening salvo to a complicated question.

      As a dude, the first thing I see and want to blame is the marketing materials, which isn't a problem confined to gaming. Disney bought marvel so that super heroes could be for boys and princesses could be for girls, and now we have an entire generation of girls growing up with the idea that super heroes are not "for them." Gendered advertising in children's properties is huuuuuuuuugely problematic and pervasive, and videogames - as things crammed in to the "kid stuff" ghetto - have had this problem in spades. Either it's for girls or its for boys, and the marketing reflects that, it's never for everyone (of course not, "everyone" is not a targetable demo!). I feel like there's a giant conversation to be had around gendered kids' entertainment that no one is having and that will certainly affect videogames when we have it.

      That's a formative element - if games are just for boys when you're 8, they're just for boys when you're 58.

      That helps create some of the other problems you're seeing - the marginalization, the disqualification. That marketing makes marginalization OK ("it's not for you anyway, it's for me, why are you complaining?") and makes disqualification natural ("this isn't for you, it's not sold to you, you don't get to join it.").

      It's a reason, of course, though not an excuse - folks are always responsible for their own actions.

      We've been taught that games are a boy's space by people who sell games as a boy's space, though.

      I think this is why it's really important to get folks like your sister playing neat indie games - they're gamers, they've just been chased from the space. I can't blame 'em for retreating, but GETTING THEM BACK is my desire!

    4. You know, it's funny; I was just listening to a podcast aimed at Star Trek fans, and had to shut the damn thing off because the host had, on a previous episode, bashed Big Bang Theory for being "nerd blackface", and he doubled down on that in a later episode (the one I shut off.) And that was his argument: here you have actors portraying stereotypical nerdy behavior, for entertainment, and they're not nerds, they didn't get beat up for being nerds! Nevermind that Marina Sirtis wasn't a sci-fi fan, or that the best Trek was directed by people who aren't fans...but I digress. The thing was, it was pretty clear that after being outcasts themselves, they want to now police who gets and who doesn't get to be in the club.

      It probably doesn't help that in some of the criticism of Gamergate I've seen, people use "gamer" as a pejorative, shorthand for "misogynist asshole". If you do that, you're not helping. And if you were the type of person who made fun of the "nerds" in high school--c'mon, ladies, I remember high school, surely you do, too--you were part of the problem before you were part of the solution. And don't get me started on the people who get pissed at "Bronies" because they're, to quote one critic, "shitting on things made for girls." Look, if you want to smash gender norms, don't get pissed when boys like MLP, OK? (As an aside, one of my kids is addicted to the MLP mobile game, even if it's literally impossible to win without spending money. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.)

      The indie titles, though...they'd better be interesting. I was exploring Dear Esther when one of my daughters came up, watched for a minute or so, declared, "Boring," and walked off. Now she plays those micromanagement games. I don't get it.

      Uh...yeah...the game that singlehandedly saved Nintendo when the Wii-U failed?

      Though to be fair, I hadn't taken Zelda seriously, even though I'm an adventure game fan, because it was a console game. My loss.

      I'm scratching my head at this. Is the sister buying in to the notion that a "gamer" is someone who plays high-end console games, or what? About half the gaming population is women, but that's only if you count everything that "hardcore" gamers count as "not games", like mobile.

      By the "hardcore gamer" metric, I'm not a gamer. But that doesn't matter imho, because some of the most popular games of the past 10 years involve flinging birds at pigs, crushing candy, matching jewels, waiting tables, and so on.

      One of the most popular games of the past 15 was about farming, for God's sake.

      Not only that, and maybe it was because I never had money for buying games when I was a kid, but: some of those super-fun games can be implemented easily now. You can implement Tetris in Python in less than 100 lines.

      I guess what I'm driving at is this:

      And that’s certainly what we need: more games featuring women, made by women, willing to tell stories about pop stars, witches, and queens, willing to work in palettes beyond army drab.

      Full stop, right there. Because once you go to here,

      But that will be meaningless if our understanding of what a game is and who a gamer can be does not expand wide enough or visibly enough to reach and include my little sister.

      Is your little sister on social media? Does she have an iPhone? Does she have an iPad? I'm sorry, but I've had to block all the popular social media games on Facebook because I'm inundated with requests on games. They're almost exclusively from women, to the point that I get weirded out when I get a request from a guy. Your sister seems to live in a bubble, and I almost envy her for it. It seems like the only way to reach your sister is to put a cardboard cutout in a mall. Don't know about the malls near you, but the one nearest to me looks like this:

      (No, not really...but not far off. Give it about 5 years.)

      I honestly think that most people never make a game for the reason I've never made a game: just making a game is hard. Once you get beyond that, making a game that people want to play is damned hard. Having said that, there are so many tools for learning and for creating these days. Remember how there were so many games back when computer companies shipped with BASIC interpreters? It's easier now. I know what some of you are thinking: a small team of women isn't going to make a nonviolent game as compelling and beautiful as Bioshock Infinite. But here's the thing: you don't have to make a beautiful FPS to make a compelling game. Here's a screenshot from one of the most compelling games I can think of:


      I played that thing for hours. I wish I had that kind of time today...

      And if there's any good news to be had out of all this, at least the Game of War Kate Upton ad campaign didn't work all that well. The same night they revealed her, Supcercell revealed the Liam Neeson Taken-themed ad, and there was a heck of a lot more chatter about that than about Kate Upton's boobs, and how they fit in a toga.

    5. Totally disagree with you. I'm a 37 year old gamer and have been playing since Zork.

      GamerGate started as a harassment effort. Whitewash it all you will, but it did. It says these things about wanting voices to be heard, but it desperately churns to silence certain voices, misinterpreting what is actually said, feeding on it and then stirring people up to keep things going, then complaining that they keep going. It says that women who say they are being harassed (which DOES HAPPEN A LOT) are playing victim.

      Ethics in Game Journalism. Seriously, no one even talks about that, they are all talking about Anita Sarkeesian who Sargon says isn't even a journalist though he spends an enormous amount of time talking about her. How can you even have ethics in Games Journalism when it's all subjective? All GamerGate has done is give us the effect of anytime a non-violent, non-mainstream game that portrays things differently in some way gets a positive review it gets slapped a label on it of being "collusion" or "sjw." It is not doing anything to help anyone, you can be sure. The defacto position: This game talks about politics. SJW! This game has a main female character that does not shoot things. SJW! This has gay characters in it, or characters of color. SJW! This reviewer said they loved this game (usually this comes from fanboys who rail about TellTale games and scream about quick-time events) COLLUSION!

      How on earth has this stupidity helped anyone? The extreme amount of negativity generated from GamerGate is astounding, and what is worse it's own members are totally oblivious. Young kids sitting around going on about graphics like oh my god this game sucks the graphics don't look like the Last of Us. Like they are judging fine wine. Criticizing anything that is outside of their own wants and needs as negative, that doesn't have women in it with giant bouncing titties as being boring, which means even if you have women with well rounded characters who have giant bouncing titties that they are boring and uninteresting if they DON'T. Trying to get others to torpedo games that they don't like because well, they don't like them and are SJW. Yeah, GamerGate's been a huge blessing for diversification in the game industry and giving developers a voice and everyone a voice. Right.

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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