Gamer Girls Rising

Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming

edited by Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun

Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008, 350 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Latoya Peterson 

I was shocked recently when my father casually wondered why women don’t play video games. After all, at age six I was sneaking around to play with the forbidden Super Nintendo; at twelve I helped him select games for the shared home console; and at eighteen I had to fend off my younger brother, who had taken one glimpse at my two-console apartment and decided he wanted to live with me and play video games forever. I reminded my father of the girl gamer who grew up under his roof, but he just looked confused. The facts were there, but they were warring with the perception he had internalized: women don’t play video games.

Apparently the gaming industry holds a similar outlook toward the ever-increasing population of women who count gaming as a hobby—we don’t exist, or if we do, we are anomalies; games are for guys.

Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombatfollows up From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (1998). The original, academic-style tome anchored feminist gaming criticism and asked provocative questions about gender stereotypes in game design, creation, and marketing. Unfortunately, ten years out, we are still contending with many of the same problems. Edited by Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun, the update goes over some of the same ground covered in the original text, but extends beyond that to examine emerging trends in women’s gaming and game technology.

The book’s introduction lays out some pertinent facts: about 38 percent of video game players and 42 percent of online game players are female. About seventy percent of casual gamers are women. Estimates vary, but it is clear that women have become a major subgroup in gaming. Yet the industry still ignores them.

In an interview, Morgan Romine, the founder and team captain of an all-girl game crew, the Frag Dolls, describes the

cultural stereotype of gamers, that it’s 24- to 34-year-old males who are still living in their mothers’ basements, that those are the type of people who play video games because video games are not, of course, played by people who have other things going on in their lives.

This stereotype contributes to the exclusion of girls and women from the larger gaming conversation. In her essay “Becoming a Player,” T.L. Taylor notes,

The population that does play games is frequently seen as an anomaly rather than a prime informant for understanding how play works. Researchers, and people in the gaming industry, often talk about trying to capture that demographic of nonplaying “Vogue readers” to the exclusion of looking at the group that actually seems to be succeeding in inhabiting game culture now.

The exclusion of women extends to game design and physical play space. In “Getting Girls into the Game” Tracey Fullerton and her co-authors point out that “Computer labs in schools or clubhouses are often dominated by boys who tend to elbow out the girls and take control of the equipment.” And Carrie Heeter and Brian Winn, in “Gender Identity, Play Style, and the Design of Games for Classroom Learning,” report,

When boys play games (or use computers), when there are fewer machines than people, girls step aside. It is difficult to determine whether it is the girls’ “stepping aside” from their opportunity… or the boys “crowding out” the girls…. Nonetheless, this chemistry seems to exist between males and females pervasively when it comes to using gaming machines.

Researcher Holin Lin looks even further into women’s exclusion in her groundbreaking study of cybercafés in Taiwan, “Body, Space, and Gendered Gaming Experiences: A Cultural Geography of Homes, Cybercafés and Dormitories.” Deftly weaving connections between the threat of violence, gendered socialization, and the internalized expectations of the women themselves, Lin paints a scenario familiar to any woman who moves into a heavily gendered space. Taiwanese youth frequent cybercafés to increase their skills, use upgraded machines, and hang out with their friends. However, women gamers looking to participate in the fun have to contend with real-world harassment:

The layouts of some cybercafés serve as gender barriers: girls must pass through a room full of pool tables to access the back spaces that are reserved for computers. Most girls are not willing to subject themselves to the scrutiny of and comments made by the pool players, and therefore only enter when accompanied by male friends.

In “Maps of Digital Desires,” Nick Yee explores perceptions of female players in Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, noting similar barriers even in the virtual world:

Men are allowed relatively free access to online games, but a woman’s presence in an online game is seen as legitimate only if it occurs via a relationship with a man. Other male players use a female player’s relationship with a man as a means to legitimate her actual biological sex, to know whether a player claiming to be female is indeed a woman in real life. Playing an MMO as part of a romantic relationship also helps female players justify long hours spent playing; she is nurturing her romantic relationship as well as (presumably) having fun. Thus, these male relations legitimate both their initial entry and ongoing presence in an MMO. This parallels one of Lin’s observations of cybercafés in Taiwan… most girls are unwilling to enter a cybercafé unless accompanied by a male friend. Together, these stories imply that physical and social barriers to entry for women become misinterpreted as a lack of desire to play video games.

Despite the limits of online, virtual communities, however, they are often more appealing to female gamers than actual, physical cybercafés, as Lin points out:

Women’s fear and perceptions of risk are deeply rooted in their bodies, and avoiding dangerous places is a common practice for managing the fear of male violence. In contrast, no threat of physical harm exists for players wearing either female or male avatar bodies.

Lin goes on to look at college dormitories. While male, college-age gamers find camaraderie and community in their mostly male dorms, female gamers find dorm life to be another matter entirely, she says:

Gender culture plays a crucial role in shaping gaming dynamics in Taiwanese college dormitories. Being mindful of the needs of others is considered an important feminine virtue, whereas competitiveness and aggressiveness are considered male values

Often ostracized from their peers for their habits, many girl gamers in Taiwan find themselves with a tough choice to make when entering college:

As members of a small minority, female gamers must be more sensitive to their roommates’ reactions. Instead of inviting roommates to join them, they play alone and try to cause as little disturbance as possible. Many decide it is better to quit playing than to face further peer pressure.

Games give players the chance to reinvent themselves. Through the worlds they chose, the games they select, the avatars they create, and the online identities they adopt, they can step out of their physical selves and become completely different people, with new skills, challenges, and missions. Lin notes, though, that marking oneself as female online has both advantages and disadvantages:

Gender plays a pivotal role in social interactions in Taiwanese online game worlds…Almost all the interviewees stated that playing a female character has many benefits. Male players are generally more willing to guide, teach, and help female avatars and to give them valuable gifts. But female avatars are also more likely to be targets of verbal harassment, flirtation, surveillance, and endless efforts to determine the player’s real gender and age.

Lin concludes that “[c]ultural constructions of gender are ubiquitous and therefore hard to remove from any analytical interpretation of gender issues in computer gaming.” Her discoveries are not exclusive to Taiwanese culture—not by a long shot. Every nationality and race has its gender culture, and women are relentlessly policed to keep them inside accepted norms. So, men who are initially charmed by the idea of a woman gamer suddenly turn hostile when they realize she means to compete seriously. Girl gamers are often pressured to “grow out” of gaming, and replace the time spent with PCs and consoles with more female-appropriate activities—tending the home, nurturing friendships, and chasing boys.

Jill Denner and Shannon Campe express a recurring theme in Beyond Barbiein their essay, “What Games Made by Girls Can Tell Us,” in which they note that girls express “dislike for games where female characters are sexualized or portrayed as victims and not heroes.” Game designer Sheri Graner Ray succinctly summarizes the issue:

We want to be heroes. What we don’t want is to be hypersexualized, because that’s not a comfortable feeling. We do not hypersexualize the male characters in any way, shape, or form… When I [give talks] about this, I actually have these wonderful photographs of the Calvin Klein underwear models, the guys. I put them up on the screen and I say, “There you go guys, ready? Give him a sword and send him into Diablo.” Are you ready for that to be your avatar?” Every guy in the room wants to crawl under his chair. Now you understand!

Part of the solution to the disconnect between what games offer girls and what girls want is to diversify game-design teams, says Mia Consalvo in “Crunched by Passion: Women Developers and Workplace Challenges”:

[Forty percent] of the development team for The Sims Online are female and 60% of the players of The Sims Online are female…Likewise, the early arcade game Centipede had a female developer, and was quite popular with female players …Creating and maintaining a more diverse workforce, it seems, could result in games that are more gender inclusive, and that better reflect game play styles and content that would interest a broader population of gamers.” 

The contributors to Beyond Barbie maintain that “presenting programming with a story-telling focus” will help girls learn basic programming skills and find paths to careers in gaming outside of the high stress, low-pay hazing that now passes for employment in the industry

Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat is a solid work, and undoubtedly should be on the bookshelf of every gaming professional, feminist, and tech insider. However, a few things in it gave me pause. Sometimes, it felt like the writers and interviewees bought into gender stereotypes about women, as much of the discussion of how to get girls into gaming involved introducing elements such as relationships. It’s true, many women are attracted by a human element in their gaming experience—however, I would have liked to have seen more research about women who play so-called “boy’s games.” While the idea of crossover was mentioned from the design and marketing perspectives, a piece on the women who play games associated with the hardcore segment of gaming—Gears of War, Halo, Metal Gear Solid, and Grand Theft Auto—would have gone further to emphasize that women gamers are not a monolith.

Like the original From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, this update focuses on computers and PC gaming. However, with the introduction and breakout success of the Nintendo Wii, a gaming console aimed at capturing the casual gaming market, a few more essays that explore the changing market of console systems would have been a major addition to an already stellar title.

Still, the merits of the book far outweigh these minor criticisms. The depth of the essays and the wide variety of topics are a much needed wake-up call to an industry that seems determined to shoehorn girl gamers into an ever shrinking, highly neglected

Girls can’t be pigeonholed into any one game. Girls are not a genre; they are a market that’s just as broad and diverse as any market anywhere. There is no silver bullet. There is no one game you can make for all girls or all women, and to think so is silly and naive.

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