It's not about the boobs (or, why women don't play games)

Before I go on to look at why ARGs appear to be more successful in drawing a female playerbase than other types of gaming, which I swear I am going to get to sooner or later, I'd like to consider one of the pieces of conventional wisdom on why women don't play games. The debate always in the end comes down to Lara Croft and her breasts. Women are alienated from games, so we are told, because the women in games don't wear enough clothing, and because they're just too hot to make real women comfortable. I think that's missing the point.

I'll agree there are some problems with the portrayal of women in games, but for the most part, the wardrobe and the boobs just aren't the problem. If you look at media targeted at women (magazines, advertisements, trashy romance novels) they more often than not include a beautiful (and often not-entirely-clothed) woman as the major art element. At the end of the day, is the elf-chick on the EverQuest cover art really so different from the model on the cover of Cosmo? One could argue that these are images that are equally unattainable for your average Jane. And let's be perfectly honest, here -- what male gamer is ever going to look like Duke Nukem? And why doesn't that matter?

This is the part where I admit that I bought EverQuest after picking it up in the store a hundred times to look at that cover art. I played Street Fighter II just so I could play Chun Li. When I played Super Mario Kart, I was always Princess Peach, and I can't tell you how excited I was when King's Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella came out. There was a time when finding a female character to play at all was difficult to impossible, so each new one was fabulously exciting. But I wouldn't play Kurenai in Red Ninja if you paid me to do it.

The problem isn't one of personal appearance so much as one of characterization. The boobs and the wardrobe really, truly aren't the problem. The problem is that in the world of gaming, female characters are very often a hollow husk of sexuality, with little more in the way of character depth or motivation. Costuming choices -- well, they're just a symptom. It's not that the girls in games are hot. It's that all to often, that's all they are.

We've at least moved on from the days when the only female in the game was the one you had to rescue. There are a whole slew of action games in which the primary character is female, and a real ass-kicker, too. But the primary focus remains on the secondary sexual characteristics. At E3 this year, Tecmo's whole angle was "Our girls are better than yours." And by better, did they mean more richly characterized? Deeper in motivation? ...I bet you can just guess what they meant.

So, OK, as a broad group, women aren't demanding dumpy, sallow avatars with lank hair, flat chests, and bad teeth. Sure, back in my EverQuest era, I designed my character with some thought to what would be prettier. (Though it bears pointing out that there are girls who are totally comfy playing unattractive Horde characters in WoW, for example.) What we want is to get rid of that lingering sense that the women in video games are porn stars who happened to take a couple of martial arts classes. We want the chance to play a female character who isn't the end result of a male wish-fulfillment fantasy. We want characters that we could identify with.

The other side of this, though, is that trying to explain why there aren't girl gamers is a losing -- and dare I say pointless -- battle. That's because there are girl gamers. There is an IDSA survey from 2002 showing that 43% of PC gamers and 35% of console gamers are women. I'd guess it's higher now, if anything. So why the lingering perception that women don't play? At a guess, it's from that same survey -- only 19% of women play action games. There's an underlying cultural assumption that playing online trivia games, or puzzle games, or card games somehow doesn't make you a gamer.


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