Three times in as many months, I have had some variation on the following conversation with three different dudes.
Me: Blah blah blah so misogyny in games is obviously a thing blah blah…
Dude: But girls don’t even play videogames!
Me: Actually, they do. Recent surveys show that around 45 per cent of gamers are women and this number grows every year. Also, overall, the number of female gamers is significantly higher than the number of teenage male gamers, who are commonly considered to be the primary target market for videogames.
Dude: … yeah, but girls don’t play real games.
You know, they only play Sims 3 or Angry Birds or whatever. They’re not serious gamers. Serious gamers play, you know, real games.
Inevitably, after a little bit of probing, the definition of “real games” turns out to be “Xbox first-person shooters.”
By this definition, the dudes are correct. Only 11 per cent of female gamers own an Xbox and an analysis of avatars across multiple first-person shooter titles indicates that men make up around 80% of the players. But taking a relatively small genre of games on a single platform and defining this as “real games” is absurd. It’s the equivalent of telling someone they’re not a real music fan because they don’t buy enough post-rock on iTunes. That they don’t like movies because they don’t have the complete works of Pixar on Blu-Ray. That they’re not a book lover because they only have a couple of high fantasy bestsellers on their Kindle.
(I had a paragraph in here talking about all the different games I’ve played, but then I deleted it because I remembered that there is absolutely no need to list my “gamer credentials” because a) no one would ever expect me to do that if I was a dude and b) pandering to gatekeepers would kind of defeat the purpose of this post. I like games, I spend money on games, games are awesome, end of.)
If you want to tell me that girls don’t play a lot of super popular Xbox games, then we can talk. I’ll even happily engage in a debate about why this disparity exists. Hint: It’s not because Women The Monolith have poor hand-eye coordination. It’s because Xbox chooses to lead with its most testosterone-driven male-power-fantasy titles and aggressively markets its brand towards men of a certain demographic. Also, because online multiplayer spaces are typically hostile environments for women.*
It is also not surprising that the prevalent view of what counts as a real game is defined by men. As David Futrelle points out, women are an overwhelming 80 per cent of the English speaking fiction market, yet there is no violent online outcry any time a man criticizes a work of fiction. Men are not expected to show their novel reading credentials if they go to a book signing. This is because, as with most things, men have traditionally dominated literary spaces so they are allowed (and indeed, expected) to participate in them by default. Men have also traditionally (and marginally) dominated the gaming industry as both creators and consumers, so many men still feel that they get to define what counts as a “real game” and therefore who counts as a “serious gamer” with a worthwhile opinion.
For a vocal subset of male gamers, clinging to this role as Grand High Arbitrator of Serious Gaming is crucial. They see the gaming community as a boys’ club and the existence of vocal female gamers as an invasion of their sacred space. “Girls don’t play videogames” is the sign outside their treehouse and by presiding over the definition of “real games”, they can change the entry requirements at will. Essentially, it is the type of gatekeeping that allows them to keep moving the gate. But this narrative is becoming increasingly impotent as more female gamers add their voices to the debate and more and more statistics emerge to prove that we are a valuable target market.
So yes, dudes. If your definition of games is “games that are specifically designed and marketed to appeal to men”, then I agree; not very many girls play that particular type of game for largely transparent reasons. However, if you’d like to join us in reality – where gaming is the fastest growing industry in the international media sector and enjoyed by a vast and diverse array of people – then you may want to rethink that statement before using it as your opening gambit next time you want to explain away rampant sexism in the latest Xbox guns-and-tits fest.
Yes, women play videogames. Yes, we have a stake in the industry and the industry has a growing interest in what we have to say. Yes, we’d like fewer regressive and grossly sexualised portrayals of women in our games and more well-rounded playable female characters. Yes, our evil feminist agenda is to make pixelated boobies illegal and turn all of your favourite games into sparkly pink pony adventures. It would be really cool if you could get on board with this and not get all kneejerk defensive every time a woman wants to talk about the representation of her gender in a medium she loves. But for now, get a better definition of real games. You’re going to need it if you want us to keep taking you seriously.
*Worth noting here that I think that even if only 11 per cent – hell, even if only 1 per cent – of Xbox Live players are women, they should be able to participate in these spaces without having to hide their gender or put up with a constant barrage of sexist abuse. Sexual harassment should not be the price of entry for any space, real or virtual.