girls don’t play real games

Thankfully the obscene number of hours I’ve racked up on Don’t Starve don’t count, because it’s not a real game
Thankfully the obscene number of hours I have racked up on Don’t Starve don’t count, because it’s not a real game

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.”

Skyrim is probably only a real game if you play on Master and use mods
Skyrim is probably only a real game if you play on Master and use mods

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.

"The sign says 'No Homers'. We're allowed have one."
“The sign says ‘No Homers’. We’re allowed have one.”

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.

4 thoughts on “girls don’t play real games

  1. My sister and I would sometimes play an online shooter game. She had her own pic as an avatar and I had an alien. The other players would ignore me if I screwed up. They would call her a bitch if she screwed up.

    I would actually prefer to be an alien in real life, sometimes.

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  2. Yes, women should be able to participate in these places without sexual harassment, but… how? How do we get there? When I looked at the teams competing in The International 3 (http://www.dota2.com/international/home/overview/, recent large Dota 2 tournament) and saw not a single woman amongst them, for a moment I became seized with an angry zeal, a desire to claw my way up there for the sole purpose of demonstrating that, yes, indeed, women *can* compete. But then I remembered that I have a career (of sorts), and I don’t have the time or energy to devote to this. Most days I don’t even have the time or energy to deal with the repercussions of revealing my gender while playing games, especially because I wonder how much good it actually does. Having the same argument over and over seems to just aggravate me, while leaving the seemingly endless tide of assholes largely unchanged…

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    • Yeah, I mean, I agree that trying to have these conversations is often discouraging and often feel like there is literally no progress being made. Emotional energy is a finite resource and you hardly want to spend it arguing with assholes you’ve never met over a mic when you’re supposed to be having down time. I guess that’s why they call it a price of entry.

      My solution is continue making a ruckus about these things (and for me, obviously the blog is my outlet for that) but I absolutely pick my battles and refuse to have these conversations in certain settings. I definitely don’t think it’s the responsibility of any individual woman to expose herself to abuse and harassment in the name of fighting sexism.

      I do think the tide is changing though. Women in games are slowly becoming more visible and less of a novelty, and the “girls don’t play games” line is becoming increasingly obsolete. I’m a great believer in creating a critical masses of voices, because as well as being an effective way to get people to listen, it means everyone gets to take time off.

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