Girl Game Power - Almost

By Paul Artz | February 12, 2009
Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble

Is it really true that gaming is only for boys? Paul Artz gets the facts on fan girls.

The myth, according to video game fans and makers, is that girls lose all interest in games once they turn thirteen. Before then they are just as devoted as boys, spending hours playing games based on their favorite toys and shows, like Dora the Explorer or Barbie, or inside virtual worlds like Club Penguin and Webkinz. Then, just as the boys discover World of Warcraft and Halo, the girls walk away.

Like most myths, some of this is true and some is fiction. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, nearly all teenage girls play games, but the same study finds that as girls grow older they play less frequently and give up on trying new genres like first-person shooters and complex strategy games.

The easy assumption is that girls just don't like these types of games. But ask Sheri Graner Ray, author of Gender Inclusive Game Design and co-founder of the Women in Games International group, why girls don't like these games and she hits back: “That's a little like saying women don't like the food in strip clubs.”

The games don't keep girls away. It's the way they depict women that turns them off.

Tomb Raider Underworld

Tomb Raider Underworld

Since their beginning, and especially after the mid-90's, when game technology allowed for 3D game characters, video game heroines have looked like they’d fit more comfortably in Playboy than in battle, and often ran into battle wearing nothing more than chain mail bikinis. The most famous, and one of the first, is Tomb Raider's Lara Croft, played by Angelina Jolie in two movie adaptations. Lara Croft is smart and strong, a world-traveling archeologist in the model of Indiana Jones, only younger and with hot pants and a spine cracking figure. But, according to Ray, Croft's chest is fine. Videogame heroes should look the part, she explains, and large breasts and a thin waist on a woman hero are no worse than broad shoulders and thick arms on a man. The difference, however, begins right on the box cover, where women are too often shown in the height of arousal ––red lips, flush cheeks and mouths open to indicate heavy breathing. In game advertising and even in some games, the women are heroes who are “showing the signs that say, 'do me, baby,'” Ray explains.

It's not the sexy heroine Ray doesn't like, it's the heroine ready for sex. As a counter to Lara Croft take Sony's game, Heavenly Sword, which gave its heroine, Nariko, long, flowing, red hair and a body just as glorified and over-exposed as Croft's, but the game's cover shows a much different woman. Nariko holds her sword pointed at the camera, ready to stab, while she glares out tight lipped, with her eyebrows furrowed into a stern look letting you know she is ready for battle, not sex. Compare that to the cover of the recent Tomb Raider sequel, which crops Lara off above her nose, and below her thighs, putting the controversy-stirring bits right in the center, and at the top are those large red lips, slightly parted.

Imagine Movie Star

Imagine Movie Star

Ray sees images like that and wonders how interested a man would be if the cover of World of Warcraft featured a poised Calvin Klein model.

For women who do like games, there are a few online sites to discuss their hobby. Three of the best are GameGirlsUnite.com, LesbianGamers.com and ThumbBandits.com, all of which host forums devoted to games often assumed to be the favorites of men and boys.

While traditional videogames keep women and teenage girls at a distance, a growing class of games, ushered in by Nintendo's Wii and online game sites, have turned women and girls into one of gaming's fastest growing markets. These are what the industry calls “casual games,” small and simple games that can be played in short periods. Often they're “puzzle games” like Tetris or the more recent Bejeweled, and today women and girls make up 70% of casual game buyers. Not surprisingly, game makers are turning their attention to this previously ignored player and putting out the kinds of games they assume women and girls want. The recent “Imagine” line from Ubisoft, games created for Nintendo's DS handheld console, gives girls the chance to play as fashion designers, wedding planners, mothers or teachers. They're the 21st Century's Easy-Bake Oven – toys that focus as much on fun as what girls should be when they grow up. So far, Ubisoft hasn't put out Imagine Detective, or Imagine President.

Not all casual games, however, have such a limited view of what women want to play.

Take, for example, Keith Nemitz and his game Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble. The game has players take on the character of a high school girl out to solve her town's mystery, all while making friends, taunting bullies, and flirting with boys. The game is played in a town and high school where you're more likely to find a girl smoking in the bathroom than brushing a pony. Nemitz's game looks more like a silent film than the usual Technicolor in most “girl's games.” Set in the 1920s, with sepia colors, the look of a worn film reel and with characters inspired by Mae West and Marlene Dietrich in flapper dress and bob haircuts. Dangerous High School Girls is one of the few casual games that's also a hit with critics. It's even earned Nemitz a nomination from the Writers Guild of America for best videogame writing (pitting him against the latest Tomb Raider).

Even with casual games as good as Nemitz's, Ray is still waiting for the day when game makers don't look at one type of game and assume that's the one for girls. Women aren't a genre, she explains. Assuming casual games are enough just replaces one myth with another.

For five popular computer games for tween girls, read Take Five: Tween Girl Computer Games.

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