Women Gamers, Women in Games: Statistic vs. Stereotype

I just read a list on Cracked.com about being a gamer.  Some of the things it had to say were right on, and some things tended to pertain to a small portion of the gamer demographic.  But it had some interesting things to say about female gamers.  I know this issue is talked to death, and I know I’ll probably offend some people, and probably miss some points of discussion.  But 1.)it’s my blog and I haven’t talked it to death, 2.)if you’re offended at least you think about things (and give me the opportunity to learn more about others’ perspectives) and 3.)this is such a huge topic that I’m bound to miss things, and accept that.  So: what does it mean for me pesonally to be a female gamer, and what do I think about women in games?

Interestingly enough, current statistics show that nearly 2/3 of online gamers are women.  Normally I like to defy the statistics in my ongoing quest for individuality.  However, this is one case where I’m proud to be part of the statistics, and a member of the majority.  I’ve been gaming in earnest since I was young, and owe much of that to Samus Aran of Metroid fame.  Growing up I was used to the idea that the Princess was in another castle.  So imagine my delight when the end of Metroid revealed that the badass bounty hunter I’d taken all over Zebes was a woman!

I’ve never been one of those female gamers that complains much about the portrayal of women in games.  I’m happy to see more and more female characters taking the lead and going out to kick arse and take names, and when I play online (mostly Halo: Reach) I play as my female Spartan.  But what was troubling to me was that I recently read that many women prefer to play online as males.  Granted the study is nearly four years old, but conversely, I was having a conversation with a friend once about males and females online and he said that sometimes he intentionally plays as a female character because people underestimate him.

Now that got me thinking.  Around this time last year, Halo: Reach launched the weekly challenge of 77 online matches in seven days.  Luckily we had two snow days and one delay that week, because I spent my time playing online Halo matches.  I played as my female Spartan, but I kept my mic off mostly because I find in-game chatting distracting for me.  Normally it isn’t an issue, but during one match I got a kill, but then fell and my character made a noise.  The chat got very quiet, and then I heard one person say to the other, “I think there’s a girl playing.”  I had to ask myself, “Why does it matter?”  I can guarantee that if I was playing as a male Spartan it wouldn’t have been an issue; with my mic off, I would just be an anonymous male Spartan trying to kill everyone while they all tried to kill me.  But because I played as a female it started question and discussion.

Usually statistics go hand in hand with developing stereotypes.  However, the Female Gamer is not one such case.  66% of online gamers are women, and yet people are surprised to learn that they’re playing in a match with a female.  Is it because the stereotypical female gamer plays a different sort of game?  Or behaves in a different sort of way?  For me, when I go into a match as an openly female character, I don’t expect to be treated any differently, and I don’t behave any differently.  For me, we’re all gamers and we all have an objective, and it usually involves killing everyone else.  Why should gender matter in that objective?

It also seems to me that the perception is that stereotypical female gamers also will spend time complaining about the oversexualization and objectification of women in games.  I went to a panel at PAX East last year about female characters, and the focus wasn’t on the necessarily overly sexualized characters, but the ones that were portrayed either as realistic in terms of build or personality (Morrigan from Dragon Age stood out, which I remember because I picked up Dragon Age for the first time about a week later); or the ones who were portrayed not as overly sexual, but as helpless.  The princess in another castle, if you will.

For me, I’m less worried about female characters being objectified sexually, and more concerned about them being written as more passive, damsel-in-distress types of characters.  People may voice opinions about Lara Croft’s bust size, but at least she’s out there being proactive.  Kat, in Reach, would kick your arse if you suggested she was attractive in any way.  The stereotye of a female character as overly sexual overshadows the reality of passive DiD sorts of characters.  And since the focus is more on how women are objectified sexually, there’s no real look at how they’re objectified through being passive.

Princess Toadstool was always in another castle; theobjectof Super Mario Bros. was to save her.  Thank the gaming gods for Samus, coming along and blasting her way through Zebes!  Even after she was revealed as a female, she was still blowing up planets like it was her job.  Then in 2002, Metroid: Fusion came out.  Samus was stalked around a deserted space station by an over-powered clone of herself, and had to rely on the guidance of a computer AI, who reminded her of her dead Commanding Officer if she were to survive.  It was a different sort of game, and it portrayed Samus as slightly more vulnerable than in the past.  Coming at it from my perspective, where I enjoy character depth and whatnot, it was very interesting to see a new side to her. 

The Metroid formula changed some as the technology did, and with it, Samus changed.  The lone bounty hunter got teammates in Metroid Prime: Hunters for the DS, and in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption for the Wii.  In Corruption, Samus wound up having to kill her team when they attacked her; while it followed the boss fight formula, it was interesting because Samus had worked with these people earlier in the game, and become more of a character defined by those around her as a result.  And then came Metroid: Other M.  I don’t have a Wii, but even if I did, and even as much as I love Metroid, I wouldn’t play it because of this article.  As someone who’s been in an emotionally abusive relationship, these things resonate with me to begin with; but then seeing Samus, who started out so strong and competent and capable and unapologetic reduced to that?  To see her written as a lost little girl, when she left that behind with the Chozo long ago?  Her strength was something that defined her and made her different.  To take that away demeans her not as a woman, but as a character in general.

Not all characters have gone that way.  Zelda went from the kidnapped prisoner in Ganon’s dungeon to Shiek, a highly trained fighter.  And Dragon Age: Origins has Queen Anora, who will even stand up to her father in spite of the fact that he’s one of Ferelden’s most celebrated generals.  She knows what she wants and what she has to do to get it.  And most of all, she’ll do that if it means achieving her endgame.

And that’s where I feel I am now as a woman who is a gamer.  I’m sure I’ll raise some hackles with all I’ve said, and that’s okay.  This is a difficult issue, where even people on the same side will have different reasons for why they’re on the same side.  But one thing is clear: the statistic and the stereotype don’t always match up, either in the case of the games’ characters, or the gamers themselves.  I may fit a statistic, but I’m not steretypical.  And you shouldn’t be, either.


9 comments on “Women Gamers, Women in Games: Statistic vs. Stereotype

  1. Very great article! Lets not forget the way men flock to women in games as well. For example, one of my good friends plays as a female character in an open world RPG online because he says he gets a lot of free stuff from other male characters. Just yesterday I was playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 online and I received a message from a player on the opposite team saying how I was very good and ending his message with the word “missy” and a winking face.

    Some games surprise me that they do not even have the option of playing as a female character. Halo: Reach, and even before that in Halo 3, had the option of playing as a female Spartan. But in Call of Duty, one of the biggest gaming franchises in North America, let alone the world, does not even allow you to play as a female solider and they claim to be titled “MODERN” Warfare. I understand that they have several different branches of military from several different places within their game, but why not embrace having women fighting for their country?

    Great article to get both men and women thinking Jen 😀

  2. HAH! I used to play female characters in Everquest and Asheron’s Call because dumbasses would give me stuff. True story. Not sure if there was quite as many female gamers back then though.

    The Halo crowd are pretty tame, try hopping into MW3 and letting the room know you’re a gal… Either you’re bombarded with a whole bunch of misogynistic tough talk or the room devolves to a bunch of babbling fools groveling to come to your aid and save you while nervously swinging “that’s what she said” jokes into the mist. There were a few females in CoD I came across that were able to dish it out as well, mind you. And a few others that should have been dished out (they were worse than the males!)

    In life I’ve come to an understanding about stereotypes and it boils down to never judging a book by its cover. Whether we like it or not, stereotypes do exist. But the crime is not in the assumption of the stereotype, the crime is in not digging any deeper to see what else is there.

    Morrigan is the first truly fleshed out female NPC I’ve encountered in a game. If that makes any sense. It was love at first sight for Eadon, my Elf wizard with that one, sure was! Didn’t they make an expansion about tracking her down… Now I have to borrow the game back from my brother and do that. GEESH, THANKS JayRain, I haven’t even played FIFA 12 yet now I got something else to play as well!!! (jk)

  3. I have been a female gamer playing online MMOs since 1991. They were called MUDs and MOOs then, but they did exist. I’m very glad that back in the day you could hide the fact that you were female because there were no such things as voice chat in them. But if you did play as a female…well, you got free stuff. You also got propositioned for cybersex (it was called netsex then) every 20 seconds. So mostly I played gender ambiguous characters. My two most commonly used names were Deagh and Hawke, and if players assumed I was male, I did not correct them. It was just so much less annoying that way.

    Even now, I have some male avatars in Lord of the Rings Online. One of them is a maxed level tank, and he is a BAMF. I usually don’t talk in voice chat because when I do say something and people realize I’m female…things change. I get treated differently….like it’s some kind of fluke that i have skills. People wonder why I want to play a tank and not a healer, because healer is a girl role. Not always, but it does happen, and I don’t particularly care for it. Easier to just keep gender out of it, if I can.

    There are games out there that don’t objectify women – Lord of the Rings Online doesn’t actually have any particularly revealing clothing – even if you run a character around in their underwear you see very little skin – but those are fairly rare. I guess my point here is that this is a great article and gives one something to think about. Hopefully one day we will grow up as a genre.

  4. I always get a bit touchy when Paladin plays as a woman in video games. I don’t know why it bugs me, but it does. It might have something to do with the way I perceive women in video games, it may just be because I don’t want him to play a girl. I have never played a male in video games, even in games like the Soul Calibur franchise.

  5. I can’t speak to to women and online play; but I know it still rattles my fiance just a little when he hears a girl’s voice during his online sessions of CoD, BF3, or some such — it’s not a bad thing, but he just doesn’t expect it. My main beef is with the industry that, as that Cracked article says, still thinks that most gamers are 17-year-old boys with nothing better to do. People like Jane McGonigal (http://janemcgonigal.com/) are trying to change that perception (of gaming as a whole), but even for her it is an uphill battle. I would like to see more women in TV, TC commercials, movies, etc. actually playing games – for fun or in seriousness – t just being the perpetually perplexed co-stars wondering why their boy friends are playing such nonsense (or even worse, being made to look ridiculous as they themselves try to “join in the fun.”)

    But no more soapbox. Your article makes a good point about the interesting growth of women as depicted in games. I certainly don’t mind playing a “sexy” character as long as she’s confident; and it’s especially great when she has a good backstory. It’s much better than playing some weeping willow who can’t stick up for herself (and not that there are many of those in games).

  6. I think women gamers are definitely very present, and they aren’t necessarily playing only female-oriented games, either. It’s ignorance and sexism, pure and simple. That’s why boys and men are “surprised” by the presence of a female gamer. I only know one true “gamer,” and I will say that at age 31 he is still extremely immature. He’s been single for most of his life, despite the fact that he’s really good-looking and a pretty sweet boy. But there’s just something … off about him. He’s a 15 year old boy trapped in a man’s body. So this is sort of how I see the great majority of serious male gamers.

    About Morrigan … yes, she was fairly well-developed, but a couple things did bother me. One, her outfit was ridiculous. RIDICULOUS. There is no way her breasts would have stayed as … buoyant … as they did, without support. And I’m assuming that forest she lives in must be a tropical jungle, but otherwise she’d be freezing her ass off.

    Secondly, a lot of the comments you could give her were downright degrading and sexist. I think you could call her a frigid bitch or something. Ugh. Come on.

    I find Isabela a VAST improvement on Morrigan. The only, and I mean ONLY problem I have with her is her lack of pants. It’s equally RIDICULOUS (although not gravity defying, at least). But let’s be honest with ourselves and admit the woman must have a constant wedgie. Yuck!

    But other than that, I of course agree with you that things have improved in leaps and bounds 🙂 Oh, and another great female protagonist you forgot to mention is the girl in Portal. Was so thrilled when I learned, halfway through playing it, that she’s a woman!

  7. Oh, and as for women playing as male characters or female characters … I have always played as a female character, when given the option, until DA2 and DA:O. That’s chiefly because of the m/m romances though. Since I have the option to create a drop dead gorgeous male Hawke who can romance either a studly but tortured Anders or a cute-as-a-button Fenris, I see absolutely no reason to ever, ever, ever create a female LOL

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