Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Gender in the History of Video Games

For today's post, I don't really have time to grab anything out of my old notes-- the end of the semester is packed with things that need to be done, and as fun as it is to keep my blog up to date, it's not really essential to progression in my Ph.D. program. But fear not! What you get instead is an excerpt from a paper I'm writing for my qualitative methods class. A lot of people write about video games and gender, usually not in a complimentary way. They dislike the way female characters are represented and the fact that video games tend to have more male than female players. I'm interested in seeing if these academic perceptions of gender and video games translate to gamers themselves, so I decided to do my research and the required interview for this project around video game consoles, to see if they were conceived of in terms of gender. In short, do gamers view some consoles as more acceptable for girls than others?

I'm still hashing out my own conclusions, but the following is an extract from my textual analysis for the paper, where I address what people have said about gender and games, what is going on now, and where my work fits in. This is the "Gender in the History of Video Games" section, focusing specifically on the narratives academics construct around games. Enjoy and let me know what you think! Sorry if it's kind of long, but I couldn't think of a better place to cut it off.  The formatting is also being all wonky on me, so sorry for that.

In his book, The Ultimate History of Video Games, journalist, gamer and author Steven Kent writes, “In April 1979, [video game designer Toru] Iwatani… wanted to make a non-violent game, something female players might enjoy... Since the game was supposed to appeal to the female audience, Iwatani felt that the monsters had to be cute” (Kent 141).  This quote illustrates the two major themes that would prove to be remarkably resilient in cultural conceptions of video games, lasting up to the present day.  First, it shows that even early in the history of video games (which became a commercially available around 1971), they were seen as a “male” activity.  Second, it implies that females and males look for different things in video games; while males might seek violence or action, females are attracted to cute characters and bright colors.  Interestingly, by stressing these two ideas, the quote overlooks the fact that Iwatani’s “female game” was Pac-Man, an instant hit and commercial success (Kent 143).  This story should have illustrated the importance of reaching the female audience, but this lesson was largely disregarded.
            From Barbie to Mortal Kombat (FBtMT), a collection of articles on games and gender edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, demonstrates the staying power of the “video games + male” idea through its in-depth coverage of the “girl’s game movement”, a push for developers to create games that would attract girls to video games.  This focus alone demonstrates the way in which access to video games was seen as unequal, with the audience being conceptualized as male to the point where a feminist-informed response was provoked and outside parties felt a movement for equity was needed. Masculinity is thought to be “the invisible norm” (Cassell & Jenkins 25) in video games, reproducing male dominance and patriarchal ideology.  Each chapter serves to expand upon this idea by showing how many different factors in video game design contribute to their appeal to males at the expense of females. The authors and contributors discuss, for instance, the hyper-sexualized representations of many female video game characters, particularly Lara Croft of Tomb Raider (Cassell & Jenkins 30, Jenkins 338-339), and the ways in which this can contribute to unrealistic cultural standards of beauty as well as turn off female interest in playing as such a character. 
            Berger mentions Lara Croft as well, discussing her within the context of Laura Mulvey’s “male gaze” and scopophilia, emphasizing the sexual pleasure to be gained from “control[ling] Lara Croft and other beautiful voluptuous women”  (Berger 67).  These analyses demonstrate that video games are still conceived of as male and seem to be designed to pleasure the male viewer far more than the female viewer.  An article published as late as 2006 argues that games are male in focus because male characters were more common, more likely to be playable by the gamer and far less likely to be discussed in a sexual manner.  James Ivory, professor at Virginia Polytechnic University, confirmed this through a content analysis of 100 video game reviews, where he found found, for example, “Active male characters were mentioned in 75% (N=75) of the reviews, whereas active female characters were described in only 33% (N=33) of the reviews” (Ivory 110).  Released after the newest generation of video game consoles, this article seems to demonstrate that the bias toward a male audience still persists.
            Many academic articles and discussions of video game history also continue to emphasize the differences in what female and male gamers want out of games.  In FBtMT, one chapter writes that violent games do not attract girl gamers and can even cause undue stress by requiring girls to engage in shooting or similar actions (Subrahmanyanmotorskills (e.g., guiding or intercepting projectiles)” (Lucas & Sherry 508-509), actions that are genetically associated with men.  A number of authors emphasize that boys and girls look for different things in games, presenting this as a key reason why women don’t play more video games.
            The two ideas presented above represent the dominant themes through which video games have been viewed throughout their history.  However, alternative views to these have become more and more prevalent as time has gone on.  At the end of FBtMT, for instance, there is a section called “Voices from the Combat Zone: Game Grrls Talk Back” that consists of interviews with female gamers who partake of traditionally masculine, violent shooting games like Quake  and Unreal Tournament.  When confronted with arguments about the dangers of male affinity for violent games, Game Grrls issue statements like, “Maybe it’s a problem that little girls DON’T like to play games that slaughter entire planets.  Maybe that’s why we are still underpaid, still struggling, still fighting for our rights.  Maybe if we had the mettle to take on an entire planet, we could fight some of the smaller battles we face everyday” (Jenkins 334).  These women perform what game researchers Bryce and Rutter refer to as “oppositional readings” of video games, drawing upon the work of Stuart Hall and the work done in the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies.  Instead of privileging the dominant meaning of the texts, they “can adopt texts in a fashion which does not necessarily follow those intended in any authorial intention, demonstrating active play with power and culture” (Bryce & Rutter 9).  In this case, the girls draw upon the example of the post-feminist Riot Grrl movement to co-opt the violence and aggression of “male” video games and enact their own performance of femininity and female power.
            Furthermore, the tone of articles changes dramatically from earlier writings like FBtMT, which were written in the mid to late 1990s to ones that were published in the 2000s.  While both center on issues with female representation in video games and in the gaming community, newer works recognize that the stereotype of a lonely white male gamer is not the whole story.  To illustrate this change, it is possible to compare Berger, whose book was finished by 2000, with Bryce and Rutter’s and Ivory’s articles, which came out in 2003 and 2006 respectively.  Berger presents a very negative view of video games and of male gamers, making statements like “This means players can control, determine the behavior of, have ‘power’ over, a voluptuous woman (animated cartoon figure that she is) and make her do all kinds of things on the screen (and who knows what in their imaginations)” (Berger 86).  While an accurate application of feminist media theory to video games, Berger makes no attempt to complicate this narrative with the possibility of oppositional readings or even to question why Lara Croft is popular with females as well. 
            In contrast to this, Bryce and Rutter not only bring up the idea of oppositional views but also point out the need for “work which looks at computer gamers through the gamer’s perspective” (Bryce & Rutter 9), recognizing that analysis of the game alone only tells part of the story.  Ivory, whose argument supports the idea that games are male-dominated, still approaches this idea with a willingness to complicate it and acknowledge competing evidence.  Despite the fact that he expected male gamers to acknowledge and approve of hyper-sexualized female characters, he writes, “There is also some anecdotal support in reviews suggesting reviewers’ disapproval of sexualized female portrayals” (Ivory 111).  These trends, and the complications presented by the Game Grrls, can be seen as early evidence for the major changes that have arisen in the video game arena over the past few years, transformations associated with the introduction of the newest generation of consoles and, specifically, with the Nintendo Wii.

Works Cited
Berger, Arthur Asa. Video Games: A Popular Culture Phenomenon. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2002.
Bryce, Jo and Jason Rutter.  “The Gendering of Computer Gaming: Experience and Space.” Leisure Cultures: Investigations in Sport, Media and Technology. Ed. S. Fleming & I. Jones. Leisure Studies Association, 2003. 3-22.
Cassell, Justine and Henry Jenkins. "Chess for Girls: Feminism and Computer Games." From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. Ed. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. Danbury, CT: NetLibrary, Incorporated, 1998. 2-45.
Ivory, James D. "Still a Man's Game: Gender Representation in Online Reviews of Video Games." Mass Communication and Society 9.1 (2006): 103-14.
Jenkins, Henry. "Voices from the Combat Zone: Game Grrlz Talk Back." From Barbie to Mortal Kombat : Gender and Computer Games. Ed. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. Danbury, CT: NetLibrary, Incorporated, 1998. 328-41.
Kent, Steven L. The Ultimate History of Video Games. New York, NY: Three Rivers, 2001.
Lucas, Kristen, and John L. Sherry. "Sex Differences in Video Game Play: A Communication-Based Explanation." Communication Research 31.5 (2004): 499-523.
Subrahmanyam, Kaveri and Patricia M. Greenfield.  “Computer Games for Girls: What Makes The Play?” From Barbie to Mortal Kombat : Gender and Computer Games. Ed. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. Danbury, CT: NetLibrary, Incorporated, 1998. 262-297.

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