Games “for women” or women’s games?

sarkeesianThis essay is inspired by the great Feminist Frequency and its redoubtable host Anita Sarkeesian, who just struck an awesome blow against gamer sexism with the smashing success of the “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” Kickstarter campaign. If you’re not familiar with FF, Left Gamer Review strongly recommends you check out theYouTube channel, especially the brilliant two-part series on “LEGO and Gender” embedded below. (We’ll wait for you to come back. But, um, please promise to come back.)


I should confess to feeling slightly jealous of Sarkeesian, who just pulled in $160K to do exactly the kind of thing that LGR would like to do; although in truth LGR would be as mystified about what to do with that much money as a dog with a coconut. Nor frankly is it clear to me that the (regrettably male) LGR staff could have dealt with the kind of insane hate campaign to which Sarkeesian was subjected.

Beyond being vile and frightening on the most basic human level, and deeply shameful to all thinking gamers, the tenor and pitch of this misogynist outpouring raises political questions that we should all endeavor to think through–in particular, why was there such a reaction? Our comrade Keith, who blogs at Joan of Mark, usefully pointed out to me the “spiritual” resonance with the hate campaigns against school desegregation. But of course desegregation had certain inevitable physical consequences for the racist cracker: your white kid had to go to school with black kids. By way of contrast, if you don’t like Anita Sarkeesian’s YouTube videos, you…don’t have to watch them.


It seems that in the community of sexist clods, the offense comes well prior to the “incursion” of their physical space: it is sufficient for them to feel “violated” in their symbolic space, a space that is indeed difficult to “police,” because anyone can jump the border by simply articulating a correct idea. In other words, the sexist feels threatened not only by confrontation with anti-sexism, but also by the possibility that someone, somewhere is undermining his “right” to enjoy women in a base way. Thus when sexists complain about the “feminist thought police” and other beasts of myth, it is a rather obvious case of psycho-political projection, like when American politicians discuss how to defend the country from foreign invasions.

All that said–and without suggesting that we’ve done more than barely scratch the surface–at this point I’d like to shift the critical mode from the “cultural” to the “aesthetic,” or more precisely, from the question of how games are embedded in the general culture to the (inseparable but distinct) question of how video games are progressing (or failing to progress) as an art form.

The “2012 Sales, Demographic, and Usage Data” report from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) states that gaming is already near gender parity, with women comprising 47% of gamers. This is interesting, but almost surely misleading. The ESA–an industry association with a vested interest in promoting the vastness of their market–doesn’t discuss the report’s methodology; eg, how is “gamer” defined? The report itself admits that only 46% of “gamers” plan to buy even one game in the year. Hmm. What would we think of the MPAA if it published a report saying that fewer than half of all “moviegoers” planned to, you know, go to the movies?

Now I’m not very interested in trying to work out what constitutes a “real” gamer, which in addition to being tiresome would probably reproduce a lot of sexist stereotypes about how women aren’t “real” gamers. But I do think that games themselves can be roughly categorized as either casual or involved; some examples are Angry Birds and Mass Effect 3, respectively. This seems to me to be a basically common-sense division, although I should say that the classification targets the minimum level of involvement, rather than the maximum level. It is, for better or worse, possible to be quite involved in FarmVille, but you can also play it at work in between filling out your TPS reports; whereas to play Fallout 3 at all, you make a much higher minimum commitment of time and energy. (Some games can be approached in either way: Halo multiplayer can be engaged quite casually, but the single-player campaign is always involved.)

Based on a number of surveys cited by Hartmann and Klimmt in addition to anecdotal evidence from my own circles, I think it’s fair to conclude that women disproportionately play casual titles rather than involved titles. To be clear: we’re talking about general tendencies, not making the obviously stupid claim that women never play involved games. Nor am I saying that casual games are generically “worse” than involved ones. However, I do claim that the most aesthetically interesting things happening in video games today are, as a rule, happening in the involved titles. This is indeed almost tautological: in the same vein, you expect (and demand) that there be more “going on” in a symphony than a pop song.

Hence the “woman question” in gaming isn’t just a problem for women, or even just for women and some soi disant “enlightened” men (ahem); rather, it is a universal problem for all gamers as gamers. We are retarding the progress of our favored art if we accept a situation where women are alienated from the avant-garde of the medium. More bluntly: if half the population is missing out on the most interesting stuff, then the most interesting stuff is not going to be as interesting as it should be.

Now when one tries to think through a creative–as opposed to merely marketing–strategy for engaging women in gaming, one inevitably faces the question of games “for women.” But the typical, conservative-capitalist industry approach to this is simply to turn out more, or more aggressively marketed, of the same kinds of titles that the industry already “knows” that women like. (“Hey ladies, here’s Wii Fit Plus!”) It takes as the starting point what is precisely the problem. A 2008 article from TechNewsWorld, featuring quotes from several women in and around the gaming industry, is a good indication of the industry’s limits even when it tries to think in a “progressive” way: although there are several attempts to deny that women are only interested in casual gaming, the concrete proposals all orbit around increased production of casual games.


Actually if you want the real truth, games “for women” have basically the same flaws as, well, pretty much anything “for women”: they either reproduce sexist stereotypes more or less crudely; try to “rise above” said stereotypes through didactic and/or boringly “inspirational” presentations; or both. On the stereotype end of the spectrum lie the piles of Barbie games, as well as a whole rash of mobile/social network games that teach young girls to shop, dress up, and flirt–apparently just in case they have an iPhone but no TV, magazines, or schools to funnel them into these “vocations.” It’s important–but also pretty easy–to criticize this dross.

On the other side are (much rarer) games like Purple Moon’s Rockett Movado series, which is discussed in aKotaku article about the developer. Of course these titles deserve far more sympathy than Barbie’s Pre-Approved Capital One Card “What’s In Your Wallet?” Adventures or whatever. But if you watch some of thevideos from Rockett’s New School, and compare that to other games that came out in 1997, it’s really embarrassing for the former, technically and narratively.


What’s more, the Rockett series evinces a rather impoverished concept of the limits of girls’ imaginations. When I got home from school, the last thing I wanted to fucking think about was school. Are girls so awfully different? Do they really desire to reproduce the dramas and crises of the school-society in their minds, again and again, for all their waking hours, and then probably also in their dreams? Certainly school is a more socially intense and difficult experience for girls and young women–yet surely this generates a desire not only to think more about it, but also to be relieved of thinking about it. Through games people can experience distance–even escape–from everyday life, giving themselves the freedom to ponder their experiences in a fresh way. I’m confident that I learned more about how to make women laugh from The Curse of Monkey Island than I would have from playing a “tell a joke to a girl” simulator.

So I think we should reject the idea of games “for women.” I would even go further: art “for” an oppressed group is generally bad art. (It goes without saying that I’m also against art “for” a non-oppressed group, although the argument is not at all symmetric.) LGR’s hostility to Black Entertainment Television, the leading platform for TV “for blacks,” is something we’ve discussed elsewhere. But contrast the degrading mess on BET with The Boondocks or Chappelle’s Show: both of the latter are unquestionably black shows, but neither are shows “for blacks.” They’re shows for everybody, aimed at the whole of society, albeit from a black perspective, with no “concession” to the white segment of the audience–which is why they’re so resonant, challenging, and effective.

Art “for” the oppressed, even when it doesn’t cut corners–which it usually does–seems always to be, paradoxically, more hemmed in by the “gaze” of the Big Other (the Man, the White, etc) than art for everybody. It’s always really “for Him”: either directly enacting His stereotypes; or disavowing His stereotypes in a way that actually legitimates them. (Think of the hair-raising sexual moralism of Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which reinforces the idea that blacks are sexually immoral and require special re-education from “their” film.) Art from the perspective of the oppressed yet aimed at a general audience is a lot freer, less burdened by “something to prove,” and more willing to tell the truth to whosoever might hear it.

If we reject games “for women,” does that mean we have to fall back into a complacent acceptance of the status quo? Certainly not. On the most rudimentary level, gamers–all gamers–need to take a lead fromFeminist Frequency and protest against the “default” sexism that pervades even the best games. Mass Effect deserves a lot of credit for featuring full voice work for male and female Shepards–but what’s up with Miranda Lawson’s ridiculous outfit and the infamous ass shots? (You can find the links yourselves.) Maybe this enthuses a certain kind of adolescent boy–or “man” in permanent adolescence–but it only demoralizes the rest of us.

Game developers also need to design games to fit better with women’s real lives, which are not the same as men’s. For example, women are generally less able than men to devote multiple-hour blocks for a single play session. This is due to the sexist way in which household labor is distributed, but making games that demand to be played in 6-hour slogs is no way to challenge this. Using a more episodic structure, like Alan Wake, can help make narrative-rich games more accessible to women–and men. Indeed, it’s not at all clear that long jags in a state of semi-hypnosis is the most pleasurable way to take in a game.

Finally, although we don’t want games “for women,” we want and need women’s games. That is: games by women, about women, from women’s perspectives, dealing with women’s struggles, etc–that are marketed aggressively to a general audience, not just “for women.” This means more than just representing “strong” female characters; an uncomplicated representation of women’s “strength” can be just as lazy as the stereotype of their “weakness,” as Tomb Raider has taught us. How about a video game that gives us a three-dimensional character like Starbuck of Battlestar Galactica or–why not?–Veronica Sawyer of Heathers?


Is gaming culture ready for women’s games? Probably not. Anita Sarkeesian is getting Flash-punched by game-bros for pointing out that there’s some sexism in video games. Which is sort of like getting sued by AFI for saying that emo is self-indulgent. So no, we’re not ready for women’s games–but that’s all the more reason to demand them. For as a great woman said: “[T]hese ‘premature’ attacks…constitute a factor, and indeed a very important factor, creating the political conditions of the final victory…. Thus these ‘premature’ attacks…are in themselves important historic factors helping to provoke and determine the point of the definite victory.”

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