Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Big Gender Debate—Guys and Girls and the Games They Play.

It’s long been a norm, so to speak, that guys play video games and girls, well, they don’t. Why would girls be interested in video games? They’re all about killing things, violence, obscenities, and that tricky hand-eye-coordination, right? Why on earth would girls care anything about that? Even when it started to become apparent that girls played games as well, it was usually only games that were somehow “girlier,” i.e. not as intense, violent, or strategically-inclined. In other words, games for boys were “hard-core” while games for girls were “soft-core.” But is that really how it works? Do girls only play the softer games and leave the strategy-based, violent shooter, button-mashing games to the boys? Or are male and female tastes not as different as they seem. Perhaps deep down, everyone’s looking for the same thing in their games… they just view them through different lenses.

Over the years, the number of girls playing video games has steadily increased. Even now, it’s close to approaching the 50/50 mark with male gamers, something which would have been almost unheard of ten to fifteen years ago. More and more girls are playing games, despite the fact that the concept of a “girl gamer” still seems so surprising to many current gamers (though why they would need an separate label is another story entirely, as men certainly don’t get called “boy gamers”). Being both female and a gamer myself, I grew up playing video games, and no, not the games made specifically for girls, like Barbie or other educational soft-core games, I played the same games everyone else did. I wasn’t this strange entity to the wayside of the gaming world, I played Mario, Star Fox, Final Fantasy, and Chrono Trigger, and as I got older I got into other genres such as fighting games (Soul Calibur and Guilty Gear come to mind) and one-person shooters (I had a period of time where I went through every Medal of Honor game). I of course had series and types of games I enjoyed more than others, but I was willing to give anything a try, and I had a vast assortment of series I was fond of. Yet somehow, even taking this into account, I would forever be an “outsider” who didn’t deserve the title of “gamer.” My inclusion in the gaming world had to be preceded by the word “girl” simply because of my gender.

Where does the concept come from that girls should inherently dislike the quote-unquote “hard-core” games? Is there something about the female mind that prohibits it from enjoying puzzles, strategy, or even a good old-fashioned ass-kicking? I suppose it’s the same stereotype that disallows women from liking action and horror movies—I can’t even begin to count the number of rom-coms I’ve been forced to sit through—or even “heavy” music like metal or grunge—of course, women would be simply aghast to hear swearing in songs, right? But those kinds of stereotypes are beginning to dwindle just as the line between “male” and “female” games is growing more vague.

Just what is it that makes a game attractive to men? To women? It’s often been said that men prefer more action-based games—that they don’t care much about stories and would rather blast things away or mash buttons. But this statement is just as sexist as saying women don’t like these things. Men and women alike enjoying playing RPGs, games with epic storylines, relatable characters, sweeping music, and strategy-based gameplay. If men didn’t care about stories, then why would they play RPGs? Likewise, if women didn’t like strategy, then why would they play RPGs? You could say that either party “puts up” with these gaming elements to get to the things they like most, but if they truly disliked either stories or strategy-based combat, then they wouldn’t be playing the game to begin with—who’s willing to put 100+ hours of their life into something they only “kind of” enjoy?

Yes, it’s true. Women like stories. Women like playing things with interactions, relationships, complex back-stories, emotions, and all that other jazz that girls are commonly associated with liking. But just like men don’t have to like nothing but shoot-em-ups and bloody fighting games, women don’t have to like nothing but sweeping romances. I’ve often found that the games supposedly “geared” for me to enjoy don’t pull me in as much as the games that just do their own thing. The whole point of games in the first place is to find something in it you love, to connect with it, and to use it to entertain yourself. Whether that connection is blowing up and shooting things for stress relief or losing yourself in a limitless world is your own choice and differs based on your mood, the day of the week, or your current mindset. Do I like to play life simulators? Yes. I enjoy games like the Sims, like Harvest Moon. But even the Harvest Moon series was originally geared towards men—why else would there have been only a male protagonist who had to woo a wife? But that game became so popular with girls, that by the third iteration of the series they were coming out with “for girls” versions, and not long after, all games came with a “male” and “female” option and courtable romance prospects for both genders. 

What most “girl gamers” want is not games specifically geared towards them, they simply want to play what everyone else is playing. That being said, there’s any number of things that can turn them away from what would normally be enjoyable games. Rampant misogyny is one of them, both from the games themselves and from fellow gamers. A girl who loves action games and lives for giving baddies a good ass-whooping might not be so quick to pick up the next big title if it features scantily-clad women with enormous breasts barely held in by her skin-tight garments—same as most guys would no doubt be turned off by a game with gratuitous crotch-shots of a man wearing nothing but a tiny speedo. The only difference here is that the latter description rarely happens, but the first description seems to happen in one out of every three games produced. Games don’t need to be gender-specific, they just need to respect both genders. Games that can bring in both girl and guy gamers will foster the biggest fanbases, and that doesn’t mean that games necessarily need both male and female protagonists either. Girls have long gotten used to playing as male characters despite the fact that many men wouldn’t be caught dead playing a female character. In fact, many girls prefer playing as male characters as it gives them a chance to escape life and truly exist as somebody else throughout the course of the game. Either that, or they simply play a character they enjoy watching, such as in fighting games where many guys will play as the big-chested women to watch them dance around on the screen, and I will typically play as the male character who delights me the most, such as Terumi from BlazBlue or Shino in Naruto: Ultimate Ninja. Another example would be the Summon Night series. Though never released overseas, it offers choices to gamers about various aspects of the plot and characters, allowing you to choose the gender of your player and the partner who will follow you around. I, myself, chose males for both, as that is how I preferred to play the game, but different types of gamers prefer different types of combinations—some girls might prefer to play as a female with a male partner, and some males might prefer to play as a male with a female partner.

The most popular games have all found some way to make themselves more or less neutral, either through design or through choices. Many of the classics, though featuring male protagonists, at least don’t go out of their way to be misogynistic, and of late, have even made roles for their female characters more prominent. Princess Peach of the Mario series, though often kidnapped by Bowser, has not only been a standard playable character in most Mario spin-off games since the first Mario Party games came out, she’s also a capable fighter in the Super Smash Bros. series, and has her own playable appearances in “canon” Mario games as well, from the new Super Mario 3D World, to Super Mario RPG, to her own title, Super Princess Peach. Final Fantasy games always contain a wealth of female characters that hold their own in parties, and Lightning, the first female lead, has become one of the most popular recent characters to date despite her lack of a large chest and revealing clothing. Fighting games like Arc’s Guilty Gear and BlazBlue might have a multitude of women wearing less than adequate clothing, but they offer eye-candy for the ladies as well, even tossing in trap characters and matching their loli characters with shota characters to keep the playing fields more or less even. It’s not about creating “games for guys” and “games for girls,” it’s about creating a game that everyone can enjoy, a game with options for everyone, and that’s what will give a game longevity in the first place, as it’s the games with the biggest fandoms that will be remembered and played long after they first hit the shelves.

In any aspect of life, people want to be respected. They want to feel like they belong and are accepted somewhere. Girls who play games, and anybody who plays games, really, feel this same thing. A guy who happens to play games wants to be able to talk to others who play games without being rejected, so it would only make sense that a girl would want the same thing. Girls don’t want to be treated “differently.” Most “girl gamers” don’t want games made especially for them, they want to play the same things that everyone else is playing—they just don’t want to feel attacked or uncomfortable due to misogynistic themes while they’re playing them (which isn’t so much to ask for, really). More and more companies are starting to realize that this line between what male and female gamers want is not so definite. The same way a company hoping to eventually localize their product overseas might need to make a few changes to broaden their audience, so too can a game company make a few tweaks, a few additions, to make a game that will draw in a much larger fanbase and thus create more revenue for them down the road. Which is why both men and women need to be in charge of making games, as how can a company hope to create a story and characters loved by both parties without input from both parties? It takes two to tango, and more and more companies are beginning to realize this, but the gaming world in general is still a ways off from being entirely welcoming to female gamers. Hopefully at some point down the line, there won’t be “gamers” and “girl gamers.” There will simply be “gamers.” But until that day, girls will fight for their right to play.