By Chi Nguyen
North American computer and video game sales increased by four per cent in 2005 and reached $7 billion in revenue — more than Hollywood — as 228 million games were sold.
But are game marketers ignoring a key group? About 43 per cent of gamers are female, according to The Entertainment Software Association’s 2005 Sales, Demographics and Usage data booklet. Women over the age of 18 represent a greater portion of the game-playing demographic, at 28 per cent, than boys from ages six to 17, at 21 per cent.
Yet, Henry Jenkins, sociology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the industry has always been populated by men. “The video game industry has always been overwhelmingly populated by men, and there is a dwindling number of women who are actually involved,” he says.
“The video game industry is based on intuitive design space, which means that the game designers will come up with games, develop games that they are interested in playing. This means that since men are dominating the development field regarding video games, the games that are put on the market will cater towards mainly men,” he says.
Jenkins says having more women in the industry will lead to a shift towards the conceptualization of gender-neutral games such as The Sims, rather than igniting a second boom in “girl games” of the ’90s, such as Barbie’s Dream World.
“The more women who are involved in the making of games, the more say and influence women will have in shaping the flow of thought and the flow of ideas for developing new games … Electronic Arts and Maxis (maker of The Sims) are very dominant, and are improving.” Jenkins says.
Jennifer Brayton, an assistant professor of sociology at Ryerson, studies gender and gaming. She says since men are dominating the development field, future games will cater towards men, disregarding the needs of women. Toronto’s International Academy of Design and Technology offers video game design and development classes. When Brayton sat in on the classes, she was the ony woman in the room. “They actually believed that games are designed by men for men.
And when you have schools that are teaching these gender norms, then the future programmers are internalizing these belief systems, which will be reflected in the games they develop in the future,” Brayton says. Lauren Solomon, a fourth-year applied chemistry and biology student, is a member of the Association of Ryerson Role Players and Gamers (ARRG). In Guild Wars, an online role playing game (RPG), Solomon says the female characters are typical of a man’s fantasy woman.
“When you look at the picture of that character, she is actually belly dancing and blatantly jiggling her boobs. I was blown away,” she says. Solomon believes that most women don’t get upset over games that exaggerate the female body. “Those games are like soft-core porn, but I think women will just go, ‘Yup, that one’s for the boys,’ and shrug it off,” she says.
Xaida Zyvatkauskas, a first-year humanities student at the University of Toronto, is also a member of ARRG. She is an avid player of RPG games, and acknowledges that the stereotype of the busty female lead holds true.
“I’m playing Guild Wars right now, and there seems to be a weird relationship between the quality of armour and the amount of clothes the female characters wear,” she says. The better the armour, the more scantily clad the women become.
The characters feature large, perky breasts, visible nipples and a tiny waist. Male characters are also very physically fit. “The games, the characters, are becoming more sexually suggestive, and are very much designed for male sexual fantasies,” Jenkins says. As men and women play more online games, they support the industry’s unequal images. “It’s not so much that sex and violence sells, but that it is one kind of appeal that sells to a certain group. In this case, it is adolescent men, 16 to 28.”
The comments posted in online games, a genre dominated by women, can escalate from petty and insulting to lewd and sexist. Female gamers often go out of their way to hide their gender online because of the unnecessary attention that it generates from male players. “A lot of women are sensitized to harassment in games, so they will challenge the stereotypes and sexist comments when they come across them. Women players attract a lot of attention, but we just want to game,” says Brayton.
If male fantasies dominate gaming, the industry will not successfully market itself to women. Men are known for spending their money on recreational items, while women are expected to spend their money on the family, Brayton says. The relationship naturally gears marketers towards men. “This reinforces the gender inequality that is present in our society as men get a higher salary, and women generally stay at home, with no, or less, disposable income,” Brayton says.
The gaming market seems comfortable targeting the proven male market, as 90 per cent of males between 16 and 28 play games and provide enough revenue for the gaming industry. As Jenkins says, the only way to break out of this rut is two-fold in nature: hire more women in the gaming industry, and make them more visible. Brayton agrees to a certain extent. She says that although getting more women involved in the actual process of developing games is important, more changes are needed.
“You will need to change the gaming culture and the work environment as well, because if you don’t change the main problem, then bringing in women can just cause them to conform and buy into the flawed system that already exists.” Jenkins adds that since women are playing, there is little initiative for the industry to accommodate women gamers.
“The approach a decade ago was that no women were playing games, so why bother designing games for them. Now marketers and developers believe that since women are playing games, and are such a big part of the demographic, they must be satisfied, so why bother changing?”