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Questionable Approaches: Girls in Gaming
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posted by: Aaron Stanton
date posted: 12:00 AM Sun Dec 12th, 2004
last revision: 12:00 AM Sun Dec 12th, 2004

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I don't think of myself as male,? I remember saying.  If someone says that they don't like me, I don't assume it's because I'm a guy.  It's just not what I think of when someone asks me who I am.  Maybe that means I'm not manly enough.? 

The other GF writer I was talking to thought about what I had said for a moment, nodded, tastefully ignored my question of manly-man ways, and then said, Well, you wouldn't, would you, since you're a middle-class white male?  Doesn't exactly make you unique.?

It was one of the most obvious statements I've ever heard, and absolutely true.  In psychology, they say that we identify ourselves with what we perceive as making us unique; we connect ourselves to our jobs, our roles in our family, or apparently, sometimes, our gender in the gaming industry.  That's part of the reason that it is almost impossible for any member of a majority to understand the perspective of a minority group, any more than someone who has been beautiful their entire life can remark about how people should worry less about looking good and sound anything but na├»ve.  In gaming, the role of females in the industry, as gamers, journalists, sex objects, or developers, has been changing, partly because the industry itself is learning to self-identify.  Studies show that a little over 40% of all gamers are girls.  The Sims is probably one of the best selling games of all time partly because it appealed across the border, across the division between male and female interests.  As our traditionally male oriented industry brings marketing dollars to bear on the female demographic, you see these changes taking place all across the industry.  We can all count the number of booth babes? at E3 and see that the practice of hiring female models as game representatives is on the decline, or that the number of male models is at least on the increase.  It's easy to identify a scantly clad female game character with limited dialog and minimal story value as being outdated, designed for a time when the sole role of a female in a video game was to give the male characters something to win.  But there are other forms of female stereotypes in the industry that are harder to identify, often put into place by people who should know better.  Specifically in this case, I'm talking about game journalism.  And specifically inside journalism, I'm talking about journalism personas.  

What spurred this article was a growing distaste for the concept behind GameSpy's new GirlSpy column, a two-month-old gaming perspective whose advertised chief appeal appears to be that a girl writes it.  Now, I've met a number of the GameSpy crew, and have always found them enjoyable, friendly, and in the business for pretty much the same reason the rest of us are; we love games.  The GirlSpy column, written by Zoe Flower, is well written, entertaining, and funny.  A number of the articles have really looked like they might be gearing up to offer an interesting and unique perspective on the industry.  The author is no doubt knowledgeable about her subject matters, and while the columns tend to be more about personal entry than game detail, they have a personality that I think many gaming websites lack, an element that GameSpy has always cultured.  However, the skill of the writing and value of what is inside the article is not its chief appeal; its chief appeal, judging from its title, is supposed to be that it is written by a She instead of a He. 

There is an approach here that I feel is a mistake from an editorial stance, and is for the most part taking advantage of the female image in much the same way that a game advertiser might use the picture of a girl in a bikini in order to sell the latest racing game in a still male dominated genre.  Will people read it?  Yes.  It's a solid editorial decision, but is it a good moral decision, one that fits well with the separation the industry is trying to achieve from traditional sexist ideals?  I honestly don't think so.  Sure, we now have a predominantly placed, independent female gamer visibly writing for a large gaming magazine, but female visibility has never been the issue.  In what way they're visible, and what part of them is visible, now that's been an issue.  In a more intellectual way, I think, trying to claim that GirlSpy is breaking stereotypes is like claiming that the strong female character in BloodRayne is now more of a role model than a sex object simply because she isn't helpless.  Rayne is a girl because it will get males to play it, and she kicks ass because if she didn't the game wouldn't be fun.  GirlSpy is written by a girl because it gets males to read it, or because it's a token effort to offer content to girls looking for an outlet in the game industry, and is well written simply because it would be boring if it weren't.  GirlSpy is an advertising scheme that is designed to appeal to the predominantly male hard-core gaming population that tends to read gaming sites like GameSpy and GamesFirst.com.

The concept of having a girl gamer voice her opinion, give her perspective, is actually a very good one if done well.  There is a continued need in the industry for us to draw attention to the rather lop-sided attention males and females receive in terms of games and design.  GamesFirst! itself has had a number of articles dealing with female roles in gaming, and the differences between male and female gamers, primarily after E3, when our female writers get to come to grips with an event whose primary female presence is defined by models who tend to know little about the game industry.  We've had articles about getting your significant other to play games with you, and those articles have been traditional skewed towards a male trying to peek the interest of a female in more hardcore gaming, an admittedly stereotypical viewpoint.  There is not a criticism in my bone about bringing the subject to the forefront, but there are better ways to do it. 

GameGirlAdvance.com is an excellent example of a site that examines the actual differences in gender roles in games and game players.  GameGirlAdvance offers significant commentary on the gaming industry, with humor and style, and features content more in-depth than dropping comments about poor color schemes in character clothing.  It breaks stereotypes.  GirlSpy, in which the last article spends more time talking about trying to write the column through the remains of a hangover than it does about actual games, and whose first article covers such female empowering items as the Crush of the Month? , simply conforms to the ideal of what male gamers think a girl gamer should be.  In a lot of ways, GirlSpy actually reinforces stereotypes.  It is a lack of critical analysis in a column that could actually be a staple, a truly notable perspective on gender differences in gaming, because it is so predominantly placed. 

The flaw isn't that GirlSpy exists; the flaw is that it exists for the sole purpose of having a girl write about games, not that it has anything to say.  It doesn't have to be this way; GirlSpy could be an excellent column, a substantial one, if the GameSpy editors decide to take it that way.  The talent is certainly there.  Otherwise I honestly believe it's just a flavor of the month, just like any advertising and PR approach.  If GameSpy editors happen to read this, or better yet, Zoe Flowers, I hope it leads to an honest re-evaluation of the direction the column is taking, a consideration that maybe such a column, on the largest videogame outlet on the web, has something more substantial and lasting to offer than an analysis of game character clothing.  Otherwise, I'm probably just pissing off people who I am generally proud to share an industry with, and that would be too bad. 

I just hate to see something that could be great turn into something that's basically average.  I'd hate to see Jade, for example, from Beyond Good and Evil, stop being a kick-ass reporter doing substantial things, and instead slip into a slinky dress so she could drain blood in some adolescent's imagination, because one lasts, and the other doesn't.  

    But that's just my opinion.  I'd like to hear yours on this.  If you have any thoughts about the subject, I'd love to hear it.  You can e-mail them to me at aaron@gamesfirst.com.  


Volume 1, Issue 1

Editor's Note:

After Questionable Approaches was initially published, I received a number of e-mails recommending other sites that focus, at least in part, on quality coverage of gender roles in gaming.  I figured I'd link to one or two of them.  At the moment, I've been enjoying WomenGamers.com, which is a community-oriented site designed for everyone, male or female.  Mainly, I was impressed with their mission statement, which I thought was well put.  You should check out the site itself.