Video games used to be family entertainment, did you know? I remember playing PONG as a small child, with my Dad setting it up and showing me how the controls worked. Mom would play, too, and sometimes we played the other games that came on that box when family was over as well.
In the late seventies and early eighties, everyone was a gamer. We lost that point-of-view somewhere along the way. Maybe it was the arcades, maybe it was the advertising that changed. Somehow video games were sequestered into the realm of “boys’ toys” along with the Star Wars figures I coveted from my brother.
I never had a console growing up, or at least nothing past the old TI-99/4A that’s still in my storage unit. Nintendo and GameCube and the Sega Genesis passed me by, though I did have an original GameBoy. Gosh, I played a lot of Tetris on that. But I had missed the boat on developing the hand-eye coordination so many of my peers acquired and so when I sat to play Mario Bros when visiting my cousins, I felt inadequate.
It wasn’t until the Wii came along that I had my own console. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a return to my old PONG-playing days. This device was purposefully built for the family to play. Video games were for having fun together again! I started getting the hang of the controller and had a blast playing through The Force Unleashed, a wonderfully cinematic Star Wars game. Something was itching at the back of my mind, though.
The perception bothers me, but there was a definite sense that playing on the Wii wasn’t “real” gaming. For me to be a real gamer, I needed an Xbox or a fancy PC with a powerful graphics card. This was pre-GamerGate and the rules were clear. Video games were still for boys, regardless of their age.
I did get an Xbox and later an Xbox One, and then I built myself one of those fancy PCs, but not because I was one of the boys. It was really because I’m just that kind of geek; gender qualifiers do not apply.
Now I love playing on the console and the PC. The games I have are fun and interesting and challenge my underdeveloped hand-eye coordination quite a bit. I’m slowly getting better at them, because I want to play them more successfully. But I will tell you something. After all that, some of my favorite games aren’t on fancy platforms.
There is a whole world of games that I enjoy just as much: mobile games. Particularly I like puzzle games, but there’s a bunch of other interesting games out there. This is where I see that old gaming culture where girls were on the ads manifesting today. There are dress-up games, visual novel games with (and without) romantic subplots, strong female characters that kick butt, and games that have wide appeal well beyond any gender or age stereotype. Your gender doesn’t matter when you’re matching colored dots to clear the board.
At this point, and because mobile games definitely count as video games, women make up about half of all gamers. Yet, for reasons that are probably obvious in 2019, most women who play video games casually don’t recognize what they’re doing as gaming. Between stereotypes of what a gamer is supposed to look and act like and the misconception about what defines a video game, this fact is slow to permeate the advertising and creative forces behind games. The usual problems of not enough women in the industry and lack of foresight of potentially reaching half the human population means that video games are still being made with men and boys in mind. Those of us who are on anything but the extreme ends of the gender spectrum are even further underrepresented.
This problem manifests in a couple ways. First, games aren’t developed as often with women and girls in mind, especially in big-budget “AAA” games. Women tend to look for different things out of their gaming time than men do. That’s reflected in the success of titles like the Dragon Age series among female gamers, which focuses heavily on story.
The second way the problem manifests is in how the technology for future games is developed. Virtual reality, creepy as I find it personally, has begun to grow more substantially in the last few years, and yet the tools we use to access the games played in VR are designed for men. With something that is meant to be immersive, fit and comfort become paramount and with VR the controls are often too large, the headsets cumbersome and heavy. Worst of all, the field of view is too narrow for women and other factors in women’s physiology are not taken into account leaving women with a much higher frequency of Virtual Reality Sickness when using the devices.
I hope that as the technology improves and becomes more wide-spread, changes are made to welcome more women into gaming, VR or otherwise. There is plenty of room for everyone.
Games can be fun and challenging and moving, invoke every feeling under the sun, and take place in any genre you can imagine. Gender does not need to be a factor in whether you call yourself a gamer. If you play Candy Crush on Facebook or team up with people on Call of Duty or anything in between, you’re a gamer. Simply put, we’re all just here to play.
For more reading on how we ended up here, Polygon has an in-depth feature: “No Girls Allowed“.