Why is it that video games are “for boys?” This is an issue I’ve touched upon many times in other articles I’ve written and one that I think needs serious discussion in gaming circles.
Growing up as a gamer, I’ve been disturbed by the lack of female representation in video games, women often playing no part except as the princess-in-distress or the love interest. The skimpy outfits female characters have been given in MMORPGs are particularly disturbing, as if the goblins and trolls were only ever going to aim for their nipples! But, at the same time, I have known plenty of girls who played video games and now, as an adult, know just as many women gamers as men.
Things certainly aren’t as bad now as they were ten years ago, but I think there is still a long way to go to repair the damage that has been done. The issue of women being left out of video games isn't necessarily the biggest feminist issue out there, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be touched upon. I’m sure some male gamers think the explanation is simply that women have little to no interest in games, just as women are supposedly less interested in sports, engineering or sex. While I would like to take the time to debunk all those as well, I’ll focus now on where the fallacy comes from that “games are for boys.”
Where does the concept come from in the first place?
When the gaming industry first kicked off in the 1970s, they weren’t marketed toward a specific gender but as family entertainment. Early games such as Pong and Computer Space were considered unisex and never marketed toward boys. Atari’s first female games developer, Carol Shaw, began her work in the late '70s, becoming well known for games such as 3D Tic-Tac-Toe and River Raid with Activision.
"We never really discussed who our target demographic was," Shaw said. "We didn't discuss gender or age. We just did games we thought would be fun."
Although the industry was male-dominated, as it still is today, women were active in early game development, such as Sierra Entertainment co-founder Roberta Williams or designer Lori Cole. Sierra particularly acknowledged its audience of adult women based on their feedback.
"I remember when Sierra released a King's Quest game where the lead character was Rosella, a female character. We received the silliest letter ever from this guy who was calling Roberta a feminist for wanting to have a female as a main character," Cole said. "We passed it around the company and everybody at Sierra was laughing at this guy for being upset because we had a female main character. We didn't see this as a problem. In fact, we had several games that had female leads. Nobody thought it was an issue."
If the gaming industry had continued in this fashion, then it could well have been one of the first truly equal professions, and we could have grown up with many iconic female leads in the artform. So what changed? When did video games start being marketing toward boys?
Most gamers have heard of the gaming crash of 1983, when several low-quality games caused a great decline in profit and consumer interest. Many companies went bankrupt, and between 1983 and 1985, video-game revenue in North America fell from $3.2 billion to $100 million.
In order to build some faith in the industry, Nintendo introduced its own "Official Nintendo Seal of Quality,” a promise to players that its games would be of high quality and well made. This was used to help sell its first console, the Nintendo Entertainment System.
But to get everyone buying video games again, gaming had to be re-marketed, as developers could no longer afford to appeal to a wide demographic, but had to focus on a specific group. This lead to video games being re-branded, going from electronic entertainment to toys. Thus, the age-old perception that there are “girl” and “boy” toys affected Nintendo’s marketing team, which had to make a choice between pink and blue. Therefore, video games were to be marketed toward boys, with Nintendo literally naming their first handheld console the “Game Boy.”
Despite the old '70s and '80s adverts that were marketed toward the whole family, the adverts of the '90s took a much more sinister turn. Not only did they feature only boys engaging in stereotypical male interests, they began to objectify and sexualise women in order to sell games. Even the Tomb Raider games, the first in a long time to feature a female protagonist, were marketed exclusively toward men and boys, particularly in an infamous 1998 PlayStation advert wherein Crash Bandicoot refers to a young man as “whipped” and Lara Croft then tempts the man away from his girlfriend. (Ending with the tagline: "Live in your world. Play in ours.")
The female gaming audience of the '70s and early '80s seemed to disappear in the eyes of developers, cementing the misconception. There were a few attempts made to resurrect gaming for a female audience, notably by designer Brenda Laurel, who in 1999 launched Purple Moon, a studio aimed at creating games for girls.
"Generally speaking, it did not occur to any of the companies I worked for that they should be looking at female audiences for games," Laurel said. "It was always, 'Oh, of course girls don't play games.' I got that so many times. 'Of course, girls don't play games, why are we going to waste money on this audience that doesn't exist?' Where in fact, the nonexistence of the audience was a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we did Purple Moon, one of the criticisms we got was, 'Why do you need special games for girls?' I was like, 'Dude, everything else is for boys and you don't even know it. You're taking it for granted all this time.'"
As it is, women never stopped playing video games. Various data implies that approximately half of gamers are women, with numbers ranging from 41% to 52%. About 69% of family or farming simulator gamers are women, along with 36% of MMORPG players, 25% of platform gamers and 18% of sandbox gamers. While the numbers fall significantly on first-person shooter and sports games (7% and 2%, respectively), I believe that all these numbers could easily increase if better female characters were introduced into the game genres or if they were marketed toward a larger audience.
I won’t pretend that we haven’t moved on since 1999, because we absolutely have. Games often offer the option of playing as a male or female character, better female characters have been introduced to games, and occasionally they are allowed to wear clothes. But I think it would be very naive to say that there isn’t still work to be done. I Googled female characters in video games and the first result was Lara Croft, who as we have already established was created to appeal to the budding sexuality of young boys.
I had hoped that since I grew up the attitudes of the younger generation had changed, but upon asking a group of young and teenage boys, I found that the general idea is still that gaming is "for boys.” If that isn’t shocking enough, then perhaps we may look back to Gamergate, when female gamers revealed the sexual harassment and sexism they experienced in online gaming.
Since the video games enthusiasts of the '90s continued to grow up, games have thankfully gone back into the electronic section, so I can only hope that this misconception is also on the way out.
- Lien, Tracey. (2013). No Girls Allowed. Available: https://www.polygon.com/features/2013/12/2/5143856/no-girls-allowed. Last accessed 13th Nov 2017.
- Jayanth, Meg. (2014). 52% of gamers are women – but the industry doesn’t know it. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/18/52-percent-people-playing-games-women-industry-doesnt-know. Last accessed 13th Oct 2017.
- Yee, Nick. (2017). Beyond 50/50: Breaking Down The Percentage of Female Gamers by Genre. Available: https://quanticfoundry.com/2017/01/19/female-gamers-by-genre/. Last accessed 13th Oct 2017.
- D'Anastasio, Cecilia . (2017). Study Shows Which Video Game Genres Women Play Most. Available: https://kotaku.com/study-shows-which-video-game-genres-women-play-most-1791435415. Last accessed 13th Oct 2017.
- Rosen, Christopher. (2015). The Awful Truth Behind Sexual Harassment Of Women Gamers. Available: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/03/13/gtfo-sexism-in-gaming_n_6804106.html. Last accessed 13th Oct 2017.
- 1998 PlayStation commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KW4gu7L6uE