Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gender and gaming

I am only infrequently on Twitter, but sometimes I run into something excellent there. Today I came across this article, which explores the history of the gendering of video games in an explicit, in-depth, and very well-illustrated way. The quick summary, which does the article a disservice, is this:

-Video games as an industry began as a generally unfocused, and specifically ungendered, endeavor, where developers made the games they thought would be fun;
-The market became flooded with low-quality games in the early 80's, bottoming out consumer confidence and crippling the industry;
-When the market was revitalized by the likes of Nintendo in the mid-80's, it had a more focused marketing approach that included specifying a target demographic - mainly males.

Again, the article itself is an excellent history, and very good at explaining how video games as a medium came to be aimed primarily at men. Males don't inherently prefer video games; demographic imbalances in gamers are manufactured, deliberately. Which to some extent is just business sense; as the article describes, it's preferable to pin down one market when trying to sell a product, rather than to try to catch everyone at once and miss all of them, as initially happened to the gaming industry. But it's resulted in a couple of big, weird assumptions that to my mind do a lot of damage to gaming as a medium/industry:

First, the idea that women don't enjoy the games already being made (since they're made "for males")
Second, the idea that the only games we should make are games for males (since women don't enjoy games)

See how these are circular, and kind of stupid?*

Clearly, more and more game developers recognize that women play games, or make games for women (or at least with women in mind). Bioware's response to the straight male gamer a couple years back demonstrates this hard. But in general, feminist explorations or criticisms of video games are not entirely well-received (And if your response to Anita Sarkeesian is to roll your eyes, read through the comments on those articles until you start to feel sick). As consumers, male gamers have been pandered to for so long that we don't even really recognize it anymore, which is a giant problem if we want gaming to be a welcoming, exciting, engaging medium for everybody.

In my capacity as a person who wants to make video games, I want the art I produce to be accessible to and enjoyed by a wide range of people. In my capacity as someone who wants to sell video games, I want the games I produce to be BOUGHT by a wide range of people. And in my capacity as a feminist/human being, I want to acknowledge that the demographic our industry picked when it was getting started isn't the only one it should produce for now, and that if we get games that are intended for and reflect a broad variety of experiences, we'll all be the richer for it.

*One note: I talk in this post about "male" as the target demographic for gamers and "female" as the not-target-demographic. I'm doing this because this is the split the original article focused on. However the target demo isn't just males. It's white, straight, cis males, and the issue in the industry isn't just about men and women; it's about every group that is focused on and catered to at the expense of appealing to other demographics and exploring other worldviews. Complicated, but important.

**Two note: I've thought for awhile about doing a post about gender and games, and every time I've avoided it because it doesn't deserve a blog post, it deserves a doctoral program. It's complicated and uncomfortable and it pisses people off, and it's absolutely necessary that we talk about it if we want to mature as an industry. So, this probably won't be the only post I write about gender/sexuality/race/privilege/ableism/etc. in games, because these things deserve a lot more consideration than one guy (particularly one white straight cis guy) can give them in a few moments of writing. I'm still going to write about other aspects of video games, because they interest me, but I definitely think there's much, much more to be said than what I've said here.

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