Written by Dotty Winters

In The News

Game over, boys

Boys will only play video games as male characters and girls don’t really play, right? Wrong, says a new survey. Dotty Winters says it’s time for the industry to level-up to real life.

games controllerLast week Rosalind Wiseman wrote the provocatively titled ‘Everything You Know About Boys and Video Games Is Wrong’ for Time magazine. The article outlines the results of a survey which Wiseman and her colleagues Charlie Kuhn and Ashly Burch undertook. They asked more than 1,400 USA middle and high school students about their attitudes to video games and characterisation.

The most striking results of this survey are that:

Boys believe female characters are treated too often as sex objects.

Forty-seven percent of middle school boys agreed or strongly agreed, and 61 percent of high school boys agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that female characters are too often treated as sex objects.

The gender of the protagonist isn’t a major factor in decisions whether to play a game.

Seventy percent of girls and 78 percent of boys said the gender of the main character in a game doesn’t matter. Split down by age group the results indicate that boys care less about playing as a male character as they age and girls care more about playing as a female one.

Girls play a variety of game genres.

Twenty-six percent played first-person shooter games like Call of Duty and HALO, 36 percent played role-playing games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto, and 17 percent played sports games like FIFA (19 percent did not play games, compared to three percent of boys).

While there is certainly some food for thought in these figures, the authors themselves acknowledge the limitations of this study; the sample size is small and can be argued to be, at least to some degree, self-selecting. But, on the back of Gamergate and other gender-based debate in the gaming community, and with this week’s San Diego Comic-Con attracting a projected 47 percent female attendees, the profile of gender politics has never been higher in the video game community.

“In one game, Harvest Moon, playing as female meant you had access to less of the game and the game ended when you got married.”

Characters in video games are not designed to be true to life; games in which a protagonist opts to pass up on saving the world and stays in their onesie eating Cheerios straight out of the box could be predicted to have only niche appeal. However, you don’t have to be deep within the gaming community to notice the hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine body types which are promoted. Fixed ideals of what it means to be male or female can have powerful (and damaging) impacts on all of us, and can have a direct impact on how we each develop our self of identity and esteem.

To me, what is interesting about this survey is less the result, and more that people actually asked the question. For all the flaws in its methodology, it’s not inherently any worse than the current approach, which is to make assumptions about what people want, based on what they have bought previously. In high-spend, high-risk industries like video games, you might expect significant investment in discovering what people want; instead, decisions are too often made based on simple forward projections of previous buyer behaviour – or, to use its Sunday-name, assumptions.

We can see parallels with some of the change which is beginning to happen in film – a similarly high-investment, high-risk industry with massive influence on culture and norms. A system which is based on predicting future trends based on previous behaviour is one which gave us a steady stream of films based around emotionally detached, hyper-masculine action heroes, flawed divorced cops with alcohol problems, and endless princesses.

This is the system which continues to mindlessly reboot past successes and squeeze every possible permutation out of superhero remakes. And commercially it largely works. If you are choosing between limited options, provided enough people still choose to watch films, then it will appear that those limited options are succeeding – and so making more in that mould will feel safer.

“Sometimes we need to tackle things from the supply side, by taking some risks to see what happens. It requires brave people to listen to quiet voices and amplify them.”

But every so often, a film gets made which accidentally screws up the maths. Hit novel Twilight gets made into a film. This series (nominally) has a female lead, albeit a really drippy one whose entire plot revolves around the male characters. This tweaks the formula enough to allow the making of The Hunger Games, another sci-fi novel with a female lead. Hey presto! We have a successful, credible action film with a female lead. This permanently alters the algorithm, paving the way for Mad Max Fury Road and so on, changing forever what is seen as too risky to make.

Experience from other industries would suggest that changing appetites for what we want to see isn’t always a demand issue. Sometimes we need to tackle things from the supply side, by taking some risks to see what happens. It requires brave people to listen to quiet voices and amplify them.

The issues in video games are slightly different from those in film. There have been many female leads but too often they show insufficient variety in what it means to be female – or, indeed to be male. Some games have started to allow players more choice in the gender, sexual orientation and preferences of the characters they play, and this has been broadly welcomed. But even this hasn’t been without controversy: in one early-adopter game, Harvest Moon, playing as female meant you had access to less of the game and the game ended when you got married.

Recent years have seen an increased profile for games with major female characters – including the forthcoming titles Horizon Zero Dawn, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst and Beyond Eyes – and a move to think differently. Female-led doesn’t always translate to female-friendly, however, and fetishisation and objectification of women remains a high-profile issue across gaming and films, from the ubiquitous cleavage-based adverts for Game of War to impractical female hero outfits (bare legs and a push-up bra anyone?) and Scarlett Johansson’s poses in the Avengers posters.

Slowly, but surely times are a-changing. Maybe, rather than debating the methodology of this survey, the question for the gaming industry is “What if this survey is correct? What if it is halfway correct, or even just 20 percent correct?” In times of austerity it may be tempting to act in a way which minimises risk and make more of the things which have worked in the past, but perhaps by embracing diversity, the video game industry could instead increase its audiences.


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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.