On Games vs. Gamers

The news circulating in gamer circles this week is the newly-researched stat that 91 percent of kids under 18 play video games. And yet the common perception that games are and remain something “just for kids” continues to be more wrong than ever. The most recent ESA data says 82 percent of players are over 18, with nearly 30 percent being over 50. And of all those game-playing, game-buying adults, over 40 percent are women. Just a look around gaming communities tells me, anecdotally, that these numbers come from somewhere: I am not alone.

And yet, gaming as an entertainment medium and as an art form continues to have an image problem. Or rather, an images problem.

This illustration has been circulating via Tumblr (I don’t know the original source, unfortunately) quite a bit in the past 48 hours. Ms. Croft here is a memorable and lingering representation of the issue. One of the earliest and perhaps most famous female lead characters in gaming, she has long been renowned for her …assets… rather than for her physical or mental ability or strength of character writing.

As this chronological look at a single character shows us, though, female character design has indeed gotten more realistic over the years. No longer is each individual breast larger than her head, and a full ribcage and complement of internal organs are now being added. (I mean, look at that TR V image. Really?) The upcoming 2012 incarnation of Lara Croft clearly has a body that could actually exist. And indeed, this is a trend in current games: women’s proportions, if still often built on the “swimsuit issue model” type, are at least often now trending into the realm of the physically possible.

Sadly, that isn’t to say that what games do with those more-plausible physical forms is any better.

Eva, world-class spy and agent, Metal Gear Solid 3.

Madison Paige, investigative journalist, Heavy Rain.

Miranda Lawson, observer, liasion, & agent, Mass Effect 2.

All three of these are screenshots from big budget, big studio, games that wish to have their stories, plots, and characters taken seriously. Throughout most of the narrative of each, that’s easy enough to do. And then the moments like these appear…


How does the larger gaming design and game playing community reconcile the continual reliance on the male gaze with the changing demographic of their consumers? Well, they don’t, mainly. Not yet, anyway. Even a franchise like Mass Effect 2 that leaves so much room for possibility with its lead character, can do this with Miranda. BioWare is arguably the most aware of any major studio right now, but even so is still marketing to the same crowd.

The good news, though, is that gender representation and diversity issues are starting to see the light of day in more mainstream gaming talk (transcript here). The Extra Creditz crew have tackled similar discussions.

So while 2,000–4,000 word essays (my specialty, alas) tackling the history of gender representation and the male gaze across visual media are always going to be a bit of a niche area, the conversations about women in gaming are indeed finally spilling out into a wider, mainstream, primarily male audience. And sometimes, that audience is getting it.

And meanwhile, I’ll take whatever conversation, whatever venue, and whatever allies it takes to get more of this:

and less of this:

into gaming.