Oh God, not THAT discussion

On this blog, I’ve been trying to keep my commentary as far as possible from the “girls and games” topic, partially because I feel like I have little that is original to add to the discussion. I am a female who plays and enjoys nearly every kind of digital game and I have never seen much merit in the idea that girls and boys inherently prefer different essential gaming experiences. I know women who love and excel at shooters and men who play Peggle and other ‘casual’ titles obsessively (I see their Steam notifications. They can’t hide from me.)

True, most western AAA video and computer games are marketed toward adolescent males. Their art, themes, and stories promote or at least embody the fantasy of masculinity treasured by that particular demographic, and they’re created by an industry where a majority of the producers, designers, artists, and management are themselves male. It is from this that the notion that girls can’t be ‘core’ gamers derives: ‘core’ games like Gears of War, Modern Warfare, and God of War all work hard to satisfy those culturally-reinforced male fantasies. This makes them a bit awkward to play if you don’t share in the fantasy, regardless of what your gender is. Anyway, games really have no trouble providing us with fantasies if we don’t bring our own to the game; most ‘core’ games are simply providing fantasies that are deliberately very exclusionary to females.

It doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t enjoy them. I still love games, and I still love the medium, and I still love shooting digital people in the face, because it’s exciting and challenging and because I have strong nostaligic memories associated with the shooting of digital people in the face. But I’m also hyper-aware that the AAA industry doesn’t usually give a shit about people like me. This is part of the reason why I love indie games so much: most of them are directed at fulfilling basic human fantasies, not adolescent male ones. They don’t adhere to the same bullshit aesthetic of ‘gritty realism’ that those AAA games do, and they often tackle very mature issues on a symbolic level. I appreciate this maturity more than I appreciate the posturings of maturity found in many AAA titles.

At any rate: games and girls. I bring it up now because I’ve had a number of strange games-and-girls related interactions over the past two weeks.

The first occurred at E3. A female friend of mine—actually, she’s a game tester—and I were eating lunch at the food court area when two heavyset older gentlemen seated themselves at our table. Space was tight at the food court, so it made sense to share. As we each carried on our separate conversations, however, my friend and I suddenly realized that the conversation these middle-aged guys were having right next to us was infinitely more interesting than our own.

“But girls don’t like that,” one said.

“Oh, you guys are doing it all wrong,” the other replied. “See, what girls don’t like is senseless violence. If it has a purpose, fine. They like that, if it has a point, like if it does something good for the world. But they won’t play it if it has senseless violence.”

I don’t remember what else they said. I and the woman I was talking with left shortly after this comment. I wasn’t able to see what the names on these two guys’s tags were, and I still don’t know whether they were designers or marketers or executives. But they were somebodies.

“Girls don’t like senseless violence,” the other woman muttered to me as we walked away.

“It was interesting for me to learn that,” I said. “I’ll keep that in mind next time I find myself enjoying shooting dudes in the head.”

I enjoy meaningless, senseless violence in games as much as the next gamer. What I don’t enjoy is always having to be a man whenever a game lets me commit senseless violence. Or always having to be a hyper-sexualized woman whenever a game grants me the privilege to be a lady while I kill dudes. Part of the excitement of games is the ability to “be” somebody else, to explore a story from the perspective of a new character. It gets depressing, though, when an entire industry seems to have decided that you, people like you, and the fantasies and perspectives that you have, are not fitting material for games. Generally, in order to experience a AAA game, a woman will have to ‘be’ a man. Only culturally-masculine fantasies are worth immortalizing in games, it seems.

Okay. Whatever. They’re still fun.

I’ve moved to Los Angeles for the summer and am living in an apartment with three other female students about my age. All three are actually from a very different cultural background than my own: they’re all of Pakistani heritage, and they’re all very ‘Californian,’ while I’m a very east-coast Irish Catholic. We have very different expectations when it comes to socialization, food, dress, and so on—mostly due to the east-coast/California divide, not the Pakistani/Irish one. But all three grew up with N64 or Super Nintendo consoles in their homes, and loved Zelda and Donkey Kong Country—so games are, surprisingly, one of the cultural elements that we absolutely share.

So I thought, anyway. I think it still baffles them that a girl can care so much about games and devote as much time and intellectual energy to them as I do. While eating dinner a few days ago, one of them asked me, rather aggressively, what I thought about violence in games. I tried to give her a reasoned explanation of my feelings on the subject—parents are responsible for the media their children ingest, so to speak, and they must use ratings responsibly and control purchases themselves. She told me that she’d seen a sociology study proving that little boys who play violent games are more violent; I told her that no such thing had been actually proven. She told me that the study had actually proven that they were more tolerant of domestic abuse against women. I had no clever answer for her, as I’d never even heard such an accusation before.

She then went on to ask, rather slyly, what I thought of CounterStrike. She demanded that I explain why “perfectly good, intelligent boys” can be so engrossed by the game that they “get sucked into it for hours.” I told her that ‘game addiction’ hasn’t been proven to exist, that people who can’t control their play time probably have different, underlying troubles. Like depression. This offended her—or her concern for the unnamed CounterStrike player, I suppose.

The conversation degenerated.

Just thinking about it over the past few days has absolutely infuriated me. I will not be held accountable as a kind of gender-traitor because I care deeply about the world’s newest and most important modern artistic medium. I will not allow the fact that this medium is currently controlled by industry, not artists—that the strings are being pulled by the kind of fat, middle-aged businessmen who, while stopping to eat lunch together at E3, decided between themselves what it is, exactly, that this medium can deign to offer women—I will not let this kind of thing control what people think about me. Or the medium. The medium is most important.

Which is why I will use indie games to educate my roommates, over the next few months, about what exactly it is that games can offer the world. Just to be controversial, I’m starting with Hey Baby.

I’ll keep you posted.