Picture a typical computer gamer and what do you see? A spotty adolescent boy locked away in his bedroom? Get with the programme. Forty-nine per cent of gamers are now women – despite the best efforts of some male gamers to keep them away.
By Helen Lewis
03 Jun 2013
If it hadn’t been for my brother Chris, I might never have got into computer games.
Back in the 1980s, he owned an Acorn Electron, which somehow got handed on to me when he left for university, and I spent my early years playing titles such as Killer Gorilla, Vegas Jackpot and Repton.
The gameplay was primitive – left, right, up and down, controlled with a temperamental keyboard – but there was something magical about taking a boring old cassette tape and seeing it transmuted into apes and princesses and faraway lands.
Today’s games have far more sophisticated visuals and stories, but they still offer that heady combination of excitement and escapism.
In a typical week, I play at least eight hours, split between first-person shooters such as BioShock Infinite, tactical titles such as Civilization, and time-wasting iPad stalwarts such as Sally’s Spa.
But still, when I tell people that I play games – a lot of games – their eyes do tend to widen. The first reaction is, ‘But you’re a woman!’ The second is, ‘But you look so normal!’
It baffles me that this still happens, that we still assume that gamers are spotty, adolescent boys, because that stereotype hasn’t been true for at least a decade.
American research puts the average age of a gamer at 30, and it’s likely to be similar in Britain. More surprisingly, if current trends continue, 2013 will be the year when more women than men play games (it’s now 49 per cent women versus 51 men).
So now, as a 29-year-old woman, I’m a better representation of a ‘typical gamer’ than some kid shooting aliens in his bedroom.
Women aren’t only associated with gaming by being ‘booth babes’ anymore. Photo: ALAMY
And there are all sorts of women dismantling that stereotype.
In the past year I’ve spoken to a sixtysomething grandmother who playsWorld of Warcraft with her grown-up son, a new mother who kept the boredom of breastfeeding at bay with multiplayer Call of Duty sessions online, and the parents of young girls who love playing Cooking Mama.
Even female celebrities are now willing to ‘come out’ as gamers:
Mila Kunis spent the better part of a recent chat-show appearance discussing her obsession with World of Warcraft and the Supernaturalactress Felicia Day loves the medium so much she made a web television series about it.
So how did so many women get into gaming? There’s a simple answer, and it’s probably in your handbag – or hand, if you’re as addicted as I am – right now.
Smartphones turned games from something you needed special equipment and special skills to play, to something you might do with a simple swipe of a finger while waiting for the bus.
The ability to buy games on your phone or Facebook has made the whole shebang seem much less intimidating. Many women hated going to Game and HMV because they felt out of place.
One fiftysomething shooter fan told me she found it easier to pretend she was shopping for her son. But spending 69p on something like Angry Birds – which celebrated 1.7 billion downloads in March – carries none of that baggage.
The rise in female gamers has created a virtuous circle: manufacturers now see them as an important market, and are making titles to appeal to them.
Women typically prefer puzzles and social games such as FarmVille, rather than adrenalin-fuelled shoot-’em-ups, according to YouGov research for the tech consultancy LadyGeek.
But these new consumers can still be invisible, because you don’t see billboard or television ads – or angry newspaper editorials – devoted to the kind of titles they buy.
‘Adult women develop brand loyalty around games they like, and then the games companies market new products to them by embedding advertisements in the products and websites they already use,’ says the games writer Leigh Alexander.
She adds that some games are also given subtle tweaks to appeal to women: after Skunk Studios renamed its macho King of Thieves gameRaven’s Flight, its sales rose.
But the influx of female players has not been without a backlash. Women who talk about loving games should expect the question: but are you a real gamer?
If you write an article on the subject under a female byline (which I often do, alongside my job as a political journalist), you stand a fair chance of being besieged by comments asking how you could possibly be unaware of some seminal 1997 game for the Sega Saturn console, even though it only had a limited release in Japan on CDs hand-etched by its manufacturer.
However deep your knowledge or enthusiasm, there’s always some bloke desperate to restore what he sees as the natural order by knowing more than you. This can sometimes take a nasty turn.
Last year the writer and keen gamer Anita Sarkeesian was trying to fund a video series called Tropes vs Women.
She planned to deconstruct some of the persistent sexist plotlines and character types in games: the damsel in distress, the huge-breasted ninja warrior.
Anita Sarkeesian with some games characters
As I wrote then, it was as if her suggestion set off an ‘angry misogynist Bat Signal’. She was hit with hundreds of obscene comments on her YouTube videos:
‘You’re a bolshevik feminist Jewess’, ‘Why do you put on make-up, if everything is sexism? You are a hypocrite f— slut’, ‘I’ll donate $50 if you make me a sandwich.’
As the crowd of haters expanded, Sarkeesian had her address posted on the internet. Hackers targeted her Wikipedia page and social media accounts, and someone made a game where you could click on her face and bruises would appear.
Why was the reaction against her so furious?
‘The hatred directed at Anita is entirely because men (in particular) feel that “gaming” is their exclusive territory,’ the games writer Cara Ellison told me.
‘Sexist men do not want an intellectually interested, feminist woman criticising or looking at any part of something they consider “their” industry.’
Frankly, it is no secret that the games industry – and a substantial minority of its customers – has historically had a problem with women.
At the big expos, the trade fairs where new releases are shown to journalists and fans, it had long been common practice to employ scantily clad ‘booth babes’ to capture attention.
There are still too many female characters relegated to lust objects, too many male power fantasies and too few women making games: about four to six per cent, according to the best figures we have.
The overall effect is to make female gamers feel like interlopers.
This is especially true when you play online multiplayer games, in which players from around the world do battle against each other. On games such as Halo, you can talk to your fellow gamers via headsets.
I turned off my microphone for good after hearing one too many men shout: ‘I totally raped you!’
I did, however, make my character’s armour Sugar Plum Fairy pink, so they would know they were being beaten by a girl. If things are ever going to change, women who love games have to stand up and be counted.
The good news is that Sarkeesian’s experience felt like a watershed. Shocked by the severity of what happened to her, games makers and writers began to speak more openly about the low-key sexism they’d encountered.
In a popular Twitter campaign, they shared the experiences that made them feel unwelcome as gamers using the hashtag ‘#1reasonwhy’.
Big news sites such as Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun began to take the depiction of women in games seriously, with articles asking why developers needed to demean women to appeal to a supposedly male audience.
A typical example is the zombie game Dead Island: Riptide, which went on sale with a free statue of a dismembered female torso in a bikini.
The big sites have also begun to take harassment of women gamers seriously.
After the Kotaku writer Patricia Hernandez was attacked for asking why Sony did not have any women on stage when it launched its new hand-held console, her editor Stephen Totilo waded into the comments section to castigate his readers.
‘Those of you who… can’t be bothered to read her articles or tolerate her opinion or respond to what she writes in a civil, intelligent manner are not part of any community I want on this site,’ he wrote.
There are now more women than ever writing about games, and the tone of the coverage has changed dramatically.
In 2000 the specialist site IGN began a review of a Tomb Raider game with the immortal words: ‘Women. What an incredibly perplexing creation. They can be ugly, spiteful, shallow, heartless, ambiguous and deliberately deceptive to the point of frustration that borders on insanity. But still, we come back for more.’
Meanwhile the tech site The Register noted that Lara Croft’s ‘38D breasts’ were being given ‘more definition… We are unable to confirm whether Core Design will include a new viewing angle purely to enjoy the game’s latest enhancements.’
That kind of adolescent commentary is now in the minority, though I’ve had my share of user comments saying I must only write about sexism because I’m physically repellent, that if I were a ‘sexy lady’ I wouldn’t be so bothered by rubber-clad nun assassins or dead prostitutes or whatever.
But things are changing. There are increasing numbers of high-profile women in gaming.
For example, Bonnie Ross and Kiki Wolfkill of 343 Industries oversaw the latest instalment in the Halo series, which took £138 million in its first day on sale – easily beating Skyfall and the final Harry Potter film.
The games player and writer Rhianna Pratchett
Then there’s Siobhan Reddy, who runs the British studio that made Little Big Planet. Another success is Rhianna Pratchett, who grew up playing games with her father, the novelist Terry.
‘Dad used to play the games and I used to get out the graph paper and draw the maps,’ she tells me. ‘We’d adventure through worlds like that. He passed on his old machines to me and I’d play the games myself.’
She’s now progressed to writing them, too, and was behind the acclaimed reboot of Tomb Raider that turned Lara Croft from jiggly juvenile fantasy to a proper, interesting character.
Pratchett is hopeful about where games are going.
‘Good female characters are extremely important for attracting female players,’ she says. ‘However, male players appreciate good female characters, too. In fact, what players want, male and female, are just good characters.’
She’s right. The more that writers and developers realise how broad the gaming audience is now, the more diverse and interesting their games will be.
Despite all the problems I’ve described, I still love games. I love being transported to an Art Nouveau city beneath the sea, and I love the satisfaction of executing the correct sequence of buttons at the perfect time to score a match-winning goal in the 91st minute.
I love that there are now artistic games such as Proteus or Journey, where you simply wander around a beautiful landscape, soaking it in. It’s still a young medium, and there are still so many worlds to conquer.