Women@Play: Reconfiguring The Masculinized Culture And Spaces Of Digital Gameplay

Jennifer Jenson is Associate Professor of Pedagogy and Technology in the Faculty of Education at York University. Suzanne de Castell is the Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University and a Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Education, York University.

Previously viewed as a hobby only pursued by, and suitable for, teenaged boys, video games are exploding in presence and popularity with the constant release of new genres (mobile, social networking games), peripherals (Wiimote, instruments, Kinect), and devices (iPhone), helping to spread gaming culture. Despite recent industry-wide initiatives to ‘level the playing field’ and attract new types of players, video game culture, as well as the video game industry, continues to be dominated by young men. What are the experiences of female gamers? And what about the experiences of women who design and produce games?

Publicity for the release of Halo Reach and Call of Duty: Black Ops, for instance, showed lineups of players waiting outside of electronic retailers in Toronto, New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver for their copy of Halo Reach or Call of Duty: Black Ops, in which those in line were unerringly male.  Thus, the gaming industry is still very much directed and populated by males.

One very real challenge of the 21st century is the enduring inequity between men and women in terms of pay scales and available careers, and this is acutely so when it comes to using, designing and developing leading edge digital technologies. Researching and working to change this doggedly persistent under-participation of women in ‘edge’ technologies is assuredly of social, cultural and economic interest and importance. The ‘digital divide’ is most apparent in the commercial games industry, where far fewer women are employed, despite the fact that it is one of the largest cultural entertainment industries globally (the 16.7% growth rate of the U.S. games industry radically outpaced the 2.8% growth rate of the U.S. economy between 2005 and 2008; Siwek, 2010). The percentage of women working in the North American games industry is estimated at 11.5%, with most of those in human resources positions (IGDA 2005), and far too many reporting their working conditions as “an old boys club” (Dyer-Witheford & Sharmon, 2005).

And the divide is not merely in relation to industry. Despite similar-sounding statistics – for instance, that half of all game players are women (e-skills U.K., 2009; ESA, 2010) – fewer women and girls report that they play than men and boys. Maybe more importantly, the types of games that females report playing are more ‘casual’ games than the immersive, and highly collaborative games their male counterparts report playing (ESA 2010).

There are two related, and very pressing problems at stake here.

1) From the standpoint of a massive cultural entertainment industry that continues to drive substantial job growth, how might we better understand and change the conditions through which game design and development remains a technicist (Dovey & Kennedy, 2006), and unmistakably masculinized (Fron et. al., 2007) domain, despite the fact that the industry involves much more than the typically male-dominated field of programming (art, music, writing, etc.)?

2) From a cultural and educational standpoint, how and what are girls and boys, as well as men and women playing, how do those differences matter in terms of whether and how players develop the kind of digital literacies deemed necessary for participation in a globalized society, (ISTE, 2007; Jenkins et. al., 2009; OECD, 2009)? How, specifically, can education give women and girls a more equal foundation and entry-point to participate more equitably in game-focused production, whether as players or as developers?

The challenge, then, is not only to better understand what is supporting the ongoing inequities in digital game design and play, but to work to transform them.  This chapter will identify a few of the more visible efforts to support women as producers of games and content, offer a short review of related research on women and games, note the expansion of social media sites, like Facebook, creating new and very visible arenas where women are indeed playing, and offer one example of how to ‘trickily’ work to redress this issue through feminist interventionist research.

Supportive Efforts: Networks and Initiatives

A prominent and very active group of game designers, artists, animators, programmers, producers and sound designers is the International Game Developers Association’s (IGDA) Women in Games group (http://www.igda.org/women). This group is highly visible in its strong support of women in the industry: it runs a listserv, and holds local events and meetings, as well as larger networking events at game industry conferences. A similar effort that is centered in the UK is the Women in Games (WIG, at http://www.womeningames.com) group that has held annual industry/academy events since 2004. WIG attempts to bring together researchers and practitioners concerned with redressing the gender imbalance in the games industry and also holds local networking events. A third group, Women in Games International (WIGI: http://www.womeningamesinternational.org/) works along the same lines as the first two, holding events that bring together gender-focused research and development, publicizing initiatives and noteworthy accomplishments and attempting to support women working in the industry, as well as those seeking a way into that industry.

There are a handful of notable initiatives and scholarships that have been created to support and encourage female participation in the creation of games, such as the recent 3G Summit: The Future of Girls, Gaming and Gender, a collaborative initiative between Open Youth Networks and Columbia College’s Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media. For four days in the summer of 2010, 50 young women from Chicago-area high schools engaged in a series of discussion and workshops designed to foster professional mentorship and provoke dialogue about gender representation and participation in video game culture (http://imamp.colum.edu/3gsummit/). The Vancouver Film School (VFS) awards an annual scholarship of $50,000 to a female incoming student to their one-year Game Design program. The scholarship, which also covers the student’s tuition, is a means to encourage aspiring female game designers and provide them with greater opportunities for a career in the game industry. Regarded as a ‘favourite’ program by industry recruiters, many female VFS Game Design graduates have gone on to work successfully in the industry. Similarly, to address the serious underrepresentation of women in this field, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas offers a women-only scholarship to their Game Development certificate and graduate programs, and the Entertainment Software Association also provisions a yearly scholarship to 30 women and minorities interested in game development as a career.

Notwithstanding these efforts and initiatives, it has been well documented and continues to be a significant deterrent that working conditions in the games industry are not inviting nor supportive for women, in most locations, most of the time. In the end, games companies are governed by economic realities, and it remains for researchers to investigate why women have not flourished in game cultures, how their relations to and participation within them might be improved, and uncover both underlying patterns and strategies for their transformation.

Social & ‘Casual’ Gaming

Brian Winn & Carrie Heeter (2009) write that females prefer to engage in ‘casual’ game play because they have less leisure time than their male counterparts, however, females in their study report playing roughly 9 hours a week while males played 6 hours a week, though this does not take into account what else their male counterparts might be playing. Recently, Mia Consalvo (2010) argues that what people have come to label as casual game play (playing social networking games as well as gaming applications on mobile devices such as Angry Birds or Bejeweled) is anything but casual, and in fact, these games can demand a similar level of commitment and time investment as MMO games like World of Warcraft which are considered to be ‘hardcore.’ The “new social gamer,” an older female who did not engage in game play prior to playing social network games, is a stark contrast to who we traditionally view as a “gamer,” that is, a young male who has frequently played video games on a variety of platforms his entire life (Klotz, 2010).

While Klotz reports that the number of social gamers is split pretty equally between females (53%) and males (47%), research suggests that females play these games more frequently and for longer periods of time than males (Sung, Bjornrud, Lee, Wohn, 2010). Taking cues from research findings on gender and television program preferences (Mayer, 2003), the authors suggest that females’ preference for engaging in activities that are (or at least feel like) socially interactive may explain why females spend more time playing social networking games than males. This line of reasoning arguably reduces other considerations – for instance, the differing levels of technical and ludic sophistication between game genres and, relatedly, different kinds of competencies required for play – to the straightforward and reductionist explanation that women prefer more ‘social’ games (one might also wonder what makes Farmville more ‘social’ than World of Warcraft).

Marginalized Gaming

When women do play, much like their female counterparts who produce YouTube videos or blog online consistently, they can be the objects of discrimination and the recipients of outright hostility and sexism. For example, a recently-created blog, “Fat, Ugly or Slutty” (http://www.fatuglyorslutty.com) allows women (and men) who receive offensive messages while playing games to post share them with others. The websites creators state that their intent is to “make light” of the sexist, piggish rants that people send, stating: “Some players like to send creepy, disturbing, insulting, degrading and/or just plain rude messages to other online players, usually women. We think this is funny [ … ] But instead of getting offended, we offer a method for people to share these messages and laugh together. If having these messages posted online makes someone think twice about writing and sending a detailed description of their genitals, great!” (http://fatuglyorslutty.com/about/). The site, although meant to be somewhat “light hearted” is a very good example of the kind of misogyny and sexual abuse that some female gamers experience. Examples include:

Fat, Ugly or Slutty

From: http://fatuglyorslutty.com/wp-content/uploads/Evil_x_Clovvns-1.jpg

Fat, Ugly or Slutty

From: http://fatuglyorslutty.com/wp-content/uploads/eL_Trips.jpg

Fat, Ugly or Slutty

From: http://fatuglyorslutty.com/wp-content/uploads/Mr_Rangel_x20x-2.jpg

This kind of public forum, at the very least, allows people to talk back against the insults and to share stories, but it can do very little to put a stop to the sexist, threatening discourse because of the relative anonymity afforded by the creation of a login ID that is not tied in any way to true markers of identity.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Some years ago, Janet Chafetz (1994), a social science researcher, concluded from examining a range of cases, that within an inequitable social system, the best opportunities to advance gender equity is through mistakes — when the system breaks, when ‘business as usual’ goes awry, when there’s an accident or an oversight. It’s now been amply and repeatedly demonstrated, in fact, as true of both industry and academy: the point of productive equity work is not to reproduce the situation, but to change it. Left to their own devices, inequitable structures support inequitable outcomes, understandably enough. Those who see significant disparities in the conditions and opportunities between women and men, and who seek to improve the lives of women (people who a decade earlier would be ‘feminists’) therefore must be particularly alert to the opportunities and openings that can arise from disruptions, gaps or breakdowns of ‘business as usual’. Of course this is why networks have been keystones of every feminist foundation. Timely, well-tuned opportunism thrives on current information and strong and consistent connections that can be strategically identified, quickly mobilized and made functional through bonds of shared purposes and mutual commitment—these are what will enable a transformation at the gender/games nexus.

In times of rapid expansion, worries over ‘untapped markets’ are bound to be less critical than when growth slows. So right now there is increasing concern over the lack of diversity in the digital games sector, which translates into a stronger focus on the need to encourage far greater participation by women. This incentive creates an opening for leveraging more and better-supported education and training for girls and women in digital games, and for gaining increased support for policy and workplace practice changes that better support more women in key design, development and production roles.

Critical contribution of the various women in games networks to publicize, promote and push hard for these industry-based transformations, so that stories of women who do not fit the old gender scripts can become widely and well known. Changing the story means inventing equity, which, because it doesn’t yet exist, will never be ‘discovered’, either within games research, or in the industrial sector.  In our other work (see Jenson & de Castell, 2010 and Jenson, Fisher and de Castell, 2011), we’ve concentrated on the research end of the question, because that’s what we do, but there are many more stories to be told, and every invitation, opportunity, special program, scholarship, or accomplishment that widens the crack in the door for women is critically important. No less important is building new points of entry and stronger means of support. Building towards the kind of full-scale commitment to reversing gender/technology inequalities can’t be done on your own, in ones, and it can’t be done without support. The fact that even our best-intentioned development practices are themselves implicated and enmeshed in the ‘gender orders’ that need overturning, make gender reform very much work ‘against the grain’ even in our most progressive organizations. Work of this activist kind demands, therefore, not stellar individuals and isolated success stories, but concerted collective work, for which a community — some kind of critical mass for women — is an absolute necessity. We need, in both industry and academy, to change the conditions of our work and of our know-how.

Professor Jennifer Jenson is currently co-editor of Loading…:The Journal of the Canadian Game Studies Association and president of the Canadian Game Studies Association.

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3 Comments
  1. I would be interested to learn more about the impact of events and initiatives, such as the 3G Summit, on young women. I think that established ideas of what activities are appropriate for girls are ultimately holding women back from exploring certain careers. Young children learn from those around them, and girls are likely to copy the behaviour of other girls who are not interested in gaming. Attempts at highlighting female achievement in gaming, and encouraging girls to follow these examples of success, can give young women role models who demonstrate new possibilities.

  2. I think it would also be interesting if those short term events followed their participants afterward to see if they had ‘impact’ afterwards. The trouble is that sometimes those events don’t fully register until years down the road, and then are recognized by participants as important/significant. As a 3G Summit participant, I CAN tell you that many of them left having a very different vocabulary to talk about games, with, and one that also, for some seemed to have politics with regards to designing and making games that seemed to develop over those days.
    With regards to highlighting female success in the area, while certainly important, it isn’t the case that that paradigm has worked to encourage more women in really ANY field. Research on women in computing science, for example, has shown over and over again that having female role models does not encourage more women in computing. That said, I think highlighting the success of women in the industry is important and valuable!

  3. It’s interesting that research has shown that the presence of female role models does not encourage more women to participate in the industry as I would have assumed the opposite. But then again, given the male dominated and “old boys club” working environment, perhaps the small population of women game developers lose something that enables other women to relate to them. It is also possible that many of these female developers were the only ones that could somehow adapt to such working environments. That said, isn’t this a common theme that we see when women begin to break into other male dominated industries? Arguably, these researchers would have found the same results with women in the legal profession back in, for example, the 1960s. I think it would be best if women ignored those discouraging research findings. As society becomes more comfortable with the idea of women gamers and game developers, more and more women will want to work in the industry. I definitely agree with Jen Jensen on the importance of celebrating the success of female developers in the gaming industry as these initiatives are changing (and will continue to change) the perception of female game developers.

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