I Am Gamer, Here Me Roar: We Need More Women in Video Games

I’m not one to stand on the soapbox of geekdom. I’m not ashamed of it, don’t get me wrong. I love as much nerdy crap as the next guy with a Millennium Falcon poster hanging over his bed,  more effective at preventing sex than a crucifix. I am not, however, in the vanguard of keyboard-jousting Kevin Smith wannabes. There’s a lot of topics I find far more deserving of an impassioned op-ed, like human rights and politics and the troglodyte of a cab driver who cut me off this morning.

A conversation I heard today has broken my vow of feigned disinterest.

Let me set the scene. I emerge from the Qdoba bathroom, fresh from treating a slew of coffee burns (thanks, murderous cabbie). A gaggle of moms, early- to mid-thirties, sip Diet Coke and catch up. The exchange, paraphrased:

“What did you do this weekend?”

“Mike and the kids are out of town, so I binged on junk food and a few seasons of [some reality TV dreck] on Netflix. You?”

“I’m so jealous. Kyle had a sleepover party and all his friends did was play video games.”

“Sounds like teenage boys. They’ll grow out of it soon.”

“I hope so. Such a silly hobby.”

This is an exceedingly common view, and honestly, it drives me up a fucking wall.

First of all, if you mainline Netflix for days at a time, then scoff at gamers, you should take an honest look at your life. If you can point out one real difference between the two pastimes, I’ll eat Donald Trump’s hairpiece. Let’s also blow right past the “only pubescent boys and frat bros play games” stereotype. In that spirit, let’s just recognize the fact that most gamers are adult women.

What I really can’t stand is that the entirety of an emerging art form – yes, art form – is relegated to ridicule and scrutiny by society at large. “A silly hobby.”

A few decades ago, I would’ve agreed with the naysayers. Most games were side scrolling Sylvester Stallone simulators – run to the right, shoot ethnically ambiguous bad guys, blow up boss monster, repeat. But video games have come so far since then, both technically and thematically. The creative landscape of interactive entertainment has opened up into a renaissance rivaling, if not surpassing, movies and TV.

Let’s start with the obvious – the visuals. Many players consider the art style of a game one of its defining attributes. And there’s a spectrum; some opt for the photorealistic, some to the hyper-stylized. The ingenuity you can find is astounding. My favorite example: a lot of designers have adopted a style known as “pixel art.” Artists use monochromatic blocks in low-bit resolutions to create beautiful vistas. They took the one of the chief technical limitations of retro games, and made it into their creation’s greatest asset. Sounds like something an… artist might do.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

“Fez,” an example of a pixel art game

Interactive storytelling has made equally great strides. No more are we confined to uber-masculine, linear narratives of revenge and bloodshed. Just like traditional media, all quadrants of the story spectrum have been filled–from simple to Inception-level nuanced, straightforward to philosophical, sane to “be-an-octopus-pretending-to-be-a-suburban-father.

User-influenced storytelling (a la Choose Your Own Adventure books) is a massive innovation only found in video games, too. Imagine how immersive a blockbuster movie would be if you had some leverage in determining the outcome. Imagine if there was a button you could press to have that frozen oaf Jack make Rose made a little room for him on the goddamn door. Actually, don’t imagine. Just go play a game. It’s much more satisfying than cursing the name of a fictional shipwreck survivor.

Although violent games certainly remain some of the top sellers, gameplay itself offers more options. There’s any number of ways to actually play now. You can build stuff, fly a plane, run a space program, play God, solve puzzles, play a little plastic baby guitar, stomp around on a mat covered in arrows  like a Norse ice giant at a bar mitzvah… I could go on, but I won’t in the interest of time and the realization that it only gets weirder.

That’s not to say the world of gaming is free of issues – what form of creative expression is? Just like in Hollywood, big name producers keep churning out mass-produced, cookie-cutter crap. For every uninspired Avengers spin-off and Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel, there’s a Call of Modern Warfare 7 and Mario and Luigi’s Regurgitated Bullshit.

Honest criticism of games is also an unfortunate rarity, most likely due to its poor reputation. As newspapers and broader publications haven’t taken to reviewing video games in the same manner as fine arts, music, and the like, the duty is taken up by narrow gaming-only publications. Publications that run ads for the games they review on the same page as the review. Future ad revenue indirectly depends on the success of the game advertised. And the conflict of interest presents itself.

Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is the sexism that still plagues a lot of potential consumers’ views of gaming. The games themselves aren’t the problem; some of gaming’s biggest heroes are women (Samus Aran, Lara Croft, etc.). In the online and competitive communities, however, rabid neckbeards are quick to sling misogynistic, homophobic slurs at lady players like shit-flavored hotcakes. What’s more, the fieriest abuse is reserved for “noobs” – doubly so if said noob is a woman making a brave foray into gaming.

Pictured: the average perpetrator of said horribleness.

This is one of the reasons I don’t play online much anymore. (I also kinda suck at games but that’s not important). If I wanted to listen to a bunch of white guys yell at women and minorities, I’d watch Triumph of the Will or go to a Trump campaign rally.

I want to fix it more than anything. But I can’t – only women can. Every artistic medium has had to conquer the problem of masculine domination. It took, oh, 4000 years or so for women to use their real names when publishing books, as opposed to male pseudonyms. We can figure out gaming way quicker than that.

So, (mostly) women of ANNA, I implore you: play a game. Flood the medium with your beautiful selves. The barrier of entry is crazy low, too. Download Steam on your computer (which I know you have) and grab any number of free titles, or perhaps one for under $5 (there are several thousand). There’s already a lot of you who’ve joined us, but we need more. If having you on our side doesn’t begin to fix these issues outright, at least you’ll call more attention to them. And that’s half the battle.