Female gamers fighting to get to the next level

  • Article by: HELEN LEWIS , New York Times
  • Updated: January 9, 2013 - 7:42 PM

Leaders in the video game industry shooting for a 2013 that advances gender equality.

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A scene is shown from "Halo 4."

Photo: Anonymous, Associated Press

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Women! You must have heard of them. They're like real gamers, only with little hands and silly, squeaky voices and constant gripes about being marginalized and hypersexualized and threatened with rape in online multiplayer settings.

2012 felt like the year that gaming culture really began to come to grips with being a mainstream commercial behemoth rather than a niche nerdy backwater. And a big part of that was sometimes agonizing over the role of women in games -- making them, playing them and being featured in them.

Games aren't a boys' club anymore. This year might be the one in which women finally outnumber men as players. The split is 47 to 53 percent, according to the Entertainment Software Association, up from 40-60 in 2010. That development has been encouraged by the explosion in popularity of tablet and smartphone games, which have made every commute another opportunity to whip out "Bejeweled" or "Contre Jour."

This rise in casual play has upset some of those who see themselves as guardians of the true flame, however. There are definitely those who hold the idea that women are entering the hallowed citadel and ending all the fun. Particular ire is reserved for anyone who dares to point out that female characters in games are often unsupported in the bra region for no apparent reason; given boring, bland supporting roles; and often totally absent.

Take the "Hitman: Absolution" trailer, released last May. It featured a group of sexy assassin nuns, with the camera following their buttocks as closely as a subway groper's hand.

Gamifying misogyny

Something else to think about: the abuse directed at blogger Anita Sarkeesian for starting a Kickstarter project aimed at exploring the way women were depicted in games.

Angry fumers tried to hack her Twitter and Google accounts; they e-mailed her drawings in which she was being raped by video game characters; one even created a Flash game where clicking the mouse landed bruises and welts on her face. As she explained in a recent TEDx talk, they effectively "gamified" misogyny.

But there was another side to Sarkeesian's story. Her Kickstarter project far exceeded its fundraising goals. Thousands of people stood up and said to the sexists: You are nothing to do with us, or with gaming. And that theme continued throughout 2012.

Women make up fewer than one in 10 people working in game writing or development, but there are now some prominent success stories to point to, including Kiki Wolfkill, the executive producer of "Halo 4," and Siobhan Reddy, the studio director of Media Molecule (the outfit behind "Little Big Planet").

No to 'booth babes'

Some of the most alienating practices are also being stamped out. The Eurogamer Expo in October announced that it didn't want "booth babes" -- scantily clad women hired to pander to the belief that gamers are gaping dudes uninterested in anything without breasts draped over it. Patricia Hernandez wrote in Kotaku.com about how, as a rape survivor, she eventually rejected the commonly used phrase "I raped you" when vanquishing opponents in the game "Gears of War." Similarly, Wolfkill and the 343 Studios leader, Bonnie Ross, made clear during their publicity tour for "Halo 4" that they would do everything they could to make Microsoft take seriously the problem of sexist abuse in multiplayer voice chat.

It's clear all gamers will have to learn to play nice.

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