Gaming and gender

Girl gamers should aim higher

As I get older I’m finding the “girl gamer” moniker harder to live with. It’s so at odds with how I see myself. There are many playing fields where women are still (sadly) not equal, gaming is young enough for women to not have to make a distinction.

Gaming can be a fractured community as it is without putting gamers of a specific gender above or below anyone else, but that said girl gamers should be demanding more from the game development community.

Girl gamers

My primary problem with the term “girl gamer” is that it sells an entire genders aspirations for our community very short. It’s a well-documented fact that women play games, I think that’s a total given. Girl gamers should be aiming higher. Women who deem themselves as girl gamers shouldn’t just be trying to raise awareness of the fact that they’re playing games, but raising awareness of the fact that women are not adequately reflected at every point of game development. I want more than a mere acknowledgement than I am here, I want more gaming experiences that speak to me, made by like-minded people rather than a team that doesn’t adequately reflect the gaming population guessing at how to accomplish that.

I’m less bothered about proving women play games, I’m more concerned about the near-complete gender bias when it comes to how games are made. More women should be programmers, animators, and developers, if more women are playing games than ever, why are women in game development still mere punctuation in a largely male landscape? The ladies that are there are incredible and making their mark (as a female web developer I know the difficulties well, the two career paths are definitely comparable) but I cannot help but feel the lessened number of female faces means a shortfall in gamings overall output.

For example, it must have a direct effect on how female characters are portrayed in games (there are some great female characters out there, but some consistency would be an ideal starting point). For every empowered female character there are ten or more patronising or insulting ones.

There is a consistent a lack of features that women might desire in a game (basic things, like being able to choose a female avatar), and then the wider consequences of female absenteeism, namely how we as women gamers are treated and perceived in the occasionally brash gaming community (if you think it can be soul-destroying playing a multiplayer FPS online, you can and do often generate more antagonism with a female voice).

A severe lack of female faces

It’s certainly not always easy for a girl to play games, I will acknowledge that. I’ve occasionally been accused of being able to vocalise my love of gaming more because I am a girl, as if somehow the very fact that I am female automatically nulls the stigma associated with playing games. This is a misconception, and is perhaps why the girl gamer movement is so tempting. Gaming is still a very masculine pastime, and I am looked down upon outside of the gaming community as equally as men are – just for slightly different reasons. Namely the fact that I am interested in things that depart from most people’s understanding of the normal feminine persona (if such a thing exists).

I think the games community as a whole (and that means both men and women) should be championing the women who develop and design our games more, so that overall perception of women in games are improved. Girl gamers should refocus their efforts, rather than the championing the role of women who simply play, let’s champion the women who play and create. It’s not my intention to belittle the girl gamer movement any, but we can’t demand better from the game development community if there aren’t enough people (from a mixed background) working hard to learn how to make games and understand the concepts involved.

There are some great women in gaming out there (this may be a subject I have to return to), but I think a good litmus test is how much visibility people outside of a particular industry have. I’ve no doubt that someone outside of the gaming community could mention a couple of key male figures in the game development industry – but how many women could they name? Not many, if any. It’s a sobering thought.

Currently playing

Is gaming a good use of time?

I think video games are wonderful. For me it almost goes without saying, but every so often a game will come along to really remind you of why you still spend time playing games. A great game will inspire feelings you haven’t felt in a long time, when everything was new and new concepts were magic, it’s a nice reminder of when things were nothing but fun.

So what’s the harm in a little whimsy once in a while?

My muse

A primary accusation levelled at gaming is that is simply not a good use of time. Conceptually it’s still deemed by many people to be “dead time”. Moments that would be best spent doing productive things. The problem is that “good ways” to spend time are completely subjective, one person’s ideal evening can completely different to anothers and that’s never going to change.

I’ll give you one main reason why gaming is a good use of my time though. It constantly reminds me to keep the youthful part of me alive, to be silly, to have fun, to occasionally put my sense of whimsy before real-world concerns, to give time back to myself after a day spent focused on others and others goals.

Rayman Origins is a great example of this, there’s a fantastic moment in the game where you’re swimming through the gloom of a dark underwater level, you have an extremely limited source of light, and you’re navigating carefully through this dangerous trap-filled murk. Suddenly you exit the darkness and soaring over this beautiful underwater backdrop, it made my spine tingle. I was beaming, I enjoyed spinning in the water, pausing the goals of the game for a moment to simply smile, dabble and “piss about” in the water with my co-op partner.

The reason I mention this is that it’s these sorts of sensations that justify the entire video game experience to me.

Swimming among the fishes in Rayman Origins.Playing in the beautifully rendered water.

Gaming is appealing precisely because it’s usually something we do in our unproductive “downtime”. Not everything in life needs to be about doing that someone else deems worthy. Your life has to be a balance between your goals and the things you do that are still valid, but keep you content and inspired. The latter idea definitely helps the former. We just have a different muse to most people, it’s as plain as that.

Personally video games inspired a life-long love (and now a career in technology). Games continue to fascinate me because their methods and production are on evolving paths rather than static line. It is the future possibilities of gaming that excites me as much as it’s present. By buying into gaming I genuinely believe I’m supporting something worth spending my time on, precisely because it offers such a rich and inspiring backdrop to my life.

Two characters decide how to navigate an underwater trap.Jumping between pipes in a fiery level.

Positivity out of negativity

Fair play to my parents, who weren’t completely enamoured with games like I was, had the presence of mind to let me explore and experiment on them as much as I felt I needed to. I dabbled with many activities when I was younger (birdwatching, rockclimbing, orchestras, swimming, reading and horseriding were my favourites in my childhood) but gaming was the one that really resonated with me. It’s very interesting that I had a complete spectrum of creative and active hobbies for years but gaming is the primary one I chose.

I wouldn’t say I hide the fact that I play video games, I’m certainly not brash or vocal about it either, it’s simply a normal source of inspiration in my mind, and as difficult as this is to hear, keeping your interests a secret from people for fear of what they’ll think of you isn’t going to change anything. The only way there’s going to be any radical change in the way playing games are perceived by people is if more people admit to it and are more open about how games form a normal part of their well-rounded lives.

The merits of gaming are only going to be realised if it becomes part of our a normal day-to-day conversations. As we share what we did the previous weekend in a similar way to which we’d talk about books we’d read, places we’d been or TV shows we’d watched.

That’s not to say that your pastime should solely define who you are either, but changing the way you behave simply due to the negative reaction of others isn’t the way to go either. No one should stop themselves from playing or discussing games in public due to the fear of (often silent) negative perceptions from others. This sort of thing really isn’t inspiring confidence in our hobby, especially if it’s own supporters won’t behave as they’d like to in public.

There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of fun now and again. By playing games we take moments to take us out of the day to day to dabble with the sublime or the ridiculous. There’s a wide spectrum of games to choose from, but those perceptions by non-gamers are spun out of a minority of violent and repetative games that don’t totally reflect the true array of titles that inspire us. Games like Rayman Origins should be a constant reminder of why we want bigger and better things for gamings recognition in the wider world.

Our gaming time is whimsy, and by it’s own nature constructive a use of our time (and that’s a universal desire that doesn’t make gamers selfish). Above all, our gaming time is totally ours. Don’t let anyone try to take that time away from you.

A boss worm leaps out of the water.Exploring the murky, dark water.

Video games

Comparing gaming to social drinking

I often get asked why I enjoy playing games in my adulthood. I’m tired of that question, but let’s try a less-trodden idea. Gaming isn’t that different to social drinking if you really think about it. Consumption of alcohol is normal in most societies, and it’s done for a wide variety of purposes, such as to share news, meet up with friends, and celebrate.

It’s a good example to use for the normality, sociability (and downsides) of video games.

An idea

Many people find drinking liberating, to free up their concerns and inhibitions, helping them relax with others. Interestingly most people I know who play video games do so for many of the same reasons – to experience a life slightly outside of “themselves” and to explore ideas they wouldn’t normally. To experiment with behaviour in a similar way to how people who drink can pin their “out of sorts” self to the booze rather than their own behaviour.

Both gaming and drinking can be an excuse for people to act in ways they society would not normally let them – to say things that would be otherwise out of order. This is shown in our experience of games day in day out, but is perhaps best shown by the growing bravado that seems to come with playing games online, where people say and do things safe in the relative anonymity of the internet.

It can also be as simple as acting out scenarios in games that we would not normally find ourselves doing. We make decisions far from our own moral compass, killing people (as an extreme example) leading people along with a lie, or simply stating things in another way to how we would in real life.

One of the only differences between the two pastimes is that social drinking is often perceived as an adequate use of time – where as gaming is not. This is primarily because drinking is a historical sociable pastime, whereas games are still struggling with its less than social reputation.

My experience

To put it another way – gaming is another form of social lubricant, I have met most of the people I am close to through video games and games continue to be important for most gamers, as another way to interact with our social circles.

Playing games are not yet part of social normality, but I think gaming does perform many of the same tasks as social drinking in situations where lots of people are involved – the influx of party games, phone games and the proliferation of console gaming in homes are good examples of this and inspire those who may not have considered games before to give it a go collaboratively.

I suspect one of the few differences is that gaming is too young to have become as much of a social norm as drinking. Despite this most of our gaming experiences now are with others – even if they’re not played collaboratively they become talking points that we can elaborate on, as we share things between ourselves.

This is because despite widespread perceptions of our hobby, video games are inclusive – allowing everyone to have a go, and there isn’t much of the historical peer pressure associated with drinking. Culturally video games are my preferable replacement to drinking, because they’re not a social norm yet, I feel that responsible gamers have to be ambassadors for our pastime – proving that we’re normal, well-rounded members of society, just like most drinkers are.

Possible problems

Like any pastime or joy things can be taken to the extremes. Many more people have an over-reliance on drink than they’d care to admit. We have a particular problem with binge-drinking in the UK, both gaming and drinking have had their fair share of national and international public outcry.

No one is denying that both gaming and drinking can have adverse effects, but in my experience it is usually a minority of the people partaking in both things that take them to the extreme. A small percentage of the British public are problem drinkers, but there are an even larger portion of the population drinking more than the recommended weekly amount of units, (not to mention the fact that binge drinking costs the UK economy about £20 billion a year). People are doing this for a variety of reasons – to cope with stress, to relax or to socialise with others, and that’s an extremely familiar concept.

Most of the time both of these pastimes are a way to relax and enjoy the company of others, just occasionally though they can also be about having a coping mechanism, and there is definitely more appreciation and consideration given to those who drink to relax compared to those that do other things. Bad behaviour when drinking is pinned on the playfulness of drink, minor indiscretions that are “harmless” and can be ignored. Bad behaviour as a result of gaming is supposedly because games provoke violent tendencies, addiction and social ineptness and this perception needs to change. It’s quite a double-standard.

Currently playing

Skyrim’s siren song

I am staring into the middle distance. I am present in the room but my mind has been stolen away. I should be focusing on many other, more important things, but there is only one thought boring its way into my mind – how much I want to go back to playing Skyrim.

For most people left outside of the Skyrim circle, that’s a bad thing.

A majestic world

Skyrim is the sort of game that garners a bad reputation outside of the gaming community. It’s a beast, and a deceptive one at that, a massive masterpiece that rewards and enchants in spades. It focuses on solo-play, needing hundreds of hours worth of free-time to fully explore.

It’s deceptive because to an outsider it’s a friendly game about magic and swordplay. From a distance it’s a beguiling tale of whimsy far from modern day warfare and violence. I suspect it’s a game that many spouses have bought as Christmas presents this year without realising what they’re bringing into their home – a technical and artistic marvel that will utterly enthral those who play it. Perhaps even on a few occasions to the detriment of everything else.

There’s no one solitary thing I love about Skyrim – or any Elder Scrolls game. It’s a game that blends together tried and tested ideas into one glorious landscape. Skyrim (and its predecessors) are games that leave you never quite sated, leaving you always eager for more. So immersion is at Skyrim’s forefront, and as I try to focus on other things, I find my mind wandering back to its illuminated caves and awe-inspiring peaks.

Skyrim’s world is so majestic, that it requires some preparation to play. I found myself completing other games or plan the appropriate time to start on such an enormous gaming project. You have to be ready to play an Elder Scrolls game (or any game that is similarly large) the sense of grandeur upon starting is palpable. As such we as gamers often start an enormous game without thinking of the impact on those left around us.

Hard to step away

There’s definitely some silent (and occasional not so silent) accusations leveled to us as gamers. As if in the experience of playing any type of game makes us collectively more neglectful and selfish. This is perpetuated by the occasional intrusions into our gaming time, as we wrestle with a moment in a game, it’s not always totally understood that cannot always pause or easily drop what we’re doing. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of the engagement of video games.

The immediacy of attention that Skyrim (or any large single player game) requires does unfortunately help to perpetuate that view. The gaming object of our desire can equally annoy another, as some games can require a considerable time investment.

This is a particular problem with Elder Scrolls games and they are as much about the suspension of disbelief as the engagement with the world. Skyrim becomes a platform to each person’s individual fantasy. We follow and complete the same “quests” collectively as a community, but resolve them in our own way and develop our own stories and motivation for doing so.

A labour of love

Skyrim is a refreshing change of pace from other games, which can often push you down linear paths with a set roster of characters. This is usually done with helpful pointers and help to coax you along the narrative path. The process of playing Skyrim is liberating and it goes some way to explain the success of the series as a whole, and crucially why it can be so addictive.

Skyrim pushes us away from the tried and tested path. It encourages you down a particular route with the merest thread, only to flash a glimpse of a beautiful view, or a ruin, or an undiscovered landmark, or a trail of wild flowers and suddenly we’re selectively amnesic, dazed by another bright idea or curiosity, we tumble past our goal and into something else, and something more.

Skyrim is a beautiful siren song, only it’s not singing us to shipwreck, but to sheer, unadulterated gaming bliss.