Last month, Disney made small ripples in the media pool with the release of a new video game called City Girl. A structural cousin of FarmVille, City Girl is one of hordes of online Flash-based video games designed to attract casual gamers—read: females.
The goal of City Girl is to “make it” in the Big Apple. Apparently, this means changing the outfits of your avatar (a customizable Barbie figure whose eye, hair, and skin color can be tailored to your preferences) and choosing one of two career paths: chef or fashion designer. The game’s architecture is like that of any run-of-the-mill “casual” game available for quick play. Many who grew up playing Snake on their parents’ brick-sized Nokia or hoarding “Neopoints” know the deal. So what makes City Girl so new?
Nothing, really. What’s new, or at least increasing in frequency, is the conflation of casual video games with any kind of video game, and, unfortunately, the misconception that casual games are “girl” games. This leads to the greater misconception of assuming “real” video games—that is, more fully developed PC and console games—are for male gamers.
What’s worse, casual games and “real” games are, in the mind of a gamer, completely different species. Although FarmVille is, going just by the definition of the term, as much a “video game” as Assassin’s Creed, most gamers would never equate the two on any level. “Casual games aren’t video games,” says Halan Belay, a Columbia College sophomore and self-described avid gamer.
“But,” she admits, “some casual games are great.” Pac-Man, for instance, is a “casual game.” Many casual gamers clock in more hours than their hard-core counterparts in console gaming, and the overlap between the two demographics is considerable. Still, studies show the majority of casual game players on Facebook and similar online platforms are female.
In addition, where most console games are concerned with pandering to male power fantasies, games that more typically attract female players have better-developed narratives that involve characters developing and working on relationships with other characters, or performing tasks that protect or create communities within the realms of these games. That is to say, girls tend to play games that are perhaps more subtle in their objectives.
Still, while stereotypes exist surrounding the genders and game preferences are perhaps based on a kernel of truth, these generalizations are not absolute. Nothing says that someone who occasionally opens up Minesweeper on her desktop or Words with Friends on her cell phone can’t also be a full-blown Mass Effect addict.
Interestingly, the most critically acclaimed games fall somewhere in between male fantasy and girly pastime. In fact, most are gender-neutral or even involve a (gasp) non-hyper-sexualized female avatar, such as Portal. Games like these discredit the claim that men cannot “identify” with a female avatar, an argument that is often used to justify why most games do not have female characters for players to use.
Another game that uses a female avatar without much fuss is Metroid, which has been around since the early ’90s. In the game’s most recent installment, however, the character was redesigned to be far more overtly feminine and given a narrative that played off of the “improved” graphics. When the most recent Tomb Raider was released, many were disappointed for the same reasons. “I bought the game in 2007 because I saw a badass female on the cover,” says Natalie Moore, a Columbia College sophomore, of Tomb Raider. But recently, with the removal of the character’s original interest in archaeology and tombs, Moore’s interest in the game has waned. “They took away so much agency from her,” she says.
The gaming industry is rife with sexist imagery, but its sexism goes beyond graphics alone. If you were to run a search of “girls and video games” on Google, one of the first results would be a WikiHow guide to “get your girlfriend to play video games.” Wikipedia even has an article about the nebulous subject of “women and video games.” One stereotype of the “gamer girl” is one of a straight female who “pretends” to play video games (exactly what that means is beyond this writer) and takes on the “gamer” aesthetic in order to attract men.
Some don’t even see what all the fuss is about. “I think it’s taken so seriously in a way. It’s just a game. You either think it’s fun or you don’t, boys and girls alike,” says Moore’s roommate, Kelly Carde, also a Columbia College sophomore.
What isn’t making headlines on Jezebel, the Huffington Post, and other sites where City Girl caused a stir is the existence of independent gaming projects that are trying to innovate and engage wider audiences. Many creative competitions exist for the design of interactive and interesting games that toy with players’ expectations and gendered tropes.
In Denmark, two women are working on getting young girls comfortable not just with playing video games, but with making them. In its mission statement, Game Girl Workshops talks about creating a “multitude of game narratives.” Nevin Erönde and Andrea Hasselager began Game Girl Workshops in their native Denmark and for Palestinian girls in the West Bank. As a response to the significant lack of women working in the games and technology industry. Girls in the workshops have made games called Find Me and Fisherman, with taglines such as “I am a clone! Find me in the crowd” and “Plenty of fish in the sea, but no time to catch them!”
Whether the gender discrepancies in the gaming world have to do with actual preference or social pressure and expectation is hard to say. And that’s the true challenge—the real object of the game.