Girl gamers still being left out

By Dave Lee
BBC World Service

Image caption,
The portrayal of women in video games still needs to move beyond Lara Croft. More involvement from women in games will help, experts say

When you think about women in video games, you would be forgiven for imagining the helpless girly-girl persona of Mario's beloved Princess Peach, or for getting distracted by the improbably-chested, often-running Lara Croft.

Or as Sheri Graner-Ray, studio design director for Schell Games, bluntly puts it: "We tend to make our females look like they're ready for sex right now."

Despite the number of women working in the games industry increasing, many argue that higher representation in gaming - both as players and creators - has done little to change portrayal of women within games.

"Sometimes women don't get the option of being male or female," Ngan Nguyen, editor of Women in Games Jobs, told BBC World Service's Colin Grant.

"You have to play with whatever character you're given. Some of the games I've played, like God of War, you are given just male characters."

'She's a girl!'

Ms Nguyen is a self-confessed hardcore gamer who has been playing since the age of 13.

She is one of the millions of people playing World of Warcraft, the "massively multiplayer online role-playing game" - or MMORPG - which boasts over 10 million users.

Image caption,
Online role-playing games have huge female audiences

Estimates put the proportion of female World of Warcraft players at approximately 25% - yet players like Ms Nguyen are not keen to be openly female online.

"What you've got with online multiple player games is that you have systems like Skype and Vent where you talk to each other whilst you're on missions together. You discover who it is you're actually playing with.

"I'd already been playing with my guild for a very long time before Vent was introduced and I made sure when I was invited to Vent I wouldn't accept it - because I wanted to establish myself as a really decent character regardless of my sex or my race.

"Eventually, when Vent was brought on, everybody went 'she's a girl!'"

Annoying guys

Recently Blizzard, creators of World of Warcraft, suggested it may begin attaching users' real names to posts made on the game's various forums.

The announcement prompted a massive backlash, with one blogger, Dee-ann LeBlanc, writing that "as a female gamer, I don't want everyone seeing my obviously female name".

"An unfortunate truth is that many female gamers register under male (or gender-neutral) identities to avoid stalking, harassment, and the general annoyance of guys who experience neuron failure around characters with breasts."

Following pressure from the Warcraft community, Blizzard decided not to go ahead with the plans.

The uproar raised important questions about the stigma still attached to female video-gamers, a stigma which begins, according to one expert, at a very early age.

"The widespread media representation of [gaming] is as a violent pastime - that games are something for boys and not for girls, and that they lead to anti-social behaviour," said Helen Kennedy, a cultural theorist at the University of the West of England.

"Parents aren't going to encourage their girls to play, they're not going to be as keen to buy them their first DS or buy them a console in the way you see families and mums buying lots of that stuff for boys at a very young age."

Growing influence

Her worries are shared by Ana Kronschnabl, CEO and co-founder of Bristol-based games company Fluffy Logic.

"It's of great concern to me. I have an eight-year-old daughter.

"I don't think we just want games where you dress up Barbies. I think [my daughter would] love to go around picking up gems, cutting the heads off donkeys or whatever it is that the game involves."

Like Ms Nguyen, Ms Kronschnabl believes it is not a case of making games for girls, rather including female characters in existing series and genres, thus hopefully making them more appealing.

"I just like to see an ordinary female character I want to play. I don't want to play anything different."

If the growth of women working in the games industry continues, this change could happen naturally as women get greater say in development.

"We're seeing a tremendous growth in production," said Ms Graner-Ray from Schell Games.

"I think that's a brilliant place for women to be because it allows them to have a lot of say in how the product is going to develop and how it's going to grow."

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