Arts Games without bustiers 

60 percent of college women play online games, and they're tired of being men and 'hos

Video games are not just for nerds anymore. During the past three decades, they have grown from a niche hobby to an industry valued at more than $9.4 billion. As young people continue to drift away from traditional media outlets to spend more time in virtual worlds, the annual sales of game hardware and software regularly outstrip Hollywood box-office receipts.

However, as video games continue to establish economic and creative legitimacy, the popular image of video-game players remains firmly rooted in the past. When one glances at marketing materials surrounding new games, it seems that advertisers and software developers are under the impression that the gaming universe is inhabited exclusively by young, straight men between the ages of 15 and 24.

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Black Coffee in bed? Scenes from the now-infamous secret sex scenes in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, featuring a hooker named Hot Coffee, are an extreme example of the gaming world's sexism.
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The annual E3 gaming exposition in Las Vegas is a case in point. New products are promoted by busty "booth babes" clad in togas, hot pants, Playboy bunny outfits, and bras made of aluminum foil. Meanwhile, attractive female hosts on the G4 gaming network intersperse flirtatious reviews of new games with ditzy comments about makeup and shoes.

The male-dominated game industry has a troubled track record when it comes to the representation of women. This can be seen most clearly in the limited range of characters available to female gamers. In the infamous Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series, players are forced to assume the role of aggressive male protagonists. In the GTA universe, women appear primarily as nameless prostitutes and sexual playthings. The recently unearthed interactive sex scene with an African-American woman named Hot Coffee is the best-known example, but the game also rewards players for killing prostitutes after having sex with them.

Five years ago, a study released by the advocacy group Children Now found that "38 percent of female game characters had large breasts and 46 percent had unusually small waists." In a subsequent study, researchers reported that one out of five female characters displayed exposed breasts or midriffs. Even sophisticated and "woman-friendly" titles such as World of Warcraft and Everquest portray female avatars as pole-dancing airheads with enormous cleavage. In the words of one female gamer and researcher, many women hate their avatar choices in the game Everquest because "they have to wear chain-mail bikinis."

Despite the game industry's sexist tendencies, women are an increasingly influential segment of the gaming community. According to a study conducted in 2001 by the Interactive Digital Software Association, women purchase approximately half of all software games. Although young men are more likely to play on home gaming consoles, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that 60 percent of all college-age women regularly play online computer games, compared to only 40 percent of their male counterparts.

As developers compete for the growing female market, many are wondering what types of games are most likely to appeal to women. Advocates of female-oriented "pink games" argue that women are more likely to embrace titles that feature strong narrative, complex characterization, and open-ended environments.

Last semester, while leading a college seminar on gaming at Trinity University, I noticed that most young women in the class strongly disagreed with those who would link gaming preferences to gender identity. In the view of these students, individual game-play style was much more likely to affect player preferences than gender. Some gamers are attracted to the social dimensions of gaming, while others enjoy the thrill of exploring new environments. Some find deep satisfaction in reaching new levels, while others get a kick from unleashing anti-social impulses. In our classroom, these gaming styles were completely unrelated to gender.

We can only hope that sexism will become less prevalent as women continue to become more involved in the game industry. Games like Maxis' widely popular The Sims Online may herald a new era in which female gamers are not only a target market but an integral part of a game's success (45 percent of the game's developers are female).

In an industry report entitled "Chicks with Joysticks," Jessica Lewis, the game's producer, explains that The Sims Online was not consciously targeted at women. However the presence of women in high-level positions made a difference in the game's appeal. As she notes, "simply because more women are involved in the designs and development, a different than average kind of contribution happens. Diversity is simply a good thing when making a mainstream game."

By Aaron Delwiche


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