Are Video Games Still Largely A Boys' Club?
The more things change, etc, etc, etc.
When BioWare released an infographic last month with lots of details about how players enjoyed Mass Effect 3, the one that really jumped out at me was the gender breakdown: 82% male Shepherds. That can't be right, can it? Were 82% of ME3 players men?
No. It was probably higher.
I think most of us would agree that male players are more likely to play a female character than female gamers are to play a male. With that in mind, it means that the actual number of male ME3 players was probably greater than 82%.
A lot of sweeping generalizations have been, are, and will continue to be made about gender in gaming. The notion that video games are only for boys – whether young or young-at-heart (or young-in-maturity) – has largely been abandoned.
Then something like this comes along: cold, hard facts – and we'll assume BioWare is telling the truth here, and not just making numbers up – that jolt us from our concept of gender equality in gaming. Have we been wrong all along? Are video games still the near-exclusive domain of men and boys, with women's participation being marginal at best?
The necessary disclaimer
First of all, I know that there are a lot of women gamers out there, many of whom are probably more “hardcore” than I am. This isn't meant to be any kind of insult toward them, their tendencies, their gender, or any other sensitive area. I'm dealing mostly in facts here, uncomfortable as they might be. If you have a better explanation for describing them, I'm more than interested in hearing your comments.
Let's start with this impersonal truth: Video game developers have a much, much better idea of who their audience is than any of us. If you have 100 friends who played ME3, and you know 50 of them were women, you still have the perfect definition of “small sample size.” ME3 sold millions of copies, so when BioWare hands us numbers like this, they matter a lot more than our personal observations.
Moving past that jarring 82% number, you also find that the most frequently played class, by far, was the pure combat class, the Soldier. #2 and #3 were the combat/tech and combat/biotics hybrids Infiltrator and Vanguard. Thus, 76.7% of all players elected to use some type of combat class, compared to 34% for tech (Infiltrator/Sentinel/Engineer) and 32.6% biotics (Vanguard/Sentinel/Adept).
(For the record, I play a female Shepherd Vanguard.)
There are no age demographics attached to the infographic, but does this indicate a relatively young player base, the type who want the direct route – i.e., blowing things up with the most combat-capable classes – as opposed to people who prefer the more subtle, nuanced approach to gameplay that the tech and biotic classes offer?
Is the typical Mass Effect 3 player closer to that 14-year-old boy in his parent's basement than the well-off 30-something professional, male or female, that we like to envision as the typical modern-day gamer? Are we projecting our own demographic ideals based on what we want the majority to be instead of accepting it for the minority that it is?
Pay no attention to the pole-dancing asari
Further, Mass Effect 3 is certainly not an all-out “guy's game.” Sure, it's a shooter, but it has RPG elements and character growth, a complex and rich storyline, plenty of interesting characters, and, some aspects of asari culture aside, little overt sexism. And the game is mostly played offline, so nobody has to deal with crass, intimidating jackasses on their headsets.
We've heard for a long time that a major reason that women aren't as into gaming as men is that there are too many games, from Dead or Alive to Grand Theft Auto to the more recent Scarlet Blade, that marginalize women's roles and reduce them to little more than scantily clad jiggle-fests, put there to titillate and entertain the largely male player base. If there was just more effort to engage women in games without making them feel like pieces of meat, surely they'd flock to this rich and vibrant form of entertainment, right?
Mass Effect 3 would seem to be “that game,” but again, facts intrude on our carefully crafted version of reality.
People might point to the ESA's fact sheet, found here, as proof that women are not only a significant part of the gaming community, but a growing part. Among the stats presented are that 47% of gamers are women, and that 30% of gamers are women aged 18 or older and only 18% are boys 17 and under.
But those stats include a much wider variety of people than most of us consider to be “gamers.” Without delving into the “Hardcore or not?” argument, I think few of us would consider someone who plays Angry Birds on a smartphone or Wii Bowling with the grandkids as being on the same level as a typical Mass Effect 3 player. My mother sends me e-mail from time to time, but if I was developing a new e-mail client, I wouldn't ask her advice.
Pink-armor Shepherd? Not today.
And that's what it comes down to: Should developers of core video games – the ME3s, the Skyrims, the Diablos, and every MMORPG – try harder to get women to play their games? Is it a battle even worth fighting? Will we ever convince the housewife playing Bejeweled on her phone to try an FPS?
Or is it like my mother and e-mail? Are 70-something women as far from the demographic software companies are looking to attract as 20-something women are from what video game companies are trying to attract?
I think the only approach developers can take is the one that BioWare did with Mass Effect 3. Don't trivialize women in your games, don't chase them away... but on the other hand, you can't outright cater to them, either, for risk of ruining your relationship with 82% (or more) of your player base. Imagine if the asari would have all been hunky men instead of attractive, blue-skinned alien women. Do you think that would have increased or decreased overall sales?
Again, there are a lot of women out there playing “core” video games – millions, probably. They shouldn't be ignored, insulted, or, worst of all, feel threatened. But the numbers don't lie – there just aren't that many of them. Maybe that can be changed, but I don't know how.
Girls will be girls (and boys will be boys)
Maybe we shouldn't try. Some number of people, male or female, are going to be more interested in video games than others. It's not because they feel video games “aren't for them” – i.e., they present situations that don't speak to their personal character or feelings – it's because they just don't like them, the same way some people just don't like sports or soap operas.
Some girls like video games. Some don't. Some boys like video games. Some don't. 30 years ago, when I first played Pac-Man, anybody who played video games, male or female, was a little “weird.” That's not so much the case today. Right now, the opportunities are there, unlike they ever have been in the past. If people choose not to partake of them, that's less an issue, I think, of ostracism, and more of an individual choice.
There are still issues with sexism in video games and video game communities, but I don't think that's the main reason why 82% or more of Mass Effect 3 players were male. It's just the way it is. And it's unlikely to change dramatically without a major shift in society that goes far beyond video game demographics.