The other facet of women in gaming is the real women affiliated with the gaming world: the actual industry professionals, female gamers, and the women commonly referenced as “booth girls” – attractive women hired by game publishers and conventions to pose as gamers (who often are not actually interested in video games). These women often face exploitation for their gender when they are recognized by the industry and are often otherwise ignored.
While female game designers go all the way back to Atari, there’s one woman designer with media prominence: Jade Raymond, of the team that made Assassin’s Creed. Now, I don’t know Ms. Raymond, and I’m not saying she isn’t talented. She didn’t get to her position in the game industry without talent and love of gaming. However, I am saying the only reason her name rings louder than say, Carol Shaw (one of the earliest game designers) or Kim Swift (creator of the game Portal was based off of, Narbacular Drop, as well as a designer on the Portal team), is because…
1. She is attractive.
2. Her attractiveness was used as a selling point for Assassin’s Creed.
Now, it’s totally reasonable for producers to be public about their game – anyone who’s seen Cliffy B’s twitter feed knows that they’re often overly excited to do so. It’s great to be proud of your work. But, I have to question of things like this are really necessary to sell a game:
But you know what? It worked. Ubisoft put out Jade as an icon and sold their game by selling her. This is a woman who by her early thirties had a resume including executive level work at EA and Ubisoft, something respectable for any woman or man in the field, reduced to shilling her project by taking off her clothes.
Game designers aren’t the only industry women who face marginalization or exploitation for their work. Game Journalists who happen to be female also face different professional standards. Kotaku columnist Leigh Alexander had a piece about this recently wherein she argued that despite all of her work in game journalism, all of her articles and interviews, when people discuss her the most important adjective is “female.” I don’t always agree with Leigh (her opinions on Bayonetta especially) but I respect how hard she works and it’s infuriating to me that her work gets distilled down to “female” with no attention to the actual vastness of her work.
When I think about women in the industry I often come back to this video because it’s something men generally find more palatable than outright feminist thought on the subject, but I have a couple problems with it, most notably the criticism of the aforementioned “booth girls” but also the suggestion that the best way to appeal to women is to make something pink.
The booth girl is not unique to gaming but the game industry in particular is fairly notorious for it and even embraces it. It’s easy to point the finger and say, “hey, nobody is making these girls do this. They’re making money by pretending to be gamers so women only have themselves to blame. Really it’s men who are being tricked, they’re lured into these games by hot women who don’t really share their interests!” Well, no. Society is making these girls do this.
As girls (and later as women), we’re taught by our surroundings that our looks are our most important feature (“you can’t see smarts”) and that our sex is a commodity. Men like to flip it and say that women commoditize sex to “get what they want” but supply doesn’t create demand (when was the last time a parent told his/her daughter her virginity was only as important as she deemed it so and that no decent man would judge her for having casual sex and enjoying intercourse?) and chances are these women didn’t just show up at a gaming convention one year and say, “hey, do you want to pay us to stand here and look hot?”
It’s not just paid models who fall into the “sex sells” role women are wedged into in gaming. A half dozen sites and services exist to pair up men with women’s gamer tags. While I’m not against the concept of matchmaking through gaming (I know I only date other gamers), these sites don’t approach it at that angle: the women get paid (per hour largely) and the company takes a cut. It’s not prostitution by any stretch, but it’s not particularly good for women gamers either (it enforces the idea that women only pretend to game to get men).
So do actual female gamers and developers have an equal place in the game picture? Is there any avenue for women in gaming that isn’t inherently exploitative? Can a woman be just a gamer without attracting any undue attention; can an attractive women be a gamer without having more expected from her? I think so. I just don’t think we’re there yet.