Gaming for Girls

Guest writer Helen Lewis: As I seem to be making the confession genre on Joeblade my own special domain, here’s another: I’m a girl. And I really, really enjoy playing computer games. (Come closer so I can whisper in your ear: Sometimes, I even play them on my own.)

The exact numbers vary, but research suggests that my solo gaming — and my dedication — makes me unusual among women-kind (and my love of Halo even more so.) So why don’t girls seem to game as much as men? Well, the debate rumbles on, but no-one has come up with a proper answer.

I think there are several major reasons. The first is the overwhelming preconception that gaming, like moustache-growing contests and high political office, is just for men, which has knock-on effects: games aren’t advertised in publications targeted at women (I would love to see an advert for Silent Hill next to some stick-thin supermodel in Vogue) and most women feel intimidated about wandering into a branch of GAME.

It doesn’t help that most coverage of computer games in mainstream media is accompanied by either a) pictures of stereotypically geeky male gamers; b) ropey tarts dressed as Lara Croft. “These games are not for you, lady!” such images scream.

There’s been an effort of late to diminish the tit-quotient, particularly at expos, with E3’s ‘booth babe’ ban making headlines (if not, alas, any real difference as these pictures show). But boobs in games, including Lara’s omnipresent hooters, have also been blamed for putting women off. Sheri Graner Ray, senior games designer at Sony, says: “We want [an] avatar to represent us, and we want to be the hero of the story, we want that avatar to be a hero.”

In other words, women aren’t comfortable inhabiting some tarted-up bint in unsuitable underwear – I can’t be the only one who winces at the lack of adequate sports bras in Dead or Alive (“Buy a Berlei, Kasumi! Imagine what you’ll look like when you’re 50!” I squeal at the TV.) Well, really. Imagine if Ryu had been programmed to fight wearing only a Chippendales-style thong – you wouldn’t be able to hear his allegedly Japanese shrieks over the sound of men sniggering at his wedgie.

However, if it were true that jiggling tits are enough to put women off buying things, the Sun wouldn’t have the highest percentage of female readers of any national newspaper. So it must be, at least partially, something else. I decided to conduct some deeply unscientific research among five of my female friends. Have you played a computer game in the last month, I probed? Have you ever played any game you loved so much you would have cried if you had been told you could never play it again?

Mentioned her once, but I think I got away with it

I was quite surprised by the results. Pia, a delicate flower of womanhood who likes Hello Kitty and small cardigans, said that she had fallen in love with Gran Turismo — but didn’t play games because “they’re not very sociable… and I spend all day staring at a computer screen for work”. Lois Lane that I am, I pressed her further: why Gran Turismo? “Because you started off with no money and a crap car, and then had to gradually work your way up by winning races and getting more money and better and better cars! You could also choose the colour, which I rather liked…ahem.”

My housemate Anna was more brusque. “I’d rather be reading, speaking to friends, or learning something,” she said. But then, she also claims she has never played a computer game, so perhaps you could argue she doesn’t know what she’s missing. Laura was happy to admit to a Minesweeper obsession, but said she didn’t play games anymore because “there are better ways to waste my time”.

Fel had also lost the gaming habit. “I used to be a bit obsessed with both Prince of Persia, and a lot of shareware involving marauding vegetables — Captain Keen I think, some headbanging broccoli was particularly dangerous — and one in a graveyard with exploding eyes chasing you round the catacombs,” she said. So why not any more? “Time, and expense — I dearly love the idea of that dating game, but my boyfriend only shells out for those involving transport systems, preferably trains, and I am not going to pay £50 for a computer game, because that would make me a geek, and make a mockery of my unread book collection.”

Gen hadn’t played any computer games recently either (in fact, I think the last time was when I forced her to play Guitar Hero in my living room). “I used to love Chuckie Egg as a child.” she argued back. Why don’t you like games? “In the case of something like Street Fighter, I could only win by pressing all the keys really quickly.”

Are you beginning to see a pattern? None of us like games you have to devote a vast amount of time to before you get good — we feel there are “better ways to waste our time” — and we’re all pretty social types (I rather suspect we all like kittens and shoes too, shamefully) who don’t fancy the idea of spending hours alone perfecting our gaming skills.

Research by Media Training North West seems to support my anecdotal evidence, showing that girls “like short play and quick rewards” and that hardcore gaming (more than 15 hours a week) is an almost exclusively male pastime. This seems fair enough — I remember a friend raving on about Ninja Gaiden, before losing my interest entirely by explaining he loved the fact it was really, really hard and took ages for him to become good.

This tallies with the news that more women play mobile games than men as these tend to be fairly uncomplicated and aren’t as anti-social. You could also argue that games like The Sims succeed in appealing to women because they replicate the feeling of sociability.

So, boy gamers, if you want your girlfriend, wife or female friend to appreciate how much enjoyment you get from games, and stop regarding you with a vague sense of generalised pity, do not lock her in a room with Rome: Total War or Splinter Cell. She is unlikely to appreciate the joy you gain from a well-drilled cavalry charge or seamlessly infiltrating the Russian base – at least not straight away.

Try a ‘gateway drug’ first: I’d say Dead or Alive (possibly even the Beach Volleyball – what woman can resist bikini shopping?), any of the Burnout series – perhaps even a classic like Virtua Tennis. That way, not only can you enjoy the game, you can also, y’know, talk and stuff. Imagine.