The rise of the girl gamer

new-lara-croft

In 2010 I wrote a feature for GamesMaster about the then-future new Tomb Raider reboot which has just come out – I was genuinely blown away. Partly because the new Lara Croft looked like a person, rather than a hastily assembled bundle of boy-pleasing pixels.

The piece I’ve published below was written by me in June last year for a women’s glossy. This was the piece I ALWAYS wanted to write: that would bring female gamers mainstream, about women who play video games – women in their millions, not just as a rarity.

Sadly it got killed off after the Anita Sarkeesian blow-up, and the news that the new Tomb Raider game would feature an attempted sexual assault on Lara Croft. FYI – a month or so later, I saw that sequence and happily, it’s not what is seemed in print at the time.

I am still really proud of this piece, so here it is. Female gamers (and other ‘geeky’ hobbies), for all my ladies who play games – on their phones, on their 3DS and Vitas, and on their hardcore consoles. Games are amazing – and here’s why.

Kat x

My poor mum hoped that video games were something I’d grow out of, like hair dye, or my nose piercing. Those went ages ago but games? Never. Twenty years after I first picked up a controller, I own four consoles and play with everyone from my boyfriend to online strangers.

To a vast number of women, having a PlayStation as well as a pension is completely normal. With consoles released in every decade since 1977, women in their 30s and 40s are the first generation to grow up with gaming. We’ve got Nicole Kidman advertising them, and Mila Kunis, Megan Fox, Zooey Deschanel and Gwyneth Paltrow talking up their love for everything from the huge online adventure World of Warcraft, to the cult comedy iPad game Plants VS Zombies.

My friend Annabel – commercial solicitor and Nintendo genius – and I have chosen gaming as the theme for our joint 30th: we’ve already confirmed Chun Li from Street Fighter 2, and an Angry Bird, and we haven’t even sent out the invitations yet. Annabel and I grew up playing games, and we haven’t stopped. Why would we? You don’t stop reading when you’ve exhausted the children’s section, and the best games share qualities with books: a great story, and beautiful design.

“The more you see women playing video games and being accepted, the more you are to think it’s normal,” says cybertechnology consultant Eleanor Barlow. Belinda Parmar, CEO of Lady Geek, which campaigns to make tech and gaming more appealing and accessible to women, agrees. “The electronics industry has finally woken-up to the fact that there’s a huge untapped market: four out of 10 gadgets now are bought by women.”

According to a 2011 study, 49% of the UK’s gamers are female, and more British women than men aged between 24-35 play casual games, like Facebook’s Farmville, or phone apps. The evolution of the gaming girl is best seen in next year’s remarkable reboot of the long-running action-strategy franchise, Tomb Raider.

two-lara-crofts-angelina

Oh hey! Remember us? The best adverts for sports bras there ever were.

Even if you’ve never played one of the games, you’ll likely recognise its comically-breasted heroine Lara Croft, played by Angelina Jolie in film versions.

Leaving the Tomb Raider headquarters after a preview of the new game, I was greeted by a pouting statue of the original Lara. It was like going from Jennifer Lawrence to Jordan. Gone is the top-heavy quip machine of male fantasy: the new Lara is as believable as the next 21-year-old, albeit one who is seriously skilled with guns.

“The previous Lara had become a caricature of herself,” Tomb Raider’s global brand director Karl Stewart tells me from the E3 games conference in San Francisco.  “It was a big decision to say that this needs to feel like a girl that I’ve met, and not just physically, but in social situations.”

The team brought in female animators to make sure she was realistic.  “The first time she shoots someone, she stops and cries,” says Karl. “They’re big emotions. How would she feel? How would she react? It was very important to us to get it right.”

It’s arguably even more important for the women in the industry. Being a woman who plays games, particularly those on the PlayStation and XBox, has long been a compromise between fun and embarrassment. Female characters were invariably Barbie-shaped and impractically dressed; they could be intelligent, certainly, but only if they look like they’d come straight from the set of Men and Motors. Those who looked more realistic tended to be – well, a bit wet.  “So many women were just MacGuffins waiting to be rescued,” sighs the novelist Emma Newman, who has played PlayStation and XBox games for 15 years.

Reinventing Lara Croft, the most iconic female character in video games, has deeper implications for more than sales. “What you play is deeply connected to the imaginary, the unconscious life of the player and to their social life,” says Yann Leroux, one of a growing number of psychotherapists to use video games in sessions. “The therapist tries to understand the hidden meanings of his playing: the powers the player uses, the ones they love and those they hate, are clues waiting for an interpretation.”

The new Lara is resourceful, responsive and adaptable – characteristics which weren’t always common in female characters of the 90s. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to join the industry, to change it,” says Keza MacDonald, UK Editor of the influential games site IGN.  “When I was a kid I never saw strong role models in video games, and I was the only girl in my school who played games seriously.”

Role models have been on the rise in the last decade, mostly in action franchises like Perfect Dark and Resident Evil. Even Princess Zelda, who spent the 80s and 90s being rescued, appeared in 2003’s Wind Waker as a kick-ass pirate who helped you battle the final boss. “More women are playing games and, crucially, more women are making games,” says Keza. “You see little girls with DS’s, and playing games just as much as boys.”

The word “gamer” now encompasses more than boys in bedrooms playing their XBoxes. Sara Pont, 30, a civil servant from Redhill, fell out of love with games in her teens, blaming the industry’s “boy-ification”, but got hooked again when she started playing her husband’s Nintendo DS. “I would never see myself as a gamer, yet I’ve done it all my life,” she says. “It’s partly self-perception, partly not being able to tie myself in with people who spend their time queuing up at GAME stores at midnight.”

Being an adult woman and playing games aren’t mutually exclusive: when Annabel and I moved in together, we played Wii. My first national newspaper piece was about games. I started writing about them for my parents’ favourite paper. Then, in a flood of smartphones, Wiis and iPads, suddenly everyone was wearing gaming on their sleeve – sometimes literally.

Games, particularly retro ones, have inspired kitchenware, club nights, craft, even art. The designer Olly Moss, whose prints sell out in seconds, recently did runs based on characters from Nintendo’s Mario, Zelda and Pokémon franchises.  “Nintendo is classic design now. To me, it’s no different from writing about an Eames chair,” says Sian Meades, editor of the lifestyle website Domestic Sluttery and retro games enthusiast.  “There’s a lot to be said for appreciating a game as a piece of art. Often as much work goes in to making a game as would go into a film, yet you get 30 hours for a game, and two hours for a film.”

The games I appreciate tend to differ from what my boyfriend plays: I like slow, dreamy role-playing games, whereas he is excellent at the more complex action-adventures.

“Male children are more attracted to speed and motion than girls so there is this innate difference already,” says Eleanor Barlow. “Whereas women are slower at processing visual information and relating it to movement, men are good at seeing movement and using a controller to see how to use it to do something on the screen.”

Whichever game I choose they make me feel good – seriously good. In a recent report analysing research into gaming, the Wall Street Journal concluded that it’s like a work-out, with concentration and rewarding surges of dopamine strengthening your neural circuits.

“If you look at it like a leisure activity, there’s something in it for everyone,” says Dr Jo Bryce, senior lecturer in the school of psychology at University of Central Lancashire, and an expert in the positive effects of gaming. “One of the things people are realising, is that there’s a wealth of positive effects. People select media content consistent with their mood, to escape, reduce stress and manage anger. Beating a machine rather than your boss is much more beneficial.”

Studies at the University of Rochester in New York show that that gaming improves creativity, decision-making and perception, while the best gamers can make and act on decisions four times faster than most people, at up to six times a second. In women, it improves our ability to mentally manipulate 3D images – usually a male speciality – and game players can focus on more than six things at once without getting confused, compared with four for non-gamers.

Just as many female players come from non-traditional paths, so do the women making them. Amy Hennig, creator of the mega-successful Uncharted franchise, studied film. Naomi Alderman, writer of the iPhone game Zombies, Run!, is an award-winning novelist. For some though, it’s in their blood. One of the biggest writing names in the business is Rhianna Pratchett, who has long escaped the shadow cast by her father, Sir Terry Pratchett, to write female-led games such as Mirror’s Edge and Heavenly Sword.

While the vast majority of men are positive about girls getting into gaming, it’s not always the case. “A small section of the core gaming audience feels insecure and threatened by anything that isn’t the status quo as they see it,” says IGN’s Keza Macdonald, who chooses to use her nickname rather than her birth name, Kelly, to avoid hassle over her gender. “Those people are being left behind by the games industry. They aren’t all it is anymore. We can’t let these idiots paint us as a community.”

I’m lucky. I’ve been to games launches, meet-ups and conferences, and never felt anything less than welcome. Female-run websites like Fat, Ugly or Slutty and Not In The Kitchen Anymore record the appalling messages sent from male to female players in online multiplayer games like Call of Duty. In February, writer Jennifer Hepler deleted her Twitter account after a smear campaign, saying, “I just figure they’re jealous that I get to have both a vagina AND a games industry job, and they can’t get either.” Jade Raymond, the managing director of Ubisoft who spearheaded the blockbuster Assassins Creed franchise, has also retired as a public face of the company after internet abuse.

“It’s not the male species at their finest,” says filmmaker Katherine Wheatley, 30, who loves first-person shooters. “It reminds me of playing Battlefield. A guy was so shocked I was a girl that he stopped playing attention, so I blew up his tank.”

Although women emerge as gamers, writers and artists, just 12 of the 253 women executive officers in this year’s Fortune 100 were specifically responsible for technology.  “Only 17% of the UK tech workforce is female and it is going down by 0.5% each year. If it continues at this rate, this means by 2045, there will not be a single woman working in tech,” says Belinda Parmar of Lady Geek, who credits women-only events like Girl Geek Dinners and Women in Technology with raising the female agenda.

Emily Bryce-Perkins works for the games publisher Majesco Entertainment. “You find that women work in publishing, creative and finance,” she says. “It’s still not that common to have female developers.” Only four of the 25 meetings that she attended at May’s Nordic Games Conference had a woman in them. Some female producers and developers, like Canada’s Silicon Sisters, are moving away from traditional gaming altogether, to concentrate on the lucrative smartphone and tablet market.

The popularity of e-readers has also made it easier for women to explore other male-dominated areas without worrying about what’s on the cover. The massive multi-platform success of Harry Potter, True Blood, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Game of Thrones, His Dark Materials, Twilight and The Hunger Games have made fantasy a water-cooler subject, while box-sets and online services like Netflix have made it easy to blitz through a series in a weekend.

“Genre fiction is where you make money; people get hooked, in a way that I think few serious fiction readers are,” says Empire magazine’s Helen O’Hara. “People who grew up with Harry Potter are now in their mid-20s so it’s seen as culturally normal to be aware of fantasy. And most girls in their late 20s and early 30s will have grown up with Buffy – should have, if they have any sense.”

Much appeal stems from brilliantly-realised female characters, whether good eggs like The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, or heinous bitches, like Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister. As Helen says, “in imaginary countries you can have strong women without someone crying foul on it.”

Comics too have found a new female audience, through digital versions, phenomenally successful screen adaptations like The Avengers, X-Men and The Dark Knight, or films based on independent comics by female writers, like the Oscar-nominated  Persepolis, or Tamara Drewe. In a high point for geekery, I once got 20% off in a comics shop when my phone rang with the X-Men ringtone.

“X-Men is a really good example of a comic with good female characters,” Helen says. “But the ones people read first are the classics, like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, a standalone which doesn’t rely on reading an entire back history. You’d be surprised at how many women get into comics through that, as well as men.”

Whether it’s comic lovers like Rosario Dawson or Star Wars fans like Tina Fey, high profile women are normalising those whose geek passions run deep. The more games events I attend, the more women I see.

“Identity development theorists talk about true self, who you are deep down inside,” says Eleanor Barlow. “Perhaps the older we get, the easier it is for us to be truer to ourselves as we understand what works.”

Quite. My 30th birthday is a celebration of more than my age, or my friendship with Annabel; it’s the acknowledgement of the art forms that has helped shape us into the women we are. I can’t wait for our party. Who knows? I might even go as Lara Croft.

ENDS

PS – I didn’t. I went as Yoshi. 

Best - party - EVER

Best – party – EVER

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15 thoughts on “The rise of the girl gamer

  1. Lovely piece, KB.

    I was reading something the other day where someone described themselves as a “long-term gamer (12yrs)”. And I did my own maths and it’s a terrifying 25yrs. When we got our Atari, no one said “that’s not for girls”.

    And when that Atari quite literally exploded in our living room and we bought our NES, I had no idea what I was committing to – but, with me devastated because my cat Emma and my console had both died the week before, that trudge round Toys R Us and the resulting lifetime of entertainment that followed is better than I possibly could have imagined

    Girl Gamers for me aren’t a new phenomenon. I never thought of myself as a “girl gamer”. I just played video games and happen to be a girl. The (long overdue) correction of Lara Crofts assets is actually just an industry finally waking up to the fact that girls also like and enjoy games too.

    AND IT’S ABOUT SODDING TIME *boots up xbox* *blows up more tanks*

    • It’s so true! Nobody said gaming wasn’t for girls when we were little – I remember my brother, my friend and her brother all played Quake (very, very badly – God, that was a terrifying game, even with rubbish early 90s graphics).

      Part of the reason I was gutted this piece didn’t get published was because, even though as you correctly say, girl gamers aren’t anything new, they are in mainstream women’s press. It would have been rather nice to have more about kicking ass and taking names in there, but hey ho.

      Tonight I shall return to collecting all the Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes trophies. Because I can. Well, in theory, Overkill is proving MASSIVELY hard!

  2. “Lara Croft looked like a person, rather than a hastily assembled bundle of boy-pleasing pixels.”

    “boy-pleasing”

    Hah! What about all the male protagonists in games that are girl-pleasing?

    Fuck you, and go fall off a cliff!

    • Lara Croft was specifically designed to appeal to male gamers. Given the lack of games aimed specifically at women, shouldn’t that then follow that all these girl-pleasing male characters are also aimed at male gamers?

      Yours – I did a sponsored abseil in 2009, will that do? – Kat

      • Mr Payne, Joseph Bartolo, Red Section, whatever you call yourself – you just told me to go fall off a cliff, so this conversation is over. Thanks for stopping by.

      • Is it due to the sheer design of each first person shooter for instance? Does all the violence… the blood… and the gore in the many of games blind you into thinking games are aimed specifically at men?

    • Gaming is hugely male dominated, it’s a sheer fact. Many have studied the identity of the gamer and found that men are the majority… For example Shaw’s article “Do you identify as a gamer? Gender, race, sexuality and gamer identity”, and video games have majorly been aimed at male gamers, because they’re the majority… Also a fact, brought up in many studies, just one example, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games.

      I came across this post when researching for my dissertation and frankly what Kat stated about Lara Croft is 100% correct, whether Lara was intended specifically to please boys is unknown, however the Tomb Raider games did please men, in fact the male audience of the games created a game plug-in which allowed the game to play as a naked, Lara.

      At least I have made a point for many to see.

      Male domination is still a thing, and it’s dying out, a lot of males believe women are equal, and props to them! But you also have a lot of people who are still ignorant to the harassment in this world.

      Charlotte, student, gamer, future zombie apocalypse survivor.

      Keep being awesome and playing games Kat!

  3. Do you mind not deleting / rejecting my posts? They were faithful and I pretty much admitted to being a fool. Not accepting that is about as unforgiving as Dark Souls.

    • Hey Anon – I’m sorry you feel that way. To tell the truth, enough anonymous people have left crap on here that I’ve decided not to approve anything that hasn’t sounded like it’s come from a human being who is grown-up enough to leave a name and a genuine online profile. I haven’t got time for that. It’s my site, I can do what I like. You’re the latter exception to the rule, although I’m sorry you don’t appear to fill the latter criteria. Have a great week, and happy gaming.

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