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ASIAN CANADIAN

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Women video gamers: Not just solitaire

Hannah Guy
PC World Canada

The girls and women of gaming fight against mainstream stereotypes and out-and-out sexism. And they are slowly emerging as both some of the best gamers out there and as a multi-billion dollar sector of the gaming market.

Take a look at the people around you.

Now look closer. For every three women you see, it's likely that at least one of them is a gamer.

Despite figures from the Entertainment Ratings Software Board (ESRB) that claim almost 40 percent of video and PC gamers are of the female persuasion, women's participation in the gaming biz still seems to come across as something of an oddity. A freakish anomaly that rarely occurs in the natural world... or at least barely registers on the radar. (For more on video games, check out The 10 worst video games of all time and the 10 best games of the year).

"I asked the editors (at a gaming panel) why there were so few female reviewers in their magazines," recalls 30-year-old Trina Schwimmer, Systems Administrator and CEO of GamingAngels.com. "One editor said that women don't play games other than Tetris or Nintendogs - I thought he was kidding. Another editor said it wasn't worth having a woman on staff because every time she did a review the magazine got a flood of letters, so it was inconvenient. It was at that moment I announced that I was starting the website where all the reviewers would be female."

And she did. GamingAngels.com is one of many gaming sites dedicated to the love of all things video games with a primarily all-female staff. And Schwimmer isn't alone in her pursuit. Whether it's ThumbBandits.com, who have a tongue-in-cheek "Vagina Gamerlogues", or groups of women out to dominate entire genres and targeted games alike (like the PMS Clan or Frag Dolls), women are starting to band together, face the legions of male gamers... and kick their heinies.

"My boss, Fran, our (editor-in-chief), has serious skills in games like Halo and Gears, and we've traded ass-beatings," says Paul Curthoys, a long-time gamer and executive editor for Official Xbox Magazine. "The Frag Dolls whupped me hard once at (Splinter Cell) Double Agent, predictably. But I've also run into lots of female gamers on (Xbox) Live, and they often seem to dominate the map. I'd guess they get so much crap for being a 'girl' on Live that only the best players, or at least the most tough-minded ones, can stomach hanging out on Live for too long."

Not just solitaire

But, many male "hardcore gamers" still dismiss the notion that women gamers are an important part of this world by pointing out that it's easy to include women as playing video games if it's just something like Solitaire on a home PC. After all, how does lighter fare compare with death, destruction and the glory of the first-person shooter?

However, while not all women gamers are restricted to their DS Lite, their Pogo.com and their Zuma - some of us also do glory in the great destructive chaos of games like Gears, God Of War and Black - that group does represent a great chunk of the world's gaming ladies. But, is it possible for women to play the games that they like without sacrificing our official Gamer Status Badges? You know, that whole "it's not what you play, but how often you play" thing. (For more on other benefits of video games, check Video games may partially improve your vision).

"People who like to play games and do are gamers in my book," admits Curthoys. "What you play is your own business, as long as you're not some grieving weasel who janks up my fun."

And, as the market grows to include more and more women, the developers and publishers have their hands and brains busy, trying to find that perfect combination of great game play and marketability that fits the expanding female market.

"Like everything else, the industry is growing and is expanding to recognize and make room for everyone," says Tali Fischer, a Canadian PR Manager for Eidos Interactive and a video game lifer. "This includes making stronger female characters, more women in development, and recognizing and acknowledging all the women gamers playing the games."

Boob armour?

But, this is where the trouble seems to start and the tough questions arise. Should companies market games just for women? How do you make typically male-dominated games girl-friendly? And how exactly do you dispose of the exaggerated female bits and pieces designed to titillate the hordes of male gamers? Because - and this might come as a shock - we ladies aren't usually looking for giant jiggling breasts when we settle in for a night of game play.

"Even in a game like Mass Effect, which I'm dying to play in a fanboy way, they had to make the female character wear armour that outlines her chest," points out Curthoys. "C'mon, boob armor? Why doesn't the guy character have codpiece armor that outlines his gender's bits? The whole thing is so unnecessarily cheesy. No wonder games are still perceived as niche when a sure-fire hit like Mass Effect does character design like that as a matter of course."

And, when the game is completed and ready for the marketing wizards well, things just seem to get worse.

"In my experience, the marketing departments of the gaming industry seem to be slow to adapting to genderless marketing," says Schwimmer critically. "They seem to be stuck in the idea that, if you make it pink, then girls will buy it - which is actually insulting."

But Fischer remains optimistic that publishers and developers will find that balance.

"I think the more the industry starts appreciating all the women gamers, the more new and different games targeting them specifically will continue to show up on the market," she says. "Having women gamers, young gamers, old gamers - anyone who isn't considered the general target market right now - just opens up more creative opportunities."

So, it is very likely that in the future women who game will not be seen as freaks or disregarded by what Cuthoys refers to as "knuckle-dragging idiots". But, until that gaming utopia hits, as Schwimmer puts it, women will do what they have done thus far: "We don't take much in the way of smack talk. We let our actions speak for themselves."

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