It has become a tired old cliché that video gamers are lonely young men; perpetually playing computer games on their bedroom desktop computers because they lack the social skills to hack it in the real world. Video game playing has evolved to encompass a much wider demographic, with many more women and older people getting in on the game.

Why the cliché?

Why this image of the lone male came about is obvious. The protagonists within the games that the young men were playing were almost exclusively male, performing traditional male deeds, such as saving damsels in distress and engaging in some form of violence, heroic or otherwise. Women, not unnaturally, lacked interest in saving helpless females who should have demonstrated a little more gumption and common sense, nor were they keen on sword fights that resulted in masses of blood and gore.

However, it would make just as sweeping a statement to claim that women were or are uninterested in game playing, period. Recent statistics have proved this assumption false. The Entertainment Software Association revealed that of all American game players, 48% were women. Statistics are similar in both the UK and Spain, proving that it is not just an American phenomenon but also a global one.

This surprising statistic has come about due not only to cultural trends regarding gender, namely female empowerment, but also the advent of mobile technology. A high percentage of the population owns a smartphone or a tablet computer, most probably both, and the sophistication in these machines that make them as powerful as desktop computers, means that game playing is readily and ultra-accessible. Mobile devices have evolved the work commute and idle waiting around from a boring part of the day to an opportunity to read, shop and play some games.

Female characterization in games

A study carried out in 2006 showed that female characters appeared less often than male characters in a wide variety of video games. It was also noted that when female characters were present, they were usually objectified, in that they were not empowered in any way, but were instead scantily clad and highly-sexualized, obviously an attempt to provide titillation for the predominantly male audience. The video game marketplace was commonly perceived as being an arena for stereotypical representations of women.

However, this is changing. Female characters are now acting as protagonists, such as Lara Croft of Tomb Raider, probably the most famous female game character. It must be said, though, that Lara Croft was originally presented in an overtly sexual manner, featuring a buxom body and wearing skintight clothing. Other female characters in various video games often act as sidekicks or allies to the main male character.

Some might argue, and indeed have argued, that games with female protagonists do not sell as well as those with male protagonists. While the figures do seem to confirm this, they leave out one vital statistic – that the marketing budget allocated to games with female protagonists is considerably lower than that given to publicize male protagonist games. It stands to reason that if fewer people are told about female protagonist video games, then fewer people are going to exhibit an interest in them and this will thereby affect sales. The argument is that female protagonist video games might prove just as popular if they were given even half the chance their male counterparts are given.

Cultural shift in video games

Some big names in the video gaming industry are waking up to the increasing numbers of female gamers, whether playing solo in role-playing games (RPGs) or as part of a network of gamers in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). Bobby Kotick of Activision is a significant player in this small revolution, producing games that offer the player, regardless of gender, the opportunity to use a male or female avatar during the course of the game. The fantasy role-playing game World of Warcraft, for example, while featuring a cast list of impressively heroic, as well as strikingly evil male characters, also presents players with interesting female characters. They are interesting because unlike some male characters, they have the potential to be not only strong and compassionate, but also subtle and strident. Alexstrasza is an example of this duality, a ‘dragon’ that shuns violence but is good in a fight if it comes to her. Lady Vashj is another example, brave and passionate but almost self-destructively loyal.

Changing attitudes

It is also a fact that male gamers often choose such female avatars to play for them. Oftentimes female avatars offer a broader range of personality traits in comparison to their male counterparts, while at other times they simply offer a fresh perspective. One such gamer argued in an article that he prefers the subtlety and intelligence a female avatar allows. He felt that female characters had the advantage as they had not only the means to act in characteristically male way – fighting, using violence, and making obvious and predictable choices – but also to act in a female way. Rather than brute force, female characters are known for using intelligence to achieve their ends, as well as being cautious, and sometimes using sexuality to gain an advantage over a male opponent.

Of course, the reason why cultural trends often shift is due to pure economics and gaming companies, aware of current statistics, have realized that if they do not cater to a female audience they are ignoring a huge sector of the gaming market. As mentioned before, almost half of gamers are women, and this figure has remained virtually constant over the last ten years, proof that women gamers are here to stay.

While it is undeniable that the gaming industry has historically been criticized for its old-fashioned view of roles for women in video games, some game makers have already begun to remove the overt sexualization of women in their games. Female characters are being given a more central role that rivals any that male characters have previously enjoyed. Perhaps the realization that so many of the industry’s adherents are female will provoke yet more change in the sector, prompting many more games that feature strong female protagonists and offer extensive customization features for avatars.

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