For the past 5-6 years I have been mesmerized by the interactive world of BioWare. Now releasing their fourth title in the Mass Effect series, BioWare’s new games enter the market at the top. Unlike many titles, BioWare has become known for titles that provide more than just fight scenes and new maps; rival perhaps only to Bethesda, BioWare is a testament, if not a love letter, to the women that play games. I am a girl gamer, and I’m proud of it!
Stigma has faced women that play games, whether we admit it or not. General conceptions often claim that girls do not play games, or that we play less than our male counterparts. Even when we do play, we are often marginalized and considered to play casual titles like The Sims, another popular EA Game. Which, I do admit, I do play The Sims. However, this does not mean that I do not enjoy immersive games. These casual games have provided an insatiable urge that could not be contained by the second-hand story telling.
While there is a large assumption that men are more likely to play games, this may be grossly misinterpreted. Data from a 2011 research paper concludes that not only are women playing games, 42% of gamers are women. This data suggests that while the industry is still making games that are geared to men, women are responsible for a growing portion of the market.
If women are gaming, and at an increasing rate, then why are they still stigmatized?
Even in games that focus on a female protagonist, such as Tomb Raider, there are mostly often hyper-sexualized characters that are off-putting to women instead of engaging them. Women may want to play games, but they do not necessarily have the same objectives as men. While some may, it should be emphasized that men have been, for the most part, the developers of games and computer software. Anthropologist Bonnie A. Nardi, in her piece “An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft”, refers to the masculine nature and environment of MMORPGs, particularly World of Warcraft, as “The Boys’ Treehouse”. While women may be invited in from time to time, the general landscape of these environments remains masculine. In some games these elements are in the physical landscape – sceneries that are dark and gloomy, rough terrain, and areas that are for tactical use, instead of immersive environments. However, in other games, the limitations may be otherwise. World of Warcraft uses soft feminine tones, bright colors, and has an environment that allows hunter-gathering, and traditionally female ‘professions’, along-side traditionally male Characters do not differentiate between these gender-based activities in game. This does not mean that World of Warcraft is an essentially female environment. Battle grounds, dungeons, and other “combat” plays are some of the ways in which World of Warcraft caters to its male market, but it is behavior that provides the greatest barrier for woman players.
While women may be invited in from time to time, the general landscape of these environments remains masculine.
The Boy’s Treehouse is wrought with sexism and innuendos. While many women still play MMOs, some may feel isolated. For women that worry about these social interactions, single-player games can be refreshing!
Gaming avatars and customization are more than just ‘added bonuses’ regarding women gamers. A 2012 study of virtual environments studied how male gamers and women non-gamers reacted to virtual avatars and the virtual environment. Great differences emerged between the two groups. While “men gamers all felt that their identities were being projected into the virtual space, even when their avatars did not resemble their ‘real life’ selves,” the “women gamers tied avatar appearance with physical appearance”.
According to researchers, women are most likely to engage in games that are story-based, have skills and immersive worlds, and allow for customization. BioWare has been successful with female markets because it does not put players into a box. Players are free to make decisions, and they are encouraged to explore complex and dynamic landscapes. Perhaps most interestingly, players can have “romance options,” many of which accounting for same-sex, as well as heterosexual couples. This, in addition to rich storytelling and decisions that change the story, have made BioWare the pinnacle of what good games of the future will hopefully adhere to.
It is not any one of BioWare’s “good aspects” that make for an excellent game. It is every decision that puts player decisions before simple development. Mass Effect captivates audiences, and it remains re-playable.
The solution to marginalization of women in gaming is only going to be quashed as more women go into game design, and more women select tech fields. We cannot simply complain that games are not to our taste, we must be a part of the process of good gaming. Companies like BioWare have proven that there’s great opportunities for games that appeal to both women and men alike, and that’s exciting.
While some girls may be content with FPS, this may not always be the case. While I thoroughly enjoy Grand Theft Auto, something always felt hollow in cookie-cutter games, especially those that did not allow me to play as a female. While I have nothing against strong male protagonists, role-playing games are most effective when the character can ‘slip into the role.’ Some women may feel they are uninterested in games, simply because they have not had the opportunity to fully experience immersive worlds. As an entertainment source, gaming can be ever-rewarding. Gaming provides an outlet for story telling that many cannot find elsewhere. Games like Mass Effect have helped me cope with depression, anxiety, and my disorder misophonia.
Mass Effect Andromeda’s release gives me excitement for the game industry. Each time a major title is released that features wonderful voice acting, excellent developers, and rich characters of all backgrounds, I believe it is cause to celebrate. As the industry continues to grow, I can only hope that more opportunities arise for women and male gamers to kick ass together. Gaming and virtual realities may be the final frontier of our generation and the enjoyment of games is unlikely to go away any time soon. The Mass Effect series has continued to push the boundaries of gamers, whether it’s intergalactic relationships, or simply allowing gamers to choose their own stories. As we go forward, it’s important to realize that Mass Effect, and the gaming industry will continue to evolve: we’re only human, after-all...