26 April 2009

Why Jenny Can't Game*

* I know. She totally can.

I’m fascinated by this article about the sociology of kids’ video gaming. It challenges long-held notions—okay, like mine—that we play video games because we’re just looking for entertainment, or because playing soccer seems so energetic. In fact, it offers a number of really thoughtful, if unsurprising, reasons kids play games—like succeeding at games and progressing through levels makes them feel competent and masterful, or because if grown-ups hate gaming then it must be cool. But I hadn’t really thought about the communal, socializing aspects of video games for kids. The stereotype tends to pose of game players as wilted pale hunchbacks, alone, if not lonely. This research indicates quite the opposite is true; kids who play games play together, while those who don’t are left out in the cold. It’s like not having a TV; NOT playing games has become abnormal. If you don’t know Mario Kart, you’re going to be left out on the playground.

I recently blogged about an article that indicated that boys and girls use blogs the same way. This story got me wondering: Is that true for video games, too? I remember back when Mattel made Matchbox computers with math and science video games preinstalled, and Barbie computers with fashion studio and typing tutors loaded. Now that we’ve had some years to study it, are we finding strong gender differences in gaming pre-adulthood?

Well, left in my hands, we may never know. I needed to beef up this little blog post, so I thought I’d check out boys and girls and games. Taking the easy route, I started with a quick Google search. I didn’t get very far. I searched for “video games,” and at the last minute tacked on “girls”. At the top of the results page:


(In case uploading the screen shot didn't work for you, there's a row of image results: 1 buxom avatar in a uniform apparently constructed of a ribbon and FCC nightmares, and three women dressed in even less, before the search results for gamegirl blog and kidconnect.com.)

To clarify: This is not a Google images search. Just a regular web search. And it’s with “moderate safe search” on. (I’ll warn you now that searching Google Images gets even more racy.)

Now, I was just being a lazy researcher; I could just as easily have gone to the Online Research Resources start page and pulled up EBSCO and gone on my merry scholastic way. But what if I were, say, a 9-year-old girl looking for new games to play? Or a 13-year-old girl looking for other girl gamers online? I might be curious, I might be unfazed, but really I think I would have been put off by the aggressive breastiness of the results, and ashamed of searching for something that brought censored results.

Interestingly, if you reverse the order—girls video games—you get no images in the results. You do, however, get “Top 25 Sexiest Video Game Girls of All Time,” “Game Hotties—Pictures and bios of the hottest virtual girls in video gaming,” and “Playboy’s Annual Girls of Video Games” in your top results. (Eww. Not linking those.)

I didn’t start this post to get into gender politics and I’m not going to get all up on the misogyny of gaming culture merry-go-round here, but this brings up some questions for me:

a. Hmmm. If women and girls are not fully represented in the gaming community, could there be a reason? Or, say, a pair of reasons?
b. Why on earth don’t game manufacturers want my money?
c. If, as Kutner and Olsen suggest, not playing games means you’re left out of the club, why would gamers make the culture so antagonistic to women and . . . oh. Right.
d. Didn’t the “no girls allowed” sign go out with Calvin and Hobbes?

(Oh, look. I DID get all up on the misogyny of gaming culture merry-go-round. Oops. Whee!)

Seriously, though, this does make me wonder how girls are expected to make the conceptual jump from Princess Peach and Burger Time to Lara Croft and Grand Theft Auto. And it makes me wonder about Google’s inner workings—why does the one search bring up images, but not the other? What exactly is “moderate safe search”? The ad stream is tailored to my search history—what about the results?

I’ve been sitting on this for several weeks to collect my thoughts, but it still just makes me really crabby. I don’t think censoring games is any better than censoring books or art. But I’m also not okay with the sexism and violence I see in the so-called “mature” games, and I don’t see how we can thoughtfully foster video gaming among children without looking at what happens once they outgrow all-ages games. We need to find better options than cute, girlish cartoon games and cartoonish girly-magazine game design—for our boys as much as our girls. There’s a place for Halo and for Barbie Fashion Studio, but it seems like there’s a lot of uncovered ground in between. I guess we’ll always have the Sims and Wii Sports. But even the “family” games fall short an awful lot. I mean, I love me some Guitar Hero, but no matter how many gigs I play I can’t seem to buy clothes that would actually cover my guitar heroine. I know it mimics the real music world, sadly, but what does it tell kids when we show them a woman can’t rock the guitar and also wear a full-length shirt once in a while?

This is not at all the post I intended to put up here. When I originally sat down to write this, nearly two months ago now, I was writing a nice, happy little piece about how great it is that video games are bringing kids together. But I don’t feel nice or happy if this is where they’re bringing them. And Google? Please. Don’t be evil.

(edited for image problems)

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