Thursday, May 07, 2009

Beyond Barbie® and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming

“The debate about gender and games has always operated at multiple levels: it was first a debate about how to ensure that young girls had access to the technologies that would shape their futures; it was also a debate about how more women could participate in the emerging digital industries; and it was also a debate about representation (about what kinds of stories and play experiences were going to circulate broadly in our culture).”

Beyond Barbie® and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming (MIT Press, 2008)
Edited by Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner and Jennifer Y. Sun

As a female who has spent significant time gaming (though I wouldn't call myself an actual gamer -- thus reflecting some ambivalence that I'm sure a lot of females might feel), I was really interested in seeing the conclusions and suggestions posed by this book, along with the hows and whys and trends of girls and women in gaming.

The book was published last year as a sort of update to a 2000 book called From Barbie to Mortal Combat. That book was co-edited by Justine Cassell, who contributes an essay to this book. Cassell's book took both an academic and industry view of gender and gaming. What IS the experience of girls in gaming? What SHOULD the experience be like? Do games targeted at girls merely reinforce the socialization of gender differences?

The editors of this book come from varied backgrounds, but it seems like they all share a focus on "serious games" -- those encouraging learning or behavior change, particularly in education and training (for all ages) and in the areas of health/social change. However, they did a pretty good job of selecting contributions that discuss perspectives in game design, gender research, etc. from outside academia.

Where Cassell's book focused on the inequality of playing time as a standard, this book looks more into the whys and hows of how females play and how gender is expressed and repressed within a game. The editors posit that it is still important to consider gender in the design, production and play of games.

Since 2000, the gaming world has changed dramatically. In particular, gaming has become more community-oriented and less arcade or single-player based. Many popular games offer a more flexible experience, including gender play thanks to anonymity of internet: In WoW (World of Warcraft), estimates say that half the female avatars are played by men. Participatory, player-generated content (e.g. Second Life) draws in both females and males. This can also lead to increased technological expertise and exploration (though the editors still point to this as a mostly-male phenomenon).

It's important to note that many games popular among females (so-called pink or purple games, along with serious games, puzzle games and card games) are still not considered "real" games by many in and around the gaming industry -- despite the fact that one survey listed females as the dominant presence in casual games and that females make up an equal or dominant presence in some MMOs (though they're still a mnority in most).

BUT… concern about huge development budgets leads to indie companies and games, thus hopefully leading to better opportunities for diversity thanks to lowered barriers to entry.

Based on this, the editors’ concept of the digital divide seems to be multifocal, as stated above – changed from playing time to expression of gender and more. In this way, the gender gap seems to be closing, with the advent of more flexible, player-customizable content.

My own concept of the digital divide is heavily based on the idea that other social constructs (e.g. poverty, education, etc.) influence the presence of a DD more than the other way around. To some degree, this is supported within this book, but it is not really addressed. The book focuses more on socially-based concepts like being considered an anomaly, etc. for being a female gamer.

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