“There’s been a lot of chat lately about why people might stop playing games – in particular why little girls who grew up with consoles don’t seem to stick with the hobby as they get older. I’ve experienced this firsthand; girls I knew at school who were gamers before I even got my first console just seemed to stop once the industry switched from the Mega Drive and Super Nintendo to the PlayStation era. It baffled me, especially as games were making the big leap from 2D to 3D at the time – how could you not be excited?
In her recent article, No girl wins: three ways women unlearn their love of video games, Juliet Khan posits the main reasons why girls in particular might quit playing: disqualification of the sorts of games they like (“Gone Home is not a real game!”), marginalisation (It’s less socially acceptable for girls to play games as they grow older), and the way most big games are marketed at young men through violence, competition and sex. Importantly, the article asks girls for their experiences and doesn’t just assume from dry stats what’s really going on.
Most of the time when we discuss why girls don’t play games it often boils down to representation: there still aren’t as many female characters to relate to. For the past few years, this situation has been improving: titles such as Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Dishonored 2 and ReCore all have women front and centre and are all either out now or on the way. Obviously, that’s great – having more female characters in games is a step forward.
But to be honest I think we need to ask a different question. The problem of marginalisation in games development isn’t just about women, or people from different religious or ethnic backgrounds, it’s about entire genres. Marginalisation is happening in the very fabric of the design process, and this is just as damaging to the health of the industry and its ability to hold our attention – both as developers and as gamers.
The thing is, I don’t really care if you put a female avatar into Assassins Creed. You can put as many women as you like into Fifa, or make the entire cast of Gears of War tough action chicks – I still won’t play those games. I don’t care about climbing a tower to reveal more of the kill-map, I don’t care about shooting people, I don’t care about winning the World Cup. You can’t put a pink bow on a tank and assume different audiences are going flock to it because you gave them some token aesthetic validation. Adding representational diversity to those kinds of games is important, but how often do we consider diversity of genre; diversity of experience?
Mainstream big-budget video games have been shifting towards a mechanical singularity for years, and it’s really time to ask if that’s something that might be keeping people away too? I’m still waiting for an excuse to upgrade to PlayStation 4 or Xbox One myself, but I’m not excited by the prospect of more detailed chest-hair physics in what are basically the same games we had last gen. And what if I just never get that excuse? I’ll have indie games, sure, and Nintendo will always be there for me, but nowadays, AAA titles are just something other people play.
The kinds of games that I enjoy have been pushed out of that space and I’m being pushed out with them…”