It’s a gamer girl’s world

Video games aren’t just for boys. Girls who game now make up almost half of the gaming population. But you’d never be able to tell by looking at video game marketing, video game characters or even video gamers themselves!

Girls who love kicking zombie butt or racking up the kills in “Halo” are not as rare as you might think. Gamer girls make up almost half the video game playing population, and it’s time we got some respect.

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As a member of this tribe of gamer girls, I am tired of the stigmas. Too long female video game characters have had two options: The sexy seductress she-elf or the hyper-sexualized Lara Croft-style gun slinger. This is bad news for real-life gamer girls too. Most guys think we’re like unicorns — cool in theory, but no way we’re real. Well, news flash, we are, and we’re everywhere.

It’s time to open the gaming world’s eyes to the reality — girls who game exist outside of nerd fantasies. It is time game stores, the gaming industry and gamers themselves realized it. The number of female gamers is increasing. According to The Entertainment Software Association’s June 2011 study, female gamers account for 42 percent of the gaming population, up from 40 percent the last time the study was conducted. More women play online games than men — 55 percent of online gamers are women. And, interestingly enough, the number of boys younger than 17 who game is actually lower than the 18-year-old and up ladies who do.

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So is the gaming industry doing enough to meet the demands of a market that size? Not at all, according to Rachel White, current gamer and previous employee of the now out-of-business Game Crazy

“I think a big thing is that there’s not a lot of good female characters in video games,” White says. “I think that kind of off-puts the women who are looking for characters they can relate to.

A simple Google search proves White’s point. The majority of female video game characters are vastly disproportionate, with breasts the size of their heads, legs that are far too long for a normal human and waists so tiny there’s barely any room for organs. Compare that to most male characters, who are strong, realistically rendered and well dressed for battle.

Take Tifa Lockhart from “Final Fantasy VII.” Is that half shirt/miniskirt combo really going to afford you any protection at all from ax-and-sword-wielding foes? I think not. I think actually that cute little outfit may put you at a disadvantage compared to the male characters in the game. Look at Sephiroth, a male character in “Final Fantasy VII.”

White feels the stereotypes enforced by the video games themselves perpetuate much of the stigma that surrounds female gamers.

“When [women] see well developed male characters next to incredibly shallow female characters that are obviously written with a male gaze and viewpoint in mind, that’s kind of a turn off,” she said.

Part of the problem could lie in that what women want from a game is much more complex than what the male demographic wants, at least generally speaking. Women who want to play first person shooters are sometimes the same women who will play “Farmville,” and that is a hard demographic to market to.

“Females play and buy more than just casual puzzle games and fitness games. At GameStop, some of our heaviest buyers are female. And they don’t just buy one genre of gaming,” said Ashley Sheetz, vice president of marketing and strategy at GameStop. “There are women who play the same kind of hard core games as those typically associated with men. The first-person shooters, role-playing, action, fighting and racing games. There are entire clans and guilds of female gamers who dominate the multi-player components of these games, many of which even play competitively.”

It is these women White feels are being underserved — the women who don’t play “The Sims” or “Little Big Planet.”

Those games are marketed to women and families more heavily than the first person shooters and more violent games are. This creates a self perpetuating cycle — the game industry and the majority of players do not feel that women like to play games that are traditionally male, so they do not market those games to them, therefore, women don’t buy them. And so the cycle repeats.

Online gaming, however, is the arena where females dominate. Women play on average 29 hours compared to men’s 25, and there are more women playing than men. So what is it about the online gaming world compared to system-based gaming that makes it more appealing to women?

“I do think that the writing is a big part of it,” White said. “I know you find a lot of female gamers online that are into [games like] “Mass Effect” and “Bioshock,” partly because those games give you female characters who are… more woman-like, a community and all those sort of become self-reinforcing, that the female gamers are talking together.”

Photos courtesy of iStock