Batman: Arkham City may have been hailed as one of the best video games based on a comic book superhero and made several shortlists for the best game of 2011, but the high-budget, high-profile game was also sharply criticised for its portrayal of the lead female character, Catwoman.
Critics pointed out that much of the dialogue directed at Catwoman — mostly by the game's malcontent thugs, bruisers and criminals — included the word "bitch."
"I'll make you meow, bitch" and more than a dozen other lines are repeated by enemies several times throughout the game. Some attributed such language to the lowlife criminal nature of the characters saying it; others saw it as sexist, unimaginative or both.
The misconception that video games are not for girls is nothing new, of course. Nor are the efforts to counter it. In 1979, Toru Iwatani decided to create a game that appealed to girls as well as boys, and the result was Pac-Man. Atari's Centipede was co-developed by Dona Bailey and became popular with women in the arcades that were a mainstay of youth culture in the 1980s. Fast-forward to the present day, and women now make up half of all video game players.
Yet the topic of women in games — as players, developers and characters — is the source of ongoing debate in the gaming community, not least because the most dedicated players, the self-professed "gamers," are still predominately young and/or immature males.
But some women and men are working hard to push back against the preconceptions around women and gaming.
Sexy outfits not the issue
Several of those on the frontlines of that fight were in attendance at the Women in Film, Games and New Media event at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto in December 2011, where female gaming industry rookies and veterans gathered to talk about the gender issue in games.
'As much as I love games and am excited by them, I'm even more excited about what I believe that they can become.' — Leigh Alexander, games columnist
Keynote speaker Leigh Alexander has become a central figure in the debate, whether she likes it or not. A columnist who writes about both the business and the culture of video games, Alexander's articles have earned her a reputation as an outspoken female voice in games journalism. She has received everything from death threats to date requests on her blog, Sexyvideogameland, and has professed her devotion to fighting mainstream preconceptions that video games are just for unruly teenage boys.
"As much as I love games and am excited by them, I'm even more excited about what I believe that they can become," Alexander said during her keynote address. "Diversity in game development is absolutely essential to the future health of the medium."
Perhaps surprisingly, Alexander doesn't have a problem with the most obvious talking point in the discussion about women in games: the revealing wardrobes and impossible body proportions that are typical of female characters in many games. She cites Bayonetta, which stars a buxom female demon hunter who wears a sexy leather bodysuit, as a recent favourite.
"I also hate the idea that in order for a female character to be admirable or to be included they have to have turtlenecks and sneakers," Alexander said. "I don't like it when conversations get sidetracked onto how sexy images of women or how the women themselves are or aren't allowed to be.
"To me, that's still more of those forces controlling how I am allowed to represent and express myself."
Games by women, for women
Like Alexander, Kirsten Forbes is more concerned with making new games that expand the medium's breadth rather than critiquing Bayonetta's body-hugging outfits. Forbes has worked in the games industry for over a decade, working with some of the biggest companies in the business, including Activision and Ubisoft. But as chief operating officer of the Canadian games developer Silicon Sisters, her mandate is to create games by women for women and to get them in the hands of an audience that has historically shied away from the gaming world.
Forbes rejects the idea that males have an easier time getting used to the interface of video games — the joysticks and controllers used to manipulate games.
"Over the course of 30 years, girls simply haven't picked them up," she says.
Nevertheless, simple, "casual" games on cellphones, personal computers and the motion-controlled Nintendo Wii have made the point of entry easier than it's been in decades.
Silicon Sisters goes one step further by creating "games purposely designed for women and girls." In the company's first commercial title, School 26, the main character, Kate, tries to navigate the complex social hierarchy of high school. The game also uses emotions and empathy as motivating factors rather than kill streaks and high scores: smiley-faced emoticons, ranging from jubilant to sullen, measure Kate's interactions with other characters.
"The bottom line for Silicon Sisters is [making] games that girls are going to play and then walk away from and go, 'Oh, my God, I rock. I am so awesome, I am a freaking superstar,'" Forbes said.
She cites television and comic book character Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the kind of positive, nuanced female lead video games need more of.
"Stab a vampire through the heart, take a step back to check your nails — that balance of sexy and tough all in one is a real sort of icon for a lot of girls," Forbes said.
The hyper-masculinization of gaming
Silicon Sisters isn't focused on directly competing with the most popular mainstream games, but it still has to deal with the fallout these games have on the gaming world in general. Thousands of players — male and female — around the world are playing online multiplayer bouts of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 at any given time, and that online sphere has typically been dominated by its largest and loudest segment: teenage boys.
Any female who has put on a headset and joined an online video game is familiar with the scenario: young men between the ages of 13 and 25 barking commands and yelping excitedly are shocked into silence the second a female voice is heard among the chatter. Catcalls or other forms of harassment may follow, some of which are sent directly to the female player's message inbox. Websites such as fatuglyorslutty.com try to defray the insults and shame the offending parties by getting female players to send in their most offensive messages and posting them on the site.
Nick Taylor, a postdoctoral researcher at York University, describes the problem as "a perfect storm of historically male-dominated technologies, and now, in terms of the level of culture, the addition of video gaming as this elitist culture of skill-based activity, almost a sport."
It has become even further entrenched in the gaming culture with the rise of e-sports: teams of players that duke it out in Halo or Starcraft for lucrative cash prizes and sponsorship deals.
"[E-sports] borrows a lot from the language and symbolism, and sometimes even the actual structures, of professional sports," said Taylor. "Professional sports have historically been incredibly male-dominated — and still [are] — and not just male-dominated but hyper-masculine."
Taylor is part of the Feminists in Games Research Initiative, a group dedicated to understanding and deconstructing the "hyper-masculinization of gaming," as Taylor calls it. He says the gaming world could learn from sociological research such as the famous Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes experiment carried out by grade school teacher Jane Elliott in the 1960s after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Elliott split her Grade 3 classroom into two groups – one included students who had blue eyes, the other those who had brown eyes. She labelled one group superior based solely on eye colour and then switched the hierarchy the next day.
Taylor says a similar exercise could work to "hold up a frank and honest mirror" to gamers whose words and actions ostracize female, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other communities. However, he stressed the need to go about it in a positive way, "instead of telling them how stupid they are," especially when dealing with adolescent males, who may still have a lot of growing up to do.
At the end of her keynote address to the diverse crowd at the Bell Lightbox, Alexander recalled a conversation about the changing profile of gamers with Seth Killian, who works on Capcom's Street Fighter games — a series known for its male-dominated, ultra-competitive community.
said something to the effect of, 'When a community starts to change, that's when you see the crosses on the lawn,'" Alexander said. "And I think we're starting to see the crosses on the lawn, and it means we need to keep going."