Gamers have an Image Problem

Abstract: This image problem is rooted in a failure by the mainstream media (and film) to treat video games as an acceptable pastime, making gaming “a dirty word“, and perpetuating the notion that women shouldn’t have authorship over technology around them. The male gaming community is only partially responsible, and this will be discussed in a subsequent post. This post was formulated after analyzing video game coverage by major female-oriented publications and by my personal memory of video game scenes in movies.

“One of the things we were trying to combat with 3G was how girls are discouraged from learning anything about technology beyond how to use it, [not] to be responsible or have a form of authorship with it.” - Terence Hannum, Internship and External Relations Coordinator at Columbia College

Any female in her 20′s that plays video games knows gaming has an image problem. Not only does the community you play in make you feel unwelcome a la the blog “Fat, Ugly or Slutty“,  your parents find your enjoyment of video games off-putting, as do 30-somethings co-workers. I’ve had more than one conversation at slightly older dinner parties become painfully awkward when I mention I like/want to write about video games. The women scan the room and decide it is time to mingle. Then I am left with some guy, and as the silence continues between us, I begin to question his intentions. Sometimes I can see this male have an OMG-GIRL-GAMER-freak-out moment, all in the eyes, and when it abides he hesitantly remarks I must be the male gamer fantasy or some other weird crap.  Then I decide it is time to mingle.

My mom keeps thinking I will grow out of my love of video games. She is not impressed when I tell her I am laying down plumbing because my city’s population explosion is  forcing me to expand my city limits.

There is a common thread behind these awkward interactions: people born before the 80′s view video games as either a waste of time or a childish hobby. How can that be, when video games have been around for 30 years  - and adults now play video games and teachers use video games as part of their curriculum?

Looking at gaming statistics, the view that video games are just for children is outdated by 20 years. In 2007, 63% of the American population played video games.  In 2008, that percentage jumped to 70%, while for children, it was revealed 97% played video games. The newest survey shows 94% of females (with 97% of males) under 18  play video games regularly.   The average gamer is a 35 year old, and the average social (casual) gamer is a 45 year old woman.

As statistics have shown, video game playing is now an American pastime-  it has been a pastime for 30 years. 30 years is  plenty of time for the older generation to  observe, report, write and understand this new form of entertainment, this new use of technology, but this has not happened. Video games are not covered by the mainstream media in a normal fashion, thereby making “gaming” a dirty word, like Mike Fahey suggests.  If you want to read about video games, you have to go to a video game publication.  Every magazine and web publication mentions movies and music in some capacity, so why not video games?  This lack of easy-breezy, every day video game coverage perpetuates stereotypes within and outside the gaming community, making older gamers or females feel uncomfortable calling themselves gamers.

Gamers are typically seen as teenage or college-aged male console-owners with massive video game collections. The types of people you’d imagine waiting in a line so long it wraps around the block of an about-to-open GameStop on the day a big budget video game is released. I can recall stoners playing video games in film (a couple of Michael Cera movies, too) and just recently I saw a computer engineer playing some Sims- type game, getting his virtual sex on in “The Dilemma”.  I can’t think of a time when I saw video games portrayed normally in movies.  I have only seen one positive family video-game playing moment on television, and that was on “Modern Family”.  I remember one losing contestant on Million Dollar Money Drop say only kids play video games so she wouldn’t choose that category. Normally when I see someone playing a video game on a TV show the actor is button-mashing or “jumping up and down and flailing their arms about.”

When it comes to negative press about video games, a gamer is either portrayed as a mentally unstable fellow waiting to open fire on his loved ones or classmates, or an obese man sitting in the dark in a desk chair too small for him, lost in some fantasy world with no regard for reality, perhaps sexually preying on children in his non-gaming time.

Neither of these portrayals are particularly pleasing to people above 30 or to females.

If the females do call themselves gamers, they call themselves “girl gamers” – the added word shows they are not associated with the original gamer image. Older women that play BeJeweled, Farmville or Cityville (or even Scrabble, Mah Jong Tiles, or Solitaire), call themselves “casual gamers”, as do females that only play video games on their phones. The addition of “casual” to “gamer” shows how uncomfortable the group is associating with the male “gamer” group. Oddly enough, both Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire offer casual video games on their site, but they have yet to write about casual gaming, echoing a statement indie developer Erin Robinson made in this interview on 45 year old  casual gaming women not perceiving themselves as “gamers”. Robinson even admits to not viewing her job as a real job for a very long time because of the stigma video games have.

It isn’t just the females and “social/casual” gamers that don’t want to associate with “gamers”, it is indie game developers as well. When I was doing some research, Jake Elliot (an indie game developer and award nominee, as well as art school graduate) made a  comment about how he didn’t  associate himself with gamers as they are currently defined. Elliot’s partner on Kentucky Route Zero, Tamas Kemenczy, agreed with Elliot – he too doesn’t identify with  “gamers”. Neither did most of the indie game developers I talked to in Chicago. This is odd, considering indie game developers are not only designing the free and simple games on the internet  but also the games now found on smartphones, and yet these people, very embedded in game culture as they are creators,  cannot identify with the term used to describe people that play video games.

This negative view of “gamers” is troubling, considering the military now trains soldiers with video games, video games are used in classrooms, NASA has created a simulator on how to run a moon base, and artists are now turning to video games as the next art frontier.  Jane McGonigal’s book “Reality is Broken” argues we should be playing video games at least an hour a day, in order to be successful happy people, and to save the world. Jane McGonigal is the anecdote to the “gamer image” – she is beautiful, eloquent and well-dressed.

You don’t see video games covered in this way in publications targeting females or parents. No one talks about the artistic or educational value of video games, let alone the ways video games make us better people. As you will see by my break-down below, women’s magazines are a decade behind, at least.  These same magazines offer very little ownership of technology (as they tend to lack a technology division) – sure, Cosmopolitan was cute in the 50′s, but nowadays a lady needs to know more than how to look pretty.  How to snap on an iPhone cover doesn’t count.

Publications targeting women (very few of these publications have written more than 5 articles about gaming)

Vogue, a fashion and lifestyle magazine, has yet to write an article about video games. W, which calls itself purely a fashion magazine, managed to mention a video game once, because it related to a designer’s voice. Said designer described himself as being too cool for video games.

Oprah Magazine wrote an article about the Wii fit in May 2009, and other articles that show up under “video game” search seem to have no mention of video games in them, just the word “video” or “game” (you cannot search for video game related articles with “video games” in quotes). Ladies Home Journal goes the fear-mongering route, mentioning video games  only a handful of times as violent (what sane mother would consider allowing their 12 year old child to play GTA?).

Elle’s track record for writing about video games is slightly better. Elle published an article about a virtual beauty school game, and then equated video game playing as a guilty pleasure in its “Everything Bad is Good for You” piece. Men interviewed by Elle on unrelated topics provided interesting quotes on video games causing arguments and the perception of aging gamers:

“Revenge of the Nerd”, interview with Actor Jon Heder, 2007, by Andrew Goldman

ELLE: What’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever argued about?

JH: How bad she is at Zelda on Nintendo. After we were married, we got the Zelda video game. I still don’t know if it’s the best thing for our marriage, but our desire to play outweighs our doubt.

ELLE: So you’re convinced she stinks at it?

JH: I think we both know. We argue about her hitting the wrong button. I’ll be like, “You’re hitting the wrong button!” And she’ll be like, “No, it’s the right one!” and I’ll say, “It’s okay that you’re worse than me, because you’re a smart girl and you can use your math skills to figure out the dungeon problem.” But I’m better.

and from an April 2010  interview with Joe Jung:

ELLE: How would you describe the 30-year-old man of today?

JJ: We’re done with school and there are pressures—you’re expected to buckle down and grow up. There are a lot of people who do that and are miserable and don’t have an outlet. Look at the video game industry! Guys in their 30s are advancing to this weird level of sophistication in their video games and demanding that [the games] grow with them. It’s still this idea that it’s fun to shoot things and play football online and pretend that you’re in a rock band. Some guys go back to the frat reunion and get stuck hanging out with a bunch of 18-year-olds, telling stories about how awesome the frat was. You still want to dwell on how awesome things were.

Emphasis added above is mine. Jung is implying adults who play video games suffer from a Peter Pan complex – making me doubt he has played video games.

Allure has written about the Wii fit, a retro Barbie video game, and a perfumer simulator. While Allure’s articles about gaming might be more informative than most women’s magazines (surprising given Allure is the “beauty expert” magazine), the last entry about video games was made in 2009.

Both Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire have published a couple articles about gaming with a predictable “our readers don’t play video games or know what they are” bent:  articles on games to play with your boyfriend or boyfriends neglecting girlfriends for video games.  While these are both interesting topics that should be discussed (and women do like playing video games with other people), there are more issues to discuss in gaming than how it relates to your boyfriend.

Comparatively, Glamour Magazine has published a decent number of articles on video games  (more than 5, and the  “Sex, Lies and Video Games: How One Woman Found Stress Relief in a Surprising Place” article is poignant, and possibly one of the best ones to come from a glossy mag). However, I found this troubling gem in “Last Minute Gift Idea: 8 Great Books For Everyone On Your List“:

“My nerdiness is showing here, but nobody ever learned about an entirely wonderful new world through a cashmere sweater or a video game! I rest my case.”

by Tracey Lomrantz

What kind of games is Tracey Lomrantz  playing, where she has never been absorbed by the story in a video game? She also hasn’t played any civilization/ city building strategy game from the last 10 years  - (Age of Empires series, Civilization series, or the Total War series, to name a couple) nor has she heard about college professors using video games in class rooms. Her nerdiness is a lie.

Out of the women’s magazines I looked at (that weren’t strictly “fashion”), Good Housekeeping has the most video game related content. While this should be a reason to rejoice, Good Housekeepings articles on gaming feel like they were also written by people who don’t play, or understand video games, and a couple entries are written by ESRB president Patricia Vance.

Ms Magazine  has only written 4 articles on video games, and three of them are blog posts. Ms Magazine’s body of video game pieces isn’t too shoddy, but 4 articles/posts on this billion dollar entertainment industry enjoyed by the majority of Americans is still too little. Their one article is about feminists reclaiming video games (2006), has this gem:

“This is an industry that’s having a midlife crisis,” says technology researcher Jacquelyn Morie. The casual game market is expected to nearly quadruple in the next five years, while the console game market grows by less than 5 percent a year. “In 10 years,” she predicts, “these big game companies”— the ones that display the tanks and hire the booth babes—“aren’t going to exist any more.

By Jessica Stites “More Than a Game – Move over, geekboys: Feminists reclaim video gaming

Ms Magazines  other blog posts talk about the hypersexualization of females, getting girls interested in computer science, and one artist who mentions she is working on an indie video game.

Bitch Media is the only targeted female publication that has pages of decent blog posts on video games – and that might be because they are no longer a print magazine and understand how to write to a digital audience. Bitch Magazine is the only exception, but do 30 year old women read Bitch en masse?

Publications targeting teenage girls

Despite recent statistics stating more than 90% of teenage girls play video games, video game articles in teen magazines are hardly more frequent or of better quality.

Elle girl is the worst offender, or isn’t even  trying - check out this brief blurb about a virtual fashion doll made to look like the fashion editor. Teen Vogue’s search yields 17 lukewarm results, with two articles worth highlighting: an interview with a 14 year old Guitar Hero champion, and this plug for an arcade style pac-man controller.

The Seventeen/Cosmo Girl/Teen Magazine  article search brings up articles that would be expected (like “my boyfriend won’t stop playing video games!“, a review of the project runway game), and the unexpected (an article about a 15 year old Pokemon Champion, a mention of Guilty Party).  The search for “video game” yields more than 100 results, yet less than half of the articles are about video games. Most “video game” mentions are by college bloggers casually mentioning they play video games in their spare time, but these bloggers don’t specifically write about video games.

We can’t save the world with video games, as Jane McGonigal postulates,  if women don’t know how to have a conversation about them!

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One Comment on “Gamers have an Image Problem”

  1. PurpleChair says:

    I learned the word ‘militia’ from Civilization.

    I was 12 years old.


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