I've been thinking a lot about the recent emergence of a female geek culture in the West. I don't mean women in the traditionally male-dominated mainstream of geek culture, from the occasional female amateur radio operator at the culture's beginnings to the all-female Modern Warfare 2 clans of today. I'm referring to the female-dominated offshoot that diverged from it in the '90s and has been steadily growing since, the world of ohnotheydidnt and slash fanfiction and shipping and visual kei fandom.
Perhaps if I were a more astute observer of cultural history--or if I were a woman--I'd be more keen on whatever early 20th century cultural factors that led to its existence. But to me, an avid lay scholar of Usenet and a member of mainstream geek culture since before my double digits, the rise of fangirl communities seems to come out of nowhere. (Help me out here, lady geeks? How did you get involved?)
It seems to have been a surprise to the producers, as well, of the media and technology around which geek culture centers. I mean, creators of nerdy things have been trying to court the young female demographic since at least the '80s with gender-flagrant things like pink cell phones, Barbie NES games, and Jem and the Holograms. But all of these things--and female geeks themselves, as depicted in films like Hackers--invite girls to create a female niche in a male-dominated world. So much attention has been lavished on the emergence of Lara Croft as a role model among female gamers (remember, the first Tomb Raider was marketed as little more than a pair of tits on a triangular box), sexy costumers at conventions, the almost inevitably nonexistent archetype of the pink-ponytailed, fishnet-wearing, bubblegum-popping punk girl hacker, that nobody anticipated Twilight shipping and cute sketches of Ron kissing Harry. (If some of the marketing material I'm seeing out there is any indication, there's a good number of folks in Hollywood and Silicon Valley who are still clueless.)
Male profiles on geek dating sites: Star Wars, software engineering, Fist of the North Star, Batman, Akira, Dungeons and Dragons. Female profiles on geek dating sites: Harry Potter, renfaire costuming, Supernatural, Runaways, Weiss Kreuz, fanfiction.net. Since ladies were relatively late comers to the subculture, there's no reason why gender stereotypes within it should exist. But they do. For better for worse, the rise of fangirl culture has solidified gender roles, not obliterated them.
There's still some cross-pollination, of course--I mean, no one could have anticipated that after the newest film came out the biggest Star Trek fan community on LJ would be dominated by Chris Pine groupies, and folks my age, thank God, routinely get laid over their shared love of X-Files, Buffy, and the Final Fantasy games--but female fandom and male fandom are largely segregated. Note, for example, the existence of entirely different male and female Dr. Who fan communities. Or, well, Harry Potter.
In retrospect, it should have been obvious to the men who populated mainstream geek culture, betrayed by the male gaze and the false expectations it produces, that women didn't wanted to play in their playground; women wanted to build their own. And it would be they who defined the boundaries and parameters of the culture, not the men who were all too eager to welcome them to it. In the game industry, even after games like Dance Dance Revolution and Wii Sports have enjoyed great success in broadening the appeal of video games to a wider audience, folks are still churning out games like Petz and Imagine: Cheerleader. Those are successful, I suppose, because they're targeted towards younger girls, who have little control over their purchasing habits. But you ask any girl gamer today what she games she grew up with, and she isn't going to say Barbie Super Model or Mary-Kate and Ashley Sweet 16. She's much more likely to name Final Fantasy VII, Animal Crossing, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Shadow of the Colossus--all games originally designed to appeal to male players. Games that do have a large male fanbase, but a cross-gender appeal.
And yet, when game designers accustomed to making testosterone-heavy games try to appeal to female gamers, they often entirely miss the point. Note how vociferously fans have complained about the character Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 2, a slender, sensitive, bishietastic main protagonist industry insiders claim was designed to appeal to female gamers. MGS2, with its martial themes and over-the-top macho storyline, was not a huge hit among female gamers--but male gamers, much as the game was generally well-received, were up in arms over having to play through their macho warrior fantasy as an effeminate wimp. (Lead designer Hideo Kojima repeatedly lampooned fan outrage over this decision in Metal Gear Solid 3, where an effete Soviet officer who looks suspiciously like Raiden is depicted in a number of increasingly uncompromising positions. The message? Hideo admits it, he created Raiden just so female fans could enjoy imagining him having gay sex. Since women did not take the bait, the burden was upon Hideo to do it himself.) Note, also, how poorly received recent Final Fantasy and King of Fighters character designs, who are largely androgynous women or slender bishie men and look like they just walked off a Tokyo fashion show runway, have been compared to the toned giants and buxom ballbusters of early 2000s titles in those series. What kind of strange world do we live in that women at cons overwhelmingly prefer to cosplay the likes of yamato nadeshiko Aerith or scantily clad jailbait Rikku rather than fierce, maternal Terra or the stoic, noble Lightning? I guess not all ladies are of the Rosie the Riveter mindset.
(Side note: Final Fantasy X-2. The entire existence of that game is offensive. It's recycled assets and several female characters from the much better-received Final Fantasy X packaged into a girly J-pop group on a road trip adventure, replete with lots of pink and sticker-machine fonts and floating stars, laced with tons of sex appeal in an effort to get boys to buy it too. The whole game is based around buying and changing clothes, dancing, posing, boys, happy female bonding time, and acting fabulous, because everyone knows that's what girls like. Everyone hated it, girls and boys both, but for some reason costumes from that game show up at every gaming convention ever.)
It's also interesting to observe that despite the best efforts of the industry, it is rare that Western game companies are successful in intentionally appealing to female gamers. Perhaps it's because the Western game industry's idea of cross-gender appeal is hypersexualized strong female lead characters (note Drakan, Golden Axe: Beast Rider, Starcraft: Ghost, tough female classes in Diablo and all its hack-and-slash successors), who are generally characterized as ultra-masculine men with sexy female physiques. They're what men think women want to be, which is women who are men--not women who are women. The odd third wave feminist may want to be Joan of Arc in a plate metal bikini, but if women I've talked to at fan conventions are any indication, the sexy Amazon dominatrix type is an outlier. Female players may appreciate the courage, wit, and resilience of Princess Amelie from King's Bounty: Armored Princess, but good luck finding one with the shamelessness and positive body image to wear her mage costume in public. (It is perhaps telling, about male and female geeks both, that Tifa cosplayers have such an undeservedly bad reputation among convention-goers. You show up in that costume and people judge.)
So what kind of games--and I'm focusing on that element of the culture because it's what I know best--do appeal to the young female demographic? Apparently it's games that appeal to feminine gender roles, not to women. Androgynous sex appeal, a "cute" aesthetic, and powerful female leads only go so far. Look at Kingdom Hearts, Harvest Moon, Pokemon, The Sims, all franchises with strong female fan communities despite the lack of traditionally "female appeal" elements and occasional moments of outright misogyny.* What do these games all have in common? They're not focused on conquest, contests of skill, or vast feats of engineering, as so many other games are. Instead there's a focus on human relationships, community, character customization, and gameplay that emphasizes character progression through nurture. To paraphrase Anna, a friend of mine who is not a gamer but has clocked countless hours in Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing: "Maybe it's because I'm a girl, but I wish there were fewer games about killing things, and more about helping things live."
*It's telling that Harvest Moon has such a strong following among female gamers despite the fact that Victor Interactive does not understand them at all. In 2007 it released Harvest Moon For Girl, a game exactly like Harvest Moon: Back To Nature except that you play as a woman and the game automatically ends when you get married. Apparently you're allowed to be a strong, independent lady farmer only when hubby's not around.
Indeed, this is an underserved niche in video games--and one that female gamers have demonstrated a tendency to flock to when it is filled. The industry has a tendency write off the success of these games as a product of their gender-universal appeal (who doesn't enjoy exploring worlds and building things?), but I believe there's more to it than that. Georgia Tech digital media professor Janet Murray recounts, in her seminal 1997 text on interactive narrative, Hamlet on the Holodeck, an anecdote about SimCity:
One young programmer friend of mine spent hours building the most prosperous skyscrapered downtown possible. When I asked him about the game, he delighted in showing me the detail in which the city's underground service grid was specified. His wife, who is also a computer professional, took a different approach. Her favorite city was a sprawling environment with tree-lined family neighborhoods whose growing population gratified her tremendously but whose children she could easily imagine happily greeting each newly built playground. When they realized how much their efforts fell along gender lines, they laughed....For the husband, the program was a satisfyingly complex engineering problem, reinforcing his habitual sense of competence. For the wife, it was a narrative, in which the little parades and cheers of her contented townsfolk were the most memorable dramatic events. (88)
Perhaps it's sexist for me to imply that female gamers tend to like games that appeal to more maternal, feminine tendencies (maybe less so than to suggest the angry, scantily clad dominatrix butch type being aggressively marketed to them by the game industry is what they want?), but there does seem to be some truth to it in terms of fandom presence. I have observed, on more than one occasion, a female gamer being driven from a King of Fighters or Counter-Strike forum by horny male teenagers, only to find solace talking about turnips and small furry animals with some of those same males elsewhere. There's a transformative presence even in the way women play games designed to appeal to male gamers--fan artists like Zarla have had great success turning huge, manly heroes into adorable mewling prettyboys, fond of male bonding and spontaneous gay makeouts. (Her Metal Gear Solid "Les Enfants Terribles" series, in which Big Boss is depicted as the weary father of three insufferable preteen Snakes, lends Kojima's characters a believable poignancy that Kojima himself, for all his creative bravado, would not in a million years be willing to attempt.)
Maybe the world isn't ready for games that evaporate the gender binary (family-friendly, gimmicky Wii/Kinect/Move fare aside), or invite women to take part in traditionally masculine power fantasies. Maybe what the majority of female gamers want right now is games that let them be women, gender roles and all. On television we have our Supernatural (a show whose gender-neutral appeal was quickly subverted by the discovery that the two male leads are sexually attractive and women want them to fuck each other, despite the fact that they are brothers), in popular literature we have Harry Potter and Twilight, in gaming we have...what? We're coating Yoshi's Island and Kirby games in inches of pink candy fluff, and still churning out all this cheerleader and pop star and fashion simulator shovelware, and girls and ladies are buying Left 4 Dead, Zelda: Twilight Princess, Phoenix Wright*, and Team Fortress 2**.
* A game about exaggerated male posturing that just happens to have enough handsome, sensitive, shippable male characters to satisfy a slash fandom. Doesn't hurt that fan favorite antagonist Miles Edgeworth / Mitsurugi Reiji is flamboyant, assertive, and a big fan of the color purple.
** This is a small fandom among women but a highly visible one--especially since it's somewhat isolated from a very large male fandom, and strongly allied with gay male fans. Not sure I understand it, since violent, competitive first person shooters are traditionally the pinnacle of male exclusivity in games. Is it the silly slapstick characters, with their hilarious intro videos? The absence of the typical grimdark serious first-person shooter machismo? Or, ironically, the all-male cast?
Perhaps Team Ico's upcoming title The Last Guardian, a game built around the relationship between a young boy and a wounded baby griffin, is a step in the right direction. Perhaps, if we really want to see more female gamers, and produce more games girls and women will enjoy, we need to put away the Barbie-doll mentality, stop trying to duplicate Tomb Raider's unexpected success with the female demographic, and make more games like Nintendogs--but with less casual gameplay. Games about herding cute sheep, playing guidance counselor, reviving ghost towns, finding lost children--the kind of thing less macho dudes would also enjoy playing. Maybe a multiplayer Harvest Moon or a co-op Final Fantasy X, framed around a deep, sad love story, something you could play with your significant other on a date. Maybe the world is even ready for a dating sim targeted at girls.
Maybe the best way to make games for women is to make them for gay men. Can you imagine how amazingly popular a JRPG with an all-male cast of lithe, sensitive, baritone-voiced, vaguely androgynous men would be? Teasing each other relentlessly, alternating between jealousy and protectiveness? With loads of bonding, crying, gentle posturing, and implied homoerotic subtext, yet no actual homosexuality? やらないか!?
No one loses, I think, if this kind of high-oxytocin game takes hold. The butch girls will still have their Medal of Honor clans, and the more feminine ones will have their Farmville farms. Roles, not genders--no one makes fun of a dude for liking Animal Crossing and no one makes fun of gals for playing World of Warcraft. Folks who feel constrained by gender can play whatever appeals to them and not be judged for it. And heterosexual male and female gamers can still meet in the middle and get laid.
What do you think?
(In case you're wondering, yes. I am writing about this because it is four in the morning and my penis and my brain reached a compromise.)