Girls, Games, and Balance: Gender Issues in Technology
Abstract: In this project, we surveyed critical essays and sociological studies treating video games and gender. We found that the historical complaint of gender bias in computer gaming tends to continue, although increasing numbers of female gamers have mitigated the issue somewhat. We survey the kinds and types of bias in interactive gaming, and based on our observations, created an interactive comic book about play, technology, and balance. The comic book tells a story whose outcome depends on your actions, but tells this story in ways that might appeal to both girls and boys. Read and play our story: Libra!
Introduction: Boy Bias in Interactive Media
Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., a professor of education at the University of Miami, examined the specific role of video games within American culture, in his 1991 book, Video Kids. At that time, he claimed that video games reflect and pass on particular values of mainstream culture, namely themes of gender stereotypes, aggression and violence. This stereotyping is a problem because it can have a negative impact on the lives and values of young people. And in making these connections, Provenzo explored the gender differences in video game playing in relation to other cultural values and tendencies. He began by questioning why women and girls are less attracted to video game playing and the surrounding culture. As part of his answer, he pointed to a study that argues that “women prefer more whimsical, less aggressive, and to some degree less demanding games than men” (60), who enjoy violent themes and fast-paced game play.
Video games today continue to be primarily aimed at boys, not girls, which is obvious in looking at historically top selling video games like Doom and Mortal Kombat. For example, Mortal Kombat is a martial arts fighting game, in which players use combinations of moves to become the ultimate fighter. In addition, Doom is a first person point-of-view shooting game featuring graphic violence and violent themes. Furthermore, there are even secret codes, like “God mode” that allow the player to kill people at will, without the risk of being killed. This illustrates just a few of the aggressive, masculine-oriented games that use violence to increase power and obtain eventual domination.
Basically, the problem is that many video games are largely “designed by males for other males” (Provenzo 61). This bias also extends to the characters of the video games themselves, as Terri Toles’ research in video arcade games indicated that 92 percent of the games did not include any female roles (cited in Provenzo 61). Moreover, these games emphasize spatial and visual skills, at which some studies have indicated boys tend to excel more than girls. Thus, the bias toward boys in video game theme, look-and-feel, and computational form alienates girls from playing games, because there is minimal female character identification or skills for girls to excel at in order to attract them to these games. Gaming media continues to fail to engage and tap into half of the possible consumer population, for they neglect issues and technology that would be geared for girls.
part 1: Stereotyping as "The Path of Least Resistance"
In Joystick Nation, J.C. Herz, an authority on the social implications of video games, points out that video games have become part of our culture. Which, Herz argues, is not necessarily bad, as it provides a form of socialization for a fast-paced, modern career world. The problem lies in the fact that video games tend to remain a masculine phenomenon. Herz acknowledges that there is much money to be gained from the untapped girl game market, but guy designers don’t know how. “[C]atering to boys is much more fun. Video game companies are very good at it, and it makes them rich. And they don’t want to mess with a winning formula” (Herz 175).
Yet, some game companies attempt to attract female users through various tactics. Some of the most successful were Ms. Pac Man, Frogger, Centipede, and Tetris (Herz 171), however these games were popular exceptions, and not the rule for high-profile gaming. These games were successful for the girl market because they diverged from the traditional homicidal games. For example, Herz believes that Tetris, a puzzle that rotates and connects geometric shapes, appeals to girls because “it’s about imposing order on the chaos […] It’s about cleaning things up” (Herz 172). The problem with these stereotyped ideals is that “they drive visual ideas of femininity and masculinity to opposite poles of hyperreality” (Herz 177). This idealization is part of the discourse of gender and technology; it is part of the way people “imagine” technology, which does not take into account “real-life” interests and issues.
>part 2: "Technological Desire"
Three female researchers, Cornelia Brunner, Dorothy Bennett, and Margaret Honey, examine the relationship between gender and technological desire in their article: “Girl Games and Technological Desire”. They note that the “fields that are responsible for technological design are still largely dominated by white men” (Brunner et al 72). The article acknowledges that games appealing to boys and girls often feature stereotypes, because “the common approach in interactive design, or perhaps the path of least resistance, is to develop story lines that reinforce extreme notions of gender” (Brunner et al 79). The focus of their work is a “psychological paradox,” the question of how we “address issues of concern to young women that are glaringly absent in technological design without colluding in stereotypical understandings of femininity” (Brunner et al 72).
In their qualitative research, Brunner et al found differences in how men and women fantasize about technology and its role in culture. Men praise “technology because it increases [their] command and control over nature and each other;” extending them “into god-like dimensions” (75). And men fantasize about “mind-melds,” used as a weapon for control and exploitation.
Women, on the other hand, “are much more likely to be concerned with how new technologies can fit into the social and environmental surrounding” (77). Women fantasize about technology as a “small, flexible object that facilitate sharing ideas and staying in touch, that can be used anywhere and fulfill a number of quite different functions” (74). This technology is advantageous from the female point of view, as it is a tool for communication that has the potential for creation and exploration. In attempting to design a feminine game, some possible elements that interest girls and women are to “pick and choose from a range of personas, decide on varying strategies, and discover that different actions result in variable outcomes” (82). Brunneret al point out that one way to “engage both boys and girls [is] with electronic games that can incorporate multiple perspectives and varying themes” (81). Moreover, “game playing can deliberately expand our sense of who we are,” which is essential for both genders to find a balance of neutrality (81).
part 3: Balance, or,"Gender Neutral Play Spaces"
In his article, “’Complete Freedom of Movement’: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces,” Henry Jenkins celebrates the “virtual play spaces which allow home-bound children […] to explore” (263). He quotes Keith Feinstein, President of the Video Game Conservatory, who argues that video games preserve aspects of traditional play spaces that motivate children to “learn about [their] environment” (cited in Jenkins 263). Jenkins examines the “fit” between video games and boy culture; what draws boys to video games, and can girls feel the same attraction? He worries that “children’s access to spaces are structured around gender differences” (Jenkins 267), for he believes that gender segregation is not good. Jenkins argues that girls, like boys, need video games at an early age if they are to successfully navigate the professional world.
Girls need to develop an “exploratory mindset” rather than settle into the “domestic sphere,” according to Jenkins (276). Yet, many girl games preserve the stereotypical feminine roles rather than transform them. Jenkins points to Brenda Laurel’s Secret Paths, an exploratory adventure, which is designed to help girls find emotional and social resources within themselves. Secret Paths preserves traditional ideas about masculinity and femininity, and Jenkins argues that there needs to be more of a balance. He acknowledges that there is a “healthy degree of ‘cross-over’” by many girls who enjoy ‘playing with power’” (291). However, he feels that we need to open up more space for girls to join and to experience the “freedom” promised to boy games that is not found in traditional girl games. Jenkins calls for a new kind of virtual play space that is “gender-neutral” for both boys and girls to explore (294).
Arnold Pacey’s Meaning in Technology (MIT Press, 2001) suggests that a person’s sense of purpose and meaning in life can affect the shape and use of technology. Pacey argues for acknowledging the role of human experience of purpose when it helps express meaning in technology. He explores the direct experience of technology by the individual, the contexts in which technology is used, and calls for a more people-centered technology. Pacey argues that there is a lack of interest in people, relative to machines, which seems to reflect an outlook of individuals attracted to work in science and technology fields (148). Today, science and technology value an object-centered outlook, which men tend to have more than women do.
One reason for this, Pacey offers, could be that girls and women “are ‘more balanced in their priorities,’ and less often object-centered in outlook;” possibly because of their “wider social and humanitarian concerns” in comparison to men (149-151). Pacey points to the work of Sherry Turkle, who notes that technology students at MIT are aware of this divide between their work and real people and look out for ways of making connections (qtd. in Pacey 150). Pacey also points to Francis Bacon, who had similar ideals of “balance.” Although these ideals may seem incompatible, according to Bacon, it is possible that “ideals of conquest and human concern could be harmonized. [...] Bacon’s goal for science, and by implication, for technology, was that it should be ‘for the benefit and use of life,’ meaning primarily human life” (51).
Pacey questions why there are gender differences. He concludes that it was the division of labor in early societies—when men hunted and women gathered food—that began this divide. In our society today, continuities between gender typing in work and in practice of science are recognized. For instance, men are more attracted to powerful technology and authority (Pacey 157). Pacey also explains that there may be a biological basis for this division of labor. As women bear and nurse children, men become excluded and create other areas to think of as their own, like the creativity of science, which is almost like giving birth to ideas. Yet, just as women nurture with love and charity, Pacey agrees with Bacon that those who seek knowledge in science and technology should “perfect and govern it in charity,” which has implications of cherishing and loving (Pacey 164). Thus, “the idea of cherishing has potential to replace the aspiration to control as an ethically preferable paradigm” (Pacey 169). Finally, Pacey concludes that “there should be a much greater emphasis in the practice of technology on more adequately valuing and caring for both people and nature” (Pacey 169).
conclusions: Libra, A Playable Comic Book
There is a growing female audience in the video game world that needs to be addressed. Young men, between the ages of eighteen though twenty-five, are the largest group of consumers of video games. However, young women, ages eighteen through twenty-five, are the second largest group of consumers. Video games still share the bias toward boys, although the gap is closing. Men and women’s desire for video games can be tapped into, if their fantasies and desires are examined and integrated. We hope to be able to integrate topics and design elements that would interest both boys and girls more than the traditional masculine games and technology. So we have created an interactive comic book that will address feminine and masculine technology and software designs interesting to both boys and girls, in order to address the balance needed for “real-life” scenarios. For our group project we have decided to create a comic book that will illustrate a balance between genders and address both the masculine and feminine ideologies of technology. The comic genre interests men because it involves superheroes that have power and control over nature, technology, or people. Yet, comics also appeal to women because “the nonlinear nature of the medium offers a choice between multiple perspectives” (Brunner et al 85).
We aimed to create a comic book that portrays male and female characters, which have a balance of masculine and feminine traits and powers. Thus, the interactive comic book we create incorporates elements of masculine and feminine technological desires, and therefore, the title, Libra, suggesting a scale or balance, is quite appropriate. Libra is a girl -- a heroine -- who possesses feminine technology, which facilitates communication and creation, empowering her. The group of superheroes consists of a girl leader with telepathy, giving her a connection with humanity. There is a boy and girl that have power over nature’s creation of plants and destruction through weather, respectively. The last superhero in the group is a boy with masculine technology of control and power, who is incomplete without his female counterpart. In the story, the group of superheroes, possessing male technology, realizes they are incomplete without the other half of the feminine technology. They find and contact the girl and begin persuading her to join forces with them. This story line can be appealing to both men and women, for women are interested in “how to stay part of the group” and “tend to value persuasion over conquest” (Brunner et al 83). Yet, men can bask in the power that is obtained by persuading the girl to join the group and be balanced. Moreover, each member of the group represents a different nationality, in order to hopefully create a balanced work, both with gender and ethnicity.
Our aim was to create a comic book that is uniquely interactive and capable of engaging female users. We chose to do an interactive comic book for our project because it may be brought to life with sound and animation, which appeal to girls. We intend to expand on the interactive nature of the comic book to incorporate, not only multiple perspectives from each character, but also multi-facets of each character’s persona and emotions; the user will have the ability to look inside each character and see their thoughts and feelings. For girls are “interested in games that focus on how things are communicated, not just on what is being said” (Brunner et al 84).
We further intend to achieve this high level of interactivity by creating a story line with an outcome that is based upon the actions of the user; the degree of exploration into characters’ emotions and thoughts will determine the level of unification or conflict among the group in the story. There are three different “paths” of the story. When the player clicks on characters’ thoughts and emotions, they are put on the “first” path, which has a high level of cooperation and communication between the group and the new member, resulting in success and progress. If the player does not care to explore the inner-workings of the characters, then they experience the lowest path, which is turbulent and breaks up the group. Yet if the player chooses to explore somewhat, they will see the group stays together but with no real progress. At each scene, the player’s choices determine if they will navigate “up” or “down” in the emotional aspect of the plot, and so the outcome is entirely based upon the player’s actions. Moreover, to enable the player to perceive the different levels, there are changes in characters’ expressions, use of color, and text, depending on the story level they are on. Therefore, this software offers “contexts that offer rich and varied opportunities for exploration” and, very important for girls, “different actions [that] result in variable outcomes” (Brunner et al 82).
Brunner, Cornelia; Dorothy Bennett; and Margaret Honey. “Girl Games and Technological Desire,” in Jenkins and Cassell, eds.
Herz, J.C. Joystick Nation (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1997).
Jenkins, Henry, “ 'Complete Freedom of Movement': Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces,” in Jenkins, Henry, and Cassell, Justince, eds., From Barbie to Mortal Combat (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998).
Pacey, Arnold, Meaning in Technology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999).
Provenzo, Eugene F., Video Kids (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991).
Click Libra to get to Amber Swann and Amy Frank's interactive comic book. Written by Amber Swann and Amy Frank, with artwork and interactive variations by Amy Frank. Additional interactive design and programming assistance was provided by James Tobias.