Sunday, March 6, 2016

Will Video Games Become "Gender Neutral"?

Wikipedia "Women and Video Games"

In cycle 4 of INTE 5320 at University of Colorado Denver Games & Learning course, we started to look at gender and sexism in gaming culture. Although the focus of my research in addition to the course materials, has been on adult learning up to this point, I have chosen to dig deeper into the issues surrounding females in gaming. As opposed to critiquing a single article or document, I found a Wikipedia entry for “Women and Video Games” to be very informative and rather comprehensive. The entry has cited several sources of interest, some of which I am already familiar with, such as the ESA statistical information and works by Ian Bogost. I think it’s important to assess the statistical information in addition to contemporary issues as to avoid generalizations that may not be fair or accurate. Through this research I’m interested to see if I can connect the dots between gender and videogames and how this relates to learning with video games and contemporary issues.

A cultural shift

As with most video games, a player typically assumes a virtual identity in order to enact scenarios to progress through the game. These roles are typically of male gender, and when they are not, perhaps the female character is over sexualized. Claims of this are evident in games like Tomb Raider. However more recent games (and other types of games) have offered more variety of characters to choose from such as online role playing games like World of Warcraft. The Wikipedia entry also uses a historical context for video games as a product or medium marketed to boys and how this has changed over time. Perhaps the result of this has created a lingering effect on the culture of video games as being “boy” oriented. When we look at the statistics from several different studies from the 1980’s to present day, we can see a cultural shift in video games from predominately male, to practically, evenly split interest between genders. However, some within gaming culture are resistant to this change. Regardless, the statistics show women are just as interested in being involved with video games and gaming culture as men. Therefore, video game developers are making games for both sexes and should consider the concerns, needs, and wants of both male and female players to make the most viable product. Assuming it’s the intent of the developers to make the highest possible monetary return on the product.

What does this mean for developers?

In order to create products that appeal equally to both men and women, developers should consider the cultural and psychological characteristics, among many other properties, present in games that may appeal or deter consumers. For starters, game developers may employ more females as part of their development team. Or provide equal play testing scenarios for both men and women in order to assess a game’s appeal to both sexes. There’s also a need to allow opportunities to discuss cultural and psychological implications of a game in the development cycle. Yet these opportunities are rarely afforded as development companies aren’t typically interested in such academic or civic pursuits. However, questions arise whether the game itself should be modified or assessed in such a way. As games are considered by many a form of art, like film, can portray extremely sexist depictions. Or historical depictions which may be inclined to feature cultural aspects that may be offensive, but none the less, were part of the story of the culture from that era in human history. Additionally, the assessment of a game is subject to the culture of males or females that may be a product of society as whole rather than the game itself. It’s easy to blame developers and gaming culture for sexist portrayals of women, however these portrayals may be the result of systemic sexism in society as a whole and gender roles and identities crafted and perpetuated by consumer culture, religions, governments, educational institutions, sports, etc. It’s important that we not blame the medium or developers necessarily, but look at the bigger picture in society in order to recognize why these things are present and revealed in games through criticism of the medium.

What does this mean for games and learning?

As educators and instructional designers, we should be looking for ways to create enriched educational experiences for our students. Often times, this means a game or game-like experience. It’s important to understand that there are many games out there, or game like features, that whether intentional or not, can be sexist (among many other negative things). Something as simple as the available emoticons in a text based interface, being limited to male figures, can be problematic for female identities. A recent Always commercial on YouTube drew my attention to this.

Yes, even an icon in an interface can create a negative feeling and perhaps inhibit learning if it is perceived as sexist. It’s important as educators that we take the time to screen the games that we would like our students to play for things like this. That’s why “gender neutral” games often times offer the best possible learning scenario without biases. However there is always the chance a stereotype or bias can creep into any consumer product, it’s important to identify this and open the topic up for discussion in an educational and inclusive setting. I’m sure we cannot expect the consumer product industry to uphold the same standards educators would uphold. Perhaps it’s more important to teach students how to critique cultural artifacts, such as a video game, rather than to passively engage with it? Will video games become gender neutral? Probably not. Would students who learn about sexism, biases, stereotypes, racism, as perpetuated by popular culture be less likely to create offensive artifacts? I have a feeling the answer is “yes.”

References: Wikipedia "Women and Video Games"