June 9, 2006
Soapbox: Pale-Faced, Geeky and Greasy-Haired Boy Gamers
When the E3 convention, the world’s largest Electronic Entertainment Expo, came to L.A. recently to show off the next generation of interactive games and gadgets, there was much anticipation that the Booth Babes -- those young, nubile, scantily clad women promoting exhibitors' hot, new video games – might look radically different. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the producers behind the E3 Expo, a gathering for a 7.3 billion dollar a year industry, signaled they saw things differently when they announced that exhibitors attending this year's E3 would be slapped with a hefty fine if they promoted their products using women in bikinis, or anything else that favored showing skin over substance. Although few may have expected the Booth Babes to dress like nuns, they were still conspicuously provocative, and the promise of a penalty for violating the new, marginally more modest dress code may have done a better job at grabbing headlines than if nothing had changed at all.
The Booth Babes may be effective at drawing in hundreds of visitors, mostly young men who wait for their photo op by standing in long lines that wrap around the exhibitors' booths, but they do nothing to attract women. And the mega heroines the Booth Babes portray – women with super powers and super bodies – tell us more about the mindset of male game designers than about the women who are playing games. Yet in changing their dress code, the ESA is acknowledging that they see Booth Babes as a vestige of an old world in a new world order, where more than 40% of gamers are women, more women than men are online casual gamers, and women are showing up in rapidly expanding numbers -- and often beating the boys -- in competitive trials.
For the feminists among us, the toning down of the Booth Babes offers only gratuitous satisfaction. We've argued all along that the display of women as prizes turns them into objects, the violence in games turns women off, and the lack of more varied game designs fails to excite them. All these reasons, and more, have been offered to explain the absence of women in the video and computer game industry, and the technology field overall. Yet more modestly attired Booth Babes’ at E3 is only a first step towards reform in an industry where women have traditionally been marginalized. There are still few women programmers in technology companies, and very few girls go into computer science and related technical fields when they graduate from college. The game industry itself suffers from an absence of women on a very key level -- that of game design. According to the International Game Developers Association, less than 10% of game design teams are women.
The ESA's recent decision to require that Booth Babes cover up is an encouraging indication that things have started to shift, and it sends a message to the industry that women are looking to assume a different role. Yet a much greater transformation of the Booth Babes will be necessary in order to bring more women into the field.
Women have been making inroads into the video and computer game world one gigabyte at a time. All-girl game teams like the FragDolls, sponsored by UBISOFT, a corporate game developer, has put women at the forefront of competitions. Young and stylish, the FragDolls vanquish the stereotype of the pale-faced, geeky and greasy-haired boy gamers who once held sway in the days when computer games were played in the basement. And the Fragdolls have more than just a pretty face: they can beat the boys at the boys' own games, as their winning performances at tournaments have shown. Women clearly have the aptitude for and interest in computer games, so the old belief, perpetuated by the media, that girls aren’t any good at games or that they're not interested in them, is simply a myth, and the marketing departments of big corporate game companies that are promoting such teams recognize this and are onto something that appeals to all sides.
The days when just men and boys dominated the game scene are gone and hopefully, may never return. Gamers are no longer on the fringes – everybody from factory workers and doctors, parents and kids, Republicans and Democrats, and yes - boys and girls -- are into playing video and computer games. Now that the women players are here – and the Booth Babes are showing a little more modesty – let's find a way to open the door to bring more women into game design, computer science, and the technology field as a whole. Women not only want to play games, and have proven they can compete with the boys, but they need and deserve to participate across the field.