“Women are the fastest-growing group of video and computer game consumers” (Fullerton, Fron, Pearce & Morie, 2008, p. 139). A recent report released by Entertainment Software Associate (ESA) found that women comprise 45% of video game players (Rosenberg, 2013).
However, while women represent almost half of video game consumers, they are sorely under-represented among video game producers. Only “10% of all game industry workers in the US are women, and most are not involved in the design process” (Flanagan, 2005, p.1). This statistic is similar in Canada. There are many factors that contribute to the systemic exclusion of women from video game design, including “extreme working conditions and poor quality of life, the misconception that girls don’t play games,” and sexist business practices (Fullerton et al, 2008).
Overall, this contributes to a lack of diversity in video game design. It is critical aspect of why video games predominantly target male players, with the majority of games focusing on a male protagonist (Dickey, 2006). Furthermore, depictions of female characters in video games are often problematic. Women are represented as victims in need of rescuing, objects of desire, or targets for abuse.
In the 1990s, the video game industry began to respond to the growing female market with the production of games targeting women (Kafai, Heeter, Denner & Sun, 2008). However, many have criticized the resulting games. Some, dubbed “pink games”, often perpetuated traditional values of femininity, such “Barbie Fashion Designer”. “Purple games” (named after Purple Moon Software, a company headed by Brenda Laurel that pioneered this genre) followed, with games that supposedly “increased focus on real-life issues of interests to girls and women” (Kafai et al, p. 5), such as such as the Nancy Drew video game series. Both “pink” and “purple” games have been criticized for promoting stereotypes about girls. However, Cassell and Jenkins (1998) caution that these types of games should not be dismissed as trivial, and that participating in girl culture can be an important form of resistance against patriarchy (Dickey, 2006). Nonetheless, video games made for women represent a minority of the video game industry.
A study conducted in 2005 found that female players prefer games designed by all-women teams (Fullerton et al, 2008). Similarly, Fullerton et al point to the correlation between The Sims 40-50% female player base to half the design team being female. While clearly not all games for women need to portray female characters, nor do women only enjoy games targeted at women, the game industry clearly lacks a female perspective that would offer all video game players more options. Furthermore, as “purple” and “pink” games show, some games specifically targeted at women can still be problematic.
“Attempting to create something for ‘girls’ as a category obviously navigates a dangerous border zone between personal, specific, lived experience, and generalization” (Flanagan, 2005, p.2). Flanagan advocates for designing with a diverse population of players in mind. She has created several progressive games for girls. “The Adventure Josie True” represents “adventurous, smart, and scientific women of color [,which] is very important to enhancing all players exposure to what constitutes a hero” (Flanagan, as cited by Fullerton et al, p.146). Her game “RAPUNSEL” teaches tween girls how to program by developing dance steps for their game characters.
Silicon Sisters, Canada’s first female owned video game company, created “School 26”, exploring the social dilemmas girls face in high school. “School 26 is inspired by academic research that identifies social engineering as a prominent element in the lives of teenaged girls.” (Silicon Sisters Interactive, 2011, n.p.).
“Half the Sky Movement: The Game” explores the difficult realities women face around the world, and allows the player to fight for their empowerment. Also by Half the Sky, “9 Minutes” is a mobile game that “plays out the adventure of pregnancy” (Treat, 2013, n.p.).