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Feature Fri Sep 19 2008
When it comes to the gaming community, it's been mostly a man's (fantasy) world.
From the early days of the breakout cult phenomenon "Dungeons and Dragons" of the '70s to the testosterone-drippingly-titled video game "SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 2" of today, gaming for the most part has been a old boys network, from the participants to most of the main characters in the games themselves. While male characters got to do the whole slash-and-burn thing as wizards, warriors, mercenaries, etc., female characters were relegated to damsel-in-distress mode.
But despite the overabundance of XY chromosomes huddled around the 12-sided dice, women managed to find their way into this exclusive world, although it was not without difficulty. One female enthusiast recalls attending the first meeting of a role-playing club in high school, greeted by a sea of puzzled male adolescent eyes as she entered the room and being informed that "The honor society meets down the hall." She was the only female member for the entire first year.
Flash forward to today when, according to one survey, more than 26 percent of all gamers are female. And not all of them are trying to get in a quick round of "Final Fantasy" between classes either. With "World of Warcraft", for instance, the average age of female players is 32.
Hoping to shed some light on this growing sector of the gaming community is a local film company named 812 North Productions, which is producing a documentary Girl/Gamer. It's their first long-form film and one that hold special interest to them, as producer and co-owner of 812 North Productions MG Farrelly explained in an interview via email.
Gapers Block: Why a documentary about gamer girls?
Farrelly: We wanted to do something in a long form and a documentary seemed like a good way to go. We chose female gamers as a topic because two of our company members (myself included) had experience with gaming. We saw how women in gaming were often reduced to stereotypes ("booth babes" at conventions, the reluctant girlfriend dragged along to a game) by mass media and even the gaming community. The reality is very different and we wanted to explore that.
GB: What's unique about the involvement of women in gaming, other than them being in the minority?
Farrelly: Depending on the game, they're not always in the minority. Games like "Vampire" and Live-Action Role-Playing (which is more like improv theater than anything) have many female players. Gaming can get to be a boys club at times though. Women in gaming are often faced with assumptions and sexism that seem almost archaic. Women get asked "Did your boyfriend teach you to play?" or simply get a weird cold shoulder from some gamers. The whole "No gurlz allowed" mindset is still there. But many women in gaming breakthrough these boundaries, playing characters who are just as tough, nuanced and, often times more, complex than their male counterparts.
GB: What's a "typical" gamer girl? Is she similar to the guys involved in gaming in terms of age, likes, dislikes?
Farrelly: It's a bit all over the map. We've spoken with moms in their 40s and college kids. The biggest commonality seems to be a love of reading and performing. Gaming is all about creating a character you inhabit, and having a good literary background helps. I think men come to gaming more as a fantasy escape, where women see it more as another avenue for creativity.
GB: What is the appeal of gaming for girls/women?
Farrelly: Much the same as it is for men: adventure, excitement and fun with friends. Women seem to see it as less an escape from life as another chance to create something or express themselves. Gaming is a very social experience, contrary to the image of the anti-social gamer, and social dynamics of groups are something women are often more mindful of than men. The personal drama in a gaming group can be really intense.
GB: My personal recollection of gaming is of my brother and his friends, all males, sitting around playing Dungeons and Dragonson Saturday nights... no females around. How did girls get involved, as friend or girlfriends of the guys playing or were they always there and involved?
Farrelly: They've always been there. One of our subject's mother was involved with D&D from the very start. Theater people from high school, Renaissance fair goers, writers, artists are all attracted to gaming for their own reasons. As many women who are introduced by a significant other there are likely just as many who come in on their own. The gaming world has been trying to do a better job welcoming them in, to mixed success. One thing we're shooting are gaming stores and conventions, we want to see what these companies and game-makers are doing to welcome women. We're also going to talk to male gamers about their reactions to and attitudes about female players.
GB: Have gamemakers acknowledged the involvement of girls/women in the culture and changed their creative approach or are girl games just expected to approach the games from the same starting point as males?
Farrelly: Absolutely. White Wolf Press puts out several lines that feature strong female characters and take pains to mix up the genders in their game writing as well. They were one of the first game-makers to really incorporate women as players and not sex objects or token background characters. Other game manufacturers have followed suit. The marketing aspect? That can be a bit less...evolved. You still have exaggerated female forms as the norm and bad gender stereotypes in the writing.
GB: What titles are popular with girls/women and are these titles just as popular with males?
Farrelly: "World of Warcraft" is enormous and filled with female players. It is an online and offline game, with a card game as well. White Wolf "monster" games like "Vampire: The Requiem" and "Changeling: The Lost" also draw big numbers.
GB: Are gamer girls also involved in video games to the same extent?
Farrelly: Again, I can't understate "World of Warcraft". When we started out we thought about focusing just on Live-Action role-playing, but our focused broadened as we saw just how many women are involved with all aspects of gaming. Video games in general are a shifting market too. The Wii was a game-changer, making games more accessible and more social as well. It wasn't just about kill combos in "God of War" ... not that there's anything wrong with that, you could invite friends over to bowl or play tennis in a more active way. One of our partners, our cinematographer (and another of 812 co-owners) Melissa Dunn, would sneak in games of tennis and golf on the Wii I own during lulls in our meetings.
GB: Are gamer girls typically all involved in the same other outside activities, or are the all across the board in terms of other interests?
Farrelly: A good number are involved in other creative pursuits. We've met women who do costume design for their characters and use those same skills to make outfits for Renaissance fairs. You'd be hard-pressed to find female gamers who aren't really well read. Game books are often large and thick tomes themselves. One really interesting common thread, gamers love Halloween. It's a time of year when everyone is pretending to be someone else, so they're right at home.
GB: How's the production going so far?
Farrelly: We've been fund-raising this summer and looking for subjects to follow. There's a great deal of schedule planning that goes into making this run smoothly. We're all doing this while working full-time at day jobs, so it's a balancing act. We are still interested in finding more women gamers looking to talk as well as finding game designers and experts on gaming and women's studies to speak with. It's a lot of prep work for a shoot that should last about 4-5 months starting in September.
If you're interested in providing your input on the world of gamer girls, drop 812 an e-line at firstname.lastname@example.org.