In video games, there seems to be one generally accepted truth, which is that females do not play video games. Further, some believe that video games are a past time/medium only for males. This is, of course, a complete and utter lie. Certainly, this is a black and white appraisal of this conventional wisdom. In truth, there are plenty of nuances in the whole cognitive dissonance that surrounds female and video games. To complicate this, instead of appraising it as women/girls do not play video games (because they do), look at it as females more so than males are told what they can and cannot play. Women/girls can play Cooking Mama, licensed games featuring Disney Princesses and Dora the Explorer, Just Dance and Fitness games like Zumba. These types of video games are accepted as what women/girls want to play and are often marketed as such. To compound the problem with the games marketed toward women/girls (“girl games”) to get them to buy the games, many companies produce a pink version of their consoles because logically females would only want a pink (or purple) system. Not only do these “girl games” enforce ridged gender roles, patriarchal views and ideals of beauty, but also it often has the effect of turning women/girls away from gaming entirely.
The idea of the “gamer” is problematic and full of endless discussions on what constitutes a “gamer” and what does not. There is no good answer for this, honestly. It can be argued to death about the qualifications (is it someone who only plays Japanese versions of RPGs and owns imported system while breaking records in Street Fighter and Donkey Kong or someone who occasionally plays Angry Birds on their phone or someone who plays Call of Duty every night fragging and tea bagging corpses?) and whether “gamer” institutes a cultural aspect or not. However, for the sake of not veering too far from the point and to disengage from the tangles that culture inevitably entails; a “gamer” is someone who play games with any sort of regularlity. This means they play any game whether it is Skylanders or Elder Scrolls: Skyrim or Peggle regularly. They can play them obsessively and for hours a day or once a week when they get a chance. Sometimes life gets in the way, and they only play a game every month or so. Those are some example of gamers, but it spans the breadth of users as long as they truly enjoy playing video games. Ostensively, anyone who plays video games is a “gamer”. The “gamer” is ubiquitous and fluid.
Having defined the broad and porous definition of “gamer” can females be gamers? Yes even if women/girls do not self-indentify as a “gamer” if they play and enjoy games then they qualify as one. The subtext and message of these Nintendo 3DS ads is telling women/girls watching that, “I’m not a gamer, I’m a girl!” (The most offensive is the Sarah Hyland ads, it is truly deplorable and the worst example of marketing a “girl game”). Some might say that the ad is merely demonstrating how the 3DS transforms the user into something more giving them a more immersive role-playing experience. That would be true if the tagline was “With my 3DS I am a warrior out to stop the darkness” or something to that effect. In addition, the ads would need other spokespersons to balance it out to make it something targeted toward all people. For example, if there was another ad with one of those pie-faced British kids from One Direction playing Pokemon Black Version 2 and had the tagline, “I am not a gamer, with my 3DS I am a monster catchin’ and exploitin’ explorer.” Alternatively, an ad with the loveably chubby kid from Modern Family with the tagline, “I am not a gamer, with my 3DS I am a 65-year old grandpa in a rent-controlled Park Slope brownstone solving for 36-down.”
Had Nintendo’s ads balanced the gender spokespeople and given one set a gender-neutral game and the other a more utilitarian game to promote then the ads would promote immersion and the transformative aspects of gaming. The ads simply stand to reinforce the stereotype that women/girls do not really like or play video games and to market to them, companies need to call the medium something else. It is an attempt to once again limit the type of video games females are supposed to play/like, as well as, segregating “gamers” into males who play games and females who only play certain games. The language of using “gamer” in the ad is saying, “Hey girls, playing games is okay, you’re not like that one weird, quiet kid at school”. In addition to telling women/girls how and what to play, it is drawing upon the stereotypical “gamer” as someone who is ostracized, social awkward and “unattractive” (an outdated stereotype as everyone games in some form and it is huge spectrum of “gamer”). By having ads with famous spokespeople saying that the 3DS makes them something other than “gamers”, it is telling the intended audience that if they buy a 3DS they will not be considered unattractive and socially awkward nerds who people shun.
One of the larger problems outside of the trend of “girl games” is that males in creative roles primarily staff video games developers. Thus, most games developed are through the male perspective and seemingly target men. Those games that end up having females in mind when developing fall into the pitfall of “girl games”. The games end up pandering to stereotypes of what men think women/girls will like and end up being problematic (enforce ridged gender roles, patriarchal views and ideals of beauty). Besides that the representation of women in video games is abysmal, in 2012 it is possible to count on one hand the amount of major releases that feature a female protagonist. More games featured anthropomorphic animals as protagonists than featured women as leads. Even when women are the stars of games, there is a minefield of what in the game happens because of the character’s agency and what is to appeal to the sexual desires of men. Then there are games that allow for players to choose genders and the limited options for female customization versus male customization, also, the clothing for females is often skimpier, sexualized and impractical compared to men. As a result, even when a female finds herself playing and enjoying a game like Dragon Age Origins, there is still a barrier where she finds herself subtly being told what to do.
How can the video game industry attract women to video games without telling them what and how to play? The simple is answer is stop trying to gender video games, games appeal to certain people, not genders. Not all men want to play Grand Theft Auto, just like all women do not want to play Barbie Jet, Set and Style. Women/girls are just as complicated and complex as men/boys and should be treated as such. If women/girls want to play Call of Duty and Bioshock then they can! If men/boys want to play Cooking Mama and Dance Central then they can too! The more complicated answer is that the video game needs to diversify who makes games and has creative input. This goes beyond simply hiring more women (which they should and need to do), but hiring the wide variety and range of people that exist in the world so “gamers” do not constantly have games that feature baseline stereotypes. Finally, to marketing people and the video game industry, in the immortal words of Amy Poehler, from everyone, “Don’t tell me what do!”
(Ironically, Nintendo Australia is also running ads in a similar vein to the current US 3DS XL ads featuring Penelope Cruz. Unlike the ones discussed in this article, this one is amazing and doesn’t have a demeaning tagline. It simply shows the wonderful actress acting like a “gamer” of all things. Do better, Nintendo America!)