Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What is the iconic girl gamer?

Let's take a moment to look at some female heroes.
  • Belle. Beautiful bookworm wishing to get out from under society's expectations of her, loyal and brave in the face of gloom and danger, self-sacrificing for the sake of her family, and empathetic to the plights of monsters though ultimately weak and human, herself.
  • Mulan. Beautiful klutz wishing to get out from under society's expectations of her, loyal and brave in the face of gloom and danger, self-sacrificing for the sake of her family (and friends), picking up martial activities, and with a failed attempt at mascarading as a man before she was "true to herself." Saves her country.
  • Lara Croft. Strong, beautiful tomb raider, confident, deadly, and powerful. Barbie mixed with Indiana Jones, and given a darker pallet to add to a mysterious and dangerous glamor. Saves the world and hunts for shinies.
  • Buffy Summers. Strong, beautiful vampire slayer, deadly and powerful. A teen Barbie who kicks ass and bridges the cheerleader-geek gap. She is supported by lots of other likeable female characters (a favorite being Willow), and saves the world. Repeatedly.
These 4 are the best female role models I got from story media (movies, TV, games) while I was growing up in the 90's, and the most memorable. They all broke the stereotype of the female side-kick or love interest: they were the main character, and they broke from what their society viewed as traditional female roles while retaining their feminism. They all told me that I didn't have to be the tomboy I was in the 80's who would rather watch teenage mutant ninja turtles and play army men, super mario, and sonic the hedgehog than my-little-ponies: I could just be me, I could be a girl who wasn't a high-heel-wearing princess whose only conflict was who to invite to the dinner party and how to attract a boy with my poofy hair (as was the 80's view on beauty).

"Create your own character" games that allowed me to play as a female reinforced this: Morrowind, Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter, Dungeons & Dragons. In creating my own strong female character, I helped define who I wanted to become, and that it was okay to be a girl without being "girly."

It's Okay to Game

This is, in my opinion, what being a girl gamer is about: breaking conformity and embracing your true self. That it's okay to fight for what you beleive in. That it's okay to be the hero. That you can be strong and beautiful without being a helpless damsel in distress. You can save the world without being a sidekick. If you want to do it in hiking boots or stilleto heels is up to you: just be yourself. That guys will still be interested in you even though you can speak your mind, and sometimes speak it through a Sniper scope in Unreal Tournament or a huge sword as you cleave through pixel-dragons.

On Beauty

Now, there is one other thing that these heroine images all share: beauty. This is a conformity that they retain, that of the idealized, perfect, super-model imagery. I don't think that it's just because the marketers want to appeal to male audiences as well: is it really any different than the Barbie dolls and Cinderella beauty stereotype? "You must look like this and go get married!" That stuff *IS* marketed directly for girls, rather than to both genders.

Many male role-model images are the same way: you must be handsome, fit, strong, and go save the world to get the girl. You must be exceptionally smart, confident, and/or have a great sense of humor: all things desired by potential mates.

Why? The Disney theme: "to find the one you love and get married and live happily ever after." After saving the world or overcoming a curse or bewitchment, in the case of some. Love is the ultimate goal of most, which biologically makes sense, as it benefits survival of the species, especially a species that requires such a time commitment to raising its offspring. The fact that appearance plays a part in selection is not incidental, and that's an aspect that overcomes society's gender-specific strictures on behavior and place. So, while stories of heroes and heroines can be breaking a society's traditions of a gender role, general beauty or handsomeness is one thing that is rarely degraded in its heroes and heroines.

Exceptions are stories like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera, where beauty is found in other ways, but can ultimately be viewed as tragedies rather than stories about role model heroes.

The unfortunate aspect of these beauty-based ideals is that relatively few girls can attain them without a) destroying their health or b) photoshop. Programs like Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty are designed to lessen the impact of the media and advertisements on girls' self-image, and many of the beauty images found in role models are less extreme than those found in model magazines and photoshopped ads.

While physical beauty seems to be important in role models, absolute physical perfection it is not the ultimatum for success or being a role model. Taking care of oneself and others, and having the self-sufficiency and confidence to protect those you love overshadows simple looks; beauty itself goes beyond the physical and into the realm of how these role models act and feel about themselves.

Regardless, some amount of physical beauty stems from physical fitness. While gaming in itself is not a very cardiovascular activity, we appreciate the fitness of those capable of pulling off the feats we accomplish in-game. Though some may not be able to do a roundhouse kick or run for miles without breaking a sweat, they wouldn't play it if they didn't, somehow, wish that they could.

(FYI, I am envious of parkour runners)

The Avatar

So many of our avatars are aesthetically pleasing. Some few may choose to be the wrinkle-faced gnome or decrepit undead or snaggle-toothed, snarling orc, but generally speaking, most females would rather have an avatar that looks nice. It is either a reflection of what they want to be, what they are comfortable being, or a mask to hide beneath.

The avatar itself is also, in most cases, physically fit. How else would they have the stamina to run from hither and yon, fighting dragons or aliens or enemy soldiers without so much as getting a blister?

These things lend themselves to girls recreating themselves in their avatars to match their role models, in physical ways they may feel they can't otherwise attain. Like the clutz who can't do a cartwheel is on her avatar doing loops in the air, or wall-jumping to reach a special power-up. While character and animated role models aid in providing that super-human image a gamer can mimic, seeing living-flesh role models who can do these things and still enjoy the gaming as a hobby serves as an inspiration to get up and try: try to become more fit, have more confidence in themselves, and generally become more healthy.

Of course, this in turn often results in sayings such as "do not try this at home." :) Those words are usually directed at the boys, but it's a good danger warning to females, too.

The Iconic Girl Gamer, for GIRLS

There are, I think, two kinds of girl gamer: the expressive, and the practical. The expressive is more flashy in dress and makeup, while the practical is more subdued, but both are likely to bear some form of peraphanalia/imagery from a favorite game or subject (fangirlism) rather than simple and meaningless patterns, flowers, or solids.

If I were to create some sort of pro-gamer-girl icon, it would be something to this effect:
  • Good-looking, fit, aesthetically pleasing
  • Confident
  • Self-sufficient
  • Nurturing, empathic: feminine ideals that are contrary to the competitive nature of most games, but are not impossible to reconcile as many games are also team-based.
  • Practical or comfortable clothing with subtle imagery suggesting a game or geekery (to cover most bases, digital imagery ala "digital angel" would probably work best)
  • Maintains feminimity in form, shape, and pose
... without being overly sexual. Once she gets suggestive, she becomes marketed for men, or rather for fantasies. I don't think it's much different for guys, either, though: if a male's image is sexually suggestive, he's being marketed for private fantasies and not as a role model. Once you cross a certain threshold of sexual suggestiveness, leaving what is appropriate in public, they leave the realm of role model.

While role models inherently portray sexual appeal, it is idealized and publicly permissible. The threshold must be maintained in order for the heroine to remain her place as a role model rather than as a marketing slut.

So, that is my long-winded ramble on being a girl gamer and the role models that support it. It started as a reply to Keredria's post on the Geek and Gamer Girls parody video, and ended up consuming my morning. Whoot.


River said...

Read your post. You mention confidence, Well to be honest man or woman, Confidence is always sexy. It seems the only problem confident women have our other women.

You girls are more vicious to each other than men could ever be.

Kae said...

Someone can be sexy without being slutty. Confidence is, indeed, attractive in both men and women. So is being physically fit, or smart, or funny. They're also not something you'd shun in public ;)

I will agree that girls are remarkably more vicious than boys, when scorned. Sly, subtle, conniving, manipulative... more sneaky than the straight-forward, male "I don't like you" /punch. As a camp counselor... I know :D

Cold said...

All goes back to the first personality trait passed down to women: The art of manipulation. Eve got Adam to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, even though he knew better.

Women just have an undefinable power over men.

And well its true we all start as the perfect female (XX), except some of us develop a genetic imperfection and we become male (XY).

Rachel said...

We must be near the same age, because many of those characters I grew up watching too. The most significant female role model I had while growing up would be Teri Hatcher as Lois Lane on "Lois & Clark". Even though Superman was the star of the show, it always seemed to center around Lois.

Here was a person that I could relate to at a time where Baywatch was a hit show. She had dark hair and eyes, athletic, intelligence and was stubborn. She was also supremely confident in herself and her talents. I love that show still to this day.

I had a Nintendo when I was 8 years old, followed by the usual consoles. I played mostly action RPG games on the pc, and WoW was my first MMO. Of my female friends, I was the only gamer. Usually in my guilds there are 1 or 2 other females, but I don't mind it. I'm mostly concerned of people automatically thinking that I'm bad (female moonkin player usually does :P )or not being critical of me if I do mess up.

I do encounter a lot of flirting, but I'm not overt at all in the chat channels or on vent. I suppose if I had an ugly male character I'd receive a lot less of it, but like you pointed out, I want an attractive avatar!

There are obviously a lot more female gamers now than even 5 years ago, and that's a good thing.

Kae said...

I've had conflicts with only a couple other female gamers; half my raid on any given night might be female :) One plays a male tauren however... cuz she just likes the way they look. <3

Partshark said...

I don't like slutty gamer girls. I prefer my gamer girls capable. I'm not interested in how hot she is or how gimagnimus her bresticles are. If she can't play the game, I just don't care.

I rather like playing with girls because of 3 things:

1. Girls whine less.
2. Girls are underdogs. I'm a sucker for the Mighty Ducks, yo.
3. Guys think sweaty balls is a great conversation piece.

I know that the majority of gamers are guys. I know that they hold onto that fact as a way of saying girls can't play.

The dangerous thing is categorizing them at all, though. I mean, saying all girls are bad gamers is just about as inaccurate as saying all girls are great gamers. There are only 2 types of gamers: Good ones and frag bait.

As for role models: I look up to girl gamers, even though I'm a guy. I mean, here's a group of people, who are insulted and mocked because they are geeks. I love that there's a group of underdogs out there who are fighting for recognition through skill. To hell with the garbage that uses sex to get that point across. It's like, Yeah you have a great rack, now srsly, SHOOT THE DAMNED FLAG CARRIER!

I'm not trying to get laid here, I'm trying to play a game. I support all gamers of the feminine variety, as long as they have the skills. If they don't, they need to go practice like we all did. No free rides.

Skill > Sexy.

Role Models are just that because of their skills, regardless of how aesthetically pleasing they may or may not be.

Millia said...

Campaign for Real Beauty...which is intended to get consumers buying their stuff because they're "the good guys".

Also...Sailor Moon =D

Zy said...

Princess Leia was not mentioned. I am sad :(

Jarr said...

Girls have no place in my gaming world. Just be a gamer. Anything else is just silly details.

Kae said...

Leia was placed in the role of love interest, rather than as *the* main character. She was strong and self-sufficient, certainly, but she also still fell prey to the classic damsel-in-need-of-rescue role. Even Mon Mothma was that "idealist leader in need of protection."

Now, had she been the one that went and trained in the Force and got a lightsaber and fought her father on the bridge of the Deathstar...

Keredria said...

Great post Kae!

I agree there is a difference between being confident and attractive woman vs being overly slutified purely for men.

Unknown said...

Excellent post. So true on both sides, too bad most of the "gamer" girls I've known are the slutty types.
Yeah when your playing games with those types (no pun intended lol) all they do is whine and complain.

Wyldz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wyldz said...

I welcome girl gamers with open arms. Point in case, my wife is as big of a gamer as I am. I laugh when non-guild group members as if she is real, a bot voice, or if somebody is using a voice mod over vent.

Jasyla said...

You've overlooked my favorite female hero : Xena! (and Gabrielle too!).

I've really been trying to avoid posting about gender on my blog...but it's getting difficult to abstain from the conversation.

Nelle said...

Love your post Kae.
And yes, I do find the male taurens to be darling. ^_^

Beranabus said...

"What does it mean to be a girl gamer?"

1) You're a girl
2) you're a gamer.


Oestrus said...

I have to admit - I am a bit troubled by the frequent usage of the word "slutty" that's being tossed around here. I think that's one of those hot button words that people tend to throw around, without having a real idea of what it means or just for the sake of using it.

I don't know, it just seems like a really "go to" adjective. From what I've seen, it's a double edged sword. If you don't loosen up and have fun, you're seen as a hard-ass or as being frigid and people think ill of you. If you're a girl who likes to play rough and be a little risque, you're a hoebag and that's not good. I think you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

I love the blog and I've plugged your blog, myself and I don't think there was any offense meant. But I just kind of cringe when I see people toss that description out so casually, that's all.

Tesh said...

Mulan's father's reaction to her return is still one of my favorite bits of film.

"The greatest gift and honor is having you for a daughter."

That had nothing to do with how she looked, and everything to do with what she did, who she was, and pure family love.