John Walker's Electronic House

Open Response To Jess Bates

by on Jul.31, 2005, under Rants

In response to Jess Bates’ “Why Won’t Women Play?”

I believe that the very central problem when one considers the matter of men, women and gaming, is one of a dominant chauvinism within specific aspects of this medium. And I believe this to be a sad thing. I believe it to be the same sad thing that exists in cinema, sports, newspaper journalism and, very much, so on. Hell, anyone who labours under the belief that there is now any sense of equality between men and women, at least in the UK, is very much an intrinsic part of the problem they fail to identify. Let there be no need for any counter-argument after learning that women are still paid up to a third less than men for performing equivalent jobs. Society is, without doubt, still male-focused, and videogaming plays a large part in that.

Quickly, as obvious as it should already be, glance at James Bond. The recent films, in an effort to ‘update’ the franchise, make M female and the girls Bond fucks a bit less helpless. A pathetic misunderstanding of what was seen as sexist in the first place, and quite sinister in its belief that such changes would address matters. This is merely representative of the action movie, a genre that does not immediately appeal to the majority of women, but finds instant connection with large numbers of men. Much like action gaming.

It’s entirely possible that my position makes me immediately biased. Whenever men/women arguments are made, they are always thrown into confusion by the biological behaviour of one sixth of each gender. Five out of six women’s brains work using a near-equal balance of each lobe, while five out of six men’s brains tend to work more dominantly on one side. Five out of six women have a greater perception of space, while five out of six men are better able to focus on a specific target. So in general, we can generally be this general. Trouble is, one in six, or indeed 500 million men and 500 million women, think the other way. Finding myself in that number, I am immediately predisposed to find arguments that ignore me and my select company to be enormously frustrating.

It is my contention that Jess Bates has not written an argument about why women don’t play games, but why /Jess Bates/ doesn’t enjoy /action games/. And I agree with her. I really don’t like GTA: VC. I recognise quite how remarkably good it is, and indeed enjoy playing it at a mechanical level. But I can’t play in denial of what’s happening, and I find it so wantonly unpleasant that I have to stop. This isn’t prudishness, and in no way do I suggest or imply that there is anything wrong with enjoying it. It is simply that I, as a male gamer, find little entertainment in endless slaughter and machismo-based gaming.

Bates is absolutely right that many female avatars do not attract female gamers. High-heeled, scantily-clad pairs of giant breasts resting on top of large-thighed legs are hardly the source of connecting empathy for the average gaming girl. Guess what: dumb-minded, massively muscled thugs aren’t all that interesting to me, while they portray the majority of male leads. I can’t emotionally connect with Duke Nukem or Tommy Vercetti. I also don’t want to. Which probably goes some way to explaining why I far prefer to play female characters in games over male. I have a much greater chance of an empathic response to my experience if I don’t have to push aside my values before I can enter into it. Bates is right when she says that such characters do not appeal to large numbers of female gamers. But she is woefully wrong when she implies that such games are inherently wrong. They exist for the same reasons that Vin Diesel and Tom Clancy exist: lots of men want that sort of thing. I don’t get why, and stare bemused at them, but they do, and to suggest that this is wrong and exclusive is to absorb the very sexist attitude such an article should surely exist to reject.

I also wholeheartedly agree with her arguments for games to develop a deeper connection between their context, environment, and actions. Indeed, to apply the rather peculiar lecture on eyeballs, if someone has a strong spatial awareness, dominant over their ability to focus on specifics within that environment, it only makes sense that games with such an awareness will be more appealing. It is, however, utterly disingenuous to promote such thinking as an argument against current gaming. It’s a specific critique of the action genre, and only valid when one is attempting to explain why such games do not appeal to them. (Nevermind that the GTA series is possibly one of the greatest examples of providing a contextual justification for its actions, non-linear freedom, and a sense of a dominant environment. If there were ever a game that offers roleplay rather than submersion, it would be in this series, with the entry requirement not being to see yourself simulated in a digital world, but only the desire to embrace that particular character).

The trouble is, Bates isn’t arguing for a greater understanding of female gaming desires and an industry-based response. She is instead adopting the vocabulary of those she would wish to oppose. This is no rare response. When London was recently bombed, the headline of the Daily Express stated “show no mercy” – the very language of those who attacked. In response to our perceived opponent, the fastest and most appealing reaction is often to become them. It’s how revenge works. Bates’ article does not call for a constructive response to her desires, but instead is a destructive critique of what already exists. It is a criticism of men, and male values, and how they manifest in gaming. She neither recognises that it’s ok for men to want to play such games, and nor that many men may feel equally distant from these gaming norms for the same reasons she identifies for women. Write that way if you want I suppose, but don’t prefix it with a strap stating “A manifesto for change” if you’re only going to hit things with angry hammers.

Where Bates recognises fault, there is a refusal to recognise success. Lists of what is wrong with how women are portrayed are not accompanied by lists of how women could be portrayed. Examples of barely dressed, big-boobed female characters are lambasted, but no acknowledgement of stridently different and positive female characters are given (beyond a clumsy approval of Silent Hill 3). Ignoring all from Cate Archer to April Ryan to Beyond Good & Evil’s Jade to Planescape’s Anna to KotOR and Deus Ex:IW’s female avatars is dishonest. Pretending that all games are Postal, and not the astonishingly evocative and emotionally overwhelming Ico, is to rewrite reality for an argument’s sake. And nevermind everything from Worms to Roller Coaster Tycoon to Psychonauts to Zoo Keeper to Darwinia to Day of the Tentacle to Ratchet & Crank to Meteos to City of Heroes to Civilisation to Microsoft Flight Simulator to The Sims to Eve Online to Crazy Taxi to Descent to Mario Smash Tennis to Mutant Storm to IL-2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles to Sonic the Hedgehog…

Yes, God, some games are sexist, but the selective nature of such arguments is preposterous. Yes, the games industry is male dominated, and makes many games specifically aimed at men, and indeed many of these involve the objectifcation of women, often in deeply unpleasant ways. Write about this, critique it, condemn it if you feel it appropriate, but, to borrow someone else’s argument, recognise the wider environment. Be “spacially aware”, and see things in their context when making such observations.

Bates is correct: if games do not accept new ideas, they will stagnate. This has been clearly demonstrated by the adventure gaming genre – an area of gaming previously the most accepted by women – that refused to change or evolve and has now become a wraith of its former self. I would also passionately agree with her that a desire for a greater connection between the action of a game, and the game’s environment, developing an all-consuming sense of context, is an ideal direction for games to /continue/ going in. Plus I can’t disagree when Bates notes, “In the end this isn’t really just about women and games.” Indeed, it’s barely about that. It does however read as if someone who doesn’t like action games is attempting to transpose these tastes onto half the world’s population – tastes I utterly agree with.

Some games are chauvinistic. Some films are chauvinistic. The majority of people in the movie industry are men. There are more dumb action films than any other type. I rarely see someone complaining that films are not possible for women to engage with. And just as I have no desire to watch generic action blockbusters often assumed to appeal to men, I find little to engage with in action-focused fight games, whether featuring ludicrously thin, huge-chested imposso-women, or ridiculously buff, huge-muscled imposso-men. Yet I find huge amounts to love within gaming, so much so that it is my hobby as well as my career.

This is not an act of denial – it’s the very opposite. This is not a pretense that there isn’t an issue – there is absolute recognition of that issue, and indeed a distaste for it. This is an appeal for the argument to be recognised in its context, and with appropriate recognition of all that lies either side. It’s also my banged out response to having read the article, and finding myself wanting to articulate why I have strong objections to what has been written. I’d hugely appreciate people pointing out the mistakes I’ve made, the important points I’ve missed, and the general continuation of the discussion.


EDIT: I wrote a rejected article on the matter a year or so ago – it was rejected because it was a confused mess, as I tried to argue that there was a serious problem, while encountering only evidence to the contrary throughout. Here are a couple of bits from it that seem relevant:

How can the situation change, or improve? The most commonly suggested answer is for there to be more women working in games development. Gareth R. Schott and Kirsty R. Horrell mention in their paper ‘Girl Gamers and their Relationship with the Gaming Culture’, “Male designers who have developed games have traditionally preserved male dominance within the gaming industry based on their own tastes and cultural assumptions.” To combat that, one would imagine girl game designers need to break into the boy’s playground. But Brunel University lecturer Tanya Krzywinska argues that it is not that simple.

“I don’t believe more women working in the industry would have more than peripheral effect precisely because the game industry is market driven and, like the movie industry, has now established formal and generic patterns that will prove hard to break in an industrial sense.”

Of course, most games featuring female characters in lead roles are still inevitably violent. Is there a difference, or are we just trans-gendering the lead for the sake of trying to appeal to a wider audience?

Tanya Krzywinska addresses this in her paper ‘Demon Girl Power: Regimes of Form and Force in Primal and Buffy’.

“The correlation between fighting and empowerment is one that troubles critics who see fighting as a masculinist trait par excellence and girl-fight-action as another mode of playing women as the object of gaze. In these games, however, fighting is not simply offered up for the contemplative ‘gaze’, as we might say of cat fights in sexploitation films… Rather it is an activity that is absolutely central to the /doing/ and being-in-the-world component of the games.”

More of Tanya Krzywinska’s thoughts on Buffy can be found here:

20 Comments for this entry

  • bob_arctor

    I like playing a thug if I have chosen to for a laugh like in Deus Ex. I don’t know whether I am a male with a non-male brain. I couldn’t tell you what my brain is like or what really. It’s subjective of course.
    But I think she criminally ignored the Thief games, which concentrate a lot for me on architecture, story, charecters and talking.

  • bob_arctor

    You also misspelt the game “Civilization” which has a z due to its American creation.

  • John W

    I’m not sure after “charecters” you should be rushing forward with complaints.

    Also, PCG has a re-spelling American words policy, and they have control of my mind.

  • Rev. S Campbell

    Isn’t the reason girls don’t play games because they’re too busy making the dinner?

    Less stupidly:

  • Kieron Gillen

    My take on Jess’ article is that it had a selection of excellent observations – a couple I’ve actually appropriated for my own use – and some severe failings in rhetoric.

    Starting with the most tedious determinist argument, for example. It doesn’t matter whether her facts are true or not – it lays her stall out as an essentialist, and essentialists are a waste of fucking time.


  • Rev. S Campbell

    Comrade Gillen, if you’re going to persist in using words that aren’t in the dictionary, could you at least put footnotes at the bottom telling the less psychically-gifted among us what the HELL you’re wibbling on about NOW? Ta.

  • Kieron Gillen

    You should know by now that’s it’s one of my Tropes.


  • Rossignol

    I love (horses) anti-essentialism, best of all the epistemological doctrines.

  • Kieron Gillen

    I’m quietly relieved that Essentialism means what I thought it did.


  • bob_arctor

    As a scientist more than a philosopher I find Essentialism stupid. Evolution is the theory with the most evidence. Give evidence for species never changing!
    Philosophy for me though, as I see it from friends doing A level philosophy, is stupid. A philosopher would NOT be in a good position to be king. That would be stupid. And stuff about democracy being rubbish. Those guys are too ancient to be listened to nowadays, excepting their genius geometry.
    Also one of them said flies had 4 legs, didn’t even bother to count them. Was on QI.

  • bob_arctor

    Oh and in response to Stuart’s article: The next year in medical school first years, if you understand me, are mainly female. At the moment there is a strong bias towards “people-persons” as the BMJ called them, in medical school applicants, which presumably, if the psychology or whatever is right, will bias towards females. There are also a lot of females applying for medicine, possibly a majority, although that is anecdotal evidence, and in some schools an apparent negative-sexist bias, from a college lecturer who analyses her students offers. Hence there will be lots of women doctors when they all come out trained.

  • John W

    Medical students are now approximately 2/3 female.

    However, the number to look at is how many of them go on to be surgeons.

  • Rossignol

    “Medical students are now approximately 2/3 female.”


  • Tom

    Your link to the original article is to Gamasutra, which requires registration before you can read it. Consider changing to:

    Where you don’t.

  • always_black


    Self-modification! Must be a professional hazard.

  • aaron

    i realise this is the wrong place for my comment but I’ve been away from my computer for many a moon and if i reply to the right comment no one will read it! in the 1980’s the Brittish government adopted a shoot to kill polincy in Northern Ireland. basically they shot IRA commanders instead of arresting them as they often could not convict them. this resulted in international outrage and many many inquiries (the brittish government still refuses to acknowledge the policy). why is it that this latest shoot to kill policy is so widely accepted around the world, i don’t hear of any american senators sniffing around the case or using their position to highlight the issues, can anyone explain?

    of course it could be that terrorism was trendy back then, especially if it was irish!

  • Gabanski83 (from PCGF)

    Hmm, interesting to read your take on the Jess Bates article. Maybe you could include this response in a follow up article in PC Gamer? Perhaps try to clarify your position to those readers who don’t seem to see the point of the original article?

    I understand your viewpoint and response though. Shame many others won’t or can’t do the same.