Video games now starring strong female characters

[13 May 2007]

By Mike Kerwick

The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (MCT)

Dawn Star

Dawn Star

Nobody told her. And Phaedra Boinodiris never noticed.

Insulated by a family of controller-wielding women, encouraged by female cousins who were weaned on Atari and ColecoVision, Boinodiris plunged into the world of gaming without learning Rule No. 1: Video games are for little boys, not little girls.

“And so it wasn’t until we actually went to arcades where we looked around,” Boinodiris said. “`Wow, there are not many women here.’”

Twenty-five years later, the landscape is shifting. While the gaming world is still male-dominated, now more than 38 percent of all gamers are female, according to the Entertainment Software Association. And video game companies are consciously targeting the fairer sex, chasing a gender that is shelling out almost as much money as its male counterpart.

The pot of gold is in the billions.

Boinodiris, who grew up playing Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, is the co-founder of WomenGamers.com. She consults with game companies, offering advice on how to tweak characters, how to fashion invented worlds, how to create games that are more palatable to feminine tastes.

“Companies are waking up and paying more attention,” Boinodiris said. “Large companies like Nintendo are coming up with consoles like Wii, which might be considered more playable by women.”

Nintendo—which launched Wii in 2006—is not alone in listening to the female perspective. Later this year, Bungie Studios, maker of the wildly popular “Halo” series for Microsoft’s Xbox console, is adding a female voice for the hotly anticipated sequel, “Halo 3.” The female-voiced Master Chief will be the highest-profile lady in video games.

“Halo 3”‘s fighter from the future will only add to the growing ranks of fearless female video game heroines, which include Lara Croft (a female Indiana Jones) of the “Tomb Raider” series, Samus (a futuristic bounty hunter) of the “Metroid Prime” series, Joanna Dark (a mercenary) of the “Perfect Dark” series and Dawn Star (a fierce martial artist) of the “Jade Empire” titles.

Beth Llewellyn, senior director of corporate communications for Nintendo, a gaming company often credited with innovative approaches to consoles, said developers have seen the writing on the wall—and it’s scrawled in lipstick.

“If we just continue to cater to existing (male) players, we’re never going to grow,” Llewellyn said.

First thing gaming companies have come to realize, according to Boinodiris and others, is that male and female gamers are wired differently.

Many women are looking for a quick fix, a game they can hop in and out of with relative ease. Spending all afternoon trying to improve a character’s abilities, said Boinodiris, is more of a guy thing. As a result, women tend to eschew more complicated MMRPGs (or massively multiplayer role-playing games, in which one assumes an online alter ego) in favor of simpler titles.

“`Guild Wars’ ... is really, really new and different,” said Boinodiris, of the series set in medieval times intended for the more casual gamer. “It’s a quick fix. Typically, you have to take hours and hours of leveling up your character.”

Women are more likely to gravitate to devices like Nintendo’s DS, rather than costly and time-intensive consoles, such as the PlayStation 3. The DS and its counterpart, the PlayStation Portable (or PSP), are handheld portable gaming systems that easily fit in a purse or knapsack.

“You’re waiting at a doctor’s office, on line for a plane,” Llewellyn said. “You have 15 minutes to spare, (to) get in a quick game.”

Another very important way to reach females is to create realistic heroines, not damsels in distress and certainly not scantily clad Tomb Raiders. Indeed, many women and girls are put off by the misogynistic treatment of females, where they are often nothing more than bikini-clad digital eye candy.

The answer: more characters like Joanna Dark and Dawn Star.

“There are more games that allow you to play as a female character than before,” wrote Jody Robinson, founder of Lady Gamers.com, in an e-mail. “Games in general have evolved.”

And that’s quite a change. During the early and mid-1990s, Robinson remembers women routinely logging on with user names that were gender neutral—often to avoid the harassment some females encountered online, as well as the questions a female’s presence provoked.

Not anymore. According to Robinson, girls are getting into gaming at a younger age. She said her friend’s daughter used to sit in the same room while her mother played “Quake 3,” a shooting title not typically associated with females at the time.

“Her daughter would repeat sayings from inside `Quake 3’,” Robinson said. The little girl’s favorite? “Three ... Two ... One… Fight! It was adorable.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/video-games-now-starring-strong-female-characters/