I have a six-year old daughter who is determined to grow up as a geek. She loves board games and she loves video games and also enjoys comic books and we'll watch every superhero popcorn movie that comes along and she'll stay up late on Saturdays to watch Doctor Who with us.
However, she also very much enjoys the color pink, wearing skirts every single day she can, and princesses and every saccharine Disney offering that comes along.
Now, as her father, I fully encourage her to get into whatever she wants. I cringe when the choice is Barbie, but if that's what she wants to play with or watch, that's her choice.
But what I've noticed is an on-going trend where the very male-dominated gaming industry has made it very difficult for young girls to fully appreciate the hobby. With this initial friction, I think many young girls are turned away and, as a result, the hobby remains very male-dominated.
You would think that Disney would understand the little girl market better.
When my daughter was three, I took her out for a daddy-daughter outing while her mother was busy. We had just inherited a Wii and while wandering around in our local mall, I decided to see if there was anything that might appeal to her. She saw the Disney Princess: Enchanted Journey game and quickly wanted it. So, we went home, turned on the Wii and set up the game. There is a two-player cooperative mode, so I made my avatar princess, picked out my dress style, chose my jewelry and hair style and set off to help her learn her first real Wii game, ready to read any text on the screen for her. Fortunately everything was voice-over. But my daughter picked up on the game quickly. It really was easy, and instead of a "traditional" shooter, you were using some sort of magic wand to turn the bad guys into butterflies. You know, because Disney saves their violence for whatever horrific thing happens to the soon-orphaned child's parents. But anyway, soon she was doing well enough on her own that I bowed out to watch her.
She played the hell out of that game that first night until bedtime came around and then she played the hell out of it the next morning. And she beat it by herself. In four hours.
There is some replay value on the game, I suppose, as she then continued to play and beat it, but this time with a different hair color, or a slightly different styled dress (though always pink).
Now, it is true that it is a kid's game, but there was no real challenge or difficulty to it. If it were a kid's game with the planned market base being boys, there would be a challenge and rising difficulty to the game. But because this was a "girl's game", there was not.
This game was actually marketed for eight year old girls. My three year old beat it with no problems in four hours. How bored would and eight year old be after getting it for her birthday and playing this? She would probably see it as a dull, easy game and it would add to her perception that video games aren't that interesting or fun and she would not pursue other titles. Thus, the video game industry keeps from expanding their audience. But more importantly, most girls are denied the entry point to finding out how interesting and fun the genre can be.
Like I said, my daughter is attracted to girly things. I could get her games that are more "boy" marketed, but if the main character is a boy, she won't be that interested. She doesn't relate to playing boy characters in games.
One of the other offenders to the video game genre was the Monster High Wii game that she got for Christmas which is definitely marketed towards girls. She really likes Monster High and the Wii game was a natural choice for her. First of all, the game is written text rather than a spoken voice track, so it required me to sit next to her and read it to her while she played.
However, the game was abysmal. The "missions" were things like finding one of your friends crying in the bathroom because someone wore the same outfit as her, so you had to go out and find her new clothes to change into so that she would look her "ghoulish" best.
Beyond the terrible level and mission design, I have to say that all of the missions were of this caliber and were just plain insulting.
Now, fortunately, there is a small trend of more "gender-neutral" games out there. Kirby, for example, is pink, but a boy (I think?), and offers good level design and gameplay. And Skylanders, for example, carries a large range of characters that are male and female (and some that I am just not sure). My daughter will still gravitate toward the "girlie" characters on Skylanders, but it is at least giving her a gateway into more complex games and level design.
This is not a new trend and, sadly, females have always been the black sheep in video game history. Sure, Samus was female, but in picking up a game for your little girl, you couldn't tell from the box. But the majority of games in history have always treated females as rather helpless or objectifiable goals to reach. Really, how many games are out there where you are a hero trying to rescue a princess compared to how many games are out there where you are an abducted princess who gets tired of waiting to get rescued and escapes herself?
Tomb Raider was a step in the right direction. You had a female lead character. The games were more than simply mindless violence and shooting everything. But you had boobs. Teeny tiny waist and big, big boobs. So one step forward, but two steps back for creating body issues to young female gamers.
But most of this is prelude. We actually play more board games than video games in our house these days. I think the board game industry has a bit of a better handle on it than the video game industry, but it's still nowhere near perfect.
One of the first "grown-up" games that my daughter played with us was The Adventurers: The Temple of Chac. It was simple and she got the concept with next to no coaching through the game. At four and a half, the idea of the runes and lava were too much for her, so she would always skirt around the lava tiles and just steal treasures instead along the hallway. She, of course, gravitated toward female characters, but at four-and-a-half when looking at the character card for Lea Rice, the first thing she commented on was the size of her "boobies". There are four female characters in the set and only one of them is not showing off massive cleavage or side-boob. Of course, the one not showing it off, her curves are still plainly visible through her tight, tight, skin tight heavy winter jacket.
Even a four-year old girl notices these boobs.
Seriously, I'll give you one scantily-clad female character with big boobs as a Tomb Raider homage. But that was over the top, unnecessary and, in some ways, disheartening and another easy way to keep female gamers at bay by creating female characters, but objectifying them at the same time.
The thing about board games compared to video games, however, is that so many games (even at the gateway level) tend to give a more macro role to the game and you don't have a single character to control. So a lot of games innately bypass this.
Plus there are numerous non-human character games that she can play and enjoy, even while still being drawn innately to the "girliest" of the options, such as playing the bunny in King of Tokyo.
Who knew that destroying Tokyo could still be so girlie?
Now, while there are exceptions, I still think that board games has created a much more female-friendly atmosphere and I love that. Comic books have taken a horrible turn by doing things such taking Starfire (a sweet, innocent, but kick-ass girl portrayed in the cartoon series that my daughter loved to watch) and rebooting her into a bubble-headed boob-slut sleeping with tons of men in a single day (something that I would encourage my daughter not to read).
We went from this...
One of the best examples of a very positive trend that I have seen in the board game industry has actually come from my favorite designer, Ignacy Trzewiczek. He designed Prêt-à-Porter, which while not a gateway game, is of a decidedly more "female-based" theme with it taking place in the fashion industry. And the game is by no means a "dumbed-down" girl game. It is easily among my favorite Euro-style games (firstly because it is a solid game, but secondly because it defies the Euro stereotype and has strong theme in it).
But what I am most eagerly awaiting now is to see Ignacy's Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island game. I eagerly await to see the mechanics and fun of the game, but the most minor detail that I love about the game is that the sexes of the characters are interchangeable. You can play your character as a male, or flip it over, and play it as a female. This has no impact on gameplay, however, it has a HUGE impact on how much a player can relate to their character and therefore get into the theme of the game. This is such a simple, minor thing, but it is something that should be out there in more games.
More of this!
So, I ultimately don't know if I had a point in this long ramble. But I just wanted to say that after having a daughter and viewing the gaming hobby through her young eyes, I've seen a lot more than I used to. Video games are slowly getting better, I suppose. But essentially they are still caught up in their own self-imposed loop. They market games for boys. Therefore more boys play games. Therefore they market more games for boys. Extra revenue may get thrown out to develop a small game designed for girls with little gameplay and poor design. Therefore, girls don't enjoy video games and follow deeper into the hobby. As a result, the production companies feel vindicated that they continue to market to boys.
Board games are better than that currently. And, while it still has some missteps here and there, I am content with my daughter always playing Lady Mary when we play Dungeon Fighter because "she's wearing pink and dressed like a princess".
For my daughter, this is the perfect blend of pink and complete violence.
And, for the record, I am eagerly awaiting getting her into roleplaying games once she can read past her current first-grade level. While there are misogynistic groups out there for sure, here at home, her first experiences with the genre, at least, will be that the character of her creation of the sex of her choice can be whatever she wants.
So, yeah, roleplaying games have the least problem in this regards (other than the chain-mail bikini objectification). But it comes down solely on the attitude of whoever it is who is running the world to supply an engaging or disengaging message.
Edit: Added the bit about the Monster High Wii game that we got for her.