“The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.” ~ Gloria Steinem
This will be a long one with a side order of history lesson and a smattering of lecture. Feel free to salt to taste.
A long time ago, when WOW was limited to 60 levels and maxed out characters took long tours of duty in the same boring garb, I was hanging out with my regular org pvp group (all guys and me) and happened to casually remark in vent about how much I hated my Lieutenant Commander’s PVP set. One of my friends asked what I didn’t like about it and I said it wasn’t the individual boosts or the spell bonuses, it was just plain ugly. What followed was a predictable hour of ribbing about silly girls in gaming. It was all in good fun, and I tend to give as good as I get in those situations, so I can’t say I felt harassed or belittled in any significant way. I’m not that type. You have to wake up pretty early on the asshole side of the bed to offend me, otherwise I’ll just volley back.
The next day, however, I got to thinking about how it didn’t occur to any of those same guys that the incidental misogyny of WOW character generation and costuming was aimed at making everything boy-friendly for them. From the Masters of the Universe homage that is Undercity to the action-figure builds of every character to the fact that that in the majority of the lore the leaders and heroes are all male — WOW, like most gaming environments, is Guyville. Naturally, most men would have no issues with the aesthetics or characters — it’s tailored to their likes and dislikes.
My level 60 priest PVP gear was cyan and gold. Cyan and gold, I kid you not. Color blind nanny goats would be able to tell you how tacky it was. Don’t believe me? Feast your eyes on this fresh hell:
SPIKES, ffs. On. A. PRIEST. In cyan and gold. It’s like they were trying to piss me off.
I’ve been a gamer since my ‘rents bought me my first Telstar Alpha Pong machine for my fifth birthday (note: the box for that old relic MATCHES the Lieutenant Commander PVP set… oh, the humanity!) so I am accustomed to games being aimed at boys. In the early days, I rarely got to play a character of my own sex. Generally, women in video games were only there to be rescued by the important characters like Link and Mario. Princesses Zelda and Toadstool/Peach were pink-clad halfwits ever-abducted by two-dimensional villains. Plumbers had to save them.
In early text-based games like Tai-Pan and King’s Quest, and the Fool’s Errand, you were still a guy (or following the guy story), and addressed like one. Females were thin on the ground. Even Carmen Sandiego was just an elusive mystery you chased and you hardly ever got to arrest the bitch.
The first female character I remember being able to “drive” was Ms. Pac-Man. She was designated female by a tarty red bow, a beauty mark, and lipstick. If those clues failed to make an impact on you, there was the pin-up visual guide adorning the arcade cabinet looking like a yellow M&M crossed with Bettie Boop. Of course, since she was female, the game designers introduced the romance intermission scenes featuring Pac-wedding and Pac-baby. Even at ten, I wanted to Pac-gag. It was the first glimpse of how far off the mark game designers can swing when they descend to address something female, and the first taste of what I’d be putting up with as a girl gamer.
Five years later came Samus Aran, but she was a cyborg and you didn’t know she was a girl until the end, so I maintain she doesn’t count. The fact that it was such a shock for that to be a “reveal” testifies to the rarity of meaningful female protagonists in gaming at that time. In the early 90’s the Mortal Kombat/Street Fighter/Tekken craze introduced some female player characters, but they were mostly mindless sexpot kick and punch drones (I’m sorry, Sonya, my darling, but you know it’s true), although in all fairness, their male counterparts weren’t exactly deep thinkers. The Final Fantasy series started to let us at least pick female characters for our teams, and we got us some good evil facetime in characters like SHODAN.
In 1996 (after twenty years of gaming) I got Lara Croft. So what if she looked like she just got ejected from a trailer park bar’s wet t-shirt contest, she was a street-smart bad ass with a chic accent and automatic weapons. I will always adore the wench. Around that same time we also got Jill Valentine, but I wasn’t really into the Resident Evil thing. Still, Jill should get props, even if they did make her trade in her STARS uniform for a corset and miniskirt (nothing says “let’s kill zombies” like trampy, knock-off clubrat attire). At least the ladies had the right foot gear. Inappropriate outfits aside, the designers didn’t make us run through caves and dystopias in clear heels. We gave thanks for boots. Sometimes, they were even cute boots.
In the late 90’s / early 2000’s, the gates opened up and female game characters got a lot more high profile; we even got to drive on a regular basis. Sure, most the visuals were still sexpot on a stick (*cough* BloodRayne *cough*) but the characters were also complicated, story-driven, and smart. Games like American McGee’s Alice, Drakan, Longest Journey, No One Lives Forever, Return to Mysterious Island and Syberia set the bar higher. I even got to play my girlhood-beloved Nancy Drew, and Nancy wasn’t dressed like a whore. These days, you can’t make a game without including deep female characters in the mix, whether they’re protagonists, side-kicks or deliciously evil antagonists. They are still likely to be of the sexpot variety (…paging Ada Wong…), but I’m not sure if that doesn’t cater, at least in part, to female vanity as much as male vanity at this point. These days, the lines are blurrier. Part of female vanity involves wanting to maintain sex appeal, no different from male vanity (we’re just better at it and tend to be more subtle with it). But, the choice should be equal and the details employed in development matter as much as the mindset we bring to the table when evaluating those choices.
Even with the evolution of gaming into MMOs like NWN, EverQuest, WOW, and Aion, and console games where we actually got some control over our avatar generation, the gaming environment continued to focus on male vanity. Despite the growing presence of female gamers, the market still targets males, and male-targeted marketing is all about “feel good.” Commercials for beer and shaving equipment are testosterone-fests of male bonding and “damn I’m awesome” moments.
I’m a gamer by choice and I’m used to the body humor jokes and the “Dude, no way,” vernacular that dominates most gaming communications. I’ve won my own battles, defied the stereotypical misconceptions of “all women are girlfriend-gamers who need handicaps and can’t play their class.” I’ve put more than one wanna-be Napoleon in his place for trying to get all Lord-and-Master on me. And I’ve done it on the format’s terms, not by pinning my ovaries on my chest and bullying guys into submission. To be honest, I probably swear more than any average guy when I’m gaming. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what the fun vulgarities are for — when you miss.
I don’t expect a bunch of pizza-fueled college boys to want to sit in vent and talk about WOW fashion or the last Sex and the City installment. I don’t get up in some guy’s grill when he’s bitching about his wife nagging him during a raid. I’m not a man-hater and I don’t think you win points for the sisterhood by crying about being the only apple on the orange tree and then demanding everyone change to your variety of fruity goodness.
What does annoy me, however, is the double-standard that exists between those who talk about female-dominated sim-formats like Second Life and hardcore gaming platforms or technology subcultures where boys still remain cocks of the walks.
Example. Over the weekend, Grace re-tweeted a comment by one Raymond Pirouz which read:
The sad truth is that Linden Lab is a wanna-be virtual monarch w/currency exchange power disguised as a Barbie Play House. Sad truth.
Now, Mr Pirouz is correct about a few things. Linden Lab has fumbled a very nice pioneering lead all over the field. The company embraces an annoying propensity to remain entrenched in a class system that impacts both its users and employees. They’re on the verge of pricing themselves out of reasonable realms. Their marketing hypocritically promotes sim-living domesticity and avatar vanity out of one corner of their mouths, while projecting shame of the same demographic over everything else they do. These are legitimate complaints about Linden Lab and I echo them.
But Linden Lab is not playing “Barbie Play House.” They’re not even helping their residents play it. If they were, they’d be better off and a lot of residents and content creators would be happier. They’d also be closer to their own goals.
If they’d focused on getting Barbie Play House right, they’d have built a foundation that would have helped them build toward other targets. But they’re still playing boy ball, and they don’t want their product to be branded as Girlville. So, instead of helping residents optimize their virtual living experiences and developing the marketplace that exists, Linden Lab has been trying desperately to supplant their users. They’re too ashamed to engage and develop Barbie Play House because that’s what those yucky girls like. So they chase educators and businesses and any other demographic that they can like some desperate Super Grover trying to teach kids the difference between near and far.
They do this because people like Mr. Pirouz assign girl vanity as bad and scoff at it, branding it as a low-priority focus while claiming that anything which develops around such a market is doomed to an ultimate demise. I’m sure he’s a swell guy with a lot of know-how in other formats, but on this, he’s just plain off his nut.
Unlike most virtual platforms, Second Life is overwhelmingly female. For better or worse, the grid is estrogen-drenched. Despite this reality — despite the fact that women drive the SL economy — Linden Lab and those who talk about SL seem ashamed or bemused to address it. The video game industry has been built around the male ego and hand-fed male vanity. Women finally have a foothold in a platform, and it seems like no one knows how to manage it, promote it, interpret it, or embrace it.
But, why is that? I mean, in the real world, women drive powerful markets. Not just the obvious vanity markets like fashion or cosmetics, or the domestic markets like household goods and groceries, but the art markets as well. You know all those screaming teenagers who chased rabidly after the Beatles and filled the stadium seats? They weren’t all (or even, mostly) boys. Over the last several decades, females have comprised at least 50% of music sales in most genres, and much higher percentages in key genres. Barry Manilow’s career is my sex’s fault and I have to live with that, but we also had just as much, if not more, influence on the British Invasion and nearly every music revolution that’s happened since. As far as movies go, women spend equally, and women are more likely to spend on books. However, authors and screenwriters know that a woman will see a movie/read a book that appeals to men while the reverse is less likely, so markets skew male and a male-focused product is believed to do better than a female-focused one because of this crossover discrepancy between the sexes.
Female gaming is on the rise, we buy our fair share of techo-toys, and cyberspace is becoming more and more our equal territory. Sure, we still have to navigate guy-infested waters when we want to blow stuff up, but our native habitats are Sim-based; we’re good at them and we spend on them. And it doesn’t matter how much you roll your eyes, we’re going to buy cute virtual dresses and decorate cute virtual homes and that’s going to account for a hell of a lot more of the SL economy than anything else for a while yet. So you can keep rolling those eyes and missing the forest for the trees, or you can confront why that notion seems silly to you while you tweet about techo-gadgets and video games in much less derogatory language.
Toward the end of the tweeted back and forth, the bloke tossed over some vague, “oh gee sorry if I offended” which I’m sure he felt was lip service owed to some hypersensitive female. Very few people who deal in virtual world circles and speak about technology recognize when they disparage female-focused products and endeavors, and when it’s pointed out to them, or when they’re made to defend their positions without the scoffing, they commonly like to fall back on “those sensitive females” tropes. Like a uterus negates logic and spell power bonuses.
Mr. Pirouz will never know what it’s like to be the only woman in a vent channel during a 25-man raid listening to all the male geeks brag about their earliest masturbatory experiences starring Jessica Rabbit. He’ll never know what it’s like to have some yokel from Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky call you “honey” while he talks down to you about how to play a class he’s never rolled. So, I’m sure to him, my calling him on the cheap shot legitimately felt like a silly overreaction and that’s why his arguements were all over the map (first assuming I had a personal stake in Linden Lab before resorting to the “sensitivity issue” cop-out). Because the idea that a woman might be making a valid point about double standards on virtual vanity simply doesn’t compute.
For the record, the tweets will reveal that I didn’t mock him too much for trying to use jargon in place of logic when he invoked Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs irrelevantly; I didn’t even gloat when he misused his own red herring (stating that luxury items were *low* on the hierarchy when they’re actually at the top). I didn’t roll my eyes when he threw out “sensitivity” and “if I offended anyone in Barbie land.” I gotz me a sense of humor, I kin dance 2 eet.
I don’t want to be the feminist brat poster child. I mean, I will if there’s a check attached to it, but that’s not what I’m after here.
I just want people who claim to be engaged about Second Life to think before they talk down about how frivolous female-centered virtual activities are and how invalid they are as market-focus products. Yes, Second Life is capable of so much more than make-believe dresses and houses, and yes, that should be discussed and shouldn’t be forgotten.
But, Apple is more than Macs, and they don’t ignore or discontinue their personal computer products. Disney is more than cartoons, but they still cultivate them, and promote them properly. Just because you have potential to do more, doesn’t mean you diss your bread and butter. You don’t ignore the demographics you have and the market share that works to chase something that isn’t yours yet.
Being a business professional means identifying your profit margin, developing it into a stable base, and branching out in small, careful steps to diversify your product. Linden Lab needs to worry less about geek street cred and go hard after what it’s good at. Before it can do that, it has to seal up its existing demographic and stop chasing the one it wishes it had. Part of that is embracing the fact that it is a virtual play-land that skews female; the rest of it is not freaking out about the false belief that embracing the female vanity market means that’s all they’re doomed to be.
So if you’re one of those people writing about virtual worlds and Second Life with any regularity, get off Barbie’s plastic ass, already. Most of you Master Chief wannabes would shell out plenty to get an interface that let you have carnal knowledge of Cortana. You’d package it with a free sample of ExtenZe while Jimmy Johnson and Kevin Conway plugged it during every Adult Swim commercial break, and you wouldn’t even blush. You’d tweet high-fives back and forth until you lost circulation.
Most of business and marketing is about catering to human vanity. It’s about making people want, or making them believe they need. It’s true for luxury; it’s true for art; it’s going to be true for everything virtual that is to come. If your language, your methods, or your own mindset leads you to believe that female vanity is somehow more shameful, or less valid than the in-your-face male vanity that predominates most technology and gaming environments, change the way you think because in this brave new world you’re the relic.
The clubhouse has been invaded. Get used to us. We crit all over Azeroth and eat murlocks for lunch right next to you. We’ve put in our time with your pin-up arcade decor and it’s time you accepted that we might be changing the drapes. It’s our turn to step into avatars and environments that appeal to us, instead of having to choose between stripper-stacked whores or humpbacked old crones. Hey, cheer up, a percentage of us will still pick centerfold avatars, we just want the options to add glasses and cute skirts in colors other than cyan and gold.
And I leave you with this warning:
I swear to god, if my next tier set has clear heels, I’m going to bitch-slap Arthas, hijack Frostmourne, take Northrend hostage and make every game developer live in Stranglethorn Vale until they’re all crying like little girls from getting chain-sapped outside the Gurubashi Arena by teenaged 4chan rogues with nothing better to do with their time.
Do not test me on this. I have portals; I know things.