Elevate Difference

Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming

As I opened this collection, I had just finished shaking my head at a picture a man I know well posted of himself grinning vividly, arms around a young woman clad in a chain mail bikini top at a gaming conference. This “booth babe” photo rests comfortably within the confines of his MySpace page. I cracked the spine of this volume considering how I felt about the girl, the picture, the medium, and my own experiences as feminist scholar who is also an avid gamer. This book, I realized, is a timely addition to a conversation that ended too abruptly, and continuing from the first watershed edition of this conversation is very relevant at this particular moment in gaming culture. 

I often felt guilty that I took on a “typical” female character in World of Warcraft. I do not play a warrior; I play a hybrid character that engages combat from afar and heals others. Although I love my character, I constantly feel un-feminist when gaming from such a culturally feminine position. These are the sorts of questions and conversations we are ready to have rather than simply an analysis of the demographics in gaming, and Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat moves us in this direction. 

The editors rightly explain that the impetus for the collection is to go beyond the gaming analysis that evolved in the early ‘90s and the simple attention to both how many women were playing and how many women characters were bikini clad within the games. The moment of clucking a tongue at the buxom Lara Croft has passed us and gaming; gaming culture and its impact has reached a far more complicated moment in need of analysis, and this volume attempts that discussion. 

In their introduction, the editors argue that a more complete discussion of the multi-billion dollar industry as a whole is an important element to a full analysis of the phenomena and impact of this cultural entity. This includes not only how many women play games, but what sorts of games and how the industry has responded to them—not just as players, but as designers or those who provide input into the industry. 

One important element the book covers is that with the rise of more complex gaming is the rise of gaming communities, opening a clear avenue for a more enlightened and nuanced discussion of gender in gaming. (A conversation my online gaming community has frequently addressed in our private forums.) 

This book would make an excellent text in a multi-media classroom as it deftly handles the past research, includes contemporary scholars who are the top of the field, and carefully paints a comprehensive picture of not simply game design, game players, and plot lines, but also of the industry as a economic whole, one that employs a wide range of labor. The book takes on hearty conversations of where gender plays into that labor and as a result, reinforces the gaming industry as a cultural staple and microcosm of larger social theoretical space. 

The book also does well to not rely solely on quantitative research for its evidence or argument, and a collection of interviews with references to authors from the past research the book seeks to add to helps to paint a more qualitative conversation of the industry that is often solely measured in profits, percentages, purchases, or players.

Written by: Dr. Julie E. Ferris, April 16th 2009

After reading your post, I am wondering what a feminist trying to play a feminist character would play? You say your ranged fighter/healer is a feminine character, but as a male I have played (tabletop, not online) many ranged fighters, healers, and so on, both male and female.

Would a non feminine character played by a feminist be a female, greasy, dirty, strong front line fighter who wades in without care? In my experience, men and women I have played with have experimented with many different character archetypes, both masculine and feminine fairly equally. Big guys have play pretty young girls, Petite women have played snarling half-orc mountains of muscle. And vice-versa. I think that roleplaying games are exactly what they say they are. A GAME, where you play a ROLE. What that role is is up to you. If you, a feminist, choose to play the role of what you define as a feminine character, then you have truly embraced roleplaying. As long as you also play other character types during your life as a gamer, your current choice is nothing more than that of a person confident in themselves playing an assumed role. Paul Meerscheidt http://www.apathygames.com