Women and Gaming from a Male Perspective, Part One: The History

Good day to you, ladies and gentlemen. The time is currently 4:16 AM. In lieu of sleeping, I’ve decided to begin posting to my blog- I’ve finally found inspiration for a post, and that doesn’t tend to come along every day. And hey- if I can’t sleep, I might as well do something constructive with my time, right?

Today, we’ll be talking about women, gender politics, and video games from a male perspective.  Hardly an original topic, but hey- what can you do? There’s always something to be said about it.  I’ll try to examine the issue with as much depth as humanly possible- but no matter what, I’ll still be writing from a privileged vantage point.

I only hope that it doesn’t cause too much bias. Let’s begin, shall we?

The Good Old Days of Gaming

The first game I owned. I will always remember it fondly.

I was a child of the 90s. I owned a Super Nintendo. I loved the Power Rangers. I remember when Saturday morning cartoons were actually good. Most of all, I remember when gaming was a fringe culture. That’s what we’ll be talking about first.

There was a time when being a gamer would get you ridiculed- or at the very least, result in a few strange looks. Gamers were nerds. They knew how to work a computer, but they didn’t know how to work a room. They were charismatically challenged and socially inept.

That seemed to be the prevailing opinion, anyway. Looking back on the sort of image commonly associated with gamers back then, one can’t help but feel faintly offended- even if there were people who fit those stereotypes to a T (more on that in a minute).

Still, the 90s was when gaming truly came into its own. Towards the turn of the century, a lot of people were starting to realize something important- games weren’t just part of some strange pastime, pursued by weird social rejects. They were actually entertaining. They were actually fun. With this realization, gaming became less and less a fringe culture as time went on.

It started to drift steadily towards the mainstream.

But we’re getting off topic.

Social Ineptitude and Girl Gamers

The stereotype in all its glory

In yesterday’s gaming culture, women were a rare sight indeed.  The industry was, for some reason or another, dominated entirely by men. Why? What was it about the hobby that turned them away?

Perhaps it may have had something to do with the aforementioned stereotypes. The problem with gaming being a fringe culture is that, well….it tended to attract a lot of people who were on the fringe. People who didn’t fit in, for whatever reason. Maybe they were socially inept. Maybe they were strange. Maybe they were too shy to make themselves known.

For whatever reason, they found their way to the screen.  I can’t speak of how many gamers back then fit the stereotype- it’s impossible to say. To my knowledge, no formal study was ever done on it. Society does have a nasty way of undermining any cultural group that doesn’t fit the norm- for all any of us know, there were plenty of charismatic, well-adjusted gamers who weren’t ‘nerds’ or ‘dorks’ or ‘losers.’

I’m pretty sure most of us knew at least one guy who fit the mold, though. Either way, the stereotype still remained– and in some cases, became self-fulfilling. When people reject you because they think you’re an outcast, well…they make you an outcast in the process. Social skills are pretty hard to develop when people won’t interact with you on anything other than an antagonistic basis.

Some of you might feel that I’m once again drifting off topic. Hey, I’m pretty tired at the moment- I tend to ramble when I’m in this state. Trust me- I really am going somewhere with this tangent. We won’t explore the stereotypes surrounding male gamers any further- I could write a whole other article on that.

“Large Social Forces?”

Anyway, back to the subject at hand. Those socially challenged boys? How do you think they reacted to a woman in their presence? How do you suppose these guys, who’d long been taught that sexual conquest was the measure of a man’s worth, responded to a woman who they thought might share a common interest with them? If your answer involves “uncomfortable undertones,” you’re probably on the right track.

Guys, you tell me if you’d feel comfortable entering a room and having every woman there turn their head and start drooling over-

You know what, don’t answer that.

We’ve barely started, and already we’ve hit a snag. The problem is, I’ve never been objectified. I don’t know what it feels like to be judged completely on my sexual assets. Few- if any- men do. It’d be like going in for a business presentation and having your boss ask you to lift your shirt- and refusing to hire you if you didn’t have a six-pack.

Well, not really, but…it’s the closest approximation I can give.

Trust me: It’s not the same thing.

Just try to think of a situation in which something you feel doesn’t define your personality is used to determine your worth as a human being. That’s really the closest we’ll ever get to experiencing the objectification of women that’s been running rampant in the media since the 80s, at least. Even then, the example’s little more than a sad simulacra. The fact is, there’s little I can do to describe the unpleasant sensation one must feel when they enter the room and are immediately treated as a sexualized outsider.

Once again, we appear to be veering wildly off track. Let’s refocus- we’ll conclude by looking at why the culture may have evolved as it did.

Why is Gaming a Man’s World? 

Believe it or not, that’s a more loaded question than you might think. To answer it, we’re going to have to look at society as a whole, and how social norms and values shaped the early lives of children across the Western World. I think the best comparison we can come up with are the fields of Engineering and Mathematics. Those actually have quite a lot to do with what we’re discussing here- and I’m most definitely going somewhere with this.

Think about it. Back in the 80s and 90s, when gaming was first coming into the limelight, how many female engineers were there? What about female mathematicians? It just wasn’t “normal.” Engineering and Mathematics were a “Man’s World”- women were bound for less technical fields, such as secretary work. It’s just how it was. Same deal with programming. It was a technical, highly specialized, highly skilled field that dealt with technology.

Women were supposed to stick to secretarial positions, and literature, and the arts- ergo, technical fields were, collectively, a boys club.

It wasn’t always that way, though. In actuality, the first software programmers- the people who coded the first computer ever made- were women. Created in 1947, the unwieldy system was known as ENIAC. Though the hardware components were created by two male scientists, the software was coded entirely by women– though you wouldn’t know it from articles at the time. Since the people who were actually credited with the system’s creation were men, computing was eventually to be widely viewed as a field specifically for men. It was a social norm.

What most people think of when they hear someone refer to a “Programmer”

Now, before we wrap things up, let’s take the time to pop out a brief sociology lesson. When a tradition or idea becomes accepted enough that it’s considered a “social norm,”people- consciously or unconsciously- ingrain that norm within their children. As a result, women who tried to break into programming were considered odd- for violating the “norm”, they were both alienated and ridiculed.

Programming and gaming also quickly developed a stigma as being fields only for social outcasts-after all, no one with a social life could have enough spare time to truly master both, right? Looping back to what I said before, social rejection can often lead to a self-fulfilling stereotype.

Plus, there’s the whole “new entertainment medium” deal…every piece of entertainment goes through that stage at some point, after all-since we already discussed that earlier in the piece, we’ll move on.

Of course, you see where I’m going with this, right?

Basically, this.

A lot of male programmers and designers, either influenced by the prevailing norms at the time, or by their own inexperience with women, would eventually start to push an image of women that was highly sexualized, with few other defining characteristics. It wasn’t a phenomenon unique to gaming, either- objectification of women is a problem that every medium’s been dealing with of late.

Is gaming just going through the same phase, or is it lagging horrendously behind?

That’s a question for the next installment. I’ve prattled on enough for now. See you folks next Tuesday.

Image Credits: The JoypadsQuarter Circle Punch, Gamespyxkcd, The Grand Narrative, Awesome DC ImageShack,

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