There are many potential causes for why so many of my research participants may have given up playing videogames in adolescence, even though a definitive answer to what these causes may be goes beyond the scope of my case studies and was not directly included as an interview question. As I discuss previously in the introduction, core video and computer games are designed almost exclusively for a male audience. One aspect of the gender bias inherent within mainstream game design is character representation. While none of the females in my case study mentioned character representation, much research has been done showing that females have a hard time relating to games when females are largely absent from them. When they are present in videogames, they are often not available as playable protagonists but only serve as either subservient game objectives for the male protagonists or as evil femme fatales who must be slain. Although female protagonists in games such as WoW have been increasing in recent years, still many of the females that are present are represented in overly sexualized ways—a sexualized representation that does not usually affect male characters—with overly large breasts that are emphasized even more with skimpy clothing. This forces females who play these female characters to identify primarily with their character as a sexual object (Miller & Summers, 2007; Burgess, Stermer, & Burgess, 2007; Jansz & Raynel, 2007).
Female representation in games also does little to inspire conceptions of a healthy body image since characters often have Barbie-like waists that are so slim they evoke Victorian times (Barlett & Harris, 2008). Unfortunately, many of the female characters in WoW are no exception to these representative rules. The female night elves and blood elves have slender waists that are out proportion with the rest of their bodies while their armor often does little to protect cleavage. Consequently, the female representation in most games, even WoW, gives little healthy incentive for females to play, especially in adolescence when females are beginning to search for productive ways with which to incorporate their sexuality within their identities and body image. It is worth noting that the videogames that were played the most heavily by the female participants in Schott and Horrell’s (2000) study of female game representation were gender neutral characters or non-threatening male characters like Mario (p. 42). In my class, most of the females chose female human characters, who are less sexualized than the female elves, with the exception of Mandy who chose a male night elf.
Night Elf, Human, and Blood Elf female representationsWhile my study was small, it still draws some interesting implications for further research about the role that socializing plays in giving females access to gaming literacies, particularly in pre- and early adolescence. Almost all of the females in my study played videogames with sisters and friends during childhood, and they did so at least in part to socialize. However, in my study, it seemed that as more and more girls stopped playing videogames, games no longer served as a way to socialize, and if they did, they were not new games but the old favorites most of the females grew up with. For instance, Charlene wrote that when she plays videogames to socialize now, “it is fun to get out the old videogames and play since it is something that most of us grew up with.”
However, in saying that females in my study played to socialize, I do not mean to say that this is the only reason they played—only that socializing is an important way of learning gaming literacies. As a set of social practices that define not only how we interpret texts but how we use them, literacies circulate through groups, and because the very act of gaming is to enact certain sets of social practices in precise ways, gaming literacies are no different (Gee, 2003, pp. 14-15). In fact, it is through socializing that males have early and constant exposure to multiple gaming literacies, forming friendships and what Gee (2007) calls affinity spaces around advancing their play that make it much easier for them to circulate and learn even more complex gaming literacies. As other studies indicate, females often have a much more limited access to gaming literacies because they lack the same-gendered friendship groups to support its use that males have. In a study interviewing girl gamers, Schott and Horrell (2000) found that when females needed to learn the literacies involved in successfully playing a game, males, who were usually fathers or boyfriends, not other females, often helped them play. This was evident in my study by the fact that the one female who played video and computer games the most, Mandy, played and learned these games by playing with her brother. Schott and Horrell also found that females were not as likely to use what Gee terms as the distributive knowledge of gaming communities such as gaming forums, magazines, or player guides.
In my class, these same gendered affinity or friendship groups were quite evident in that the males helped each other play. The more experienced gamers often helped the newer gamers by offering them tips, telling them where to go for quests, and grouping with each other to accomplish harder quests. Even though not all the males in the class had played WoW before the class, this inexperience usually did not seem to hinder them too much in playing the game since they often grouped together with more experienced players, with only a few exceptions. Unfortunately, none of the females in the class had previously played WoW, and none of the males seemed willing to group with them in the game or even casually help them outside of the game. The females did help each other though. This collaboration helped them learn enough about the game to know what projects to investigate and, of course, they collaborated in doing in-game research together.
And even though not directly evident from my small study, there are other studies on female gamers who play videogames alone, despite the fact that these games have traditionally been played by males. In a study conducted by Taylor (2008a), she found that these female gamers are often the most dedicated because they do not have the luxury of the social contacts outside of the game that their male peers enjoy. These females often play alone in a closeted space, afraid to tell other females that they play because of the fear of social censure from a world that still constructs videogame play for most games as male. Taylor writes, “Far too often we find that women gamers occupy a kind of closeted gamer identity.” So, when females do play, they are often unaware that there are other female gamers besides themselves. Taylor explains, “This social isolation may not always be, as it can appear at first glance, because [women] do not have women friends who play but because they do not know their friends play” (54).
Finding a social point of entry into games like WoW can be made even more difficult for females because the male-dominated culture of these games also tends to devalue and even act with hostility toward unskilled players, which means that, without some sort of social support system, many females are reluctant to play new games on their own. Within the online culture of WoW for instance, there is a great disdain for new players who are perceived as lacking the skills to play. The greatest insult in the game is to call another player a “newbie” or a “newb,” and players will spend hours calling each other this on in-game chat channels. This culture of intolerance for new, unskilled players is reinforced technologically in the game as well with the use of mods that constantly surveil and can publicly publish aspects of performance in groups such as how much damage or healing a player is contributing to the group, as Taylor (2008b) points out. This culture of hostility toward unskilled players is understandably intimidating to female players who know they lack the gaming literacies needed to play well. In fact, in a qualitative study of female gamers within an Australian cybercafé conducted by Catherine Beavis and Claire Charles (2007), one of the female gamers discussed how difficult it was for females to overcome their intimidation of more experienced male gamers, saying, “I’ve had a few girlfriends come in with me just on and off and I say to them you know you’re more than welcome to come back. They do but then they don’t want to because they don’t know when I’m going to be there. And a lot of girls get intimidated by the guys but because I’ve been going there for a while the intimidation has sort of worn off” (p. 697). Another female participant also talks about how proud she was that she not only persisted in going to the cybercafé but that she also won a sort of grudging respect from the males who said that she was “pretty good for a girl” at playing Counter Strike (p. 699).Within my WoW class itself, male disdain for perceived gaming incompetence was evident in the way that students fractured into three separate groups and did not socialize with those from different groups.
Even Mandy, the most enthusiastic female gamer in the class, fell victim to this classroom segregation when her male friend, whom she had sat with all through my previous writing class, basically stopped talking to her once he entered the WoW class. Friendship groups tend to form in the WoW class.
However, this can keep the class from interacting together cohesively.So, once females stop playing videogames, they usually have no other social community within which to learn new gaming literacies since male gaming discourse communities are usually too exclusive and sometimes even hostile to new, unskilled players. In fact, this is one of the reasons Charlene became so frustrated playing WoW: “The way that games could be integrated [better] into [a] writing class is perhaps [by] having a class larger than what we had due to the fact that it’s hard to write about a game that you don’t understand and there aren’t many people who can help.” In Charlene’s class though, the group of male students who worked for the campus information technology services were expert players in the game; however, they did not speak with let alone help Charlene.