In early October I had the privilege of spending two weeks in The Strong: The National Museum of Play libraries to make use of the magazine and periodicals archived there for a research project on gender and gaming. This work is exclusively concerned with the representation and discussion of women and girls as game players. There has been a good deal of work dedicated to the lack of women in the industry and regressive representations of female bodies on the screen, but I am interested in the ways that females have recognized as players and participants in games culture.
One of my objectives is to examine how female play is represented in the games press and how the discourse on gender and games has developed in these spaces.The role of the consumer press and ancillary texts in constructing or reinforcing the modern “gamer” identity as well as gender expectations of play has been under explored. Access to near-complete collections of a variety of publications proved very fruitful and I discovered a number of articles, ads and pictorial representations that suggest that paratexts have a great deal to tell us about the state and shaping of games culture.
Looking through complete pre-millennium editions of Electronic Gaming Monthly and Nintendo Power, for instance, I discovered mid-90s dialogue between readers on gender and gaming taking place in the letters section of both publications. The discussion, in both cases, is sparked by letters from female players who feel underrepresented or misrepresented by games culture and even the publication they subscribe to. These letters feature familiar complaints about
gender stereotyping of players, sexualized female characters, and a lack of female industry professionals (developers and journalists). The discussion proceeds to polarize with responses ranging from agreement and support to sarcastic undermining and aggressive attempts to debunk. All this with little commentary from the editorial teams. The reading of this relative silence will take more consideration but, as we are seeing a similar lack of leadership or steering of the gender and games conversation from the games press, I would not take it to mean that the consumer press have not contributed to gendered constructions of gaming.
In Nintendo Power the discussion closes when long-term editor Gail Tilden leaves while in EGM the letter series culminates in a feature on women in games. This may seem promising, however, there are a number of problems with the way this is handled. Problems that persist today. First, a non-staff female is recruited to produce the piece. While it is important to women to write their history and tell their own stories this approach serves another purpose when dropped into this context. In this case, the all-male journalist team pass off the responsibility. They stay out of the discourse and don’t lose face with their core audience. This is ensured by accompanying the article with the pop-art rendering of a distressed-looking female holding a controller beside a male saying “hurry up and die so I can play”. These words serve to undermine the content, content which is already compromised by the voice, a female voice, that is inserted into a space that has proven itself hostile to the gender debate and unwilling to believe women’s stories.
These are important findings for my work. While they may seem unsurprising today in light of the events of the GG hashtag and the on-going debate, it is important to understand that the issues are not new and that we continue, the culture continues to conduct itself in the same way, making the same mistakes which permit a hostile, hegemonic masculinity to continue to exclude and alienate women from play.
My time spent, nose buried in the magazines of videogame past at The National Museum of Play has yielded a number of valuable insights along this line as well as a few surprises including the writing of women contributors to early editions of A.N.A.L.O.G and Computing Gaming Magazine which resemble the styles and priorities of “New Games Journalism” (Gillen 2004). The archival material has invigorated my work and given me new directions. I would love to return someday and take another peak into the play archives.