Shannon Marie “Killer” (she goes by “ShannonZKiller” online) has been gaming since she was six. She plays games anywhere from three to seven hours a day, and uploads videos of some of her gameplay to the Internet. She plays puzzle games, action games, and anything in between.
In all of her gaming, however, Shannon finds one thing missing in a big way: the presence of strong, capable women, both in games and as gamers.
Shannon (who preferred that her last name not be given) started gaming around age six, when her father brought home the family’s first gaming console: the NES. She wasn’t allowed to use it very much, and only with strict supervision.
“He used to stare over my shoulder like a hawk,” Shannon said. But soon, the family moved on to a desktop computer, a model so early that it was just one massive rectangular shape with a monitor built in. After that, Shannon found that she couldn’t stop.
“I would get frustrated, and never get anywhere in the games as a kid, but I couldn’t stop playing them,” she said. They appealed to her, just as they appealed to her father, and appealed to her four siblings (and continue to appeal to all of them today; all of Shannon’s siblings are still gamers). And Shannon correctly asserts that she is not the only woman with a passion for games and gaming.
Shannon, of Vancouver, British Columbia, is almost exactly the median age of gamers in the U.S.; at 29, she’s seven months from hitting the average. In addition, while gaming marketing and the popular American discussion of gaming makes the industry seem almost wholly dominated by men, women make up 47% of gamers, and 48% of game purchasers, according to a study released in mid-2012 by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA).
The study as a whole shows that gaming is not a young male’s hobby, as it is often described; in fact, it’s the hobby of an extremely diverse crowd. Roughly a third of gamers are under 18; another third is between ages 18 and 35; the final third is ages 36 and older. Evenly divided by gender, how they play games, and what kind of games they play (though some genres do hold much larger shares of the market), the ESA’s study suggests that there is no longer, or perhaps never was, an “average gamer.”
However, in games, there is still very much an average female character, Shannon said.
“Everyone is a variant of Princess Peach [from Mario Bros.], essentially useless, and is trapped in a castle, the grand representation of women as inaccessible,” Shannon said. “How women are typically portrayed is laughable.”
Tina Amini, the 24-year-old Coordinating Editor of Kotaku, agrees.
“It’s the age-old idea of sex sells. While your male characters are all waltzing around in full armor, female characters have breastplates and mini-skirts,” Amini said. She said that most male/female interactions in games are romantic, and that there should be more women that are “integral to the story,” rather than objects of attraction.
Shannon seeks out games for herself that “don’t hold your hand, and force you to be a big kid,” she said. Shannon plays games that many find challenging, such as DayZ, a zombie survival game that forces players to make every decision carefully, and punishes deaths not with a loading screen, but with starting over from scratch. “I favor games that treat me like I’m not the lowest common denominator,” Shannon said.
She’s a departure from the mental image most hold of gamers. With reddish hair that falls neatly to her shoulders, sharp features and a trim waistline, she looks perfectly the opposite of what most imagine when they consider women that play video games. She dresses as any woman in her late-20’s might, and conducts herself with confidence and quiet intelligence.
Lara Croft Redux
Right now, Shannon’s working on beating the new game Tomb Raider, by developer Crystal Dynamics. An entry in a series that dates back to the early days of the first Playstation console, Crystal Dynamics’ reboot of the series hinges on changing up the formula that had driven the series into redundancy.
The main character, Lara Croft, was a temple- and cave-diving adventurer, looking for treasure in exotic locales. Yet she was always clad in a tiny tank top, the shortest of shorts, and packed two massive handguns on her hips for killing any monsters or bad guys that got in her way. And Lara also had perhaps the most generously digitized breasts of any character in gaming.
Yet Crystal Dynamics has recognized a new way of approaching the series, and has attempted to make its version of the game more realistic, and to make Lara relatable in ways that go beyond physical beauty.
“There’s no lack of chest in the new Tomb Raider,” Shannon said. “But it manages to walk this fine line, still fulfilling that cheap, thrill-ish need of cleavage and sexy grunts. It has given us a young, empowered, brave woman who’s not being hung out to dry for it.”
Amini also cited the new Lara Croft as a step in the right direction for women in games.
“Lara Croft in Tomb Raider is a badass survivor. She’s assertive, attentive, smart, adaptable, strong, brave, loyal.,” Amini said.
Shannon said that she embraces and welcomes this change of pace for the character and series, and that she doesn’t believe the new Lara would have been well received in the original games.
“If this was the Lara Croft they gave us ten years ago, they would’ve been nailed to a cross. It would’ve been seen as neo-feminist even a decade ago, and it was in their best interests not to do it,” Shannon said.
“I would recommend [the new Tomb Raider] to my 16-year-old sister. This is a perfectly fine game character, one of the first,” Shannon said.
Fighting Back Against Grand Theft Auto
Shannon believes that some game developers willfully cross a line into negligence, offense, and misogyny in their games. She accused developers Lionhead (Fable series) and RockStar (Grand Theft Auto series) of such offenses, citing the player’s ability to marry multiple women, and then kill them, in Fable, and the player’s ability to hire and then rob and murder prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto.
“These are side notes, one-off things that clearly the developers think it’s funny to add. And it’s really only ever been for cheap entertainment,” Shannon said. And it’s partially the responsibility of her fellow gamers to demand that game developers change their products and how they portray their female characters.
“It’s lazy to say ‘that’s bulls***,’ and not do anything,” Shannon said. If gamers didn’t allow developers to get away with offensive stereotypes and portrayals, she believes that the industry would see much faster change.
“[Machinima does] little bits where the show news videos for the week and there’s always one of girls in underwear, and that’s always the thumbnail for the video, to push video to their demographic audience. It’s not news, it’s not journalism; it’s cheap entertainment,” Shannon said.
Women have had to fight for rights for hundreds of years, Shannon said, and their portrayal in games is incredibly important. “Games are a creation, something that people can form however they like. It’s a great opportunity to push the envelope with the female image.”
As a gamer, Shannon makes videos for the Internet of her own gameplay, and sometimes includes footage of herself being taped in front of the screen. But her videos differ from others’, she says, because hers aren’t about a “low-cut top and a push-up bra.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with push-up bras, or having feminine traits. But I think there’s a right time, a right place, and an appropriate way to do things,” Shannon said.
She has been making videos of Tomb Raider gameplay recently, and often comments on Lara as a female character while she plays, or about the quality of storytelling and emotion the game evokes. Shannon presents herself in a strong, intelligent light, refusing to use the “cheap” tactics that other video gamers and journalists have stooped to.
Shannon is part of an equal half of gamers that isn’t given a fair treatment. Men are praised, depicted as independent, strong heroes, and flaunt their intelligence in games. Women are often decoration, victims, speechless, or ancillary. It’s important that women, as an equal portion of the gaming community, refuse to accept misogyny in games, Shannon said.
“I know we’ve come a long way,” Shannon said. “But it’s something that girls need to be very mindful of because of the history that we have.”