Carly A. Kocurek, PhD - Games, Scholarship, Media

Casual Thinking. Serious Gaming.

Video Games and Women’s History Month

Category : Gender Mar 28th, 2013
Carly Kocurek speaking at IIT in front of a projected image of a young woman game designer

Here I am speaking at IIT for Women’s History Month. The image projected behind me is of one of the Sony G.I.R.L. Scholarship winners. Photo is courtesy of Marie Hicks.

On Tuesday, I gave a talk for women’s history month on my campus here in Chicago. The talk was part of a lunch hosted by the Department of Humanities for Women’s History Month. My colleague Marie Hicks spoke about the history of women in computing, and the tendency of modern viewers to dismiss the women in historic photos of the tech industry as models rather than recognizing them as workers; I spoke about both the chronic marginalization of women in the games industry and highlighted some of the significant contributions women have made to the industry.

A white board covered in handwritten names of female game characters and the titles of games with women characters like Lisa & Marge from the Simpsons, Knights of the Old Republic, Mortal Kombat, Dragon Age

A list of female game characters generated by students in my Critical Analysis of Video Games class.

That night, in my Critical Analysis of Video Games class, my students and I talked about issues of gender representation in video games. For context, this is an upper-level class of roughly 25 students that is overwhelmingly male; there are 3 women in the class, total. IIT as a campus has a pronounced gender disparity, with women making up only 1/3 of the student body.

We began by brainstorming a list of female game characters, some of which you can see above. After, we started thinking about some of the ways we might describe these characters. The descriptions ranged from physical characteristics — thin, attractive, tight clothes, long hair, white — to personality traits — smart, witty, tough. Many of the traits my students pointed to are broadly appealing. Who, after all, doesn’t want to be smart or witty? But as they continued looking for commonalities among the characters, they started identifying some less positive aspects. A lot of the characters are women who have been significantly damaged. They are survivors, but we know that only because they have been victimized; several characters are mentally ill or unstable; a number are orphans.

As we wrapped up our discussion, I asked students to think what they would like to see in a female game character — to generate a wishlist of traits. While, sadly, I didn’t photograph that whiteboard list, I’d like to share some of it:

  • Does not need to be rescued
  • Has authority which is not questioned (is military leader, boss or similar)
  • Is a competent professional
  • Body diversity (even just short hair)
  • Rescues other people
  • Is average or normal but gets to do something amazing or is sucked into a fantasy world

In most of these cases, my students could think of male characters who fit these descriptors, but couldn’t think of female counterparts.

The discussion was preparation for next week’s discussion about Tomb Raider (original version), which my students will be playing this week. I look forward to hearing what they have to say, and the discussion seems particularly timely, given the recent release of the Tomb Raider reboot.