(Image credit: Wwarby)

The portrayal of women in video games and the gender dynamics of the gaming community have received ample attention in recent years.  While now nearly half of gamers are female, examining the way girls and women are treated in the culture or commenting on the lack of their presence in professional gaming and e-sports can still ruffle feathers. 

 But The Washington Post was already investigating the relationship between gender and the gaming industry back when Donkey Kong Country was still a new release. ("No hype: The graphics really are unlike anything else in the world of cartridge games.") Here's how then-staff writer Don Oldenburg tackled the topic in a story originally published on November 29, 1994.

The Electronic Gender Gap
By Don Oldenburg

If you think it's coincidence that one of the most popular hand-held video game systems is called Game Boy, think again.

Last week in Tokyo, when Nintendo Co. Ltd. -- the largest manufacturer and marketer in the worldwide $15-billion retail video game industry -- introduced its upcoming tabletop virtual-reality entertainment system, the irony of the new product's name went largely unnoticed. It is called Virtual Boy.

Why ironic? Because there is nothing at all virtual about the overriding priority given to boys in the video and computer game industries. It's just plain reality. Unapologetically so.

"The bottom line is the dollar sign," one video game company executive states bluntly of charges that the industry's most popular products are biased toward boys.

"Basically, the people who gravitate toward video games are prepubescent males. They're the ones putting in the quarters for fighting games. That's what the market wants, that's what we're going to continue to develop. Girls aren't part of that market, so we don't focus on girls."

Not many years ago, the industry disclosed that 99 percent of all video games were being bought by or for boys. Beyond a boys-will-be-boys wink from game makers, that number was eye-opening for some educators and others already concerned about girls feeling closed out of science and technology.

Those statistics gradually are changing. With computers and video game systems already a big part of the popular culture of most children today, and with "edu-tainment" software increasingly used as a teaching tool in the nation's classrooms, girls have become a growing presence at computer keyboards and video game controls.

Last March, in its annual consumer survey, the Software Publishing Association reported that 21 percent of the purchasers and primary users of video games are female; in the computer software entertainment category, females accounted for 28 percent.

Meanwhile, however, children's software and video games remain overwhelmingly male-oriented. Of the 82 full- or double-page ads for the newest and hottest games in a recent issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly, for instance, 61 brimmed with macho appeal, hyping classic sports titles to search-and-destroy missions to kick-and-punch competitions. Eighteen seemed to be more gender-inclusive, for games such as Aladdin and The Lord of the Rings. Only three made pitches specifically aimed at girls -- including ads for an updated Ms. Pac-Man and Virgin Games' fast-action basketball competition Jammit showing an athletic woman slam-dunking over a man.

And sometimes manufacturers unabashedly spell out their gender-specific spiel. A press release this fall introducing a new 3-D fighting game started with this headline: "Ya Gotta Have Ballz!" That Ballz is Accolade Inc.'s new brawl-and-maul video game in which characters made from differently colored and sized balls beat the daylights out of each other doesn't detract from the intended double-entendre. Or from the intended market.

"The original definition of fun in these games was rather narrow, subjective, and made {by programmers} to their own taste -- which happens to be mainly male," says Heidi Dangelmaier.

As a computer science graduate student at Princeton, Dangelmaier conducted research on developing interactive titles for several leading game manufacturers, among them Sega and 3DO. She left academia two years ago to try to put into action theories on expanding electronic gaming to include girls -- to develop their content into something other than the violence, competition and domination now built into them mostly by men trying to entertain their inner boy. But, so far, manufacturers' interest in her game plan has been disappointing.

"Their interest is like this is a curiosity," says Dangelmaier, who with three partners is now raising capital to launch a San Francisco-based all-female software label to design products from an unbiased perspective.

Dangelmaier figures that with more than 15 million girls age 4-12 in the United States alone, the market potential for such products is undeniable. University studies have shown that girls have no less inclination to play electronic games or dabble at a computer than boys. She wants to provide girls the compelling reason to do so.

"I'm not just a raving feminist," she says. "What the industry lacks is not social agenda and political correctness, but an openness to different sorts of creative people with insights, messages and styles of expression. ... Look at what sort of motive and inspirations they are tapping into. Like the desire to dominate, which doesn't have currency for everyone.

"There are so many other things. Beauty is a strong motivation in people's lives, so how do you develop a {computer} experience around that? Or maybe intimacy and friendship."

Yet the most oft-heard sentiment is, so what? Manufacturers say that, like any big business, they make what sells.

George Harrison, director of marketing and corporate communications at Nintendo of America, in Redmond, Wash., says that while Nintendo has game content guidelines that prohibit sex and extreme violence in its games, it has no official policy on the gender-bias issue. "We tend to do what most publishers do -- follow our nose to where the business is. It has been less of an exclusion of women than it has been following our nose to where the business is."

But even if their products aren't changing dramatically, some top game makers lately are positioning themselves better in regard to gender bias. Capcom USA Inc., the Sunnyvale, Calif., publisher of bestselling video games such as Super Street Fighter II and Mega Man, has been emphasizing the positive. "Offering greater equality in video game entertainment ... Capcom USA Inc. today launched one of the industry's few games to spotlight a high-profile heroine," an October press release started out. The heroine? Minnie Mouse, who still gets second billing to Mickey in Capcom's The Great Circus Mystery.

Capcom's public relations coordinator Erin Shiba explains: "We do recognize there is a segment of players that hasn't been tapped into very well. That's why we reinforce the fact that our Disney titles Aladdin and The Little Mermaid have been very popular among girls."

So far, Capcom's approach to addressing the bias problem seems to be to include more female characters in games. In the dizzying punch-and-kick sequel Super Street Fighter II, for instance, designers added a second female character -- a mean little fighting machine named Cammy. "She can seriously kick butt," says Shiba. "Although Street Fighter is mainly male dominated, girls tend to gravitate toward it."

Heidi Dangelmaier scoffs at what she considers half-hearted attempts to include girls. "That's not a woman, that's a drag queen," she says of Capcom's Cammy and the futuristic female warrior Samus Aran, star of Nintendo's popular sci-fi adventure Super Metroid.

"Does she have the right contours? Sensibilities? Sense? Probably she's quite brutal. I don't think this is a role model for women or something we would aspire to be. ... You're going to find some girls who like these games, but generally they know they're being left out."

The other extreme, Dangelmaier says, are games for girls that pander to the opposite stereotype. "You can't just throw a Barbie in and say it is a girls' product," she says of several Barbie titles and even a shopping game now on the market. "You have to ask what are we offering? And is that something they need and want and value?"

A few game makers -- mostly edu-tainment software publishers -- are delving into those deeper questions. As chief executive officer of Edmark, a Redmond, Wash., educational software publisher, Sally Narodick says her company's philosophy leans heavily on creating products such as the new Thinkin' Things II and Imagination Express, in which styles of thought process override gender subtext.

"What I want to do is rail against a stereotypical process of saying 'Girls like this and that' without saying they shouldn't play with Barbies," Narodick explains. "We're saying you don't have to slot girls. There's tremendous research that says girls like role-playing and story-telling and the collaborative group effort, and that's how we address the gender issue in products."

Joseph Adler, president of Instinct Corp., designed the Knowledge Adventure's children's movie-making CD-ROM software Magic Theatre using his 5-year-old daughter as his tester and critic. "We didn't make a girl-specific program, but it is gender independent," says Adler, who believes the creativity and performance art effectively cross gender boundaries. And he thinks more such software is to come.

"It's starting," he says. "There is a backlash against the Mortal Combat kind of world. The challenge is to keep the excitement of a shoot-'em-up but divert it to something more creative."

But game publishers trying to do that can't agree on the best way. Michael Carter, vice president for education at innovative little Digital Pictures Inc., in San Mateo, Calif., doesn't like the idea of software made specifically for girls. This month, Digital is shipping two new early-learning CD-ROM titles. What's My Story was designed by Carter with his daughter in mind to enable children to develop their own stories from movie clips; Kids on Site puts children behind the grinding gears and hydraulic levers of heavy construction equipment. Both, says Carter, tap into interests and environments shared by girls and boys.

"I don't think that there's any particular reason at this stage to have gender specificity in software," says Carter. "For me, it isn't going down a list of all the ways people think, and some are boy things and some are girl things. Software should be designed to incorporate as many different ways of manipulating the reality as possible. Why not just talk about the range of activities? The ways in which you would like children to practice at engaging the world?"

On the other hand, the San Francisco-based Big Top Productions was founded in January specifically to address the absence of girl-specific software. To date, it has done that with four early-learning games revolving around Hello Kitty, a cartoon character created by the Japanese company Sanrio that has sold $893 million in Hello Kitty backpacks, lunch boxes and other products in this country -- mainly to girls.

"You just see it so often in the schools. The girls are just not as aggressive as the boys in getting to the machines," says Big Top co-founder Lisa Van Cleef, now its vice president of communications. "By the time they're 12, this has really solidified. Girls start to drop out of math and science. Maybe this technology can help at that. Let's start making things that will get girls on the computer. And if this technology is going to affect who is employed and who is unemployed in the future, as they say, then girls need to have an equal advantage."

But even Big Top has had to toe the bottom line in its girl-specific products. Originally shipped in a pink box with red hearts, Big Top's first Hello Kitty product had to be repackaged into a red box with dots when its sales force complained it would never be able to sell the blatant girlish design.

"We've had to compromise: We stand on our soapbox until we're out of business," quips Van Cleef. "As a young company, we really did take a risk to do this and I hope it pays off. It needs to happen."

Still, she cautions that creating learning products that tinker with gender identity can be tricky business. After four months at Big Top Productions, she says she began suffering anxiety pangs over the responsibility involved. "You're dealing with heavy cultural, sociological and psychological factors," she says. "And game designers are making these decisions? Are we the right people? I don't know if we're even going about it the right way. Is this an either-or thing?"

As Heidi Dangelmaier puts it, "This is a new art form. There is a lot of evolution that has to happen. And somebody has to do it."

On the Market:

Some computer software and video game publishers are trying to design products to lure or at least include girls. A sampling of how they are doing it:

* Barbie Super Model -- As gender-specific as games get, Barbie competes in international modeling contests in this video game where winning earns more time in the wardrobe and makeup rooms. SNES and Sega Genesis; $59.99.

* Time Gal -- Role models instead of super models? In this time machine video game, a woman travels from prehistory to the future to stop those who would change history for the worse. Sega CD; $29.98.

* Tetris -- When girls outgrow Barbies, there's always this modern classic pattern-recognition and manipulation video game that surveys indicate is played heavily by females. NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, and MPC CD-ROM; $29.95-$35.95

* Donkey Kong Country -- It's a jungle out there. And so is probably the hottest video game of this holiday season. According to Nintendo, this adventure's lovable main characters (an ape and a cute chimp) and its fantasy setting attracts girls and boys. (No hype: The graphics really are unlike anything else in the world of cartridge games.) SNES; $59.95.

* What's My Story -- Due on store shelves about now, this new and different gender-inclusive storytelling software from Digital Pictures lets girls and boys, ages 5 and up, listen to stories or create their own from hundreds of movie clips and dozens of characters -- male and female. PC CD-ROMs and Mac CD-ROMs and Sega CD; $35.95.

* Hello Kitty Big Fun Deluxe -- Targeted at girls 3-8, this new CD-ROM combo version includes all four previous Hello Kitty titles (Piano, Shapes and Numbers, Art and Storymaking). Windows CD-ROMs and Mac CD-ROMs; $54.95.

* The Great Circus Mystery Starring Mickey & Minnie -- Another of Capcom's Disney titles it promotes as non-gender games, including Aladdin and The Little Mermaid. The mousy duo must conquer seven levels of circus challenges to unveil the mysterious force that assaulted the big tent. SNES and Sega Genesis; $59.95.

* Thumbelina: An Interactive Adventure -- Time Warner's new counting, singing and reading adventure designed to encourage girls, ages 3-8, to interact with the family computer. Based on the animated movie "Hans Christian Andersen's Thumbelina," with musical score by Barry Manilow. PC CD-ROM; $39.95. -- Don Oldenburg