The release of Grand Theft Auto V this week, on September 17, was big news. Gaming sites reported on the release. So did tech sites, mainstream outlets, even The Economist. The venerable business magazine noted, in its regular Babbage column, that the fifth installment of the always controversial video game is the most expensive video game ever made. It cost hundreds of millions of dollars to develop, hundreds of millions more to market
And yet most women probably haven’t heard about it, except to get angry. Why is that?
According to the Entertainment Software Association, 46% of all video game players were female in 2012. Not quite on parity with the percentage of women in the general population, but more than enough to deserve a spare thought from game developers.
Most often, women are dismissed as casual gamers, only interested in mobile-friendly games like Candy Crush Saga. But Candy Crush ought to prove the exact opposite. An addictive puzzle game with hundreds of increasingly challenging levels, excelling at Candy Crush requires plenty of time, plenty of focus, and plenty of money (although free to download, many players spend cash to unlock new levels and acquire new lives).
And yet the women hooked on the challenging puzzles and polished graphics of Candy Crush, glued to the screen and counting down the minutes until the next free life is ready, mean very little to the executives who green-light projects for the major video game consoles, like the XBox and the Sony Playstation.
What does it mean to be a video game for men? For starters, players of Grand Theft Auto V must choose between three male avatars. Women won’t get to see themselves on screen, except as victims. It’s long been a staple of the Grand Theft Auto franchise that the criminal avatars at the fulcrum of the game’s story can sleep with–and physically abuse–prostitutes in addition to stealing cars and completing a series of violent missions.
Not only are the games targeted to men, but female gamers who complain about being excluded–women like the ever-reasonable and inspiring Anita Sarkeesian–are greeted with hostility and threats.
Here’s the rub: if video games are a booming industry while would-be tentpole blockbusters underperform in movie theaters before limping sadly to the DVD shelves in the local grocery store, then video games are too big an industry to ignore women. If Grand Theft Auto V raked in $800 million the day it went on sale–it did–then developers need to see that number as $800 million in lost revenue from the 46% of gamers, female gamers, who were left out in the cold.
Industry apologists like to explain that Barbies are marketed to girls and Legos to boys because girls tell stories with their toys, while boys prefer to build things. Yet when it comes to video games, marketed to teens and adults, the received wisdom is reversed. Console games marketed to men feature increasingly nuanced storytelling while the mobile games marketed to women are puzzle games with thin, verging on non-existent, storylines.
So which is it? Do girls like immersive, story-rich play or pure puzzles? Or maybe–just maybe–is that a false dichotomy? Play shouldn’t be gendered. And, yes, even when it comes to video games, women deserve more and better.
So maybe Grand Theft Auto V doesn’t sound like news to most women. But it is. It’s another brick in a wall that increasingly separates women from innovative, cutting-edge technology. Not just technology. This year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City acquired fourteen video games, officially recognizing video games as a new category of art.
The curator who spearheaded the acquisition, Paola Antonelli, is a woman.