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GIRL GAMERS, GET A GRIP
Copyright 2002 Rhianna Pratchett / The Guardian

[ April 11th 2002 ]

Lara Croft is every boy's fantasy and every girl's role model, claimed Chris Deering, the president of Sony Entertainment Europe, while announcing the sixth Tomb Raider title, Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness.

It was a perfect piece of PR hyperbole on Deering's part. The male games journalists in the audience quietly nodded affirmation at the first part of the statement, while dribbling over the new "real life" Lara. As for the latter part, the majority of "girls" were busy behind TV cameras or serving, so there wasn't anyone to pin him to the wall with a chicken satay and ask him who he was trying to kid.

As much as I'd like to be able to black-flip my way down to Sainsbury's and vault over the queue with my Reward card in my teeth, it's certainly not high on my list of role model attributes. I play games for a living and, personally, I don't have a problem with Lara. But whenever a Tomb Raider game is released, there's usually a sudden flurry of media attention about girls and gaming. Articles positively vibrate with righteous indignation about an industry emblazoned with images of female game characters with cleavages you could launch planes from. Suddenly the "girl" is the focus. Everyone is a "girl gamer". A hideously pop-ish phrase that sounds like something Geri Halliwell would have emblazoned on a T-shirt because she's once been seen in the same room as a PlayStation. All-girl clans are formed. All-girl websites debate religiously the portrayal of individual female characters in games, as if all games had to offer women was a mirror on themselves.

Many girls claim they prefer female clans and communities because they can't stand the abuse they get elsewhere from male gamers. Unfortunately, this is just what happens when you get a mixture of people together in a competitive and relatively anonymous environment. Online-gaming pulls no punches: deal with it. There's going to be abuse from all sides, so you're better off leaving your gender at the door.

But how come we don't see more agitated men complaining that it's appalling that men in computer games have muscles like watermelons, chins like bricks and can shoot accurately while wearing shades? You never find guys saying, "Yes my role models are Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Duke Nukem." That's because they know that games aren't supposed to be accurate representations of the real world. They're supposed to be fun. Escapism. Not an exercise in social studies.

Yes, most games are designed by men, with a purely male demographic in mind. So there's nothing to be shocked by when a female character struts her ample assets in an outfit that would not fill a Kinder Surprise. When a team of guys stays up late, night after night living off stale pizza and coffee granules, something's going to give. There's going to be the occasional mouse pointer slip (rumoured to be the cause of Lara's legendary cleavage), then the contented smile as another buxom wench is born.

This can partly be attributed to the lack of women in the games industry when compared with their male counterparts. Gone are the developer divas of the 80s such as Roberta Williams, the driving force behind the King's Quest series, and Jane Jenson, creator of the Gabriel Knight mysteries. These women didn't think that prefixing anything with the word "girl" struck a blow for womankind. They recognised that such self-segregation wasn't needed. Williams even said in an interview: "I prefer being thought of as a computer game designer rather than a woman computer game designer. I don't put myself into gender mode when designing a game."

No one feels the need to label themselves gay gamers, black gamers or boy gamers, so why should being female be any different? It's not. Girls play games, they're gamers. Can women really expect to truly break through the walls of one of the few remaining bastions of male predominance when they hide behind barricades of their own making? If the world is encouraged to see gender as the defining factor, then in the end, that's all it's going to see. Because regardless of whether we're packing a double D cup out front, we'll all become Lara in the end.

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