I wrote this up as a very long, long comment on Wil Wheaton's blog post today, and it got flagged as comment spam because, well, it got much, much longer than I expected. Oops. But not wanting to let it vanish into the void, I figured I'd post it here.
Someone asked me about women in gaming, and, well... uh, I might've ranted. A lot.
Miss Debater: I'm always happy to froth at the mouth about this topic. :) Keep in mind this is an off-the-top-of-my-head version, complete with sweeping generalizations. I'll just put on my asbestos gear now, shall I?
Why don't more women game?
Well, who games in the first place? Let's look at types of gamers. The seminal work on this is Richard Bartle's article, "Players Who Suit MUDs," where he breaks gamers down into four types: achievers, socializers, explorers, and killers. This was written for MUDs, the text-only grandfathers of MMORPGs, but it's applicable to a lot of types of games. Go read the article real quick, then come back. Not every game out there appeals to all four types of player -- and when one does, like World of Warcraft -- it sells amazingly well. But The Sims and Second Life are definitely entry-level drugs, attracting many people who would never pick up, say, Halo 3, to gaming -- including women.
The debate about gender and game preference is still raging, but in my experience, the two genders tend to prefer different types of games. Not all men love first-person-shooter games and dungeon crawls, and not all women love socially-oriented, puzzle, and soap-opera-type games (I'm looking at you, Stevie Case), but there's a marked preference.
So let's say I'm in the market to buy a new game for myself.
-First, I want to find something I like. As angie k rightly points out -- there are games I like and games I don't like, and it's got nothing to do with my gender, just with the kinds of games I like to play. That said... the gaming industry is almost overwhelmingly male. There are a few brave souls out there in the QA trenches, but design? Art? Concept? Apart from legends like the Intellivision Blue Sky Rangers, the gender mix is sparse at best. I'll put it this way: when visiting a friend in Blizzard South's offices one weekend years ago, I had to use the men's restroom, because the one woman who worked on the art and design floor wasn't there that Sunday. (See Women in Games International for more reading.) So, with mostly men making games, you're going to get disproportionately more killers and achievers making games that they would like to play. (This disappoints the male explorers and socializers too, don't worry.)
-Second, I want to find a game in which I can identify with the protagonist. Female heroines are uncommon, though getting more popular. Non-caricatured female heroines who actually wear clothes and look like real humans? Good luck. It's definitely getting better than it used to be -- Panty Raider's a thing of the past (but we still beat up hookers in GTA, which is more funny than sad). It's a small thing, but when a developer omits the option to make a female avatar, and there's not a very good story-driven reason to do this (e.g. Planescape: Torment), it turns me off to the game.
Third, I want to find a game that doesn't insult me right off the bat. Girl-specific games? They blow. They blow rancid donkey balls. Give us more than Barbie Fashion Show as an option, people. While Confessions of a Part-time Sorceress, an attempt to feminize D&D, is actually pretty cool, you'd never know it from its ad, a riff on a Cosmo cover.
Then there's the game marketing. Dude. If I want to see tits? I'll just look down. The game magazine ads that promise the potential for scoring with hot chicks, if I only wear AXE body spray and drink enough Mountain Dew. Um... no thanks. (But if you figure out how playing video games will make me irresistible to naked rugby teams, call me.) Could we please, please just have gender-neutral packaging and ads?
Fourth, I want a game I can play either by myself, or with my friends, and not have to constantly deal with asshats. Also known as: the hazards of being the only female gamer in a group of male gamers. Before the advent of LARPs and MMORPGs, gaming was viewed by many women as 'that thing my boyfriend does with his friends' -- i.e. something well outside the scope of what's acceptable feminine activity. Then there's just the general vibe of being a novelty, immortalized in xkcd's "Pix Pls."
Women tend to get introduced to gaming as corollaries of the men they're dating, or male friends. Until you become one of the guys, it's hard for female gamers to be seen as more than an appendage to the man they came into the group with -- or, as a mom. Several times, it's been blindly assumed that I will handle the food and drinks in a gaming group, with variations on, 'But you're the woman!' given as the reason, followed with genuinely confused looks from the men when I shouted that I didn't order pizza with my uterus.
After all that, and I've found a game I want to buy that meets all of the above criteria --
Fifth, I want to buy the game with a minimum of hassle. It's irritating when I walk into a gaming store and have to throw down my geek credentials in order to get treated as a human, not as some alien, exotic creature. I could avoid the Geekier Than Thou competition by ordering online, but I don't want to have to wait days to get it shipped to me, when there's a game store within walking distance of my office.
Seriously, it's nuts. I've been a gamer since I was nine years old and playtesting for Infocom -- I'm used to it, try to have a sense of humor about it, and am willing to endure it in order to play. But I can easily see why a non-gamer/geek woman in their 30s or 40s wouldn't want to bother with gaming at all.