A recent short conversation with a good friend raised some interesting questions about sports videogames, and specifically about how gender is depicted in them. Largely, women are absent from most sports videogames, without even the suggestion of their availability as playable characters. There are no women baseball players in either The Show or MLB2K. There are no female players in Madden. You cannot be a woman in FIFA.
Notably, there is the option to create a female character in EA’s NHL series now. The story is that a young woman who is a hockey fan wrote a letter to EA Sports, complaining that despite the tremendous popularity of hockey and the NHL among women, she was frustrated that she couldn’t play her favorite game as a woman. Realizing that they were, in fact, alienating a large swath of their audience, they made the option in the player creator to design a woman hockey player. As a nice PR touch, the default image of the character when you choose the female gender is of the young woman who protested in her letter. Other notable examples include female tennis players in Top Spin and female golfers in Tiger Woods.
To me this raises some really interesting questions about gender and how it is depicted in sports videogames. To me, the mere facade of re skinning a character model with pigtails is pretty shallow, and is an interestingly superficial take on what gender is. And yet I wonder how it might be done in a more effective and meaningful way. What are the aspects of gender that could be incorporated into a sports videogame so that it is handled in a less superficial and solely aesthetic manner? Doesn’t treating gender as a kind of character skin reductive and offensive to the myriad ways in which gender is performed by different communities? Or is it enough to simply have a set of two radio buttons labelled “male” and “female” and then superficially allow the player to design any character they want and simply attach the gender on like a pin? Would that reinforce the narrative in a way that is satisfactory at best, or at worst not offensive?
I think this issue is reflective of problems with equity in sports culture. I think most recently of the issue with track star Caster Semenya. She was a tremendous middle-distance runner from South Africa who, for a period of time, excelled like no other woman in the sport.
Soon enough competitors and pundits were calling for a “gender test” to identify if in someway Semenya was cheating, or perhaps lying about her identity. The embarrassing episode played out in the mainstream media and in the sports press for a year. She was later cleared to continue competing, but the stain of the incident persisted. Clearly, it is not just in the videogame depictions of sports, but in sports culture as well, that issues of gender are grossly mishandled.
I have to imagine there is another way to handle gender in sports videogame design that would be more meaningful. Perhaps what needs to happen is the female characters need to be placed in a game context that reinforces the performance of gender, like say the Women’s Olympic hockey tournament.
I think the designers of NHL deserve some credit for being forward thinking about this issue. It is, however, not enough. More effort should be made to not only include women in pre-existing sports videogames, but to also create new titles that are specifically about women’s sports and women’s sport culture. Why is there not a WNBA game? Why are women’s leagues not included in FIFA? Why isn’t there a Annika Sorenstam LPGA Tour 13 game?
Anyway, I hope for a future of sports videogames that is more inclusive. I also want for more study of this in the studies space (hint, I’m pretty sure it is coming!). I think there are really valuable and important questions to interrogate on the subject.