#Gamergate Is Gross, But Here's How Minecraft Is Going To Change The World Of Female Gaming
The Debrief: One of its' top players is a girl, mums love it, and it’s even being used in schools to encourage girls to get into gaming. Is there anything Minecraft can’t do?
This weekend, female games developer Brianna Wu highlighted the intense misogyny still found in the gaming world, when a troll found her address, posted it publicly, and threatened to rape, kill and mutilate her. Nice.
And do you know what Brianna had done to deserve such anger? She had been questioning some of the ethics of the #gamergate movement on Twitter, which ostensibly looks at ethics in game journalism (although it mostly seemed to be a way of attacking women in gaming – you can read more about it here).
It’s grim stuff, and it paints a picture of a gaming community as regressive, aggressive and inherently sexist. But guess what – it’s not all bad. Last month it was announced that Microsoft had bought online game Minecraft for a whopping $2.5 billion, which is a pretty good indicator that it’s about to become The Next Big Thing. And even better, there’s every indicator that it’s going to become a bit of a game-changer in terms of getting women more involved in an industry that’s quite frankly, a bit of a sausage fest at the moment.
But what is Minecraft, we hear you ask. Remember Roller Coaster Tycoon? That adorable computer game where you could build your own theme parks, decorate them with twee little bits of topiary and populate your park with handymen dressed as pandas? As video games go, it’s one of the tamest – with not a gun, speeding car or pair of tits in sight, it’s considerably girl-friendly. Minecraft is basically the same, but on a far bigger scale.
Created by Swedish developers Mojang, it’s essentially a vast world of virtual Lego (and, let’s be honest, who doesn’t love Lego?) where you can break ‘blocks’ and make them into any structure of your choice. It’s the brainchild of Markus ‘Notch’ Persson, who even cites Roller Coaster Tycoon as one of his inspirations. And here why we think it's set to revolutionise the world of female gaming, in a totally positive, non-trolly way.
1. You can play as a girl
Outwardly, there’s nothing to suggest that it’s aimed at females, not least because the default character has the appearance of a guy (sans penis, in case you were wondering). But, at the 2012 Game Developer’s Choice Awards, Notch explained that rather than defaulting to a male avatar to appeal to male players, he actually wanted to avoid sexist imagery.
'I tried to make a girl model, but the results were extremely sexist,' he says, before going on to explain that recreating female curves out of giant pixels didn’t work out too well. That hasn’t put off scores of players from creating their own character ‘skins’, though – hundreds of which are female in appearance. Co-creator Jens Bergensten also revealed a possible update to the characters’ appearance back in June. PC Gamer reported that he planned to shrink the size of the avatar’s arms from four pixels to three, which some users interpreted as a move to give the feminine skins a softer appearance.
2. More girls are playing Minecraft than violent games
Instant arm-diet aside, in-game freedom, and the fact that there’s no competitive or violent element to Minecraft, were reasons that came up frequently when we asked female players what they liked so much about it. 'I play this game more than any other because of the freedom it allows,' says one user, while another, Jenova Celestia, explains that 'Minecraft is not a game where sexism runs rampant. If you go into a first-person shooter, you'll run into more of those stereotypical misogynist attitudes.'
Uffa Fey, an admin on an international Minecraft multiplayer server, published a reply on Quora earlier this year in response to someone asking what percentage of Minecraft players were female. She speculated that 25-30 per cent of their entire user base were women – which, given that this number only recognises people using that particular server, is comparatively high. The Entertainment Software Association released data last year showing that 45 per cent of all gamers were female, but only 20 per cent of those played Call of Duty, and a mere 15 per cent played Grand Theft Auto. A user poll conducted on Minecraftforum.net to determine the gender split of players seemed to back up Fey’s findings, with 26.3 per cent of respondents being female.
Jaspal Sohal, Head of Games and Digital Media at Creative England, agrees. 'When you look at who is actually playing games, we've reached a point where there is gender parity between men and women,' he says. Creative England’s Queen of Code initiative, a collaboration with Crowdfunder to inject £15k into the gaming industry to fund female developers, aims to ensure that the rising number of female players is reflected behind the scenes. 'Gaming has historically been a predominately male pastime, but we have an opportunity now to encourage diversity within the gaming sector,' Jaspal explains. 'We know there are some incredible female developers out there, and it’s important for us work with the industry to even out the playing field.'
3. It can help girls on their way to a career in gaming
Another reason for Minecraft’s popularity among women may be that it’s available on mobile platforms. A study released this September by the Internet Advertising Bureau found that not only were 52 per cent of the UK’s gamers female, but 54 per cent of respondents listed their smartphone as their favourite gaming device. The ratio of female players to developers is still worryingly unbalanced, though. Women make up only 3 per cent of programmers and 11 per cent of designers across the globe – something that Queen of Code aims to change – but yet again, Minecraft may be coming to the rescue.
With its uncomplicated model of gameplay, it’s unsurprisingly popular among children, and one company cashing in on this is MinecraftEdu. They provide specially modified versions of the game to schools, and have already made their way into 3,000 UK classrooms, according to a report by the BBC. Because the world within Minecraft is infinite, it’s easy for players to program their own features into the game, and introducing children to this functionality may nudge them towards the idea of a career in game development. Katy, a well-known player who uses the name False Symmetry, agrees. 'I believe it has sparked interest in the younger audience and those that might be unsure about their career path,' she says. 'There is a great community surrounding Minecraft which is much larger than any other game I have played before, and you can follow the Minecraft developers in a more personal way. I think that young people particularly can see that [development] is an achievable career.'
Kaye Elling, Lecturer in Computer Games at Bradford University, says a few classroom sessions of Minecraft could also help rid future generations of the stigma around female gamers, by showing pupils that games aren’t just 'toys for spotty, dorky boys' (or clear-skinned, popular ones.)
4. The whole family’s welcome
Popsugar’s Moms section recently published an article advocating the benefits of girls playing Minecraft, and sparking an interest in computer programming was one of their key points. According to some players, it can also be an important family bonding exercise.
One player, going only by her username of burgerbopboop, tells us that she started playing Minecraft 'just to see what this game that my kids were obsessed with was all about. Eventually I got sucked right in. What appeals to me as a female player is the same stuff I always loved about The Sims – the freedom to build and create whatever you want.'
All it takes to keep Minecraft-ers happy, it would seem, is the freedom to plonk their blocks wherever they like, alongside people they’re fond of. And it seems that all are welcome into the pixelated fold; several users told us that gender, like age, isn’t really important in the world of Minecraft. 'I don’t feel like a "female Minecraft fan" – I am just a Minecraft fan,' says one player. 'It’s very neutral in that respect.' The same could be said of other, non-linear games like The Sims and Roller Coaster Tycoon. As much as they both had the cute factor, and the freedom to play your own way, neither was marketed at a specific gender. Could Minecraft’s real appeal to us girls be that our sex is immaterial in this blocky, boob-less world?
5. Some of Minecraft’s most famous players are female
Even girls who started gaming in 'the pink ghetto' as Kaye Elling calls it (that’s gender-targeted games to the rest of us) inevitably ditch the fluff for more neutral titles, according to research. Back in 1998, Brenda Laurel, a professor at the California College of the Arts and known advocate for the inclusion of girls in gaming, claimed that girls who may have discovered gaming with titles such as Barbie Fashion Designer were moving on to multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life. Indeed, a female Second Life player, Ailin Graef, was featured on an MTV list of the 10 most influential gamers back in 2006.
If they were to compile a similar list today, they might want to include the likes of Cupqakes, Aureylian, and Kupo – all highly-regarded Minecraft-ers, and all girls. Yep, despite the fact that most players profess not to give a hoot if their comrades have boobs or not, some of the best players are of the fairer sex. Cupqakes, a purple-haired beauty from LA, boasts over 1.7 million subscribers on her YouTube channel, where she posts videos of her gameplay, while Aureylian has a slightly more modest, but still impressive, 230k subscribers.
Kupo, aka Kirsten, is an admin on VoxelBox, a Minecraft server with over 16k Twitter followers, and her dedication to the game has even led to her being invited to the New York Film Festival. 'I never would have expected to be invited to something like that,' she says. 'It’s really weird when people recognise me or ask for an autograph.' Has being a girl had any impact on her status in the Minecraft community? 'I typically don’t make my gender known – I don’t feel I have to hide it, but to me it isn’t important when gaming,' she says, echoing the views of other players. She also agrees that it’s the freedom of the game that appeals most. 'What I love about Minecraft is that it allows you to do absolutely anything. There’s an endless list of things I could create, and I love the challenge.'
It’s difficult to gauge the real number of female Minecraft players, given that many hide behind ambiguous usernames, but within the gaming world, there are always certain players held in high regard. The fact that a good chunk of these are female suggests that Minecraft really could be shifting the balance, and, even if its characters aren’t sporting grainy, pixelated boobs, its player demographic and its mouldable functionality could be about to change the stats for the better.
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