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Playing Dirty: Women on the Wii

Bonnie Ruberg

Every other week, Bonnie Ruberg contributes Playing Dirty, a column on sex and gender in video games:

It's so easy, your girlfriend would play. Or your mother. Or your grandmother.

Last week at the 2006 Montreal International Games Summit, Reggie Fils-Aimé, president of Nintendo America -- super tall guy, and fun-with-Photoshop favorite -- gave a keynote on marketing the Wii. Besides being a general pep rally for the new console -- Nintendo beats Sony, rah rah rah! -- Reggie's talk stressed the Wii's ability to attract new gamers; specifically, Reggie mentioned older gamers, children, and women.

It's no shock that much fewer women play video games than men. So from a business standpoint, it makes sense that Nintendo would want to expand their sales into that new market. But whether the Wii and its PR are doing something "good" for the state of gaming equality, that's a whole other story.

On the one hand, it's refreshing to see a major player like Nintendo thinking about women -- not just in terms of one game, but a whole console, and with it a slew of "non-girly" titles. It's also encouraging to see female players linked with innovation, something the video game industry as a whole needs desperately. Women have finally made it onto the larger marketing map.

At the same time, some female gamers are understandable bothered by claims like the ones Reggie made for the Wii. First off, women players already do exist; we're right here. It's just that, until we bring in the big bucks, we don't seem to matter. Second, women are people, full grown adults who can make decisions for themselves about what they like or dislike -- video games included. Telling them what they'll play, so the argument goes, is insulting to their ability to make choices.

To which we might well say, business is business. But there is something unsettling in the way Nintendo has been pushing the Wii for women. It's not that a new design will knock down the social barriers to entry, but that the system is so intuitive, so simple, it will knock down barriers of ability. As if women, like young children and the elderly (another target audience who has the right to be upset), were incapable of playing traditional games.

Still, even here, there's a rebuttal to be made. Video games -- and their controls -- are not always easy. Because of certain cultural conditions, women are less likely to pick them up and play. Therefore, since they have less experience, normal games might well be, for them, "harder." So then, give women a console that wipes the slate clean, that puts everyone on an even playing field. Give them the Wii.

Except that the Wii isn't being given to women. It's being given to men to give to women. In some sort of crazy, gender-based, gaming colonialism, Nintendo's new system isn't being marketed toward women themselves, but to their sons, boyfriends, fathers. Women, like other family members, are only then invited to play along.

As part of Reggie's keynote, he showed a slide of images of all the new gamers the Wii would attract, come launch day. Of the five images, all showed women playing. But these women weren't alone. And in the new Wii commercial Reggie played for the crowd, in which two Japanese men travel the country ceremoniously handing the remote over to American families, women were only background participants, never the official recipients of the Wii.

Does marketing "easy" game play to women hold water? Maybe, maybe not. What's certain though is that, even as Nintendo looks toward its female market, they still consider women as secondary gamers. How many more generations of consoles will it take before women get to hold the controls?

Bonnie Ruberg is a writer, researcher, and all around fangirl with a big crush on games. Find more of her work at Terra Nova, Gamasutra, or her blog, Heroine Sheik. She can be reached at .

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