Getting a Seat At the Table, or Statistics Are Bad

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There are three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

– Mark Twain

Do women play video games? Duh, they do. Next question.

Ok, let’s get serious for a second. The Entertainment Software Association, every year, releases a giant load of statistics about who actually plays video games. The number, unsurprisingly, tend to skew towards the idea that men and women both play video games in equal quantities relative to the size of the population – at least for 2012, the number look like male 53% and female 47%. Sounds about right, as you’d imagine, as the demographics that actually play video games increasingly include women.

It’s interesting to note that women over thirty represent a higher portion of the entire gaming population (30%) then the typically-lambasted demographics of boys 12-17 (17%). That, in itself, tells us that video games continue to increase in popularity. But, of course, we also see that the majority of games being played, surprise, puts the “casual” game far and way above the rest in popularity, somewhere in the vein of 42%. The smartphone statistics on the same genre (47%) show up as less surprising.

Could we regard the majority of women as playing these casual games? Possibly, I don’t know. The ESA does not provide a breakdown of genre-to-gender, which would help immensely in determining the validity of these statistics. I’m not saying that so-called “casual” games don’t count (maybe excepting the evil force that is Farmville), but it could explain something that bothered me for the longest time: why, if females continue to make up such a large proportion of the gaming population, do the traditional big-budget console/PC market cater to males almost exclusively?

I thought about this, and said “well, Sony and Microsoft obviously want to make money, so why ignore this vast pool of resources?” Certainly, we expect that a business, whose sole goal exists in making money, desires to make additional money and capture that other market. Nintendo does this; their Wii existed precisely to tap into the market of “people interested in games, but too intimidated by mainstream stuff”. Then smartphones came along, and gaming became an accessible pastime for the whole family. Strange, then, to see the “frat boy” culture as a continued element of the “gaming” culture. You’d think, anyway!

Like all things, of course, there’s a hidden bias underlining any statistical analysis, and this one obviously means to show us the diversity of people playing video games. We can approach this from a number of angles. Some would say that statistics don’t show the real answer, simply because the ESA did not release their methods, nor their sample size, nor any other essential element we could use to make a more rigorous judgment on the case. As I know from my brother’s extensive statistical research in political science, much of this comes from the initial numbers used and the model by which they find themselves twisted, molded, and contorted. So, we get a truncated list that supports the diversity of the gaming market, without any of the relevant contextual information required to see who’s playing what. It’s a scam, in a word. Many, many sub-markets exist in the video game world, and to lump them all into one big puddle misses the attempts companies make to appeal to one cultural demographic or another.

Yet, I find many people attack the big-budget games for being sexist and misogynist. While this might very well be a true statement (although, obviously, anyone can get offended at anything, because a writer can’t possibly balance every worldview when writing something), perhaps those people do not constitute the market for said game. Every piece of media goes for some audience or another, whether sophisticated, egalitarian intellectuals or a kid who wants to wreck all the stuffs. We all look for different things (although we can agree about what’s good/bad mechanics wise – the great equalizer), but we can’t say that every game works for every audience. That’s a fact of life in just about any hobby! But, of course, we like black and white, and statistics becomes our whipping boy for “scientific hard fact” to prove our confirmation bias.

Let’s take the recent release of Grand Theft Auto V. This, bizarrely enough, exists as the perfect example for this little experiment, mostly because it came out only on the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. As well, it will, barring any crazy unpredictable mishap, end the year as the best-selling, most profitable game of 2013 (if you think otherwise, please tell me how, other than World of WarCraft subscription numbers). A cursory look of the numbers tells us that approximately fifteen million copies flew off store shelves since the game released on September 25th. That’s an amazing number by any standard. So how many women bought the game?

15%. We can trust NPR (maybe the number’s higher or lower, who knows), I hope, to tell us how many women actually played Grand Theft Auto. At best, this represents a tiny sliver of the revenue which Rockstar will generate for itself and its parent company Take Two Interactive; at worst, it means developers know this franchise won’t sell to that market, and simply ignore it. Why would anyone expect a media product of a free enterprise economy to appeal to a small minority of their intended audience? Even if it’s 2.25 million, they’re not the major stakeholders here; everything rests on the teenagers and young adult males who will gladly purchase the game AND contribute to Grand Theft Auto Online in the future. So there you go: on a purely monetary level, I just easily explained why video games on the system do not cater to women audiences.

Now, whether you find that content offensive or not is a different manner. But, as well, perhaps the content wasn’t designed for you. For example, I don’t plan on seeing any version, at any time, of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Whether musical or film, it does not appeal to me at all. Just to give a cursory plot description:

A transexual punk rock girl from East Berlin tours the US with her rock band as she tells her life story and follows the ex-boyfriend/bandmate who stole her songs.

Much as I am at odds with a musical about a guy who goes into transgender surgery to look like his mother to escape East Germany during the Cold War and then chase his/her/its lover, I’m not particularly offended by it. I have moral objections and religious objections to it, but I realize that I, as a person, do not constitute the general audience for that particular piece of media. And why should I? Again: an author/game developer/script writer will always, at every time, present a particular worldview. This may not align with yours at all, but that does not give you free license to attack them and label them simply because you disagree with the way they portray the characters or the stereotypes they use. Maybe they’re lampooning you, for all you know! A histrionic crusader think they’re an actor in a great drama in world history, when they actually look like an insufferable dimwit who didn’t get what was happening.

The Bible’s chock full of this sort of stuff: sinful people doing sinful things and people of various races, genders, and creeds being oppressed and oppressors in equal measure. No one’s safe from sin’s grasp. That’s the whole point: no one gets a higher position since we are all so horrible at being good human beings, whether through ignorance or sheer force of will. Even our attempts to do good inevitably turn evil due to our pride in our social justice or self-consciousness. Pride’s good, until it is bad, and then it’s incredibly dangerous.

And the negative portrayals and the bad things that do happen display this point pretty aptly. Why would God want to put them in the story? Precisely to teach you something. Do you not think most creative people also go for the same thing? They may not know it, but they’re made in God’s image and naturally show God’s creativity (albeit tinged with human imperfections). Heck, the Biblical writers were also those same human beings – they just happened to have God’s help in the process.

So what about all this? As I think becomes a common refrain of this site: sinful cultures produce sinful products, no more and no less. A Christian must remain cognizant of all worldviews and underlying biases that effect us, or else we succumb to what the world thinks, and not what God thinks. We are not the audience for greater media at large, and we should not expect it to conform to our values. When it does…well, it may not come there for the right reasons, and then a greater problem will emerge.

Perhaps we just need to get all this ideology out of the way, and simply become servants. The rich and popular got a “seat at the table”; they demanded it. Jesus didn’t demand some classicist notions, because those existed for those who desired power, money, status, labels. Jesus tells us our true motivation (Mark 10):

42 Calling them to Himself, Jesus *said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. 43 But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.

And to be a servant inevitably means to not be anything at all but God’s child. To dismantle pride. And that’s very dangerous, and very hard, to do.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.