Girl Power

Girl Power
Women in Games

Chris Crawford | 1 Nov 2005 07:00
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Twenty-four years ago, Pac-Man was the hit game. It was pretty primitive by today's standards: about 600v by 400h by eight colors and was, of course, a pure 2-D game. By any technical measurement, today's games are thousands of times superior to Pac-Man. But in one regard, nothing has changed. When somebody decided to build a woman's version of Pac-Man, the best they could come up with was giving Pac-Man a sex-change operation by putting a bow on his head and calling him "Ms. Pac-Man." Nowadays, the best we can come up with for women in gaming is giving them pink guns. Whoop-de-doo.

I have long since given up participating in discussions on women in gaming. The games industry is so out of touch, such discussions are a waste of perfectly good electrons. When Microsoft wanted to publicize an event for women at a Game Developers' Conference a few years back, they splashed around banners showing a woman in a low-cut dress. Some people just don't get it.

I'm going to offer a fresh approach to the problem, coming at it from a completely different angle: evolutionary psychology. This field is about 20 years old, and much exciting progress has been made in the years since it was established. The basic idea behind evolutionary psychology is we can learn something about modern human psychology by studying the evolutionary forces that shaped the minds of our ancestors. For example, early simians were frequently preyed upon by snakes. These days, snakes don't eat people. In fact, more people in America die from toy related accidents every year than from snakebites. Despite this, people don't freak out when you put a toy in their laps, but they do freak out when you put a snake on them. Our fear of snakes is in our genes.

Unfortunately, the field is often attacked by dogmatic fools who think evolutionary psychology amounts to some kind of genetic determinism. They claim fear of snakes is some sort of cultural artifact, and that if only our culture stopped teaching people that snakes are fearsome, nobody would be afraid of snakes. A careful, scholarly analysis of this claim, based on experimental evidence and thorough review of the literature - as well as common experience - forces us to only one conclusion: This claim is complete crap.

Human choices arise from three layered sources. At the bottom lies our physical condition: We eat because we are hungry, not because we have been taught by our parents to eat. In the middle lies our genetic heritage: We like meat because of our genetic makeup. On top of these is our cultural upbringing: Some cultures like to eat pig meat, while others don't. Our behavior is driven by all three forces, with the cultural element dominating in a great many situations - but not all.

So, let's examine gender differences in terms of human evolution. The very first point to establish is that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. For the last 3 million years, our ancestors lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. This civilized urban lifestyle that we now live is a 6,000 year veneer on top of 3 million years of hunter-gatherer life - less than 0.2% of our ancestry. That urbane gentleman you saw this morning reading the New York Times; a blink ago he was a skinny, naked hunter prowling through the bush. His mind has been fine-tuned over millions of years to do that job well. The elegant young woman you saw striding across the parking lot this morning; blink your eyes and she's on her haunches, gnawing on a bit of edible root she just clawed out of the soil with her fingers. Her mind has been similarly shaped by evolution.

So, what forces shaped these minds? More to our point, what different forces acted on men and women differently during hunter-gatherer times?

The biggest difference was men were hunters and women were gatherers. This gender specialization did not arise because of some male conspiracy to dominate women or some other nastiness. It was the natural, inevitable result of a basic physical difference between men and women: Women have breasts and men don't. Because women have breasts, they're the ones who have to feed the babies, and to feed the babies, you have to stay close to the babies.

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