Before this week, you probably had never heard of The Strong National Museum of Play, a Rochester, NY museum dedicated to “explor[ing] play and the ways in which it encourages learning, creativity, and discovery and illuminates cultural history.” I certainly hadn’t. Apparently, they have the world’s “most comprehensive collection” of video games, though – who knew? I would have thought that honor belonged to Shigeru Miyamoto, but I could also see him refusing to even touch an Xbox One.
But its comprehensive collection isn’t the reason that The Strong should suddenly be on radar. No, it’s because this Tuesday they announced the launch of a World Video Game Hall of Fame, to be opened in June of this year. The Strong’s President and CEO, G. Rollie Adams, outlined the importance of and motivation behind the project in the press release sent out early Wednesday:
“Our experience with the museum’s National Toy Hall of Fame—which receives widespread international attention each year—provides both a proven model for such a hall of fame and evidence that it can advance understanding and appreciation of the impact of video games on culture and society. Electronic games have changed how people play, learn, and connect with each other, including across boundaries of culture and geography.”
Reading Adams’ statement, I honed in on a key phrase: “advance understanding and appreciation of the impact of video games on culture and society.” And I found myself thinking, “Huh, well, I hope they have some games with female protagonists.” Then I thought, “What if they don’t?”
See, in order to truly understand the “impact” of video games, I think it’s important to note what games haven’t had as much of an impact on, namely, female representation. For much of its history, the video game industry has been viewed as impacting a certain sect of “culture and society,” rather than culture and society as a whole, and it is only in recent years that the industry has begun to expand and incorporate new perspectives, methods, and people. We’ve seen the rise of the indie game and the art game, and now the next steps are games regularly developed by teams that have as many women as they have men, and games that have female protagonists not as afterthoughts but as conscious choices.
After all, women now make up the largest gaming demographic in the country (though female game developers make up only 21% of the industry). They are playing more games and more kinds of games more often, and we as a community need to pay attention to that fact – and to the less inclusive facts that have preceded it. We’re entering an era of new horizons and new possibilities for those involved in making and playing games, and it’s important that we remember where we came from and what had to happen to get us where we are.
All this to say that if the World Hall of Video Games doesn’t end up with any inductees featuring female characters, that’s fine – but it’s a lack that must be noted. And if they do, that is a presence that must be noted – and if, over time, more games with female characters become inducted, that’s a trend that must be noted as well. And The Strong is a great place for such commentary, since the museum is also home to the International Center for the History of Video Games. They’ve been studying video games for a long time, and have broken down their research into “concentric circles, each representing a particular layer of interpretive analysis”: The games, the producers, the players, and play itself. Women have been excluded and included from all of these circles at different times and with different companies and different games – as the ICHVG itself notes:
“It used to be easy to say who played electronic games: pre-teen and teenage boys and a few men with an interest in computers (some would have called them “geeks”). That simple formulation no longer applies. Today, as shown through surveys such as those done by the Pew Research Center, kids of both sexes are playing electronic games almost as soon as they can move a mouse or operate a joystick, and they do not stop playing as they grow up.”
Women have become a part of video game history, but it’s important to recognize that they have not always been a part, so that we can learn from our past and create, together a better future. The games that will be inducted into the Hall of Fame will be chosen based on longevity, icon-status, geographical reach, and influence. Influence is, perhaps, the most important of the three, and means that at least some of the games inducted should not only be ones that have helped to bring us where we are today, but ones that are a current reflection of how far we’ve come – The Last of Us is only two years old, but its stunning blend of narrative and gameplay has already cemented it as one of the best games of the past decade – or perhaps ever. And it features Ellie, a truly unique female character that can’t be pinned down by any one stereotype, proving that you can have a great game with all kinds of different people in it.
In other words, things always haven’t been great for women in and around video games, and the Hall of Fame should reflect that, but things are improving for women as the industry broadens its scope and its perspective, and the Hall of Fame should reflect that, too. We need to recognize, as a community, what amazing things have been done in the past and what amazing things are being done now – because this is certainly an important, if not great, time to be a woman playing games.
The Strong will be accepting nominations for inductees until March 31, so go nominate your favorites games here! And let us know in the comments what you hope to see in the inaugural class of games!