Yesterday, Iglu Media cancelled their Kickstarter for Power Jam: Roller Derby early after it became clear that the funding target was not going to be reached in time. The video game, intended to be released for PC, Mac, Linux, Ouya, and Android, is a “part management, part real time strategy game” based on the full-contact sport of roller derby. Aside from the colour, the fun, and the novelty of a full-contact sport played on quad skates, the most exciting thing about roller derby, and this game, is the fact that it is primarily played by women. Sure, men’s teams exist, but they’re normally under the title of “merby,” making roller derby one of the only sports – and perhaps the only full-contact sport – in which women are the default players.
As a roller derby fan, I was dismayed to hear that Power Jam had failed to reach its funding target, particularly given that games tend to do rather well on Kickstarter. (Torment: Tides of Numenera became the most funded video game ever yesterday, reaching above its target by 465% with over $4 million pledged) I don’t know for sure exactly why Power Jam: Roller Derby was unsuccessful – perhaps the game was too niche, too focused on the derby-community, or asking for too much money – but I do feel that, as a result of its demise, the genre of sports games will be missing out on something it drastically needs: a fun, well-made game that takes female athletes seriously.
Women are not entirely absent from sports games, but, looking at the statistics, it is clear that the field is far from equal. In 2012, only four titles produced by EA Sports included any playable female characters at all. Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 had two women out of twenty-two playable characters, Grand Slam Tennis 2 had seven out of twenty-three, SSX had four out of eleven, and the ice hockey game NHL 13 had two. When you consider EA Sports’ other games of 2012 – including the likes of FIFA 13, FIFA Manager 13, FIFA Street, and Madden 13 – that makes hundreds of potentially playable characters, out of which a mere fifteen were women.
Similarly, in a year that, for the first time ever, every eligible country fielded at least one woman to the Olympics, the official Olympics video game, London 2012, was released with fifteen male-only events and only one female-only event: beach volleyball. Not that Olympic beach volleyball is in any way an easy event (those women have some seriously enviable abs), but in a world where, if we want to see a women-centric sports game we have to look to the incredibly sexualised and objectifying Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball or Rumble Roses, it seems obtuse to have the majority of women’s sports in London 2012 be the ones where the competitors are in swimsuits.
It is a sad fact that women’s sports are not taken as seriously as men’s, from in video games, where women are largely absent unless they are being objectified, to the real world, where women’s sports not only get far less attention, and far less money invested, but are also far more likely to be subjected to the scrutiny and prejudices of the small-minded. To be a female athlete, according to these critics, is to be “disturbing,” un-feminine, and “man-like.”
With all this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that a study from last year showed that only 12% of 14-year-old girls played sports. Hopefully the success of 2012’s female Olympians has helped to change that statistic slightly, but if we want to inspire young girls and women further, more forms of media need to step on board, and that includes the world of video games. We all know that female protagonists work – Zoe Payne was the main character and orchestrator of the entire tournament in 2012’s SSX, and it was a damn good game – and gamers and game developers need to stop being so scared of them. Last month, I wrote about how the new Lara Croft is an important role-model for young girls, a rare example of a non-sexualised female action hero who proves to girls that they, too, can be strong. Sports games need that kind of female representation, with a focus on women’s sports that does not objectify, sexualise, or infantilise. Power Jam: Roller Derby is a good example of exactly what the sports game genre has been lacking, and unlike EA Sports, Iglu Media isn’t making empty promises of “soon,” without providing any sort of title or release date.
The email Iglu Media sent out after cancelling the Power Jam: Roller Derby Kickstarter announced that they would be taking on feedback and had “decided to build a prototype, so that the final game play will be clear.” I urge Iglu Media to not give up on this endeavour, to come back, try again, and give female gamers and sports fans the representation and inspiration they deserve.