Where Are The Ladies At? On Women in Sports Games

Power Jam: Roller Derby

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.

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4 thoughts on “Where Are The Ladies At? On Women in Sports Games

  1. I remember reading about the Olympics game and side-eyeing forever. It’s like “well, it’s OK for women to be shown doing sport in a variety of different disciplines in This Particular Time, but outside that, nope”. It’s a real shame about Power Jam, but I’m glad to hear Iglu are hoping to return and give it another go.

  2. Pingback: Saturday Links | downforthebarbecue

  3. its always good to see game developers trying something ‘new’ and ‘innovative’, but in my opinion it can be risky, especially since the game company seems to be a smaller, independent company, and that the genre suits a niche like what you mentioned which is an unfortunate thing. I think alot of the games these days are becoming too similiar and we need more diversity and innovation for modern games, but the one thing that will always make it hard is the target market. A good percentage of gamers are young males and a good percentage of these young males rather just play war games, a sad reality my game dev teacher at school told me. i hope they get though with this.

    • It’s funny you should mention that about the percentage of male gamers, because the Entertainment Software Association has been doing a survey of gamers for a few years and has not only found that the percentage of gamers who are female is approximately 47%, but also that women over the age of 18 are the fastest-growing gaming demographic, AND that women over 30 make up a higher percentage of gamers than young/teenage boys! (Here is the info: http://www.theesa.com/facts/gameplayer.asp) I think one of the reasons more “risks” are not being taken by the larger companies when it comes to women in games is that either games developers still don’t realise that female gamers are a large and legitimate demographic, they’re preoccupied with preserving the status-quo, or because there are still not many female games developers in the industry who can provide companies with information on what women want out of games.

      It’s a shame that a big company like EA hasn’t leaped at the chance to do a game about an alternative sport like roller derby, especially after the success of SSX, which has a very similar attitude. Thank goodness for the smaller, independent companies, who maybe have more in mind than sales when they pitch an idea.

      PS. Thank you for commenting/following!

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