A real-life video game heroine

Mary Flanagan creates feminist-minded video games for girls. Watch out, Lara Croft.

Published November 19, 2008 7:30PM (EST)

It's no secret that the vast array of female video game heroines are designed for the straight male set. OK, so I've occasionally fantasized about being turned into the tomb-raiding, gun-toting Lara Croft. But were she designed for me, she would get a proper-fitting sports bra to prevent all that painful jiggling, or she wouldn't have that burdensome frontal load to begin with, and she'd lose the porny moans she makes every time she does anything requiring minor physical exertion. She would be less  a sex kitten than a ferocious lioness -- a construction that's awfully hard to find in video games.

But I recently stumbled across something even better: a real-life video game heroine for girls. Mary Flanagan is the director of the TiltFactor Laboratory, a feminist-minded operation that creates games for social change, and Dartmouth College's new Digital Humanities Chair Professor. In her games, you travel back in time to meet famous female role models or make a character dance by learning computer programming. After being tipped off to her fascinating work, Broadsheet called Flanagan to chat about innovative game design.

How exactly do you create an activist video game?

Right now we're making a diversity game set underwater -- or in the sky, we're not quite sure -- [starring] creatures that become stronger and more interesting the more diverse they are, and with the more diverse company they keep. So you can create these themes that perhaps shift how players think of large-scale human issues without necessarily addressing a very clear social issue. The social issue can actually be embedded in the structure of the game instead.

That's one of the theories that we're testing out. What if we're really conscious of different types of social or human themes as we're making these limited sets of actions that form the basis of the game? Can that actually in and of itself produce some kind of larger consciousness or awareness?

Can you talk a bit about the games you've designed specifically for girls?

I made the first adventure game for girls called "The Adventures of Josie True." That was an online Flash adventure game done in the late '90s, with Josie True, an Asian American character, as its center focus. She ends up on these time-raveling missions with her teacher, Ms. Trombone, an African-American scientist who meets other women in history, like Marie Curie and Bessie Coleman.

A more recent game that I developed, called "Peeps," teaches girls programming. We did a study with 90 school kids over a short period of time and found that, while they didn't learn all that much programming, the girls' willingness to try went up, along with their self-confidence and [sense of] self-efficacy.

Why do you think that was?

Well, I think it has something to do with my design approach, frankly. Too often, game designs are made to be cryptic -- they follow conventions of popular games. My approach is to reward people for what they might know, and for trying new things. And to give girls content that they might actually like, and give boys content that they might find that they like -- I mean, boys' games are often fairly limited as well. Our overall social problem here is that boys think that girls' games aren't great and girls are more or less bullied into playing boys' games.

Why are so few women involved in the creation of games?

There's a kind of [male] techno culture that goes along with this stuff. For example, when I was working in the game industry in the '90s, a company down the road allowed guys to have porn hanging in their offices.

The interesting myth right now is that -- at a time when women are using the most technology ever, when most women use their iPod and social networks -- there's this perception that gender is all taken care of. But we have clear markers that it's not, that women are not the authors of these tools that they are using. So, my ultimate question is: What if they were? Would the priorities of these systems change? Would we make more interesting technologies?

What  might we start to see if there were more women involved in the creation of games?

One of the things we don't really do well with games yet, are things like real social relationships. What are these people doing to each other, are they happy or not, what can we do to help them get along? "The Sims" is one of those, but there are plenty of ways to have games about social relationships, empathy, communication and different kinds of competition -- maybe it's a competition in creativity and not in high score.

You've applied Judith Butler's theory of gender as performance to gaming. Can you talk a bit about that?

I worked in a research lab in Taiwan where all of the guys played girls so that they could watch their boobs jiggle, and I thought: Wow, this performance of gender is a trying on of sorts, but it's a voyeuristic trying on.

In this hilarious game called "Parasite Eve," you play a female cop wearing an evening gown and 5-inch stiletto heels, because you had to go to the opera, when a monster flies out and tries to kill everyone. You're supposed to chase the monster and kill it with your little lame gun, and as you're walking around you hear the ping-ping-ping [of the heels.] I thought that was kind of interesting in a Judith Butler way -- it is culturally locating the majority of male players within these female limitations. But the other side is that, you know, "I like to watch these girls and control all the moves she can make."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

MORE FROM Tracy Clark-Flory

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Gender