From a family affair, to ‘no girls allowed’ to ‘all are welcome,’ the gaming industry has constantly redefined who is considered a ‘gamer.’
On Nov. 29, 1972, the world of gaming was forever changed when pioneering company Atari released Pong. A simply designed two-dimensional table tennis-themed game – where two vertical bars move up and down while “hitting” a square back and forth – launched a now-multibillion-dollar industry and inspired people around the world to become “gamers.”
For Megan Condis, an assistant professor of communication studies through Texas Tech University's College of Media & Communication, her gaming roots began in a pizza restaurant when she was a little girl.
“I have been a gamer for a really long time,” Condis said. “When I was growing up, my dad was the manager of a pizza restaurant that had an arcade, so video games were always around.”
To Condis, video games were (and are) for everyone. But, much to her chagrin, that wasn't how others felt.
“I remember being surprised when I went to school in the first grade and was told, ‘Video games are for boys,'” she said. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about? I've been playing video games my whole life!'”
That mindset of “boys only” didn't dissipate as Condis grew up, either.
“I would reencounter that over and over,” she said. “I'd go to a game store and the person working there would ask, ‘Oh, are you shopping for a present for your boyfriend?' Or, I'd go into an online game and, when other players would hear my voice, they would say, ‘Oh my God, it's a girl!' and freak out.”
A brief history
The “no girls allowed” mentality Condis faced growing up wasn't how video games were originally intended. In fact, they were meant for the whole family to play.
“When video games first came out, they were marketed as something for the whole family to gather around,” Condis said. “Advertisements would show moms and daughters and dads and sons, and they'd all be playing Pong or whatever. And you would buy a video game console from Sears and it would be in the appliances section, like a stereo or a television.”
Soon, the video game market became oversaturated with different consoles and a plethora of terrible games.
“The video game industry in the '80s went through a big crunch where there were so many consoles on the market, people didn't know which ones to buy, and there were companies pumping out really crappy games,” Condis said. “The best example of that is the Atari 2600's E.T. video game. The game was so bad that they buried a bunch of copies in a landfill in New Mexico. So, the video game industry crashed, and everyone thought, ‘Oh, video games were just a fad. It's over now.'”
From family appliance to a toy for boys
When the video game industry made its resurgence in the mid-'80s – thanks to the now-world renowned video game company Nintendo – it did so by switching marketing strategies. Instead of being marketed as something families do together, video games were put in the toy aisle as something kids do alone, Condis said.
“When you sell toys, they have either the boy aisle or the girl aisle,” Condis said. “And, looking at data on who video game companies thought were playing games at the time, Nintendo said, ‘We're going to bet on boys. We're going to push all of our marketing toward boys.' If you look at video game ads from the '80s, you can see a switch where it goes from, ‘here's a family playing a game' to ‘here's a kid with a skateboard and he's totally tubular and he's playing video games.' So, I think that was the beginning of the boy era of gaming.”
From there, video game marketing became increasingly male-centric.
“It got even worse as that boy grew up,” Condis said. “In the late '90s, early 2000s, that boy was a 20-year-old man. Now, they're marketing video games to men, and video games have to be this masculine activity where they all have provocative female imagery in them or they're hyper-violent.
“I think a lot of women, even in the '80s, played video game consoles. There was a video game console in the house, so they played Mario Bros. or they played The Legend of Zelda or whatever. But in the '90s and the 2000s, the industry aggressively told women, ‘No girls allowed here. This is manly stuff.' And it wasn't just masculine. It was stuff that was actively pushing women out.”
Fast forward to the late 2000s. Condis was attending graduate school at the University of Illinois when a particular class caught her attention and changed the trajectory of her academic career.
“I was in an English literature program while in grad school and I knew I wanted to take a class on 20th century popular culture,” Condis said. “I initially thought about comic books. Instead, I took a class with a woman named Lisa Nakamura, who taught in our communication studies department. She was teaching a class on interactive literatures, role-playing games from the early days of the internet, hyperlinks text, the collaborative writing processes and stuff like that.
“And I remember thinking, ‘Wait a minute. Video games are something you can study? That's allowed?' I thought video games were goofy, silly things that no one would ever take you seriously if you studied them. I loved video games. They were my passion and my hobby, but it never occurred to me that this was a thing academia would be interested in until I saw a professor doing it. Then I was like, ‘This is it! This is what I've been waiting for.'”
Once Condis learned she could pursue video games as a legitimate research topic, she reflected back on her early gaming days when boys would tell her video games weren't for girls. Those previous interactions sparked the idea for her doctoral dissertation.
“I wondered what that ‘boys only' mentality was about,” Condis said. “Is there something about the games themselves? Is it something about the history of this technology? What is it that's causing this?
“I was very lucky my dissertation committee was willing to go down that road with me, explore and say, ‘This is sort of weird.' At least, it was a weird thing to study at the time. It wasn't something that belonged neatly in any particular department or any particular discipline.”
Condis' dissertation turned into the book, “Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Gendered Battle for Online Culture.” In it, Condis looks at the way online communities form and how they decide among themselves what their norms are, what values they want to promote and more.
“Some of it is the fan community working together,” she said. “Some of it is the industry providing tools. How does the presence or absence of certain community moderation tools influence the creation of that community? And, mostly, I look at these questions around issues of gender and race. So, what kind of presentations are possible within a virtual world, and what kind of values end up being developed around representation in virtual worlds?”
‘Everyone's welcome again!'
Just like before, the video game industry hit a wall. There are only so many men in the world, so the market was once again saturated. It was time to switch marketing tactics.
“I think a lot of video game companies realized, ‘Well, we've sold consoles to every 22-year-old bro who wants one. That market is saturated. If we want to sell more consoles, we're going to have to start reaching out again and pull other demographics in if we want to further expand our market,'” Condis said.
“That's when you got the Nintendo Wii. When that first came out, it was Wii bowling, and the commercials again were ‘the whole family can play – grandma can play Wii bowling.' It's the cycles of the market. It was, ‘Well, now we're back to this.' It was back to something the family gathers around instead of something the teenage son goes and plays alone in his room because it's just for him. I think that that's good.”
And while inclusivity in gaming is a good thing, it's hard for women who grew up in the “boys only” era not to be weary of an industry that actively pushed them away.
“It's one thing to just say, ‘We're not marketing to you,'” Condis said. “It's another thing to say, ‘We've been actively marketing to tell you that you don't belong here,' and then suddenly turn around and say, ‘No, come on, it's fun!'
“I know a lot of women who enjoy video games, but they would never say they were a gamer because they've so thoroughly internalized the lesson that, ‘Well, they're not really for me. I play them sometimes but games aren't for me. They're for an 18-year-old who plays Call of Duty all day.' And I think the industry is trying to revamp that image and say, ‘No! Everyone's a gamer. You can play games on your phone, and you're a legit gamer then.' It takes some time for that switch to happen. It doesn't just happen overnight, like, ‘Oh, everyone's welcome again!'”
Video games have come a long way since the days of Pong. The current, sophisticated technology allows for an even more interactive experience. Multiplayer games and battle royals have transformed the landscape, and gaming has become its own sport, known as esports. Now people watch others play video games the same way they'd watch football, basketball or other athletic events. While still somewhat in its infancy, some universities are embracing esports, including Texas Tech.
“I'm the faculty adviser for Texas Tech esports, which are our competitive, intercollegiate recreational sport teams,” Condis said. “We have groups of students who play Rocket League, League of Legends, Rainbow Six, Hearthstone and several other games. They represent the university the same way a rugby team or any other rec sport team might.
“They play other universities from all around the country. Just this summer, our Rocket League team placed sixth in the nation after being unranked when they came into the tournament. So, they surprised everyone and went super far.”
Texas Tech's esports team also has won a few national titles, too.
“We've had two national championship Hearthstone teams in the last four years or so,” Condis said. “So, we're a pretty competitive team. We're trying to figure out how we can grow and what kind of partnerships we can forge in order to help the team grow in terms of visibility on campus. A lot of people tell me they had no idea we had an esports team, let alone that it was extremely competitive.
“I'm their adviser, so I just help them if they're trying to schedule an event. I'm the person who says, ‘Oh, this is who you call in order to do that.' I just help them bureaucratically. It's a student organization so the students are fully in charge of running the teams, coaching the teams, doing their social media, everything. They're fantastic so any chance I get, I always try to say they are really awesome and people should check them out if they're interested in gaming.”
And the best part is, everyone is welcome.