When asked to describe the typical gamer, most people will probably imagine a teenage boy surrounded by junk food and his friends, but research has shown that 49% of the British gaming population are female. However, considering that almost half of the gaming community is made up of women, it is fascinating how negatively the industry represents and targets female consumers.
Much has been made of how women are portrayed in games by writers and critics, with recent controversies including the complete absence of playable female characters in Assassin's Creed: Unity - a position defended by its creators, who said that to include female characters would have doubled their workload. This is not unusual, with studies having shown that over 85% of all characters in games are male - something that, intentionally or not, tends to alienate female gamers.
Whether or not the reasoning behind such decisions is indicative of wider sexism within the industry is a matter of hot debate, but the fact remains that the vast majority of female characters that do appear in games present unhealthy messages in terms of unrealistic body image, behaviours and characteristics to players of both genders.
Even non-traditional games can be found pushing this agenda - it's not simply the big games studios. To take a recent example, the much-publicised release of Kim Kardashian's Hollywood app can be viewed as a bit of harmless fun, but at the same time, it is a product that, in spite of intentionally appealing to teenage girls, propagates the same negative gender stereotypes found in mainstream video games. Users are tasked to flirt with men who can elevate their social status, attend parties to be photographed by the paparazzi, and to start social media feuds with rivals within the game: there is no skill or strategy involved - celebrity is the ultimate goal, and is equated with success. With over 2 million downloads within its first few days of its release, the game is obviously hugely popular, but a problem arises when girls feel that these kinds of games with these types of characters are their only option, and that they are expected to act in this way.
This is what we want to prevent at Star Stable, by offering girls a safe, non-threatening (and most importantly fun) alternative gaming option. With its HQ based in Stockholm, Star Stable is a vast online multi-player adventure game designed to encourage girls (typically aged 9 - 16) to work together to solve problems and complete challenges, as well as explore a large-scale, complex fantasy world from horseback. The exaggerated and stereotypical mannerisms so frequent in female game characters are something that players will never find in Star Stable. Why should girls have to be passive damsels in distress, waiting to be rescued, or have to pout their way to success? To make this necessary, even in a gaming environment, patronises and belittles their abilities and worth.
With over two million players across the world, Star Stable users can play the game in Swedish, English, German, Spanish, Norwegian, French, Dutch, Russian and Polish. The international and social aspects of the game mean that girls interact with players from all over the world through the active social media communities around the game, as well as chatting safely with other users in their own country, helping each other through the game's many levels and quests. In a sense, Star Stable's sheer popularity demonstrates that there is significant demand amongst young women for a gaming environment that doesn't assume that a knight in shining armour has to arrive in order to solve a quest, or to save the girl stranded in the middle of a river - she is quite capable of building a bridge herself.
The ingenuity and creativity of our users is phenomenal: they create videos from within the game, teaching themselves HTML and coding in order to embed them in their blogs and share their experiences with the rest of the Star Stable social community. In this sense, technology and social media is now simply a part of everyday life, and gaming is an extension of this life for teenagers today. In reality, the girls who play our game are fiercely intelligent and independent, and they are active participants and consumers. It is this more than anything else that game makers should be celebrating given that these girls will grow up to be the adult gaming community of the future.
This attitude is something that other games, developers and companies such as Nintendo and Minecraft have seized upon, and that has proved to be hugely successful. Family-friendly games that do not promote gender stereotypes are very much the future for young gamers. After all, we wouldn't encourage our sons and daughters to mimic the arguably superficial and sexist role models found in many of today's games in real life, so it makes no sense to expect them to love a product that necessitates acting this way.