Issue date: 17 October 2003

ISSUE DATE: 17/10/03

Lecturer Helen Kennedy from the University of the West of England has just won a £10,000 grant to research computer games culture and those players – particularly women – who play online in ‘clans’.

The grant – from the Arts and Humanities Research Board – will enable Helen to complete her book entitled Game Cultures – Computer Games as New Media, and also to contribute a chapter to a collection of essays on Feminism in Popular Culture.

Helen’s work will include case studies on female fans and players of Tomb Raider, and on women who play Quake (“where high-ranking warriors are transformed into spineless mush.”). She is hoping to discover whether iconic figures such as Lara Croft have helped introduce women to technology through an engagement with computer games.

“There is a complex interaction between a female games character and the female (or male) gamer – it should not be assumed that a female icon is more likely to attract and sustain a female audience. In fact, some of the more macho games (called first person shooter or FPS games) have strong female followings, in international clans with members from New Zealand, Ireland and the US. These clans have played collaboratively and have assumed provocative names such as the ‘Psycho Men Slayers.’”

Helen is particularly interested in the high levels of skill shown in what was once thought to be male territory. In Quake, for instance, gamers can use software to create their own in game personas or participate in the design of particular levels for their own and others’ use – a process which involves intricate art work. Some clans have played collaboratively and successfully using the ‘skins’ (their in-game representation) which they have designed – their skills speak for themselves and defy convenient stereotyping.

There has been very little research into female gamers, female game characters and game cultures from a cultural studies perspective. Helen’s previous research on Lara Croft – published in 2002, seven years after the game first appeared – asks provocative questions about the role of the ‘active’ female heroine in challenging gender stereotypes.

“Much has been written about women and why they don’t go in for careers in IT and communications technology. Games are seen as a way of creating a familiarity with the skills required as well as helping to foster a positive attitude towards technology in general. However, the problem has often been addressed through producing ‘pink games’ – games featuring characters and activities seen as typically ‘feminine’ (Mattel’s Barbie inspired games for example). With the female Quake players however, there appears to be evidence of the emergence of types of technical competence and expertise through an engagement with a game world and game practice which is seen as resolutely masculine. Games producing is still a male-dominated world, although some women are starting to be recognised with awards for their game artwork.”

Helen’s research will take the form of joining online discussion forum, identifying skilled players and writing case studies on them. She admits that she started her research as an academic interested in feminism and cultural studies, initially critical of masculine game culture but has become increasingly fascinated by the range of interesting and diverse female gaming practices and game cultures.

Her final word on the importance of the industry: “It is highly significant part of popular culture – and is only now reaching a level of maturity. The industry is beginning to become self-reflexive through the work of groups such as the Independent Games Developers Association which provide support and affiliation for those producing alternative and innovative games and who seek to work with academics to encourage and develop critical thinking about games.”

Editor’s notes

1. Helen’s book entitled Game Cultures – Computer Games as New Media is due to be published by Open University Press in September 2004. This book is co-authored by Jon Dovey of Bristol University who has also received an AHRB grant for this project.

2. Helen’s article ‘Lara Croft, Feminist Icon or ‘Cyberbimbo: On the Limits of Textual Analysis’ published in 2002 is available online at

3. Helen was also one of the organisers of a recent symposium on ideology and games (Power Up) held at the Watershed in July – see for details.

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