Friday, March 26, 2010

I Put On My Robe and Gamertag

By Annie Wright

04h 14m 9s...
04h 14m 8s...
04h 14m 7s...

I'm watching the countdown, bright red against a black background. It's not quite close enough to zero to be completely mesmerizing yet, but given the intensity with which devoted fanboys have been known to queue up for big events, I'm sure I'm not the only one who's tuned in this early.

No, it's not a bomb. Or at least, not a physical explosive device. It could be a bomb in the figurative sense, and part of me hopes that it is. What I am looking at is the dwindling time left until GameCrush goes live.

GameCrush is a site which allows you to arrange a paid "playdate" with a member of the opposite sex. In other words, for $6.60 per game, you can play on XBox Live with a hot girl. There is rumored to be a Flash option as well (no pun intended), with additional plans to incorporate PSN for those who are not XBox-inclined. Unfortunately, the public beta was not able to launch as planned due to server traffic issues. Which means that I was definitely not the only one with an eye on the countdown.
The site, which has already been dubbed "escorts for gamers" by many, allows johns customers to select between "flirty" and "dirty". Only time will tell exactly what the difference is, but I am forced to admit that I cannot see how it would be possible to be THAT "dirty" while gaming for a mere span of ten minutes. Perhaps this is what GameCrush is counting on to keep customers going, peep-show style. Now, here is where it gets tricky. I do not want my editorializing to be misconstrued as anti-feminist, overly feminist, anti-male, a criticism of sex workers, etc. I just know that what typically comes out of my mouth during gameplay could be interpreted as flirtatious only by the most dedicated of masochists, so my biggest question is "How does this work?"

Apparently, the girls keep 60% of the money from each "date", which can be somewhere around $20.00-$30.00/hr. Not bad. That's a pretty decent income by Seattle standards, especially if one is just "escorting" in addition to one's regular job, during the time which would have just been spent gaming anyway. Given this information, it's hard to feel as though any of the girls are being exploited. I found myself wondering if GameCrush was perhaps looking to fill the "tall nerdy ginger" niche, though I suspect I would be considered too foul-mouthed in game play to appeal to a wide range. Plus, I would not exactly put "people person" high on my list of qualifications.

So, assuming that all these things are true- gamer girls make money doing something they love, while tossing out a few kind words and bats of the eyelashes- why does this concept still not seem entirely ok? One thing that leaves a slightly bad taste in my mouth is the idea that after each date, customers are supposed to rate their dates' performances, and those with the highest ratings are then given special promotion on the site. I suppose this is better than letting the customers decide how much to pay their dates, but the idea of a ratings system just seems... gross. I mean, one could make the case that this is no different than monitoring any type of customer service communication: a call to the insurance agency or the bank. Those are monitored and often there is a request made by the company in question for feedback on the experience. That's not so bad, right? Except, what happens if the feedback here trends towards sore losers? Perhaps I'm alone here, but the second someone were to tell me that I had to lose on purpose, or to fumble the controller or something, I'd be inclined to tell them to shove it sideways.

At the moment, online gaming is still a dude's world (guys account for around 85% of XBL network), and not a single lady gamer I know hasn't taken a hefty dose of shit at some point just for being female. Sure it sucks, and it can feel like an obvious double standard. But on the other hand, some girl gamers may prefer it this way. Giving me a harder time than you do a "normal" player only means my victories are that much sweeter. Bring it. Which means that if the girls are forced to "throw the match" in the interest of keeping customers happy, it's doing the rest of us birds a disservice.

Why is it so important to us to fight our way into the boys' club? Well, for starters games fulfill a primal human desire that we (meaning ALL humans) don't always get at our unglamorous day jobs. I'm not saying that turning to an online gaming network is the only way in which people can find a validating experience, or that people who do participate in such networks do so to the exclusion of all else. Just that it's increasingly difficult for many folks to feel empowered at work, and the fact that this does not always happen is more a testament to the kind of jobs our society offers in general, as opposed to a lack of egalitarianism (just watch a few episodes of "Mad Men" and compare the secretaries to any woman found in today's offices. Holy Motherfucking Shit we've come a long way).

Speaking of egalitarianism, what is GameCrush's take on potential female customers? I mean, do they have dashing, debonaire male escorts for the ladies? The site claims that GameCrush is "designed for male and female gamers alike", but doesn't specify if there are any options for those of us who prefer dudes. Honestly, I don't know if there would be as lucrative a return in catering to the straight ladies (and what about gay men?) contingent, since straight dudes account for so much of the market. And I suppose I would be compelled to argue that the reason for THAT is partially due to deeply embedded gender-normative roles (you know, we want what we think we're "supposed to" want, like shoes and babies, or a pin-up-laden man-cave), and partially because a lot of marketing for games is still pretty alienating to women. As much as I know I'm going to get crap for this statement, it's TRUE. Not every woman whines about Kratos or thinks that "Uncharted 2" is a fucking movie. Come ON. It's called co-op mode, and there's no shame in it.

But the occasional misogyny of game development marketing isn't GameCrush's fault- they're just being savvy about their target demographic. Maybe their capital doesn't allow them to cater to the majority and a niche at the same time. In this economy, it's hard to blame them for not wanting to take too many financial risks, especially since their business is one that is completely original. There is no marketing research for "Online Gaming Escort Services", only for individual facets of what they are attempting to do. So with this in mind, maybe I need to reevaluate my initial reaction.

Perhaps, there is just a small part of me that LIKES being part of the elite club of Girls Who Game. Being a sub-culture within a sub-culture is usually enough to get its own panel at the nerd conventions, after all. With only a few sister fish in a small pond, we all look great, which is totally selfish and not even remotely helpful to the larger goal of bringing women to the mainstream gaming consciousness as something other than booth babes. Roping an entire gender (assuming, gentle reader, that you still subscribe to the whole "gender binary" idea, but that's another topic for another site) into a discussion panel can actually inhibit integration more than it facilitates it, because as long as "women in gaming" is a hot topic, it will never be the normal, not-special occurrence that we ultimately want it to be. I am anticipating a fair amount of facepalming for even bringing it up, but I beg those facepalmers to consider this with a little empathy. It is not as easy as you might think to walk into a crowded con that is 80-90% male, have someone cut in front of you at the playable StarCraft II demo because they think you're not "serious" enough to actually want to give it a go, and not feel discouraged. And the desire to Zerg Rush his ass.

Or perhaps, knowing that there is a growing contingent of females in gaming, and that many of them will be given a public persona as a result of GameCrush, I am thrown for a loop, because it will change the rules. And when I contemplate this angle, I'm actually fairly encouraged. Provided these girls are playing up to their potential, this could actually break down some long-held stereotypes. Maybe this will help eradicate the "novelty factor" of having both boobs AND a self-built, gaming-optimized PC.

So, I'm going to remain cautiously optimistic. Only time and server upgrades will tell whether this business venture will inadvertently bring females into the fold, or succeed in making money at all. Regardless, I can say only this- Ladies of GameCrush: GO FORTH AND KICK ASS.

And I.T. Staff of GameCrush: Give me a call if you need help with that server traffic, because unlike your lady-gamers, I still have an unglamorous day job.


Lori May said...

Your article makes mine look absolutely ridiculous in comparison. Fantastic job! I really enjoyed your input, too.

Annie Wright said...

I liked your article! I'm glad I'm not the only one who is curious about the impact this could have on us ladies within the larger world of gaming, but still is a bit apprehensive about how GameCrush will represent itself over time. Public beta's still down as of now...

Lori May said...

Thanks for the feedback! And you are certainly not alone. I am somehow not surprised they've already rearranged their focus of "PlayDates" = Female, "Players" = male. Now the press release says it's for both male-and-female players.

Sure it is.


Kirk Hamilton said...

We'll know things have balanced out when there is actually a demand among lady gamers for male GameCrush escorts.

Which I will be first in line to be, btw.

For $6.60 an hour, I'll compliment your every frag, offer you my medkit first, and will always let you play as Marcus. I am a great listener and I usually smell like frosting, because I love to bake.

Lori May said...

It's $6.60 every 10 minutes, actually. ;)

Annie Wright said...

And BTW, save your medkits for yourself- you're gonna need 'em! :D

Kirk Hamilton said...

Haaaa, I will do just that.

In all seriousness, $6.60 for ten minutes? That is steep, man. That's the cost of a whole new game just to play for an hour with a girl. If only because of the high price, I don't really know if GameCrush'll catch on.

But who knows... it's gonna be interesting to see if anything does come of it.