I'm a woman walking down the street alone. A man swaggers toward me and utters a sleazy come-on. I respond by leveling a gun in his direction and shooting him at close range. A gravestone pops up in his place, the epitaph inscribed with his last words: "I like your bounce, baby."
This is the world of Hey Baby, a computer game in which hordes of men call out pickup lines that range from fairly innocent ("Excuse me, do you have a boyfriend?") to pretty obscene ("I wanna lick you all over"). Players then choose whether to ignore the comment or shoot. The game's tagline: "It's payback time, boys."
Hey Baby, which was released in June and can be played for free at www.heybabygame.com, has raised some controversy on gaming blogs, as both men and women debate the validity of its public-service message about street harassment. Although some games are designed to provoke conversation and political action (Darfur is Dying comes to mind), Hey Baby differs in that it's designed strictly for women a demographic that until recently wasn't thought to be particularly interested in game violence.
Hey Baby, which was created by a female designer and producer from New York City, doesn't really offer anything new in terms of the level of violence we've seen far worse. What does surprise, however, is its reversal of the gender roles. With few exceptions (think Lara Croft from Tomb Raider or Samus Aran from the Metroid series), violent video games typically involve male heroes, and the action is largely male-on-male or, in some cases, male-on-female such as in Grand Theft Auto, in which male characters can abuse and murder prostitutes, and in Rapelay, a Japanese game in which the male character's sole pursuit is to sexually assault women.
Female-on-male violence, however, isn't common, but new research indicates that a surprising number of women might be drawn to such games.
A study released this summer by a researcher at Belgium's Ghent University polled nearly 1,000 gamers ages 16 to 24 to determine the difference in gaming preferences between women and men. This is important information for marketers; in 2008 alone the combined sales of video and computer games was $11.7 billion. And a huge percentage of these sales are the result of female gamers, since women make up 40% of gamers and 42% of online gamers, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Clearly, what women want in video games, at least matters.
Of the 344 females polled, Lotte Vermeulen, the study's author, found that more than half said they didn't mind shoot-'em-up stuff. "Women are not afraid of violence in games," Vermeulen notes. "This violence, however, needs to have a humorous undertone as realistic battle scenes tend to put them off."
That's good news for the game's creator, Suyin Looui, who says she intended the over-the-top violence to be seen as a joke. Hey Baby gives women "the space to act out their ridiculous revenge fantasies," she says, "and have a laugh about it."