By Lelia Erscoi
Let’s do a quick thought experiment: imagine a young boy, spending time enjoying his favorite hobby. What comes to mind first? Now, take the same scenario but, in this case, picture a young girl. If you were picturing a young boy playing video games in the first scenario, then you’re not too far from the truth: 80% of all young men report enjoying video games in their spare time (Cummings and Vandewater, 2007). If you imagined something completely different when referring to girls, then congratulations, you have probably (unconsciously) become a victim of gender stereotypes.
This is, unfortunately, a predictable reality. The video game industry has been almost exclusively targeted at and tailored to (young) men, which is also reflected in the advertising and the content they cover. This now billion-euro industry actively profits from stereotypes about women while simultaneously preventing them from engaging in it. Why are video games so women-adverse, and how does that reflect in women’s participation in the industry? To see the whole picture, we can rewind the tape all the way back to the invention of the personal computer.
When PCs were first introduced to the general public in the 70’s, they were not only a futuristic dream but also tools with the potential to empower otherwise marginalized communities (Taranowski, 2018). Especially for women, computers were a welcomed step in innovation, as they appeared at first glance to be a non-gendered technology, a blank slate that could be used to give access to knowledge and other resources. The prospect of breaking down gender norms encouraged many women to pursue a career as computer scientists, at the time amounting to 37% of the students (Taranowski, 2018). One of the ways computers became so popular was by bringing games into everyone’s home. This cherished form of entertainment, however, unfortunately, changed the perception and development direction of the computer industry.
By promoting themes mostly concentrated around war or science-fiction, soon enough video games and by extension computers became synonymous with men. This was in part due to gender stereotypes that perpetuate the idea that men are more agentic, more analytical, and competitive, therefore better at being leaders (Hentschel, Heilman and Peus, 2019). Men are viewed as more tough, better equipped to tackle mathematical problems, and more reactive to cold and sleek designs. On the other hand, women are more associated with communal traits, such as being kind and helpful (Hentschel, Heilman and Peus, 2019). They are expected to step up as caretakers and to adhere to the societal standard of beauty. This gender binary filter implied that video games were not an adequate place for girls, let alone the Computing Science field that was already dominated by men. The loneliness felt by women at the workplace (Ren and Olechowski, 2020), coupled with the sexism that still paints STEM fields as being “for men, by men” started a declining trend for women which lead to them making up only 19% of CS students today (Sanders).
Nowadays, video games are more polarising than ever. Once more, this seems to be a problem on two fronts. On the one hand, it is an issue about how the industry is advertised as a ‘boys only zone’. The other main player in this issue is the way women are portrayed in games.
Only one word is needed to paint the picture of the androcentric state of video games: Gamergate, the name of an online harassment campaign. At the peak of it, women were sent rape and death threats if they so ever dared to be associated with the term “feminism”, and were doxxed (their personal home addresses were leaked) at the smallest comment about what should be done to allow games to be accessible for everyone. Gamergate was a conversation that escalated from video games to a hateful discourse aimed at every woman with an online presence (Jane, 2016).
It all started when game developers Eron Gjoni and Zoe Quinn were going through a break-up. Wanting to enact revenge, Gjoni vented his anger by writing a hateful piece where he fabricated information on Quinn, claiming that the only reason her games were acknowledged was that she had slept with numerous game critics to gain favorable reviews. This resonated with the predominantly male fanbase of video games, who already saw women as outsiders to their space. What started as a domestic issue quickly propagated itself to affect all women working with video games. Gamergate saw a threat in women trying to develop better, more inclusive games. The proportion of this bigoted crusade was huge, with some claiming it even contributed to Donald Trump being elected to office (Sherr, 2022). People were marking women as targets, to the point where they were forced to fake online profiles, for example identifying as men in an online space, in order to be safe. It didn’t matter whether they were just casual gamers and not actively participating in feminist issues, nor whether they identified as more tomboyish than girly. The overwhelming statement was that no girls were allowed in video games (Jane, 2016).
While the community is still recovering from this campaign, storylines and character designs in video games themselves continue to encourage such sexist attitudes. There are more alien or animal-like characters than women, and the vast majority of those female characters are portrayed with significantly less clothing than their male counterparts (Beasley and Standley, 2002). It is a widespread joke around gamers that the only armor a female character needs is her big breasts. Such sexist portrayals have deep-rooted effects in society, such as cognitive schemas that influence how children see themselves in the world (Lemons and Parzinger, 2007). Sexualization of girls from even disturbingly young ages and the monopolization of STEM fields by men are only 2 of the consequences of such game designs. However, when games are targeted at a predominantly-male audience, hollow female characters remain popular.
One other important dimension to this problem is how women navigate being a professional gamer. Many platforms offer the opportunity to monetize playing video games, one of which is Twitch. While this is a strongly regulated space, hate campaigns against women gamers are still prevalent. Only recently, popular streamer Pokimane was attacked after fellow streamer JiDion directed his fans to her channel to harass her as a “prank”. When this resulted in him getting banned from Twitch, his fans joined forces with other angry gamers to send her even more hate messages, arguing that the only reason JiDion was punished is because Pokimane is an attractive female streamer and thus in the graces of Twitch. JiDion even tried stopping people from defending her, stating that there is no need to since “she’s not going to fuck you” (Patterson, 2022).
Video games are a billion-dollar industry that still capitalizes from hurtful stereotypes and by gating off the community to appease their avid male fans. As long as women are still associated with expectations that come along with the term “girly” and sexualized for their mere presence in online spaces, video games will continue being off-limits for them. There is hope, however. There have been attempts to move video games in a more healthy direction. “Life is Strange”, for instance, is an interactive story adventure game with a strong, independent female protagonist who is exploring her time-traveling powers and her relationship with her best friend. “Dream Daddy” is a dating simulator that differentiates itself from the mainstream male-lead, female harem plot by introducing the protagonist as a single father looking for love by going on dates with other hot dads. “That dragon, cancer” is an immersive story about coming to deal with grief, proving that games can be entertaining in educational and thought-provoking ways.
Video games are being seen more and more as a serious hobby or profession. This, in turn, is bringing more awareness to issues such as the misogyny in the industry. This might be the best time in history to reclaim video games as a space not only meant for the cis white male. If you consider yourself a gamer, maybe take some time to think about what it means to you as a person, how it shapes the people around you, and what preconceptions you have unconsciously adopted. Even if you know nothing about video games, getting to know the sexist practices in this industry is a great step towards empowering marginalized people in the community or even understanding why you personally never got into gaming. It is an active choice to be indifferent to how video games profit from stereotypes and gatekeeping. After all, for people that don’t fit the standard, this is more than a game.
- Cummings, H. and Vandewater, E., 2007. Relation of Adolescent Video Game Play to Time Spent in Other Activities. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 161(7), p.684.
- Taranowski, H., 2018. Publishing feminist voices in and through technology. Feminist Voices in Technology, [online] Available at: <http://helentaranowski.com/FVT.html>
- Hentschel, T., Heilman, M. and Peus, C., 2019. The Multiple Dimensions of Gender Stereotypes: A Current Look at Men’s and Women’s Characterizations of Others and Themselves. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.
- Ren, K. and Olechowski, A., 2020. Gendered Professional Role Confidence and Persistence of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning Students. ASEE’s Virtual Conference.
- Jane, E., 2016. Misogyny Online. SAGE Publications Ltd.
- Sherr, I., 2022. GamerGate to Trump: How video game culture blew everything up. [online] CNET. Available at: <https://www.cnet.com/news/gamergate-donald-trump-american-nazis-how-video-game-culture-blew-everything-up/>.
- Beasley, B. and Collins Standley, T., 2002. Shirts vs. Skins: Clothing as an Indicator of Gender Role Stereotyping in Video Games. Mass Communication and Society, 5(3), pp.279-293.
- Lemons, M. and Parzinger, M., 2007. Gender Schemas: A Cognitive Explanation of Discrimination of Women in Technology. Journal of Business and Psychology, 22(1), pp.91-98.
- Patterson, C., 2022. JiDion hits back after Twitch ban for Pokimane harassment. [online] Dexerto. Available at: <https://www.dexerto.com/entertainment/jidion-hits-back-after-twitch-ban-for-pokimane-harassment-1740408/>.
Cover photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash