This is a guest post by Stevie. Content warning for misogynist abuse.
There is a long-standing idea that women are a small, unimportant minority in the video game community. Recently, this idea has been turned on its head, and women now make up nearly half of video game consumers. This changing dynamic has been quite troubling for many male gamers. As women have become a larger segment of the gaming community, they have become vocal, and it’s causing quite a stir.
These women have been pointing out that mainstream gaming is still heavily misogynistic and that AAA game studios, armed with the ability to create literally anything, continue to put out games with the same protagonist: dark haired, scruffy, heterosexual white male. These women have noticed that when developing these and other characters in their games, studios refer to the same set of tired tropes and narratives, many of which perpetuate damaging stereotypes of women. These women, often self-professed feminists, have had the audacity to express their opinion, which is creating quite a bit of tension with “true” gamers (white, male gamers who like video games just as they are). These women have offended “true” gamers, and those gamers have responded with an impressive amount of backlash. Though these individuals represent a minority in the gaming community, it is troubling to note how they continue to proliferate throughout the community.
CHECK ON IT
The 2013 study on Sales, Demographic and Usage Data conducted by the Entertainment Software Association found that 45% of the United States gaming population are female. Still, when most people think of a “gamer,” their first thought is never a woman. We still think of gamers as a nerdy, glasses-wearing boy or young man with a passion for all things “geeky”. Over the past decade, this has changed with growing numbers of female gamers, among other marginalized groups, entering the community. However, within the gaming community, female gamers continue to be scrutinized on their knowledge and abilities, and if they fail, are accused of being a “fake geek girl,” and subjected to misogynistic character attacks. Aisha Tyler felt the brunt of this when she hosted Ubisoft’s presentation at E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) in 2012 with a slew of comments like this:
this is what happens when you let the jews and liberals infect your industry_ to inject “diversity” and “progress”
dont let them kill our games people
Tyler’s authority to host the event was called into question by individuals who knew nothing about her. Despite being an avid gamer, participating in numerous E3 events, and voicing characters in 3 major games, she was immediately discredited by trolls for no other reason than being a woman. In response, Tyler penned an open letter to the gaming community on her Facebook page, stating that she plays video games and will “still be playing when your mom’s kicked you out of her basement and you have to sell your old-ass console and get a real job.”
This harassment extends beyond public figures and is so commonplace that gamer Jenny Haniver records and documents her own experience with gendered harassment while playing various games (usually versions of Call of Duty) online. She posts them on her site, Not in the Kitchen Anymore, which she started in order to raise awareness on this issue and also to provide a space for other users to vent. On the site, you can listen to gamers make insightful inquiries like “You suck some fuckin’ nerd motherfucker’s dick to get that hack, you dumb cunt?!” or proclaim with great confidence “You’ve been reported, you dumb fat fucking cunt!” when they lose. My personal props to Jenny for putting up with this garbage. These responses are alienating to many female gamers, and is one of the reasons why I don’t game online outside of my friend circles. That way it’s much harder for bitter, defeated trolls to spill sexist vitriol to my face.
RING THE ALARM
While female gamers are on the rise, female developers have yet to arrive in the same numbers. The International Game Developers Association found in their Game Developer Satisfaction Survey that women make up just 22% of game developers. This is nearly double the percentage reported in its 2009 survey, but it still points to a stark reality. The lack of women in development roles directly contributes to the dearth of video games with women in playable roles. In fact, 90% of playable characters in video games are male.
Beyond that, it can even be challenging to get female characters in supporting, NPC (non-playable character) roles. Recently, at my studio, a male character was swapped to female, because, as the narrative stood, the entire first act of our game had no female speaking characters. While, the idea was met with positive responses, a few voiced their concerns on why we were adding female characters. [Paraphrased] We already have two female characters in the game, so why do we need another? To me, this was a strange question because we would never ask “why are we adding more male characters?” The reality of mainstream video games is that you never have to justify the existence of a male character, because men are the default and women are an optional feature.
This dynamic has been made obvious with the recent blunderings of Ubisoft at this year’s E3. In June, the studio announced that it’s upcoming installment in the Assassin’s Creed series, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, will feature a four-player co-op mode, a first for the series. However, that co-op mode will not include any female assassins. When pressed, Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancio stated, “it’s double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets… Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work.” This spawned the Twitter hashtag #womenaretoohardtoanimate, where countless users vented their frustration at this hand-wavey excuse for ignoring 50% of the world’s population and 45% of gamers.
— Zombin Mathews (@RobIsAWriter) June 13, 2014
Much of their (and my) frustrations also stem from the fact that Ubisoft already released a brilliant game in their series, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, featuring the first non-optional, playable, black, female character in a major video game. Clearly, Ubisoft has done it before, so why is it so hard now? Ubisoft has been boasting that the new combat engine in Assassin’s Creed: Unity will be significantly more robust than the previous games in the series. However, many, including Assassin’s Creed III animator Jonathan Cooper, don’t buy into the excuse.
All too often in video games, women are treated as little more than an accessory to a plot and as background decoration to a fictional world. Media critic and founder of Feminist Frequency Anita Sarkeesian, explores these and other tropes in her video essay series Tropes vs Women in Video Games. Her essays are painstakingly researched: she has spent thousands of hours playing hundreds of games to identify, document and analyze these games to discuss these tropes. Yet, for her efforts, she has been met with an alarming level of harassment and violent threats from some gamers. Most notably, after she posted her latest video, “Women as Background Decoration: Part 2,” Sarkeesian was sent personal threats troubling enough to drive her out of her own home.
I usually don’t share the really scary stuff. But it’s important for folks to know how bad it gets [TRIGGER WARNING] pic.twitter.com/u6b3i0fysI
— Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) August 27, 2014
Following these developments, Game Developer Conference (GDC) organizers also announced that at this year’s Game Developer’s Choice Awards in March, a bomb threat was made against Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian was to be presented with the Ambassador Award for her work, and the individual(s) making the threat wanted the reward revoked.
Similar threats were also made this past August against Depression Quest developer, Zoe Quinn. Shortly after the release of Depression Quest, a spiteful blogpost by Quinn’s ex-boyfriend led to allegations that she used her relationship with a Kotaku writer to garner favorable media coverage. Though these allegations were proven to be false, scorned gamers continued to lash out at Quinn by doxxing her and attempting to expose more of personal romantic engagements. The level of vilification applied to Quinn is most unnerving, because prior to the ex-boyfriend’s blog post, Quinn flew very much under the radar. Her game had only been greenlit by Steam, and reviewers had given it a resounding ‘meh.’ Quinn’s story instead reads more like that of the convenient scapegoat, tied to the pyre and forced to accept the blame for an issue that had long since been brewing in the gaming community. The concerns raised by gamers against Sarkeesian and Quinn, are the subject of the controversy #GamerGate.
Most recently, Head of Development at Giant Spacekat, Brianna Wu, was also doxxed and driven out of her home by members of the gaming community. Wu’s only crime, it seems, was to be an outspoken female game developer. On July 22nd of this year, she authored an opinion piece on Polygon called “No skin thick enough: The daily harassment of women in the game industry.” In it she details some of her experience with misogyny as a game developer, and examines 4 case studies of other women in the industry and their experiences. The accounts are graphic and incredibly upsetting, but her conclusions are rather insightful and speak of the unfortunate reality for women in gaming. The posting of the article coincided with the release of her game, Revolution 60, and her notoriety grew in the following weeks, but has long since died down. However, it seems certain members of the gaming community were not satisfied with their attacks on Quinn and Sarkeesian, and decided to spread the love. The concerns raised by gamers against Sarkeesian and Quinn are the subject of the controversy #GamerGate.
#GamerGate is the culmination of the deep-seated misogyny that runs through the underbelly of the gaming community and its largely baseless fear of corruption in video game journalism. The truth is that video games reporting is no more corrupt than movie or TV reporting. The producers and developers of entertainment and their critics and reporters all run in the same circles. It is, therefore, the job of reporters to be impartial, regardless of their relationships, and unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. As a result, #GamerGate parades itself as a champion for truth and transparency in games reporting while bullying, doxxing and otherwise harassing female games critics and developers as well as their allies.
As a member of the gaming community, I know it is important to note that these misogynists make up a minority, albeit a loud one. However, what does it say about video game culture when verbal sexual harassment and threats are an expected consequence of being vocal as a female gamer, developer, and/or critic? What does it say about an industry when these individuals can be fostered and thrive so easily? Clearly we are not doing enough as gamers to make our community open and inviting to marginalized groups. This is astonishing, because as gamers, many of us know, to some extent, what it’s like to be outcasts. It’s astonishing that for just having the audacity to point out biases and perpetuated stereotypes in the games we all love, Sarkeesian has been remade into the devil incarnate. Thankfully, there are other members of the gaming and nerd community, like Wil Wheaton and Tim Schafer, willing to take up the mantle of support for these women. These individuals and the countless others like them make me hopeful for the future of gaming, one that will be inclusive not just to women, but to all marginalized groups.
RUN THE WORLD (GIRLS)
I’m calling my fellow gamers to take responsibility for our community, even the awful parts, because we need to do better. A first step would be to not give audience to the trolls. Much of their power comes from engaging with them and giving them a platform. Beyond that, they are little more than noisy, bottom feeders. However, in a similar way, the noise we make for better representation in games isn’t going to do much either. Just like high budget film studios, AAA game studios are going to follow the money, and most of that money is going toward Action-Adventure First-Person Shooter/RPG 5 featuring dark-haired, scruffy, morally ambiguous, white male protagonist somewhere between age 30 and 50. We have to demand more than this and we have to do it with our wallets.
Here is a quick list of recent and upcoming games with awesome female representation:
- BioWare, Dragon Age: Inquisition
- Crystal Dynamics, Tomb Raider (2013 reboot)
- Dontnod Entertainment, Remember Me and Life is Strange
- The Fullbright Company, Gone Home
- Love Conquers All, Analogue: A Hate Story
- Naughty Dog, Last of Us and Left Behind DLC
- Quantic Dream, Beyond: Two Souls
- Square Enix, Final Fantasy XIII (3 part saga)
- Telltale Games, The Walking Dead: Season 1 and 2
- Ubisoft, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation
- I still recommend it, even though Ubisoft sucks right now
Games to avoid like the plague:
- Activision, Call of Duty (entire series)
- EA, Battlefield (entire series)
- Rockstar Games, Grand Theft Auto (entire series)
- Ubisoft, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Far Cry (entire series)
Unlike any other art form, video games have an amazing ability to enable everyone to experience narratives through the gaze of literally anyone. We should embrace and explore this, not reject it in favor of an overcooked status quo. As Sarkeesian states, “we are witnessing a very slow and painful cultural shift” and “some male gamers with a deep sense of entitlement are terrified of change.” For gaming to enter its next stage in history, they and the rest of us will have to accept this change. More than anything, I am thrilled to watch this cultural shift play out and ready to be a part of the new inclusive era in video games.
I’m a video game developer at a AAA studio. I graduated from Columbia University with a degree in Computer Science. I’m a self-taught (can be interpreted as terrible) guitarist and drummer. I hold a first degree black in Tae Kwon Do. I have been an avid gamer since the ripe young age of 4. I’m a hella gay dyke, angry black woman, and man-hating feminist.