This article was originally published on sidequestheroes.wordpress.com, the site is effectively defunct, so I'm republishing it here.
Video games are one of the most exciting advancements in recent years. A culmination of all that is great in the fields of art, technology, and storytelling. Backed by an industry that has seen exponential growth over the course of its existence, outpacing even Hollywood and the Music industry in the areas of profit and entertainment. But this growth is matched only by an alarming and increasingly common phenomena. From the very start of the gaming frenzy, there has been a very clear message put out by those core participants: there are no girls allowed.
The exclusionary sentiment that is carried within gaming culture has manifested itself in myriad ways over the course of the game industry’s short history. From marketing practices that focus exclusively on selling products to boys and men, to the general absence of viable female character represented within the games themselves. Unfortunately, the issue doesn’t stop simply at the exclusion of women. Were that the case, this would be a very different problem with a vastly different solution. Put simply, when blocking out the feminine voice is not sufficient, many groups within game culture will resort to harassment, both sexual and violent, the spewing of hate-speech, and degradation.
“The game industry is still predominantly male”
As there are problems in the culture, so too is there concerns in the very industry that caters to and supports that culture. The game industry is still predominantly male, in terms of workforce, the industry boasts a ninety-five percent male workforce. Many women in the industry are relegated to clerical positions and a select few actually lead their own software firms. Working conditions are atrocious and the women that do manage to enter the industry are often forced out by insufferable human relations and a cultural devaluation of the significance of the feminine perspective.
Many women that work in the industry are subject to a pervasive “macho culture” that rewards typified “masculine behavior” and admonishes perceived “feminine behavior”. Such imbalance can lead to a hostile work environment that is as damaging to the culture of games as it is to the industry itself. “The consequences of a hostile and sexist gaming environment are pervasive. Research in the workplace has found that a misogynistic atmosphere has negative consequences for both men’s and women’s well-being. Additionally, those that perceive a greater hostility toward women are more likely to leave their jobs” (Fox, Tang 5) This is to say that there exists a toxic working environment that is destroying the well-being of those affected as well as driving talented individuals out of the industry.
The lack of a strong, feminine voice in the industry is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the products that are produced. “The video game industry provides valued occupational work in the use of computer science and advanced software technology. But these prized occupations are dominated by men who design and create games strongly expressive of a culture that has been termed ‘‘militarized masculinity’’” (Johnson 579) This is why it is common to see so many games like Call of Duty and Battlefield that glorify this concept of “militarized masculinity”, overly-masculine figures that play to male-centric fantasies of testosterone-fueled violence. This is not only damaging to the women that attempt to enter this world and find nothing of themselves within, but it’s also harmful to the men that find themselves having shape their own values and personalities to fit the hyper-masculine standards these representations set.
“…female representations in games border on virtual porn”
The hyper-masculinization of games has led also led to more negative, stereotypical representations of women in the virtual space. In some cases, this has led to women being portrayed as “weak” or “ineffective”, but in others, it has led to highly sexualized representations. “In virtual worlds and video games, there is marked disparity in how men and women are portrayed. Female characters are more likely than male characters to be portrayed in a sexualized manner in video game advertisements, gaming magazines, game covers and in the games themselves. Although some argue that this content is “just a game,” scientific evidence suggests that there are both short-term and long-term effects from exposure to sexualized representations of women.” (Fox, Bailenson, and Tricase 2) Even in the cases that feature a female protagonist this disparity is marked.
In many fantasy games, players are given the option of choosing the gender of their avatar. While there are typically little to no differences between genders in terms of gameplay, one glaring difference lies in the representation of the characters. It’s common to see a male avatar clothed in heavy armor from head to toe, but female variations of the same equipment tend to be no more than undergarments with bits of metal tacked on. In some extreme cases, female representations in games border on virtual porn. The game “Dead or Alive” features cartoonishly-busted avatars slogging it out in lingerie.
This problem is endemic in the industry and the culture of games. It is in these ways that the breakdown between the genders in gaming becomes apparent. Men are socialized in games to be loud, brash and misogynistic, while women are taught to either be shrewish and unimposing or serve as sexual objects. This can make online-gaming a hazardous place for women to navigate. For many women, the only recourse is to mask themselves, as Brehm points out, “Often harassment results in female players choosing to hide their identities. Bringing any sort of attention to the fact that they are female can often result in unwanted attention with negative outcomes.” (7) This can cause women to become strangers in their own online communities, limited in their participation and effectively voiceless.
The exclusion, misrepresentation, and under-representation that women face when participating in games begin from the moment they step foot in the store. Advertising for games serves the masculine majority exclusively, under the impression that failing to play to cultural norms will result in sub-par sales. “Hypersexualized and objectified women, aggressive men, and signs relating to violence or war are effectively symptoms of a masculine-coded space or cultural object, not just content that this audience desires for its own sake; in other words, a masculine-coded space signals potential buyers that the game will meet the cultural norms for this type of game space.” (Near 12) Many advertising firms are afraid to stray from this formula for fear of alienating their base. These images and representations sell, and they see no reason to risk a potential outcry by challenging the accepted course.
“Quinn began to receive pointed threats containing accurate information on her whereabouts”
There are few within the industry that have come out strongly against these practices. Notable cases include Anita Sarkeesian, a media critic that made a series of videos addressing concerns of misogyny in games. She has since received death threats, has had her personal information stolen and distributed, and has had graphic depictions of herself being raped by various game characters sent to her home. Another would be Zoe Quinn, the center of the Gamergate controversy. At the height of the controversy, Quinn began to receive pointed threats containing accurate information on her whereabouts, forcing her to go into hiding. While this all seems extreme, it is a fairly standard reaction many “gamers” have to anyone who would dare speak out about the issues concerning games and their relationship with women.
It is for these reasons that many women involved in the industry find themselves being pushed out. They are forced into a position where their own safety could potentially be compromised and their only options are to comply or opt-out. With so many choosing the latter, the industry is faced with a mass exodus of skilled workers, each taking their own unique perspectives with them. Thus this leaves games designed by the very specific type of individual that can exist and thrive within this system, generally white-males. The large-budget, triple-a games that are produced by the industry juggernauts are overwhelmingly developed by this demographic and marketed to this demographic.
That is not to say there is not some hope. There is an ever growing “independent” game scene that has taken up a substantial portion of the industry. These are generally smaller studios that make smaller games to cater to niche audiences. Many of the tropes that are seen in mainstream games are thankfully much less common in the “independent” sphere. While this is no consolation to the vast influence of the mainstream gaming culture, it is evidence that games can be inclusive. The growing success of these “independent” upstarts is also a sign that the industry is shifting along with its consumers. The mainstream industry will have to soon take these things into consideration if it means to stay competitive in the changing landscape.
The biggest concern is how to apply the progress that has been made in other areas to the rest of the industry. It is a difficult prospect to convince an entire industry that their methods and practices, those that have netted them billions, can be improved. Much of this progress would have to come at the expense of a number of core consumers, although one can argue that those who leave are perhaps the more vitriolic and spiteful. But beyond simply convincing designers that change needs to be made, the mechanics of what and how to change must be addressed. There are a series of pitfalls that can be quite hazardous to those looking to better represent women in their work. One of the more common is the projection of a female avatar onto a hyper-masculine character. This propagates the idea that in order for a woman to be considered strong, she must exhibit stereotypical male ideations of strength.
A major series that better addressed equitable representation of gender was the Mass Effect series. Male or female, the protagonist faced identical situations, carried identical equipment, and had identical interactions. This, however, was as far as the equality was allowed to go. All of the promotional materials around the game featured only the male protagonist. This was especially noticeable for myself, as my version of the fictional Commander Shepard was a woman, or FemShep as she was known in the community. The male protagonist on the box art did not reflect my own experiences within the game. This was somewhat remedied in the third installment when they made a reversible case insert that featured the female Shepard, but the male representation was the default setting for the case.
“…kill the notion that games are something exclusive, only to be enjoyed by a select few”
Much of this is not new. Games have been made by men, for men, since their inception. Even when games were a children’s toy, they marketing leaned very heavily on the male demographic. As everything within the games themselves has grown and evolved, the only thing that has remained stagnant is their relationship with women. This is quite noticeable in the Tomb Raider series. Beginning with the 1996 original, the game’s protagonist has sported a gravity-defying bosom, an obvious attempt to pander to the game’s core, male audience. In 2013 a reboot was released that prided itself on reducing Lara Croft’s bust to a much more reasonable size. However, when I picked up a copy of the game, I noted the still waif-thin hourglass figure replete with features more suitable to the beauty standards of the new millennium. Nothing had actually changed for this character in terms of sexualization, but the team behind the reboot managed to change the minor detail they needed to pat themselves on the back as champions of progress.
It seems incredibly disheartening to think that such a magical technological innovation has failed so spectacularly in the face of this centuries old debate. To think that such a progressive medium is so far behind the rest of the entertainment world is as disgusting as it is shameful. The term “gamer” has become a slur for all those enlightened enough to see beyond the tip of their nose. This leads me to the conclusion that the only way forward is to destroy the “gamer”. To kill the notion that games are something exclusive, only to be enjoyed by a select few. If games are to move forward, they must be considered in the same way that other forms of entertainment are. That means that they must be open to critical interpretation and those that work and participate in the industry must shake off the outdated conceptions of what it means to enjoy games. The standard moviegoer is not put into a special class, nor are those that listen to music or read books. There is a dangerous prospect in people allowing their entertainment choices to define them.
In the end the only way for games to be inclusive is to actually include people, not just a small group of fanatics. This change will have to come from every level of the gaming world. The industry will have to strive to make the workplace a safe-haven of creativity and ingenuity for everyone that is interested in participating. The people in the gaming community must open themselves to new experiences from unfamiliar voices. Change is paramount to the survival of the industry. Without systems in place to bring people into the fold to share their passions and experiences, games will forever be toys to be played with exclusively by the privileged white men that create them.
Brehm, Audrey L. “Navigating the Feminine in Massively Multiplayer Online Games: Gender in World of Warcraft.” Frontiers in Psychology Front. Psychol. 4 (2013): n. pag. Web.
Fox, et al. “Sexism in Online Video Games: The Role of Conformity to Masculine Norms and Social Dominance Orientation.” Computers in Human Behavior 33 (2014): 314-20. Web.
Fox, et al. “The Embodiment of Sexualized Virtual Selves: The Proteus Effect and Experiences of Self-objectification via Avatars.” Computers in Human Behavior 29.3 (2013): 930-38. Web.
Johnson, Robin. “Hiding in Plain Sight: Reproducing Masculine Culture at a Video Game Studio.” Communication, Culture & Critique 7.4 (2013): 578-94. Web.
Near, Christopher E. “Selling Gender: Associations of Box Art Representation of Female Characters With Sales for Teen- and Mature-rated Video Games.” Sex Roles 68.3-4 (2012): 252-69. Web.