Addressing the Issues for Women in Gaming – The Who, Why, How, What and Where.
Although we in the Western World certainly appreciate a more equal standing between men and women compared with that of days gone by, it is still nonetheless important for us to take the time to consider what more we can do. In terms of the gaming world the subject of women’s roles in both the industry and the games themselves has been a hot topic as of late; so to follow the celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8th we to take a look at our industry, some of the concern women face today in games, and the work that is being done to address it.
[Note: considering the potential for animosity on this subject, we feel it’s necessary to point out that a focus on ‘women in games’ is aimed at encouraging reflection on our industry and gaming culture; it is not meant as an attack on our beloved pastime or fellow gamers, and does not act to devalue other discussions on issues concerning the gaming industry or culture.]
Who is the gaming community of today?
The face of gaming has changed a great deal over the years; there’s been leaps and bounds in technology, we’ve moved from arcades to the home then back outside ‘on the go’, and the pastime has opened up to engage people worldwide. In recent times the issues surrounding women in our industry have bubbled up to both the delight and ire of gamers around the world, but why is it that these topics are being raised more often? The 2012 release of the Entertainment Software Association’s ‘Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Games Industry’ indicated that females now make up 47% of the gaming audience, and 48% of the most frequent game purchasers. It also found that despite the perpetual stereotype of gamers as squealing adolescent boys (don’t worry, we know not all teen gamers are like that), it turns out our community is actually made up of significantly more women over the age of 18 (30%) than teenage boys (18%).
But what does this mean for the gaming community? Well, to begin with it indicates that despite the general view of gaming as a ‘boys club’ or an area uninteresting to women, the community is in fact far more diverse than we give it credit for. It also helps to show why topics on ‘women in games’ are popping up more regularly; these issues directly affect almost half the gaming population, and likely resonate with many more. As such it has reached the stage where we, the gaming community, need to come together to discuss (not argue over) the experiences, concerns and hopes of the female portion of our community, so that we can continue to develop the industry and culture for the benefit of all those within it.
Why do we need to talk about ‘women in gaming’?
As mentioned earlier the inclusion of women in society has certainly improved from yesteryear: apparently nowadays female folk can be independent, work and even vote (madness!). But now that some of the more obvious differences in equality have been changed, it can be difficult to notice the more subtle aspects that seem so normal yet help maintain the status quo. In the recent #1 Reason Why uprising, men and women from across the industry came together to reflect on the various reasons why (in their experience) there aren’t more women in gaming. Although the concerns raised may not have affected everyone, it provided a glimpse at the little things that can add up to make almost half our community feel out of place.
A summary of some of the issues on the minds of female gamers and industry members include:
- The feeling that games are ‘not for you’ (despite being almost half the population) due to the prevailing depictions of and roles played by female characters;
- Negative presumptions about the interests and skills of female gamers (i.e. generally not good at playing games; they don’t play ‘real’ games; only have certain interests);
- Prevalence of sexual harassment (both physical and verbal) in the industry and the potential negative repercussions for victims who report it;
- The prevalence and acceptance of intimidating, abusive behaviour towards women specifically because of their gender (i.e. in game chat, in response to opinions online, in tournaments);
- The lack of visibility and recognition of women currently in the industry, and in turn the assumption that this is related to inherent interests or lack of skill;
- The acceptance and defense of sexist elements of the culture, without willingness to empathise with the affect it has on women in the industry;
- The significant difference in wages between men and women across the industry, and the assumption that it must be solely based on skills;
- The assumption that seeking to discuss or address issues in gaming that concerns women equates to changing gaming for the worse, is an act of hatred against men folk and/or is an attention-seeking behaviour.
Of course this list is by no means exhaustive nor does it necessarily reflect all aspects of the gaming world; it does however stand as a brief glimpse into the experiences and concerns of a significant proportion of gamers. These are part of the lives of our fellow gamers, the people with whom we co-op, raid, explore, compete, and share our experiences; as such these are issues that we all should look at, seek to understand and one day fix.
[It is at this point in the article that I foresee some readers feeling frustrated, perhaps feeling that we are implying that the culture/industry is inherently sexist, or perhaps that problems affecting men / other groups are nonexistent or less relevant. This is of course not the case, as gaming is a part of culture that is constantly evolving and there will always be areas we can improve upon. At this moment in time, on International Women’s Day, one such area upon which we can focus and work together, is the place of women as gamers and developers.]
So how are gamers raising these issue?
Whether you regularly browse forums, occasionally read gaming articles or even casually glance at social media, you would have likely noticed a number of discussions popping up on the topics of the representation or roles of women in games. The increase in reports, projects and community conversations around ‘women in gaming’ is a sign that we are willing to listen to the experiences of our fellow gamers, ready to acknowledge the problems that may exist in our pastime, capable of calling out instances of sexism when we see it, and are unafraid of making changes to gaming for the better.
Some of the more recent discussions to take over gaming channels include:
- The lack of women presenting at the Playstation 4 event, and why people noticed;
- The #1ReasonWhy there aren’t more women in gaming tag on twitter, followed by the supportive #1ReasonMentors and #1ReasonToBe (in gaming);
- The reference to a ‘feminist whore’ skill in the code for a female character in Dead Island;
- Backlash over the Dead Island Riptide ‘Zombie Bait Edition’ which was originally set to feature a collectable torso of a woman, reduced to a bloodied stump with breasts;
- The use of ‘attempted rape’ in the new Tomb Raider for character development;
- The hyper sexualization of violence against women in the Hitman: Absolution Nun Trailer;
- Borderland 2’s reference to an easy skill tree as ‘Girlfriend Mode’;
- The abuse and harassment aimed at Anita Sarkeesian for a Kickstarter campaign simply about discussing the representation of women in games;
- Continued conversations over ‘booth babes’ at gaming and technology events.
Even for those who don’t agree with, or are unconcerned by a particular issue, simply engaging in a (civil) discussions can allow for us all to better understand games, the industry and those within it. Granted there are still people resistant to acknowledging any problems in gaming but by maintaining an open dialogue, the community as a whole can continue to develop and mature (aside from those in it ‘for the lolz’, but perhaps they’ll move on to a different form of mischief).
What has been happening in gaming to support women?
Despite the various problems that arise from outdated perceptions, oversight and misconceptions, the gaming industry and culture are by no means hotbeds of hatred. Gaming gives back a great deal to us gamers, in terms of unique experiences, interesting characters and a whole lot of fun; there have also been many attempts towards supporting women in games. The efforts of community members and industry professionals are both heartening and encouraging; no discussion around women in gaming would be complete without recognising the hard work that’s being done.
Some of the positive ventures worth noting include:
- The Women in Games International organisation was founded in 2005, as a response to the call for greater inclusion of women in the game industry;
- Since 2008 Sony Online Entertainment have been running the ‘Gamers in Real Life’ (GIRL) scholarship program to encourage girls to get into the gaming industry;
- In 2011 EA added women to the NHL games lineup, following a letter from then 14yr old Hocky fan Lexi Peters;
- The ADA Initiative was founded in 2011 with the aim of increasing the participation and status of women in open technology and culture;
- Women in Games Jobs was also incorporated as a ‘not for profit’ in 2011, and just today published ‘The Top 100 UK Women In Video Games’ list in partnership with MCV UK.
- In 2011 Halo 4 developers spoke out against sexism, and vowed to do everything they can to encourage Microsoft to address the issue;
- The website Fat, Ugly or Slutty began in 2011 as a means of highlighting the abuse experienced on a regular basis by women in online gaming;
- More gaming news sites such as Kotaku and GamerRanx are seeking to raise issues associated with women in gaming;
- The collaboration of industry professionals through the #1ReasonMentors tag to develop a list of mentors for women/girls aspiring to enter the gaming industry;
- Anita Sarkeesian has discussed her experience of harassment at TEDxWomen, and her first Kickstarter-funded video in the Tropes vs Women series has been released today;
- Today also marked the launch of the WIDGET – Women In Development (Games & Everything Tech), a not-for-profit organisation supporting those underrepresented in the fields of development and technology’.
[There’s likely many more that those I can think of, so feel free to let me know if there’s something else that needs mentioning!]
So where do we go from here?
For millions of people around the world gaming is a beloved pastime, yet for a significant part of that population the love of gaming comes bundled with extra disappointments, concerns and fears. Although we may not always reach an agreement on details such as the appropriateness of a particular game elements or degree of need for a particular initiative, it is important for us as a community to continue to discuss issues surrounding women in gaming. Even if an issue does not effect one of us personally, we owe it to our fellow gamers to listen to, recognize and acknowledge their experiences, and support efforts to better the gaming experience for all.
There are many benefits in equality that we enjoy in the Western World, but one that we still need to strive for in gaming is the equal value of men and women as gamers, and as games industry professionals. If we continue to listen to our fellow gamers and call out sexism when we see it, then we can continue to improve the gaming experience for everyone.