First, there was the suffrage movement. Next came the sexual revolution, reproductive rights, and tougher laws against rape and sexual violence. We’ve also seen gender equity gains in workplace rights, equal pay and better representation in Washington, D.C.
Lately, the fight for women’s rights has moved to a new battlefield — one where conflicts are typically resolved with swords, laser blasters and AK-47s, not legislation.
I’m talking about the video game industry. One happy side effect of geek and gaming culture’s widespread acceptance is that more women than ever are playing video games. A new study by the Entertainment Software Association reports that 45 percent of all gamers are now female.
The concern is not only misogynistic attitudes of programmers, but also the slings and arrows and F-bombs of some pretty angry men which females must endure as they game.
But more women and girls playing does not mean they’re entirely happy with what they find in games like “The Last of Us,” “Metro: Last Light,” and “Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.”
Welcome to a realm of “Digital Sexism.”
Despite ongoing progress, the industry is dominated by male game developers. That means that games often reflect the play styles and tastes of male gamers. It also means, in role-playing and first-person shooter games that involve a player manipulating the actions of a human (or human-like) avatar, there tends to be an overabundance of macho protagonists that players can choose from. No so much for female avatars. Some game publishers have said, point blank, “You can’t have a female character in games.”
If a game does include a female protagonist, her portrayal is often stereotypical. In the same way that male avatars usually resemble jacked bodybuilders on steroids, females avatars are routinely buxom and scantily-clad — unrealistically so. Elvish She-Warrior, you’re going to fight that troll in a chain mail bikini top and loincloth? Good luck with that.
These choices are largely male programmer’s choices, and in a fantasy game world, realism does not matter. But these issues matter to female players. The concern is not only misogynistic attitudes of programmers, but also the slings and arrows and F-bombs of some pretty angry men which females must endure as they game. Both casual and hardcore gamers of the fairer sex often find that the experience of fighting Nazis, zombies or orcs alongside men can elicit some pretty crude and deplorable trash talk. One gamer known as TheIneffableSwede recently reported her story of playing in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) and the abuse she received:
“Whenever I won against my opponents, which I did almost always, some male players would threaten to rape, mutilate, or even kill me (but rape was by far the most frequent threat). I reported these threats to the game operators, whose response was:
1. It’s your fault for choosing a username that reflects your gender. You should change your name to something that is gender-neutral.
2. If you are concerned about this, report it to the police.”
When female industry followers point out the gender bias, they also get trashed. In June, just before the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo known as E3, media critic Anita Sarkeesian pointed out on Twitter that Microsoft’s new Xbox offerings featured “zero games featuring a female protagonist.” She received dozens of hateful replies, ranging from the overtly sexist — “In general, men are better at battle rolls and other battle type stuff” and “Women don’t belong in video games” — to such zingers as “Relax … it will all be over soon.” When Sarkeesian wanted to fund a video to explore the issue of sexism and gaming, the harassment continued. The most disgusting name calling cannot be reprinted here.
It all suggests to me that men fear women encroaching on their digital turf. Gaming has traditionally been a men’s club house. No girls allowed. For some men, video games feel like a final realm where they can act like misogynistic brutes and suffer no consequences. The anonymity that the Internet provides — gamers don’t typically know each other’s real identities — provides a convenient shield behind which this cowardly sexism can thrive. Ironically, you’d think in a game world, it’s performance, not gender, that matters. But real-world sexism (and racism) bleeds into imaginary places.
Ironically, you’d think in a game world, it’s performance, not gender, that matters. But real-world sexism (and racism) bleeds into imaginary places.
Fortunately, there is hope. Not only are the raw numbers of female gamers now approaching a 50-50, male-female tipping point, but that same Entertainment Software Association study reports that adult women now outnumber the previously-lucrative “boys age 17 or younger” sector, 31 percent to 19 percent. That means this vast landscape of pixels — and video game marketplace — is changing and the industry will have to adapt to the changing demographics.
Moreover, we’re seeing the birth of a concerted effort to address the lack of female leads in video games. In July, a “game jam” by Corona Labs in Palo Alto, CA and a group called iamgamer was held to create “strong, female lead characters in games.” AKA, kickass female characters.
And there is another long overdue development afoot to make sure women and girls get credit for their “geek cred.” A recent public awareness campaign by a band called The Doubleclicks combats the nonsense that an extra X chromosome makes females second class geeks, nerds and gamers. In a sweet touch of revenge, a fan-sourced music video for their song called “Nothing to Prove” features gals of all ages holding up signs with personal messages such as, “I received my first console when I was nine years old” and “My Transformers played with my Cabbage Patch Kids.”
Like in other arenas of life, gender issues in gaming soon won’t mean a thing. The times, they are a changin’ — finally, not only on planet earth, but in other troubled worlds set in heroic, quest-laden pasts and distant, hard to imagine, post-apocalyptic futures, too.