The Complexities of Being a Female Gamer

Melissa Jean
Jun 5, 2019 · 10 min read
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Photo via Pixabay.

The industry and culture of video games has long been considered the arena of masculine and tech savvy men. In the past two decades, however, the medium is shifting to include women on both a consumer and developer level. Through women-run developing companies, all-female gaming teams and organizations, and the growing influence of feminine activism, women have become active patrons of the video game medium.

This is not to say that females are overtly welcomed to the world of gaming. Rather, they often find themselves met with demeaning remarks, negative stereotypes, and sometimes hostility. Female founded and led organizations seek to both train and empower women gamers to become industry leaders, with the goal of creating a more female-friendly environment. Women involved in these areas believe that including females in the design and creation stages of gaming will lead to greater female interest in the field.

Women have managed to gain a strong foothold in the form of active associations and a large online community. The culture and industry, however, continue to fall short in realizing gender equality. While women have made strides in the gaming industry, there are still powerful barriers, such as the hypermasculine culture and the social expectations of women, which prevent them from achieving equality.

The world of video gaming is a multi-billion-dollar industry that has evolved immensely over the past several decades. Where pixels once played a primitive form of tennis on a black and white screen, gamers can now gather companions, make enemies, and forge relationships with artificially-intelligent computer characters. As a result, the industry has been able to grow exponentially from year to year, reaching $43.3 billion in 2018 and surpassing the box office in entertainment revenue.

The video game industry, like any other major business in America, depends on growth and, consequently, has worked toward greater gender diversity for several decades. Despite being marginalized in the culture and industry, female players are inching toward becoming half the market, encompassing 40% of consumers. In fact, the average male and female gamer are pretty similar in most traits.

Women have been present in IT, computer programming, and engineering since the 1970s, but it was not until the mid-1990s that they made strides in the world of digital gaming. At this time, the feminist movement was in full swing, causing the video game industry to come under scrutiny for their masculine designs. Male developers asserted that women simply do not like games, going so far as to say the gender as a whole was technophobic. Females argued that designing stereotypical games for girls (pink, sparkling, and easy) worked against the goals of feminist organizations.

It was not until The Sims in 2008 that a video game managed to have a greater female audience base than male in a gender-neutral game. This was a groundbreaking moment in gaming as it showed that girls and women were intrigued both by playing and designing games. After years of developing and evolving, the industry finally saw women and girls as a chance for expansion rather than an impenetrable barrier.

Video games have now come to value both genders as a viable market and work to service the entire audience. This does not, however, mean all are equal in the world of gaming. Men and women engage as both consumers and developers in different ways based on their gender which causes discrimination in the industry and culture.

For the majority of its history, video game creators employed outdated beliefs in regard to masculinity and femininity. Developers often assumed women enjoyed watching versus playing, simple stories that help the greatest good, and receiving forgiveness when failing to complete an objective. Men, on the other hand, were thought to favor values associated with competition, such as winning and involvement

Modern games, however, often feature exploring, relationship building, and various forms of fighting, making them appeal to gamers in general rather than one gender. The rise in female enjoyment of top selling games, which often include intense rivalry on both a team and individual level, is proof that the old ideas of what women and men like are no longer correct, assuming they ever were.

Children, who begin gaming early in their life, can be highly influenced by gender roles created by society, causing them to adhere to the definition of masculinity and femininity as they are portrayed. The digital interactive platform allows them to practice various concepts involved in gender identity such as building a family or destroying a town without fear of repercussions.

Girls and boys then mature along these distinctly gendered lines. Boys use video games as a form of social acceptance, as they are almost expected to play digital games. They are then encouraged to value competition and various forms of aggression as they play.

Girls start off enjoying similar aspects of gaming, however, American culture teaches them that the medium is inherently masculine, a boys-only club. As a result, a feeling of being out of place begins in young female gamers.

The dichotomy continues between boys and girls as they come to describe themselves in terms that separate the genders. Boys will make statements like “I don’t like girl games” or “I’m much better than my sister” rather than mentioning their own skill set. Similarly, girls will downplay their urge for competition and winning to preserve the femininity that has been cultivated in them as their most valuable trait.

Contrary to these traditional masculine-feminine beliefs, when boys are removed from such discussions, girls speak freely about their passion for gaming, creating, and winning. The enjoyment of video gaming may persist for some girls, but they often censor themselves around boys to maintain their femininity. If girls continue to be gamers into adulthood they engage in gaming for the same amount of time as men. Therefore, if the initial masculine stigma can be overcome, women and men tend to have similar gaming experiences, with differences only arising when gender is a significant factor such as identifying as a female gamer.

To consider gender to be a set of binary categories based only on biology ignores the research that individuals, including gamers, encompass a spectrum of both masculine and feminine traits developed through social interactions.

“Hypermasculinity” is the exaggeration of masculine stereotypes such as aggression and hierarchal values. Men observing this standard feel the need to conquer others and become the best, demeaning those they defeat in the process. These actions, combined with the feeling of inclusion when a small subculture of the video game world is entirely hypermasculine, promotes a strictly masculine mentality with hostility toward aspects considered feminine.

Techno-masculinity began with technologically savvy men who wanted to avoid the nerd label while still engaging in computers and video games. Men in this arena took technology and video games and embedded an image of hypermasculinity into the content of games through unrealistic character creation and the marginalization of women.

There is a cyclical effect of men designing games while adhering to a hypermasculine ideology which in turn produces a hypermasculine culture. One way hypermasculinity is perpetuated in video games is the creation of highly sexualized and weak female characters. Representation of women in digital gaming generally takes on one of four personas: sexualized heroine, damsel in distress, unnecessary background character, or the enemy. Men simply do not want to play as a “damsel in distress” and women tend to be uninterested in the “sexualized heroine.” The result is hypermasculine male main characters dominating video game content leading to the exaggeration of masculinity within the culture.

An example of this aversion to feminine lead characters is found within the Mass Effect trilogy. Hailed as one of the best RPGs in modern video games, Mass Effect is a space odyssey where Commander Shepard leads a motley crew of mercenaries and military heroes to battle against a massive alien race set on total galactic annihilation. Gamers can choose at the beginning of the storyline to be male or female and can customize the character.

In the early stages of Mass Effect’s development, however, this was not going to be the case. Lead animator Jonathon Cooper said in an anniversary message to fans that he had originally designed Commander Shepard as a woman. The main reason BioWare (the developer behind Mass Effect) added the male counterpart is because they felt men would not be as interested in the saga if they were forced to play as a woman.

In 2014, another developer made it clear that female characters in games were not only less profitable, they were practically a waste of time. The company, Ubisoft, became the center of conversation at a global video game convention as it was preparing to announce the features of the latest installment in the Assassin’s Creed series. This series had become a best seller and it proudly attracted a large female audience.

These women, however, had grown bored of the stereotypical male assassin as the only playable character and called for a female lead instead. Ubisoft’s reply to its audience was criticized as one of the worst public relations moments in gaming when they stated such a character would not be possible because it “doubled the work”. The developer, who had already installed a myriad of women in their games as both friend and foe characters, attempted to hide their disinterest in creating a female lead behind the guise of inadequate resources.

In the video game social world, women are often sent to separate parts of the Internet and conventions to enforce hypermasculine ideas. Although there is an increase in women in developing agencies, the industry has failed to achieve gender diversity and equality through social barriers that make it hard for women to obtain professional success. Women are making strides in becoming vocal members of the digital gaming world, but they are far from reaching equality.

Women interact in the digital gaming culture differently than men, particularly in terms of how they discuss their identity and are viewed by others. Video games allow users to have both a physical and virtual persona: the one portrayed in daily life and an avatar, a character created and customized for gaming. These avatars are a chance for people to experiment with their identity and change attributes like gender and personality.

Female characters often receive different treatment than males. Sometimes, male gamers provide advice, objects to increase character statistics, and valuable items with the ulterior motive of procuring favorable or flirtatious responses from female gamers. Other times women are immediately talked down to and harassed. Therefore, women often do not consider it advantageous to reveal their gender in MMOs since men may harass them to the point of deleting a character account. Overall, women who are unable to combat the hypermasculinity in gaming tend to remain silent throughout their experience.

Industry statistics support the fact that women are influenced by the view that digital gaming is not for them. The International Gaming Developer Association (IGDA) first devised an industry-wide survey in 2004 known as the Quality of Life Survey. As of 2017, about 23% of video game professionals identify as female, a major increase from the 10% which existed through 2005–2010. The still low percentage could be due to lack of female confidence in entering the field as well as maternal expectations; 50% of respondents were married and 29% had children. Although the traditional roles of parents are evolving, society still places the impetus of raising children on women. The absence of a strong female professional presence causes women to be deterred from the gaming industry.

Women within the industry often are segregated to the roles deemed most suitable to their feminine nature, such as office work and public relations. Communication, negotiation, and marketing practices are considered “soft skills,” those which can be easily learned and applied to various tasks within a field. Women tend to fill these roles as marketing directors and public relations professionals for video games, which keeps them out of the realm of developing content, art design, and audio.

Therefore, video games do not become more diverse because the creators remain the males that grew up playing them, continuing the hypermasculine cycle. Also, programmers are often the highest paid members of a video game developing company; without more women holding this role, the highest and most prestigious positions are held by men.

Discrimination against females plays a large role in the gaming gender gap. Over 80% of those surveyed by IGDA consider diversity to be important in digital gaming. However, less than half feel the industry has become more diverse. In fact, 3% stated the industry is less diverse, and 22% were “not sure” how diversity has changed.

The rise in female involvement in the industry is proof that digital gaming is at a critical moment in its own development. The video game culture and industry needs to address how they deal with discrimination against women, with an emphasis on making females comfortable as gamers and creators.

Female activism within the industry has been successful in creating a supportive and exciting workplace for women in digital gaming. Women in Gaming International and the Women in Gaming Special Interest Group of the International Game Developers Association work toward training and empowering female games professionals. Girls Make Games has also emerged as an opportunity for young women to learn the technical skills needed to create video games.

Building a strong network of mentors and allies is essential to continuing the process toward equality while at the same time not isolating either gender. When women asserting themselves as female leaders work with men who have a foothold in game development, the video game industry can become naturally more diverse.

Also, women in the world of video games are open to discussing both the challenges and rewards of working in the field with their peers, creating a tight-knit network of activists. More women will be attracted to the industry when there is a greater number of females leading discussion panels, developing video games, and writing about their experiences.

The video game industry and culture are slowly moving toward gender diversity. However, there is a long way to go before equality can be attained. To design or cater to one gender over the other will mark the beginning of the downfall of video games. There must be a foundation of respect and activism within the video game industry and culture in order for women to become numerous peers rather than a marginalized few.

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Melissa Jean

Written by

Content junkie and digital enthusiast. Balancing a feminist perspective with a curiosity for technology, trends, and culture.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

Melissa Jean

Written by

Content junkie and digital enthusiast. Balancing a feminist perspective with a curiosity for technology, trends, and culture.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +773K people. Follow to join our community.

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