Screen Robot: Sexism in Gaming [fully referenced]
This article was first published on Screen Robot on 13/05/14
There are three main ways in which sexism is ingrained in gaming. The first is at industry level, the second within games themselves and the third within gamers. In this article I look at each and suggest solutions that aim to reduce and eradicate sexism from gaming culture.
First: industry level. There is evidence that suggests women who work in gaming are underrepresented and suffer some of the worst gender-based harassment. Female gamers make up 45% of the gaming population; yet male game designers make up 89% of the industry and earn 23.6% more than their female counterparts. There have been many high-profile incidents of women being harassed by men in the industry. One of the most recent stories involved Josh Mattingly, CEO and founder of Indiestatik, publicly apologising and “stepping down” after sending a female game developer inappropriate and unprovoked sexual messages on Facebook.
People have claimed that women should just stand up for themselves and that speaking up against those that harass them should be enough to stop the problem. The #thatwoman hashtag shows that in speaking up, women are likely to be ostracised and have it limit their future career, so there is not always a clear cut solution. Perhaps the risk would be worth the overall benefits, but it is understandable why women in gaming don’t always feel free to confront those that may oppress or belittle them.
Similarly, the #1reasonwhy hashtag asked women to speak out about why they don’t feel comfortable in the gaming industry. The results included stories of groping and being constantly mistaken for assistants and receptionists.
What is there to be done about these problems? Firstly, it seems raising awareness is a key aspect in making change – the #1reasonwhy hashtag inspired #1reasonmentors, where people volunteered to help mentor women starting out in the industry. In publicising Mattingly’s behaviour he was punished and shown as an example that this behaviour is not acceptable. It would also seem that support from male co-workers would help shake off the stigma of sexism being a “women’s issue”. If a man speaks up when a woman is being discriminated against, it would not be seen as such a taboo subject and would help encourage other men to take sexism seriously too. As Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project says: “The battle against gender inequality isn’t going to be won with only half the population on board.”
Looking at games themselves is probably the easiest way to demonstrate that sexism is deeply entrenched within gaming. Women exist, in the majority of games, to be drooled over or to be rescued. Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women in Video Games series is a powerful and effective examination of how women are negatively portrayed in video games and, when talking about common narratives in part two of Damsel in Distress, Sarkeesian says:
“Engaging with these games is not going to magically transform players into raging sexists… however media narratives do have a powerful cultivation effect, helping to shape cultural attitudes and opinions, so when developers exploit sensationalised images of brutalised, mutilated and victimised women over and over and over again, it tends to reinforce the dominant gender paradigm, which casts men as aggressive and commanding, and frames women as subordinate and dependent.”
This is such an important point because there are barely any female characters that do not fit the description above. There is a blatant lack of female protagonists, and those they do exist, to put it subtly, are hardly dressed appropriately for their missions. If every male character looked this in games, there would be outrage – and rightly so. Thus, even when games do bother to make female leads, they manage to ruin them with over-sexualisation and by catering to what they think a male audience would want to see over that of a female audience.
Another glaring problem is that there isn’t the option to play as a female version of leading roles in the majority of mainstream games. Why is this? Some have suggested it is because it is not convincing or realistic for women to be in such powerful or violent situations, but this is based on nothing but damaging stereotypes. What about these badass women from history we never learned about in school? Are there not female soldiers, police officers and prison guards? And are there not prisons full of female criminals? Clearly women can be powerful and violent, so why are they treated like delicate flowers within the gaming scene? We have already established that women make up nearly half the gaming population, so it doesn’t make sense to neglect, exclude and polarise them in such a disproportionate and often harmful way.
Some have argued that women-led games simply don’t sell: games with only male heroes sell around 75% better than games with only female heroes. However, this is not due to the fact that people aren’t interested in female protagonists, it is because the gaming industry doesn’t promote these types of games. They receive 60% less of the marketing budget, so not only are they being set up to fail, they are also clearly viewed as worth little within the gaming industry itself.
There are also extreme games that have sexism and misogyny as their unique selling point. Japanese video games known as eroge are exactly that and 2006 saw the release of RapeLay, a game in which you play a male protagonist who stalks and rapes a mother and her two daughters. This game was available to buy through Amazon until 2009. Although not mainstream and now no longer distributed, the fact that this game was ever approved is terrifying and gives us reason to demand a healthier representation of women in the gaming universe.
The obvious answer to the problem of games themselves being inherently sexist is to give strong female protagonists a mainstream platform. How can the gaming industry justify its austerity towards female-led gameplay if it has never really given it a chance? It would also be great to reduce the amount of damsel in distress games that seem to dominate the market. By having helpless women as the norm, we are only making it harder to establish and legitimise strong, female leads.
Finally, gamers themselves are responsible for perpetuating sexism within gaming. Sites like Not in the Kitchen Anymore and Fat, Ugly or Slutty publish examples of the sexist abuse received by female gamers. These range from sexual propositions to death threats. Trolling is always going to happen online, but just because it is unavoidable does not mean it has to be tolerated. Even little comments, like telling a friend she is “pretty good… for a girl” can become annoying and offensive after the hundredth time of hearing it.
To tackle gamer issues, sites that expose trolls should be encouraged and shared. They allow for people to find solidarity after being victimised, and in shaming trolls we take away their perceived power and show how pathetic and bizarre their behaviour truly is. And instead of telling a friend she’s pretty good for a girl, how about just dropping the last three words? Small changes can make a big difference and treating girl gamers as equals won’t break the world; heck, it might even improve it.