by Daphné Leprince-Ringuet
“I’m safe. Authorities have been notified. Staying with friends tonight.” That is what media critic Anita Sarkeesian tweeted on 24 August 2014 when she was driven from her house after receiving serious death threats.
She had been working on a YouTube series – “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” – in which she analyses the video game culture from a feminist perspective. Her conclusion that games are mostly designed by men and for men did not go down well with some players.
For some, her critique of the recurring “damsel in distress” cliché and the denunciation of the use of women as “background decoration” were reason enough to abuse Sarkeesian. Things quickly escalated from hateful comments to online games about beating her up.
Sexism Is Prominent In The Gaming Industry
Speaking out against the culture of sexism in video games comes with risks; that is partly because it is a socially ingrained issue. Lara Croft’s unreal body measurements are well known.
When looking at the gender distribution of game developers, it is not difficult to put two and two together. According to data website Statista, only 21 per cent were female in 2017.
A League of Legends player, who plays under the pseudonym El Gragassón, this lack of diversity is endemic to video game culture:
“The world of video games is still very sexist: in mainstream games, you can’t find a single heroine that is not sexualised. So when a girl immerses herself in something that is not designed for her, she is the one making the effort,” he says.
“Making the effort” that is, crucially, the everyday reality for female game developers.
Mary Borsellino is a game developer based in Melbourne. She explains that the industry is immensely hostile towards women, especially those trying to change the conversation.
“We have to work twice as hard to be our own advocate in the space. It can be very exhausting and demoralising at times. And while I have never felt threatened personally, I am hyperconscious of the risk. I have seen colleagues have to deal with it a lot.”
And What Does The Research Show?
Research undertaken by Michael Heron, Pauline Belford and Ayse Goker in 2014 shows that the gaming industry effectively sustains a cycle of female exclusion. From X-Blades to Bayonetta through Batman, it is evident that young men are attracted to video games specifically designed for them, and thus go on to become the next generation of game developers.
Pauline Belford argues that this is directly reflected in the games: “Iconic characters are always male. Even when there are female protagonists the characters often look like male fantasy figures. They always wear skin-tight clothes and have larger than average breasts and perfectly symmetrical features.”
Yet women enjoy gaming too. And while they do not make up for the majority of players, they are equally likely to be interested in strategic, adrenaline-fuelled games such as League of Legends or World of Warcraft.
But many of the options available to them are games involving half-naked female characters and derogatory plots where women are recurrently objectified.
There Is A Large Female Gaming Community Present
World of Warcraft player Nevaisen confirms that the female audience, while not as vocal as the male community, is definitely present – in fact, the “Girls who play WoW” Facebook page is on its way to reach 34,000 followers.
“Every time I hop on,” says Nevaisen, “I meet four or five girls in the span of 30 minutes. A lot of girls enjoy this game, they like the strategy, they are smart, and then that experience is run through the mud because of the way women are portrayed.
“I don’t enjoy the game as much as I could, and that’s unfair.”
Whether or not the gaming industry and community are ready to change is open to debate. Cases like that of Anita Sarkeesian show that there is little ground for optimism. From his experience of playing, El Gragassón draws the grim conclusion that “diversification is not likely to happen soon, unfortunately.”
But for researcher Michael Heron, the backlash suffered by those who try to make a change is only indicative of a minority of “status quo warriors” who are increasingly worrying that a new generation of gamers is effectively shifting the conversation.
He says: “They lash out, and they are the most vocal, but at best what they are doing is delaying the inevitable. It doesn’t really matter if the game industry is ready for diversification. It’s coming whether the industry is ready or not.”
It does come at the cost of having online video games to beat up feminist critics; perhaps that is the sign that diversification in video game culture is well overdue.