Why are there so few Womxn Gamers? Written by Gwendolyn Faker

The sexism and discrimination we see in gaming is a self fulfilling prophecy; while video games and advertising were initially gender-neutral, advertising began to narrow its focus to young boys as a target market following the video game crash of 1983. Since then a toxic culture has grown up around a mandate of exclusion and discrimination.

The sexism and discrimination we see in gaming is a self fulfilling prophecy; while video games and advertising were initially gender-neutral, advertising began to narrow its focus to young boys as a target market following the video game crash of 1983. Since then a toxic culture has grown up around a mandate of exclusion and discrimination.

Where critics and curators are the gate keepers of the art world, in gaming, well, it’s just dude bros (also known as broflakes). They’re the gamer archetype we all know and loathe; the straight white man aged 13-35 shouting obscenities into a headset ‘schooling newbs’ and shouting about how he’ll ‘face fuck your mum’. For the past 30 years we’ve watched as womxn and womxns bodies used as bullseyes, objects of sexual desire, props, plot-points, trophies and decoration. Honestly it’s tiring, and a big turn off for many would be gamers.

Hi, I’m Gwendolyn, I’m 30 years old(so I was born just after the Atari Shock of ’83). I identify as queer and non-binary/gender fluid and I’ve been gaming since I was 4 years old. I’ve been plugged into a NES, a SNES, a Sega, a Gameboy, a N64, a PlayStation, or an Xbox console for most of my life, playing adventure, role playing, puzzle, and PVP fighter games. I’ve whiled away hours in front of a computer screen! Playing old school DOS games when does games were still new school. I’ve played Myst, Oregon Trail, Sims, and in my late teens had a brief but passionate tryst with the MMORPG World of Warcraft that culminated in a 26 hour long binge and the resulting re-evaluation of where my life was headed. I’m no stranger to board and table top games and have known to throw down in Settlers of Catan as well as RISK despite my abhorrence  for colonisation and war and I once sustained a concussion while playing a Monopoly.

Nowadays I don’t play as often as I used to, but I make a point of staying up to date with what’s new, and what’s happening in the industry, especially when it comes to technology, and issues of diversity and representation.

The latest statistics show that 48% of females play games, and 50% of males play games, so why does it seem womxn are still being excluded from gaming?

“Statistically gaming is very male dominated in terms of whose making the games … and how the subject of the games are swell… so you have these groups of dudes who don’t think women should be involved [in] gaming or think we’ve only just got interested in gaming so they have this sense of well we played games because we were bullied in school and it was a way for us to escape being the geeks, how dare you come in all of a sudden and care about games and try to change them, this deep sense of entitlement [of] this is our den our boys club and how dare you try and infiltrate them.”Anita Sarkeesian, Feminist Frequency

If this sounds familiar it may be because these same attitudes exist about womxn and ART. Sylvia Stone, when answering the question posed by Lina Nochlin ‘Why have there been no Great Women Artists?’, wrote of there being ‘…a sneaking fear of being called a man hater or having the label of penis envy slapped on them in this Freudian age, perhaps they just enjoyed being one of the boys. But these feelings are slowly turning around…’ this self policing, and self doubt, are direct results of this exclusionary culture and it’s disparaging of attitudes towards womxn in gaming(and art).

In terms of evolutionary psychology we know that “female-initiated disruption of a male hierarchy incites hostile behaviour from poor performing males who stand to lose the most status” and it’s been SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN “men who harass women online are actually losers” but that isn’t little comfort when you’re being told to ‘show your tits’ in exchange for gold on the busy a market streets in Ironforge.

The changes we’re seeing (growing diversity and representation) haven’t come about on their own. They’re not a benign development. They’ve been fought hard for.  Thanks to critics and academics like Anita Sarkeesian, Kishonna Gray, Emma Vosen, Kellee Santiago and Jennifer Jenson, we are finally starting to see the industry evolve past it’s caveman attitudes.

But like all social change there is backlash: #GAMERGATE.

While industry professionals have pointed the finger to condemn the #GAMERGATE ‘for damaging the video gaming community and the public perception of the industry’ they’re also partly responsible. In 2007 a study by Miller and Summers (2007) found that, “Of the 49 games included in the analysis, 282 male humans and 53 female human characters appeared, indicating 1 female for every 5.3 male characters”. They’re the ones creating homogenous content, and they’re the ones marketing it. A 2016 study showed nearly 75% of the industry was male. They as the makers of games are reinforcing the idea of gaming as a ‘boys club’ with just about everything they do right down to their hiring practices.

Admitting there’s a problem in gaming is the first step, the question is where do we go from here? The industry itself so far seems unwilling to admit the role they’ve played and would rather point the finger elsewhere. If they could I’m sure they would take #GAMERGATE, and everything it’s dredged up and brought to the light of day, and have it buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in New Mexico like so many unsold video game cartridges.

Thirty years after the Atari Shock, and the subsequent shift in the marketing of video games(from something for everyone to something just for boys), the industry has FINALLY begun to accept what the statistics that have long shown; WOMXN PLAY VIDEO GAMES. It took something as extreme as #GAMERGATE to get the industry thinking about how it treats womxn and the effects that has had on broader cultural attitudes.

Sweet Art put together a panel of womxn gamers and get their ideas and opinions on gaming, their experiences with gamer culture, and what changes they’d like to see;

  • Bernadette, is 31, a Writer for a popular online gaming media outlet, and a Mom.
  • Sarah, is 27, is a lesbian, and works as Theatre Artist.
  • Kelly, is 30, a hairdresser and creative. She has OCD, depression, and Multiple Sclerosis.
  • Penelope, is 23, is studying for a Bachelor of Design (Games), and currently works for a technology company that develops free-roam virtual reality systems.
  • Laura, is 28, an Artist and Arts Educator.

What’s the first game you remember playing? How old were you? How did it make you feel?

Sarah: My mother has a photo of me when I’m incredibly young, [maybe] 2 years old, with my brother (6 years my senior) playing a game on the NES. In this photo, I’m happily sitting next to him with a wide smile, clutching the controller for player 2, and clearly have no idea what I’m doing. I’m willing to bet my brother let me button mash my way through my early childhood. I also remember going to my Aunt’s house for family dinners, where my oldest cousin had a SNES, and I’d be allowed to play it for a while after supper, usually playing Yoshi’s Island, probably because I thought Yoshi was a cute character. I’d have been around 6 or 7 at this point. The first time I remember gaming leaving a lasting feeling with me, though, is when Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time came out for N64. I was at the house of a friend whose father owned the local video store, so they always had access to the newest movies and games. They’d hooked up a projector to the system, and I remember standing in the basement as my friend’s older brother rode around Hyrule, showing us Link’s moves, Epona, and the songs you could play on the Ocarina. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. The graphics were beautiful when I compared them to anything else I’d played, there was a cute horse you got to have as your companion, and the melodies on the ocarina had me entranced. Needless to say, I was hooked, and the rest is history.

Bernadette: I’m 31, have had a mild obsession with games since I can remember and find that it both alienates and brings me closer to people. I’m not great at making friends my age and find that is often due to a lack of mutual interests: I don’t care about your kitchen remodel, and you don’t care about my speed run times! It’s hard. My 11yr old son is on the spectrum and has always had a knack for strategy games and video games. It makes having something in common so easy for us while also giving me joy to see my little nerd excel at something. I don’t play online anymore; I have kinda been scared away. I get addicted and spend too much time so that when I end up having a negative experience in something I have invested so much time and energy on, it really bothers me and turns me off the game. I write for [an online gaming media outlet] and have for several years, but I struggle to break into anything more in the game world as I’m not tech savvy, I’m a writer but don’t know how to get more involved. Games are life!

Laura: I never actually grew up with any games. My parents refused to buy me and my sister any gaming consoles apart from a shared original game-boy. It was technically my sister’s so I could only play it every now and then, until she quickly lost interest (being 3 years older than me). I collected more and more games and defeated each and every castle and saved every princess with vigour. When my parents visited their friends, I’d go just so I could sneak up to their attic and play on their SNES (that I still pine over). As I got older I would sneak onto my father’s laptop to play wheel of fortune or “you don’t know jack”, even though I never truly enjoyed trivia games. Basically I got my unknown fix wherever I could. By the time I was a teenager I had developed a taste for gore. Being a goth-y teenager in a small town, I was frequently teased… So I would play PC games to try and escape the reality that was my teenage years. Now that’ I’m an adult I always feel the pang to play, but feel like I rarely have time to actually play. I still stick to PC games, simply because I kick serious ass in them, and I tend to fumble a bit with console controllers. Looking back on my childhood I now realise that gaming was a means to deal with General Anxiety Disorder, which I was officially diagnosed with in my mid twenties.

What games do you play most (RPG, PVP, MMORPG, BOARD, etc)? What are you favourites? How do you chose which games to play?

Sarah: I’ve had so many favourites over the years. These days I would say I mostly play RPG or MMORPG games. Some old favourites include Harvest Moon 64, Ocarina of Time, all Pokemon games, Majora’s Mask and a good game of Smash Bros. or Mario Party when with a group of friends. Recent favourites in the last few years have been The Last of Us (the story of and bond between Joel and Ellie had me in tears by the end), Skyrim (for the vast landscape, epic story elements and immersive sense of fantasy), Witcher 3 (I was really invested in Geralt’s story both as a Witcher and as a man struggling with the relationships he has with those around him), Uncharted 4 (the gameplay was so fun, and the sense of adventure and excitement was incredibly addictive) and, most recently, Horizon Zero Dawn (for its look into mankind’s use of technology/how far is too far, the examination of mankind’s connection to the Earth itself, and also for its feminist protagonist.) I’ve always played other games like Animal Crossing, Minecraft, Just Dance, Guitar Hero, Destiny and the like, but those are more titles I play for fun or with friends. The ones I’ve talked about more thoroughly in these answers are the ones that keep me playing week after week, and really fuel my passion for gaming.

Laura: Typically the games I chose are based on reviews, or how it looks. I know the saying “never judge a book by it’s cover” but sometimes you just want something with dark hallways and crazy weapons, not fields of butterflies. That being said, I like user reviews. If it’s extremely popular and seems mentally challenging, I’ll give it a try. It has to have a good story line or purpose. I don’t like doing super repetitive things with little outcome. I tend to like creepy-ish games. There’s a cool one that’s coming out soon that I’m really excited for, called “We Happy Few”. It looks exactly like the type of thing I’m into.

Penelope: I like a range of game types. My favourites tend to be social party games, or PvE games of any platform. I enjoy spending time with other people and those games enable that. I also love sim games such as the Sims or Animal Crossing. I like making things and personalising them. I look for games that have an appealing art style, interesting story, or are based around an interesting idea. It also depends on how socially progressive the game is (how is gender portrayed? Does is reinforce negative stereotypes of race, gender, sexuality etc?)  For example Dragon Quest looks super fun and cute, but I hate the way the people are drawn and so only tried it once. Games that reinforce negative stereotypes of any type (gender, race etc) through art/design I’ll also be less likely to play, or feel comfortable with. Games with exceptional design (characters, animation, art, everything) such as Overwatch and Breath of the Wild I am extremely attracted to.

Gwendolyn: I have never been able to play first person anything, it makes me so nauseas, I have dyspraxia so that may have something to do with it. I’ve lways preferred games with a story, something that let me be someone else for a few hours and see and do things I’d never done before. Games like Harvest Moon, Monster Hunter, Ōkami, Fable, and Monster Rancher are my favourite titles. That being said I love PVP Fighter games like Eternal Champions, Bloody Roar, and Street Fighter, mostly because as a kid they allowed me to beat the shit out of my siblings. I like cute games, and I would be lying if I didn’t say art didn’t play a HUGE part it what I chose to play. Now I am more discerning about what I play than I was as a kid or even as a teenager, I won’t play games that rely on tropes or perpetuate stereotypes.

What has changed since you first starting gaming?

Kelly: My view of games and the kinds of games that I like vs the type of games I thought I would like. I really like The Darkness and Farcry which are pretty horrible in terms of story and all that. I don’t believe in “putting aside your feminism” to watch/play/whatever, basically consume something that doesn’t align perfect with your feminism. I mean, let’s be real, if I were to do that I’d literally watch nothing. I guess I’m a lot more into violence that I imagined and also I’m a run straight into the danger vs hide n’ wait until it passes type which surprises me.

Gwendolyn: When I started gaming everything was so basic, clunky 2d 16bit was the newest thing and now we’ve got these games with totally immersive 3D world. We have virtual reality games now! I think though, the really disappointing thing is that while the technology has been hurtling into the future faster than the speed of light attitudes about gaming and gamer culture hasn’t progressed passed dial-up. It’s old fashioned, and if you do something you’re ‘not supposed to’ like play while female you get this horrible non-sensible screeching sound. Games are still marketed almost exclusively to men and boys, most titles are still shoot-em-ups and when we actually do get an expansive sandbox game(GTA) it’s full of sexism, rape, and racism, which means I sure as hell am not playing it. I think now post Gamer Gate we’ve seen game makers start to recognise that they’re part of the problem, and have started to make changes.

Penelope: Games are getting a lot more inclusive. For example Pokemon Red was also one of my first games, now in Pokemon I can choose my gender and skin colour where I could not before. There is also a little bit more diversity in the main characters of AAA games. Games companies are being held more accountable for lack of diversity. With indie games and the increased choice around games, there’s no one way to be a gamer anymore, and it’s easier to find diverse games in both gameplay or characters.

Laura: I think the community has changed since I first started gaming too. It’s more acceptable now for literally anyone to be a gamer without being pressured or tested regularly on how much they know. People realise now that it’s fun. It’s a release, an escape. You still get the idiot that tries to call you out, but I think there’s more variation of people with access to games now, which not only widens demographics, but also makes gaming more acceptable and less challenged in society. It’s like reading Fifty Shades of Black on the subway: Everyone knows you’re reading porn, but it’s totally acceptable. Does that analogy make sense?

Do you see yourself represented in Games? Do you feel included in the ‘Gamer’ community? What still needs to change? What would you like those who create games to know? What would you like to see in the future?

Penelope: I tend to avoid most gaming communities. Most public gaming events I’ve attended I have felt uncomfortable at, being almost always the only girl. Also being queer, non-monogamous, and not-white leaves me feeling safer and most comfortable gaming with friends or people whom I know are good. I sometimes see parts of myself being represented, and each time is like a breath of fresh air, and I feel a little more like myself. I generally see this through custom character customisation allowing me to be female or have dark skin. I never see my non-monogamous side portrayed in a positive light.

Laura:  I always felt sort of strange. Boys would hit in my in-game because I was a girl, or they’d make fun of me and I’d gank the shit out of them. In real-life a lot of people saw it as a ploy I think: “fake gamer girls” and all that. More so now than when I was a teenager. Back then I was a huge tomboy. I didn’t fit in with most “stereotypically girly” things. It just didn’t feel right. As I grew older and discovered more about myself and what it meant to be me, I learned to embrace them. As a (mostly) straight cis female (still wear all black and looove makeup by the way) I tend to get picked on when people find out I’m a bit of a nerd. I read comic books, play video games, (I also play roller derby, and the bagpipes). Those things help make up who I am. Yes I have people challenge them all the time, particularly guys. I get asked typical questions to “challenge” us apparently “fake geek girls”. Just because I don’t know the exact name and clip size of every single weapon in all the games I’ve ever played, doesn’t prove anything. I feel uncomfortable telling big gamers that I like to game because since I got a “grown-up job” I don’t play as much. That makes me judge myself, assuming that they’re judging me. Plus I hate looking like an idiot by not being able to follow along chit chat on games I don’t know anything about. It just perpetuates the “fake gamer” stereotype, like I’m supposed to know every game. It sucks because I do like talking about the games that I play, and that fear of bringing it up to people definitely hinders me.

Kelly: I’d love less slurs, [and] more gender diverse characters – especially if you’re creating a character physically – why should the first thing you have to choose be “male” or “female”? It’s outdated and boring. If I can be purple with green spikes a square jaw and GIANT tits what the fuck does gender have to do with it? If you’re telling a story, or you want to tell a story but that story isn’t your experience for the love of satan please either don’t tell it or find people who’s story it is to make sure you’ve got it right. I would like men to stop being gatekeepers. I would like more Ashly Burch… that’s just me being a sucker for funny, smart, nerds. I would [also] like Fallout 4’s township building element to not suck.

Sarah: There are many games on the market today that I’ve played and raved about afterwards. I think the tech is sitting in a good place these days. Game controls (for the most part) feel intuitive, the graphics are cool, there’s a lot of good design work and attention to detail in many of the titles I’ve played in the past year. I think the industry has to be careful about getting a bit complacent; I’ve played games recently where I’ve had the thought of “oh this bit of gameplay here is exactly like what so-and-so did in that other game.” That’s all just from a mechanics point of view, though. In video games, as in TV, movies, real life in general, the main thing I’d love to see is more representation. Of all people, of all genders, races, sexualities, classes, etc. It could be my identity as a gay woman, but I want to see more ladies kickin’ ass and takin’ names! So many developers are taking time to really flesh out characters and give them compelling story arcs, it’d be nice to see this diversify and continue to be a part of what makes games so great.

We’ve spoken to the players, the makers, and the critics and there seems to be consensus; games are important, they’re a big part of a lot of womxns lives, but the culture and attitudes around womxn in gaming are lagging.

There are still battles to be fought and as we’ve seen; womxn are playing to win. With more and more womxn entering the industry everyday from all sides it won’t be long before we’ll have defeated the final boss(sexism).

Written for We Are Sweet Art by Gwendolyn Faker