Women and gaming: cultural myths & their impact on society

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The following is an essay written by Virginia Streit as part of course work for her Master of Communication degree. Virginia loves gaming and is particularly a fan of Halo and Knights of the Old Republic.


The cultural myth that video games are played almost exclusively by males is perpetuated by game design and player behaviour, leading to female player exclusion from the gaming ‘boys club’, denying them the benefits of play, while normalising sexism in ‘real’ life.


It is commonly believed that video and computer game players are mostly male (Bryce & Rutter 2002, p. 243) (Sveningsson 2012, p. 428) and that the few female players who exist generally play ‘low-status’ games (Sveningsson 2012, p.437), such as card or board games, or games which have been specifically designed for the female market, often called ‘pink’ or ‘girl games’ (Dickey 2006, p.788). As the already $20.77 billion games industry grows and girls and women are proven to be an increasingly large proportion of participants, it is important to look at the gender dynamics, exclusionary behaviour and its effects upon the gaming community.


Girls and women make up a large proportion of video game players, and their numbers are increasing. In 2013 the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) released a report stating that 45 percent of American gamers are female and women over the age of 18 represent a significantly large proportion of game players (ESA 2013, p. 3). In the same year, Microsoft reported that 38 percent of Xbox users were women, and that 51 percent of those women were mothers (Soper 2013). ESA membership includes 35 of the industry’s most influential contributors, such as Capcom, famous for the Street Fighter and Resident Evil series (www.capcom.com/), Konami who produced both survival horror Silent Hill and the more adolescent friendly Yu-Gi-Oh! (www.konami.com.au/), and Ubisoft whose games included television series licenses such as CSI, as well as historical adventure Assassins Creed and puzzle game Myst (www.ubi.com/). The ESA data shows that puzzle, board games, game show, trivia and card games, followed closely by action, sports, strategy and role playing games make up the most frequently played online games (ESA 2013, p.4). Bestselling video games were of the action and shooter genres, while the best selling types of computer games were role playing, casual and strategy titles (ESA 2013, p.8). The popularity of strategy and role playing games, the diversity of companies who contributed to the ESA data, as well as research establishing female players’ preference for rich narrative, engaging characters, communication and collaboration, and use of strategies and skills (Dickey 2006, p.790), suggests that women don’t just play Bejewelled and Angry Birds (Sloat 2013) but are members of the gaming community as a whole.


The ESA report also shows that 62% of games are played socially, either in-person or online (ESA 2013, p.5). This essay will focus primarily on online video and computer games. In this environment male and female players must interact. Sometimes gender remains unknown, sometimes it does not, and sometimes the revelation of gender identity can cause problems for the player.


Video and computer games provide players the opportunity to experiment with their identity. In the virtual environment, a gamer can often customise their avatar, the visual representation of their gaming self. They can be male or female, tall or short, dark or light skinned, have tattoos; even often play as an entirely different species. Gender swapping among both men and women happens more frequently than one might expect. For example in one group of World of Warcraft players, 23 percent of men made the switch. Reasons given by male gamers for playing as females generally focused on the aesthetics of the character’s backside which they would be watching for the duration of play (Yee 2014). In other cases players might be simply experimenting with different identities: they already are who they are in real life, and the purpose of game play is the immersion into a fantasy world (Grayson 2014a).


Playing at identity provides opportunities for self-exploration beyond the narrative of the game itself and is afforded by the fact that the players of an online game are geographically separate. Without being able to see each other, there is no judgement based on looks and socially predetermined physical qualities, which means that marginalized groups, such as women, can be accepted in the game environment based on merit alone (Lister et al 2009, p.270) (Bryce & Rutter 2002, p.250).


However the assumption remains that players are white and male, regardless of their avatar’s appearance, and being exposed as female can mean loss of respect from male players. For example, when asked by a researcher whether she divulges her gender to others when playing online, one survey participant answered that she only tells them once she gets to know them, adding that she has noticed a difference in how she is treated once her gender is revealed and that “gender always becomes an issue” (Sveningsson 2012, p. 435). Another study compared reactions to a female voiced player, a male voiced player and a voiceless player in the online multiplayer game Halo 3, which allows gamers to talk to each other through headsets. The differences were pronounced: in general the female voice received three times as many negative directed comments than the male voice or voiceless player. Use of gendered language was particularly notable. For example, when the female voice said, ‘hi everybody’, responses included ‘shut up you whore’, and when she said ‘alright team let’s do this’, the response was ‘fuck you, you stupid slut’ (Kuznekoff & Rose 2012, p. 551).


While a game environment can allow a certain freedom to play with identity, through the mindset of both those who developed the game and those who play it, this environment continues to perpetuate the misogynistic behaviour and cultural boundaries which many women suffer in real life (Yee 2014). Perhaps the mistreatment of female players is heightened by the very anonymity which protects their identities, since male players have no reason to fear repercussions from their abusive behaviour.


How women are depicted in games, in terms of physical appearance, behaviour and playability has become a much studied and discussed topic. In a 2009 study of the top 19 most popular games, 11 had both male and female characters, while 6 had no female characters at all and the remaining two were driving games without any characters (Mou & Peng 2009, p.927). The study looked at the packaging cover imagery, official game trailers and introductory sequences, finding that white, male lead heroes dominated the games studied, while female characters were mostly in supporting roles, either being rescued or providing assistance to the male lead (Mou & Peng 2009, p.928). The study points out that “the representation and portrayal of female and minority characters might have significant impact on the players, especially adolescent players who are in the developing stage to form their self-identity, self-image, gender role perception, as well as their expectation of and attitude toward the other gender…” (Mou & Peng 2009, p.929).


The impacts of female representation in games can be seen in commentary on forums. Dead Rising 2, a shooter game set in a zombie apocalypse, features female zombies who attack the player (who must play as ‘Chuck’, a white male) by getting on their knees and proceeding to presumably attempt oral sex. One forum thread which discusses the reason for this behaviour, includes commentary from users such as “because Chuck’s a famous motocross star. Chances are the remaining bit of brain in the girl recognizes him and does what comes naturally” and “it’s only skinny female zombies…fat chicks don’t do that and guys don’t” (GameFAQs 2010). Elsewhere on the same website, when a member asked “why do all the female zombies in this game try to bite your balls off”, a response, “as do all women”, was met with agreement and laughter by the other participants (GameFAQs 2009).


Game developers have a responsibility to create characters and scenarios that avoid negatively distorting players’ views of women, regardless of how tempting the ‘sex sells’ notion might be. One developer came under fire recently for ordering a Metal Gear Solid 5 game character to be more “erotic” (Siddiqui 2013). The character, who fights in a desert battlefield alongside her armoured and fully clothed male peers, wears little more than a bikini and fishnet stockings. The outfit seems hardly reasonable for the setting. Her name is Quiet, which is apt, because not only is she mute in the game, but she is a representation of the idea that the over-sexualisation of female game characters might contribute to why so many female game players choose themselves to remain invisible; quiet. Misrepresentations of women have the potential to affect how female gamers are treated, which will increasingly become a bigger social issue as the popularity of multiplayer games rises (Kuznekoff & Rose 2012, p. 542).


Online and networked game worlds are presumed a male domain: technology is viewed as masculine. Reason and the mind has been linked with masculinity as far back as the Enlightenment, when the search to define the human essence concluded that it was man’s ability to reason that set him apart from animal. The conscious use of the word ‘man’ excluded women from the notion of reason, connecting them instead with irrationality and nature (Toffoletti 2007, p.21). Technologies such as computers, are products of the reasonable mind: developed through science and mathematics, the programming language and knowledge of electronics required to understand them seems far removed from the nurturing roles women are traditionally associated with. Specifically to games, both the hardware used to play them as well as their content may further the notion that they are designed for male users. Portrayals of women as damsels in distress or objects of the male gaze (Dickey 2006, p.787), reveal the games’ intended audience. However this association of machines and technology with being male has no connection to any physical difference in the sexes; it is the product of generations of systemic cultural indoctrination (Toffoletti 2007, p.22).


The physical locations of where games are played also play a crucial role in this boundary dispute between the sexes. Once played in the arcades, public gaming spaces now available include gaming competitions, pop culture events and LAN parties. These locations are considered masculine domain, where girls and women are rarely expected, with the notable exception of ‘booth girls’, who like the game characters they dress as, are there as eye candy for male participants. Female players who attend these public events experience behaviour “ranging from belittlement as ‘only girls’, to patronising female competitors through the well meaning provision of prize giving” (Bryce & Rutter 2002, p.249), while at LAN parties “females are not supposed to be visible and claim a space, and when they do, they get interpreted as being stuck-up” (Sveningsson 2012, p.434).


Women have been traditionally bound to domestic spaces, while “visibility in public spaces has traditionally been the privilege of men” (Sveningsson p.434). Even when played at home however there is an assumption that games are for boys. In a dialogue captured by one study, a girl tells of her difficulty completing a game and calling on her brother for help. He shows her or “just does it” and the girl remarks that he then “pushes me off and goes the rest of the game. He does that a lot of the time” (Facer et al in Lister et al 2009, p.246). Games are unable to escape established gendered household hierarchies.


Networked and online games bisect the public setting of social play with home computer use in the domestic space. Here female players must compete with male players, not just to win the game, but to win the right to play. These games have the status of a ‘boys club’, enforced by the discouraging, patronising and offensive behaviours exhibited by their male participants, like the comments in the aforementioned 2012 Halo 3 study. It is no surprise then that many female players simply remain invisible, silently perpetuating the myth that video and computer games are dominated by men and boys. However the perceived absence of female players “is a product of the general gender dynamics of public gaming, rather than a verifiable lack of interest by females in computer games” (Bryce & Rutter 2002, p.250).


For some male gamers exclusionary behaviour may be a way to “maintain the status quo of video games as a male dominated space and all of the privileges and entitlements that come with an unquestioned boys club” (Sarkeesian 2012). Games such as Halo 3, Dead Rising 2 and Metal Gear Solid 5 are ‘high-status’ games for hardcore players, with exceptional graphics, complex levels and immersive narrative. On the other hand games which women are said to play the most, such as Bejewelled, Angry Birds (Sloat 2013) and ‘girl games’, are considered ‘low-status’. Excluding female players “by creating an environment that is too toxic and hostile to endure” (Sarkeesian 2012) and dismissing critique of game content, such as those who defended Metal Gear Solid‘s character design with comments such as “if someone is offended, don’t buy it” (Siddiqui 2013 – reader comments) and “lighten up!” (Hernandez 2013 – reader comments), may be an attempt at status-preservation (Sveningsson 2012, p.437) to ensure that popular games maintain their appeal during this gender turf war.


The release of Barbie Fashion Designer by Mattel in 1997, as an attempt to capture the female audience, began a trend for ‘pink software’ and girl games. However the idea that some games (notably of the high-status type) are for boys, while other games (featuring pink covers and Barbie) are for girls, does nothing to debunk the gender myth, nor does it help to break down stereotypes and negative perceptions. Instead, they continue to perpetuate exclusion. While Barbie may encourage young girls to embrace computer use from an early age, thus allowing them access into a technological world of male privilege, it reaffirms that masculinity remains the cultural ‘norm’, while these games are especially designed for a niche market (Dickey 2006, p,789).


Why is it important to recognise female game players as a substantial proportion of the gaming community? Why is it important to understand the potentially destructive effects of their exclusion?


Play itself is important for a number of reasons. It strengthens social bonds between players, both in situations such as co-operative playing with friends and family who are in the same room, as well as with other players across the world when playing online games. Game play can stimulate creative problem solving or test reflexes and dexterity and there is some evidence that certain types of game play enhance cognitive abilities, even potentially helping people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, normal aging difficulties and traumatic brain injuries (Glass, Maddox & Love 2013). Since games are rule bound, they demand of the player to understand the laws in which they must operate, yet also encourage creative bending of those rules, through cheats and mods.


Games have the potential to build technological competence in players (Dovey & Kennedy 2006, p.3), which would be impacted through exclusion from play. This competence may go some way to encourage more women into technical careers, even increasing the number of female video and computer games designers and writers, which may in turn bring more inclusive and positive stories and characters into games. This may help change the portrayals of women in games, although that change may not necessarily result in an improvement of the general attitudes of players and their treatment of female gamers (Kuznekoff & Rose 2012, p. 553).


Furthermore game narratives are not restricted to computers and consoles. They spill over into other areas of culture, such as movies, television shows, books, merchandise and art. Final Fantasy, Resident Evil and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider are only three of many game titles which have been made into movies. Popular game Yu-Gi-Oh! has expanded across trading cards, toys, comics and television shows (Lister et al 2009, p.262). Exclusion of women from these games therefore means exclusion from other cultural capital as well. Tackling the myth that most game players are male is important because “games now make culture. Their influence reverberates through other mediums (especially film), creates news, causes trending discussions on Twitter and Facebook” (Grayson 2014b).


Computer games blur the boundaries between human and machine; what is real and what is a virtual. Cyberspace and reality, public and private, materiality and information, male and female; in the world of the video game these lines are continuously crossed and shifted. Games offer a space for identity play, a “realm in which social divisions based on bodily and material attributes and positions (age, gender, class, race, etc) can be transcended” (Lister et al 2009, p. 248), as offered earlier in this essay. Yet conversely games remain an extension of existing identity. The terms ‘real world’ and ‘virtual reality’ are problematic, since the virtual worlds of game environments are also lived experiences and non-virtual life is full of data input (Lister et al 2009, p.270). Inside the video or computer game, the human user is networked to their in-game avatar, through his or her connection via keyboard or console controller. What happens in the game world has an effect on the player’s ‘real’ world. Considering this, “if technology cannot be separated from the social and cultural forces that shape them, then social and cultural forces cannot be separated from the technological forces and forms that shape them” (Lister et al 2009, p.261).


If games are as real as other activities, then debunking this myth and encouraging inclusion of female players is an important step towards change in sexist attitudes. By ignoring female game players and the effects of harassment and stereotyping in the game environment, we are “maintaining and reinforcing and normalising a culture of sexism” (Sarkeesian 2012). Neither female game players, nor female game characters should be defined by their physical appearance or socially ascribed gender. As one gamer and writer puts it, when he plays he remains a person who is “a lot more than simple physical characteristics… people aren’t the flesh suits they wear… Women can be awesome, men can be awesome” (Grayson 2014a).


The world of online and networked gaming holds a mirror to the so-called ‘real’ lives of its players. Abuse and vitriol directed at women or any other group of people must be no more condoned in the context of games as it should be in any other form of new media. Participants might find it easy to hide behind avatars and onscreen monikers, but the impact of their actions and words is very real. Simply denying the existence of female players, an existence which is verified through industry data, surveys and articles by the female gamers themselves, is contributing to an overall attitude which extends beyond games; that women are inferior to men and should have restricted access and participation in certain areas. In a time when misogynistic attitudes are having significant and sometimes violent effects upon women in the real world, we must not turn a blind eye to sexism in the gaming world.




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One Comment

Pure Gin Playing woman: Gender performativity says:

January 12, 2015 at 11:09 pm

[…] skills or abilities (MacCallum-Stewart 2008, p. 27). Women may play as men to avoid conflict (see my essay on Women and Gaming from last year), to benefit from ‘masculine’ abilities, such as strength and confidence (Todd 2012, p. […]


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