Women and Gaming Culture

The Gamer Archetype

What kind of person do you think of when you hear the word “gamer”? For most people, a number of stereotypes come to mind: a group of boys huddled around a screen as they play Mario Kart, a teenage guy in his parents’ basement screaming profanities during an online Call of Duty match, an adult man absorbed in a sprawling game while lounging out in a so-called “man cave” complete with surround sound and a big expensive 4K TV.

Some differences exist between each of these common stereotypical scenarios, of course. We see people of different ages, stages of life, and incomes. We see people playing games with others (both face-to-face and online) or by themselves. But the common thread among them all is that the assumed gamer is male. Women are nowhere in sight, presumably uninterested in gaming, or perhaps not allowed into what is essentially a boy’s club.

It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that there are actually plenty of female gamers out there! According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), women age 18 and older represent 33% of gamers in the US, while boys 18 and under are only 17%. In fact, the average female video game player is 36 years old. Women remain a minority amongst the most frequent game purchasers—61% are male, 39% female—but that’s still plenty of people.

So how did we get here? What led to this contradictory situation in which many women play games, and yet are considered absent from gaming culture? To answer this question, we’ll have to look back over 40 years ago.

A Brief History

When video games first appeared on people’s radars back in the 1970s, they weren’t considered solely the domain of boys. Atari games generally appealed to the whole family, and female developers played an instrumental role in creating some of the best titles of the era, such as Centipede, River Raid, and King’s Quest. But the video game crash of 1983 shook up in the industry; console makers hadn’t been regulating the games coming out on their platforms, leading to a flood of low quality titles and a subsequent drop in consumer confidence. Companies needed a new approach to keep gaming a viable business, and Nintendo provided just what they needed.

In 1985, Nintendo brought their new console, called the Famicom in Japan (short for “Family Computer”), to the West. With this Western release, Nintendo employed two new strategies to attract customers. First, to ease consumer fears, they only approved games which received the “Official Nintendo Seal of Quality.” And second, rather than risk lots of money trying to please everyone, Nintendo advertised their new machine as a toy for a specific audience: boys ages 5-10. They ditched the “Famicom” name for a new title, the Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES), and promoted the console with the macho tagline: “Now You’re Playing With Power.” Their plan payed off: NES sales shot through the roof, breathing new life into a business that many considered dead.

As the young boys of the late ‘80s grew older throughout the ‘90s, marketing adjusted to keep up with them. SEGA and Sony joined the fray, each competing to attract the teenage male demographic, leaving women of all ages behind. The number of games that girls found appealing dwindled, and it became a cultural assumption that video games were for boys. Naturally, young men became the most likely people to apply for jobs in the industry, and in turn, they made games for the audience that they knew best: other males. It wasn’t until the 2000s, with the release of The Sims, the rise of social media games such as Farmville, and mobile games like Candy Crush, that companies recognized women as a target demographic. Still today, the industry as a whole is comprised predominantly of men; according to the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), 74% of developers are male, and only 21% female.

Consequences

What does all of this mean for women gamers today? For one, many female gamers face derision and harassment from their male counterparts. People often assume that men perform better than women in games by default, and that playing with a woman on your team in a competitive game puts you at a disadvantage. When women speak up in online voice chat, it’s not uncommon for male gamers to make inappropriate comments about their appearance and sexuality; as a result, many female gamers avoid talking online, or even playing certain games altogether. And while one might be tempted to think that this is entirely the result of people misusing the cover of anonymity, it sadly happens in some face-to-face events as well: women who show up at gaming tournaments have faced similar treatment from some of the men they meet there.

Another result of the industry being predominantly male is a lack of good female representation in games themselves. Looking back over the gaming history (particularly the 1980s and 1990s), the vast majority of games featured male lead characters; while many of them fit into the macho action hero stereotype, we do see male characters who differ greatly in their personalities, interests, and appearance.  When female characters appear in games, they’re often overly sexualized and fall into various stereotypes, such as being weak and helpless or acting as someone’s assistant (Anita Saarkesian’s series of videos on tropes in video games are worth checking out as part of this discussion). And it’s far less likely that a female character will play the lead role in a game. Overall, they just don’t receive the same kind of variety and care as male characters. Considering that women comprise a sizable portion of the gaming community, it’s surprising that these obstacles remain so prevalent.

Steps in the Right Direction

All of this is not to say the situation is entirely dismal for women and gaming, however. As stated earlier, male developers far outnumber their female counterparts; even so, some women are making big waves in the industry. Jade Raymond (creator of the Assassin’s Creed franchise), Amy Hennig (former writer and director of the Uncharted series), Kiki Wolfkill and Bonnie Ross (who both help lead the Halo series), and Rhianna Pratchett (who helped write Mirror’s Edge and recent Tomb Raider games) all play an important role in shaping the games we love.

Kiki Wolfkill of 343 Industries

We also see the impact of the positive female characters that have made their way into games. Even back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, a few female characters stood out, namely Samus Aran of the Metroid series and Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider series. They had their own flaws, of course (the old Lara Croft character was notorious for her short shorts and comically large bust size, and Samus sometimes appeared in a bikini for no real reason in her older games), but their presence as powerful and heroic figures still inspired some young women. And when you look at the landscape of games today, you see much better female representation than in decades past; characters like Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn, Clementine in Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and Max in Life is Strange all serve as well-written female leads. Hopefully this inspires more women to join the industry, bringing their talents and perspectives to a culture that needs them.

Max Caulfield from Life is Strange

Overall, there’s much room for improvement, especially in regards to how women are treated by their male peers online; more men need to recognize female gamers as equals, just as capable of contributing positively to gaming culture. But in light of the growing number of prominent female developers and well-written female characters across the industry today, there’s definitely a reason for optimism. As women continue to take on bigger roles in gaming—playing, building, and starring in games—the hobby will be seen less as a boys-only club, and more as a space where both men and women are free express themselves and have fun.

This piece was originally published on Michael’s personal blog, The Heartland Gamer, and has been republished here with his permission and a few minor addendums as requested by the editor.

Michael Mendis

Michael Mendis loves to discuss gaming, Christian faith, and how the two interact. In addition to his main hobby of playing video games, he also enjoys watching movies, anime, and baseball.

2 Comments

  1. Victoria Bell on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    This was a very interesting read. This is one of those reasons why I kind of avoid voice chat in games like Splatoon 2.

  2. Marco Nicol on February 7, 2020 at 1:14 pm

    Can’t also forget some of the more prominent female composers out in the industry such as Michiru Yamane, Yoko Shimomura, and Yuka Tsujiyoko who have all had music in many games produced during the “male only” gamer era.

    Fun to read!

Leave a Reply