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Back in 2014, the Gamergate scandal made headlines. At the time, internet trolls launched a series of harassment campaigns targeting females involved in gaming. As stated in an article in Marie Claire, the harassment included “doxxing, hacking, and warnings of death and sexual violence on social media and IRL.”
Instances like these raise a question that remains relevant today: Why is the prospect of women in the gaming industry so controversial? Let’s take a look:
A History of Under-Representation
It’s no secret that women bring a lot to the workplace. From providing insights that male colleagues may not have to more financial benefits when increasing the number of female managers, businesses tend to be more successful when women are involved. Considering this, one would expect to see more female leaders, not to mention more equal pay. But, as stated in an infographic by Washington State University, women run just 30% of the world’s businesses — and only 5% of the largest ones.
These figures aren’t surprising, considering our history of under-representation of women in technology-related fields. For instance, back in 1960, women were not encouraged to pursue technical careers. At the time, Margaret Hamilton wrote the software code that was used for the Apollo 11 moon landing. Her code is what allowed Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin to have safe passage to the moon and back. Even so, Hamilton was criticized for her work.
An article by Appnovation that talks about the rise of women in technology states: “Despite her expertise and achievements, Hamilton was criticized for her career choice, forsaking the traditional role of running a household full time.” The tech industry should have been grateful for Hamilton’s efforts and contributions, but she was mostly met with disapproval.
Women have always faced a variety of entry barriers to different fields, and gaming is no exception. An article by Chella Ramanan on The Guardian identifies three main problems that contribute to the historically toxic status quo in the gaming industry. For one, the industry represents, “a vicious circle of under-representation that is familiar across the whole of tech: the less that young women and people of color see themselves represented in the sector, the less they’re likely to apply for jobs.” Because society doesn’t often see women in tech-related fields, it is assumed that technology just “isn’t something women do.”
Consider the scandal that led to the creation of the hashtag #WomenAreTooHardToAnimate by Jayd Ait-Kaci in 2014. The hashtag was a result of statements made by James Therien, technical director at European game-maker Ubisoft. In an interview with trade publication VideoGamer, Therein said that the latest installment of Assassin’s Creed would not feature any playable female characters because it would have “doubled the work.” The reaction to this statement was quite negative — especially when a former Ubisoft developer questioned how much more work would actually be involved in creating female characters.
Secondly, the gaming industry faces a cultural problem. To quote Ramanan, “The mainstream industry has spent years pandering to a hardcore demographic of young men, but when aspects of that audience indulge in abusive and threatening behavior online, via social media and gaming forums, there’s very little (reprisal) from the major publishers.” This was seen in 2014, when the Gamergate drama unfolded. While there was somewhat of an outcry in response to Gamergate, the issue was not addressed properly by the industry as a whole.
Finally, the gaming industry has historically had a problem with institutional discrimination and abuse. Many women working in games feel that their career progression is limited by their gender. Many experience harassment and bullying as well. Although the gaming industry hasn’t been as active in the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment and assault is definitely an issue that must be prevented in this field. This is a stark reminder of how easy it is to push women to the sidelines in the gaming industry — and is exactly the reason why we need more women in gaming.
Moving Past the Old Boy’s Club
Thankfully, and especially in the recent past, the tide seems to be turning. According to the Entertainment Software Association’s 2018 Sales, Demographic, and Usage Data report, 45% of gamers in the U.S. are women. And it’s not just playing — more and more women are creating games too. Attacks like Gamergate seemed to have further inspired women to carve out a female-dominated space for themselves within the gaming industry.
According to Kiki Wolfkill, who oversees the mega-successful Halo franchise as head of Microsoft’s 343 Industries in Seattle, indie designers seem to drive new trends in the gaming industry. In the article in Marie Claire Magazine linked above, she says, “The ecosystem itself is changing.” Today, Wolfkill states that we’re seeing “a lot more women building games that are appealing to a whole different audience.”
For example, PrinceNapped is a mobile video-game whose plot revolves around rescuing a prince — not a princess, as is often the cliche. The indie game has attracted audiences of both genders and was created by adevelopment studio with three female co-founders.
Bigger gaming companies are getting on board, too. Consider Battlefield V; its release trailer featured a woman fighting on the frontlines. The trailer received a lot of backlash from fans, who weren’t happy with a female lead. Despite this, the decision to include female characters was supported by the game’s publisher Electronic Arts (EA) and developer DICE.
To quote EA’s chief creative officer, Patrick Soderlund, in an article published on the World Economic Forum’s website, “Today gaming is gender-diverse, like it hasn’t been before.” He added that fans who were unhappy about this have two choices: “Either accept it or don’t buy the game.”
Other big-money franchises like Tomb Raider, Star Wars, and Horizon Zero Dawn now feature more female protagonists and diverse characters. These games have more narrative-driven action than ever before and appeal to a variety of audiences. This is largely thanks to the rise of women in gaming.
While there’s still a long way to go for women to be equally represented in all aspects of gaming — creating, developing, playing and reviewing — current initiatives point to a promising future. After all, the industry as a whole has no choice but to get on board. Like it or not, women are here to stay.