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The ‘Gamer Girl’: Misogyny within the Video Game Industry


This Juncture Review contains references to themes of sexual assault, sexism and misogyny, and violence against women which some readers may find distressing.


The video game industry is something that has seen a steady rise in popularity over the past century. Whether it be a simple mobile game or a complex RPG requiring a console or personal computer (PC), it is safe to say that the gaming community is something we are all familiar with. However, alongside this rise in popularity, there has been a pervasive myth that the community is an exclusively male domain and that women are far and few. This is simply false (Fox and Tang, 2017). The Entertainment Software Association found that 45% of all game players are women (Johnson, 2015). Despite this high level of participation of women, many feminist scholars and journalists have highlighted the issue of misogyny which appears consistently within video games themselves and the industry as a whole.

This paper attempts to examine two ways in which misogyny is present in the gaming industry. Firstly, the representation of women will be examined in a twofold way; specifically, how female characters within games are designed and the role they fulfil, followed by an examination of the jobs women take on within video games companies. The paper will then focus on the treatment of female video game developers, with a focus on the incident ‘#GamerGate’. It will be concluded that the industry is one which is inherently sexist, and exploits, objectifies, and demonises women.

 

Representation of Female Avatars in Video Games

Studies have shown that female characters make up a small percentage of characters within games themselves. In a study conducted by Johnson (2015), it was found that in a database of 8,500 characters, women comprised only 14.7% of characters. Furthermore, only 38.7% of the women were primary characters. Characters within video games are disproportionately male and game developers tend to favour masculine protagonists. Although characters are disproportionately male, it has also been found that female characters are more likely to be sexualized as opposed to their male counterparts. Sexualization encompasses a number of things, including clothing choices, body proportions, and roles within the wider context of the game.

One of the first games to feature a female protagonist was the 1996 game ‘Tomb Raider’ (Kondrat, 2015). Its debut entry for the media franchise, the 1996 game follows the archaeologist/adventurer Lara Croft, who is hired by businesswoman Jacqueline Natla to find an artefact called the Scion of Atlantis. Although it could be argued that the first instance of a strong, independent female protagonist was a major step forward regarding more equitable representation, it is fairly poor representation as Croft’s character presents many unrealistic expectations.  Within the game, Croft possesses anatomically impossible body proportions. She has an incredibly small waist and abnormally large breasts. This is consistent with other video games. Johnson (2015), whilst analysing the 23 most popular game trailers of the most popular games of 2014, found that in the five instances of ‘disproportionately small waists’, all were women. There were no cases of men adorning the same tiny waists. 

Furthermore, Croft wears sexually revealing clothing. In the aforementioned 23 trailers, 36.5% of characters identified were women whereas 64.5% were men. Where 39% of the female characters were wearing sexually revealing clothing, only 4% of the male characters donned the same form of attire (ibid). Considering the context of the Tomb Raider franchise, one would question the practicality of her clothing choices, especially considering the bulk of her tasks within the games involves the exploration of ancient ruins and tombs in Peru, Greece, Egypt, and Atlantis.

The roles women play within certain video games also highlights the extensive sexualized depictions of these characters. In games such as Grand Theft Auto III Vice City, female characters are used simply as props for the male characters. For example, one can have sex with a prostitute and kill her afterwards to gain a health bonus (Xondrat, 2015). Women are thus utilised as sexual objects, things to be used and discarded by the male lead.

Sexualized and stereotypical representations of women in these virtual spaces have been shown to yield sexist attitudes amongst both men and women. It has been found that sexualized avatars have caused men to perceive women as less intelligent and elicits hostile sexism. For women, it promotes rape myth acceptance (Fox and Tang, 2017), which is the false belief that one is to blame for their sexual assault or rape. Limited and sexualized representation of women is thus harmful to both sexes since women internalise these expectations, and both genders are more accepting of the idea that women are weak, victims, and sexual objects (Xondrat, 2015).

 

Representation of women in the video game industry

This disproportional representation of female characters in the games themselves is mirrored when it comes to employment rates within the industry. Women make up only 22%  of those working within the industry. However, these jobs are typically in areas such as human resources and marketing (Fox and Tang, 2017). They are predominantly outside the main job of game development (Prescott and Bogg, 2011). This lack of female influence in the game creation process may explain the excessive sexualization of female avatars. Hegemony at the production level results in women, and their experiences, being ignored, misrepresented, stereotyped, or objectified (Fox and Tang, 2017). Thus leading to the aforementioned issues.

To combat this issue, there needs to be more women involved during the game development process. However, this solution is also met with a myriad of problems. In particular, the treatment that current female developers experience. It has been found that many game development companies possess a toxic environment, one of which is accepting of sexual harassment (Holden, Baker, and Edelman, 2020).

 

Treatment of female game developers and journalists

#GamerGate was a hashtag which trended on Twitter in August and September of 2014. The misogynistic hate campaign targeted game designer Zoe Quinn and media critic Anita Sarkeesian (Mortensen, 2018). Quinn’s former boyfriend Eron Gjoni, a computer programmer, published a blog post detailing the alleged infidelity of Quinn, which set off a frenzy of largely anonymous, sexist harassment against Quinn and several other women working in various roles in the gaming industry (Holden, Baker, and Edelman, 2020). There was a range of incidents, including email campaigns aimed at getting female game developers and journalists fired, as well as death and rape threats.  

At the centre of the blog post was the accusation Quinn had traded sex with a journalist in return for a positive game review. Gjoni had no evidence for this, and the journalist in question never actually reviewed Quinn’s games (Steele, 2014). The harassment was incredibly severe. Quinn was doxxed, meaning her personal private information was shared publicly without her consent. Subsequently, Quinn had to leave her home during the Autumn of 2014 (Mortensen, 2018). The anonymity of the virtual space provided the perpetrators of #GamerGate with a shield and allowed them to make comments they otherwise would not say in a real-world setting. There was a lack of social accountability and few consequences for the perpetrators (Holden, Baker, and Edelman, 2020). Achieving better representation becomes almost impossible when female game developers are subjected to harassment, threats, and abuse from their co-workers and the community as a whole. Scholars such as Lopez-Fernandez (Lopez-Fernandez et al, 2019) have highlighted how female designers often receive unprecedented amounts of attention for their physical appearances and are viewed as the ‘token female’, rather than considered for their game design abilities. Women are undervalued within the role and not deemed as talented or capable of producing high-quality games. Additionally, it has been found that male journalists receive less social backlash when it comes to game reviewers. Journalist Suellentrop (2014) highlights how when male critics criticised the portrayal of women in Grand Theft Auto V, their comments did not face any major backlash. However, when a female colleague did the same, a petition was created to have her fired. Whilst male journalists only face criticism, female journalists are actively being pushed and excluded from the community.


Although the current representation of women in the gaming industry is much lower than that of their male counterparts, this does not mean things cannot be improved. There have been a range of popular and complex female characters, such as Cassandra in ‘Assassins Creed: Odyssey’ or Ellie in ‘The Last of Us’. These characters show a shifting attitude towards female portrayals in video game media. Although the historical trend has been to portray women as sexualized objects, with disproportionate body proportions and minimal clothing, women now seem to be taking on more varied roles and forms. Whether this will continue in the future depends on the attitude of the gaming industry as a whole. The issues presented in this paper are still prevalent, and as the gaming industry moves forward, it must attempt to tackle this structural and behavioural misogyny within the industry to make it more inclusive, for everyone.

 

Bibliography

Fox, J. and Tang, W.Y. (2017). ‘Sexism in Video Games and the Gaming Community’, New perspectives on the social aspects of digital gaming, Routledge: pp. 115-135.


Holden, J.T., Baker III, T.A., and Edelman, M. (2020). ‘The #E-Too Movement: Fighting back against sexual harassment in electronic sports’, Ariz St. LJ, 52, pp.1-47.


Johnson, N. (2015). Misogyny in Virtual Space: Exploring representations of women in popular video games. PhD. Middle Tennessee State University.


Kondrat, X. (2015). ‘Gender and Video Games: How is female gender generally represented in various genres of video games?’, Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology, 6(1), pp.171-193.


Lopez-Fernandez, O., Williams, A.J., Griffiths, M.D., and Kuss, D.J. (2019). ‘Female gaming, gaming addiction, and the role of women within gaming culture: A narrative literature review’, Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10, p.454.


Mortensen, T.E. (2018). ‘Anger, fear and games: The Long Event of #GamerGate’, Games and Culture, 13(8), pp. 787-806.


Prescott, J. and Bogg, J. (2011). ‘Segregation in a male-dominated industry: Women working in the computer games industry’, International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, 3(1), pp. 205 -227.


Steele, C. (2014). Everything you never wanted to know about GamerGate: PCMag UK, 21st October, https://uk.pcmag.com/migrated-84555-gaming/36786/everything-you-never-wanted-to-know-about-gamergate.


Suellentrop, C. (2014). Can Video Games Survive?: The New York Times, 25th October, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/26/opinion/sunday/the-disheartening-gamergate-campaign.html


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