Ronald Woan/ Flickr
Ronald Woan/ Flickr

The importance of increased representation of women in sports gaming

Year on year, we as a society are beginning to better understand the importance of cultural representation. The games world has not been immune to this shifting tide, and all of us should be thankful for the increased representation of women in the industry. That said, our thanks should only extend so far given the long, long way there is to go to achieve any semblance of fairness, let alone equality.

Action games like Halo, Battlefield, Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed have boosted their sales by including playable female characters to challenge traditionally male ones. This is significant because in the past, even on the rare occasion where there was a female character, they were either overly sexualised or not as well-developed as their male counterpart, meaning they functioned as nothing more than a token. Sports games need to follow this example: they need to put every bit as much effort into female players, leagues and teams as they do into the male ones.

It is patently ludicrous that women have had to play almost exclusively as male characters for years, in sports games and beyond!

Firstly, this advance would benefit games producers the most. In a way, it is surprising  that they have failed to fill the gap until now. Polls by Gallup and the Pew Research Centre show that around half of gamers are female, and that the demographic has been this way for some time. It is patently ludicrous that women have had to play almost exclusively as male characters for years, in sports games and beyond!

This oversight has been particularly egregious in sports games – or at least it feels that way for me, as an avid sports gamer. There is a female counterpart for almost every single sport and yet that fact has been largely ignored since before the conception of the games console. While certainly it is good that FIFA now includes around a dozen women’s national teams, and that NBA Live includes the WNBA, the issue with this is that FIFA has well over a hundred male sides represented, compared to only the aforementioned dozen for women. That’s also without mentioning that NBA Live is not the flagship basketball game (that crown currently belongs to NBA 2K).

Women’s sports are growing in participation and viewership

The fact that in sports games- with the possible exception of the UFC series- women serve as an apparent sideshow and the men as the main attraction creates the perception that it is so in the sports world, which is completely false. Women’s sports are growing in participation and viewership, and despite the moans of certain poorly informed, grossly overpaid talking heads, female sports are just as interesting to the spectator as male sports, both to the purist and to the casual viewer. This is not to say that they have the same characteristics, but that they each have clear selling points with which to attract spectators. This same growth must be represented in sports game developers, not solely for the benefit of gamers but for their own.

Personally, I find a game a lot more interesting when every facet of a sport is included. In the same way that no basketball game would be complete without pick-and-roll animations, it would be similarly bereft without women’s leagues. In this sense, games like NBA 2K risk falling behind, and not only with female gamers, but with the whole market. The industry is built on offering experiences the competition cannot; that is the reason FIFA’s rather obvious addition of the UEFA Champions League created such excitement. As long as NBA Live provides something 2K Sports can’t or won’t, they are in danger of being surpassed.

For too long the male perspective has been dominant in video games, and that leads to stagnation.

It is up to us, as consumers, to make sure that games exacerbate the progress they have shown recently. By being selective based on the representation available in games, we can actively make a difference. As long as we continue purchasing games without any sort of female representation, we are propping up a system that is unjust. To wash one’s hands of this is both irresponsible and unconscionable. It is a good idea to follow the example set by the film and TV industries, where both content and character is questioned, and if found lacking, changes are made. Hopefully the games industry is approaching such a watershed.

Another important step in creating fairness and gender equality in sports games is ensuring equal representation as developers. This is hard to force, but building more inclusive environments and providing incentives for women to enter the industry would ultimately benefit both the developers and the consumer. For too long the male perspective has been dominant in video games, and that leads to stagnation. Diversity must be present in every form: ethnic, cultural, age, gender, etc. Without this, as in any creative endeavour, we are inevitably limited.

All of these are big issues in tackling the lack of representation that women face in the games world, but perhaps the most pressing problem is the sexual harassment that according to research from Ohio State University is commonplace in online gaming communities. As long as women do not feel safe to enjoy games without any fear of harassment, they cannot take their rightful place as equal partners in the industry. Once again, this issue occurs in the real sports world, too. Cultures of machismo and misogyny prevent women from attending athletic events, with a recent example being the World Cup this past summer, where several female TV anchors were assaulted live on air by drunk male fans.

The sports games genre, the games industry as a whole and the sports world all have a long way to go in terms of improving both the representation and conditions of women. The small steps taken so far, while certainly symbolically significant, are just the beginning. I’d be willing to bet that any game that invests as much into female athletes as they do into male athletes will see an increase both in market share and cultural relevance, and I’m going to try and to my part to make sure that any such effort is rewarded. I don’t think I’ll be alone.

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