Upon reading the response to the survey conducted by the Boar on the gaming community at Warwick, I found myself extremely disappointed when looking over the split between males and females. A measly 20.5% of the responses answered female with 74.4% identifying as male, 2.6% preferring not to say, and the last 2.6% responding as other. It seemed strange that even here, the millennial student campus, games are still very much dominated by males.
Yet beyond the appearance of a hyper-liberalised generation wrapped in trigger warnings, there lies a community still in part inaccessible for women. To understand why the industry and wider community still feel like men’s clubs you need to look below the surface, and pay attention to the misogyny that continues to prevail – often internally or unintentionally.
It’s hard to forget the vitriol, doxxing, and threats of violence levelled at women during Gamergate. This level of abuse is something I’ve fortunately yet to experience, but it’s understandable that any women could look back on such an event and feel uneasy or out of place in considering themselves a part of that community. I am also tentative about writing on such an issue, conscious that every word and phrase may very well be taken as the testimony of an entire gender. My own experiences are unique, and I cannot claim to speak for the millions of women across the globe that also partake in this hobby.
Nevertheless the reactions I often get from men when they realise that I am into games are certainly different to the reactions they have when talking to other men about games. Most of the time I believe it is well intended. An exclamation of ‘oh’ or ‘wow,’ often followed by a twist of the head and a moment of silence as they take it all in. Perhaps the same surprised, charmed reaction someone would have if a puppy appeared from out of nowhere. ‘What games do you play?’ is almost always the follow-up sentence, and there is nothing wrong with this question; however what generally follows is an unwillingness to go deeper into the subject of any particular game or theme, as though they are unsure of whether I am capable of grasping a game beyond its cover or the buzzwords plastered across the back . When they do go further, the conversation usually slides into a monologue, as they talk you through their favourite moments and memories. It’s quite something to have the final mission of Dishonored mansplained to you, after you have informed them that you have played both titles quite to death.
It’s understandable that any woman could look back on Gamergate and feel uneasy or out of place in considering themselves a part of any gaming community.
That’s not to say that all interactions have been a patronising talk-down, of course I have had meaningful and interesting discussions with men about the games that we play. These are however fewer and farther between than I would certainly like. It doesn’t help that the industry is very much a male dominated affair. Computer sciences, coding, and the arena of STEM more generally can be notoriously off putting to women. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 19% of Computer Science students in UK universities are female, down 5% in as many years. Looking over the creative heads and industry celebrities brings to mind almost exclusively male faces, though there is greater balance in indie communities.
Despite protests to the contrary, male protagonists prevail wherever you look and female characters are so often lacking in their own validity, agency, or individual merit that I often find myself sighing at the screen as I play. However, some beautifully written female characters do stand out: Senua from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Alloy from Horizon Zero Dawn, Ellie from The Last of Us, Chloe and Nadine from Uncharted: the Lost Legacy, amongst others. They are proof of the possibility and profitability of strongly written female characters, and the diversity of their titles’ appeal suggests that gamers of all genders aren’t put off by seeing girls at the front. Furthermore, a 2016 study of 571 games found that overly or exclusively sexual depictions of women in games are much fewer than during the peak period of 1990 to 2005. These are surely optimistic signs for the industry.
So is Rockstar’s claim to explore the “concept of masculinity” in GTA 5 a good enough excuse for the absence of roles and agency for female characters? Why did an exploitative teaser for the Tomb Raider reboot linger for so long and so unecessarily over Lara’s body? Why does Kojima’s vision of a perfect female soldier rely on being scantily-clad and completely silent to survive? Why do beloved Super Mario titles continue to recycle the same save-the-princess plot lines, and, in the case of Daisy or Rosalina, quite often the same female character? Because it’s easy.
Despite protests to the contrary, male protagonists prevail wherever you look and female characters are so often lacking in their own validity, agency, or individual merit that I often find myself sighing at the screen as I play.
These frustratingly docile or hyper-sexualised roles may be subsiding over time, but there still exists a casual and frustrating misogyny within the industry. Well-written, textured female characters are applauded because they are the exception. They are the few anomalies that are used to disguise the cardboard cut-outs still common to most video games every time this conversation comes around. With an industry that struggles to acknowledge us, and a community that seems unable to make it past our apparent novelty, is it any wonder that Warwick’s female students aren’t getting involved in gaming?