Video Games

What Does it Mean, to be Perceived Female in Video Games

In the wake of The Game Awards and the Playstation Experience, I was reminded again just how isolated it feels to be female-bodied in the world of video games. The Game Awards was a reminder of the almost non-existence of female-bodies in lead positions in gaming, and how they’re often forgotten in ESports and other gaming venues. The Playstation Experience reflected some badass heroines that are coming to some new AAA titles in the coming year or two, but I was again struck at the lack of female-bodies on-stage, and the distinct lack of diversity overall. This article will be a look into the life of a female-bodied gamer, and what it means to exist, today, in the gaming sphere.

There’s been a lot of discussion around female-bodies/female-identifying humans and the American gaming community. We’ve seen an increase in playable female characters, a wider range of conversation regarding the impact of female-bodied gamers, and why we congregate where we do. Yet, we still face backlash like Gamergate, and still don’t get to see our like up on professional stages without a male-bodied escort. I want to take a look at where we are now, how female-bodied individuals approach gaming, and how we move forward in an industry that has been, and continues to be, dominated by male bodies and misogyny. 

Where We Are
The modern gaming community features a more diverse range of characters and players both, as gaming has become more accessible and more socially acceptable to more people. In the US, people who identify as women make up 41% of the gaming population, and women of 18 years of age or older represent a greater portion of the player population at 31% than boys of 18 years or younger (17%). Many games also offer female-bodied avatar options (see games like Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mass Effect, and Skyrim), and some companies go as far as offering scholarships to young people who wish to learn or earn a degree in game development. Yet many marketers concerned with sales are skeptical when others speak of specifically targeting female-identifying players, and cite the male-identifying player majority as the reason why such marketing would be a poor business idea. For as much as the community has changed, much of the rhetoric used against that change is much the same, and where we are now echoes where gaming has been previously.

In some ways, we’ve come a long way from the days of Lara Croft’s low-poly hourglass figure and hyper sexualization, as the new Tomb Raider titles focus on her origin and her skill as an archaeologist and survivor. We now see protagonists like Ellie or Chloe take center stage in franchises like The Last of Us and Uncharted, which have been known for their male leads previously, and more and more games are offering a choice between a male-bodied or a female-bodied protagonist (see Bioware’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises). However, when given the option, many companies still choose to use a male protagonist in their marketing, if they have the option to use a female protagonist at all. Representation, though improved, is still a problem, as female-identifying players are left with a limited pool of characters to choose from. A friend put it succinctly:

“Even as a kid picking Mortal Combat characters at an arcade or on my Nintendo, I’d always choose a female character in whatever game I was playing–even when they were weaker, even when there were scantily clad, even when there were 15 male characters who also looked fun to play.”

We as human beings enjoy being able to identify with the characters we see on screen, even if they don’t look exactly like we do. Female-bodied gamers enjoy having the choice to present as we please, but our options are limited, and which is why we push for more representation in game protagonists. 

Much of this issue of representation also applies to the development and design end of the sphere as well, as most development teams and design decisions are made up of and made by male bodies and male-identifying people. Any game development press-conference is a great example of the disparity in representation: every company lead, head developer, announcer, is male-bodied, from venues like E3 to The Game Awards. According to a study from the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) released in 2014, only 22% of the workforce identifies as female, compared to the 76% who identify male. This demographic has not changed over the last two years, as all supporting material I found referenced this report, and the IGDA has yet to release their 2016 report. Add in the additional pressure of Gamergate-a movement started by Zoe Quinn’s ex-boyfriend that harassed female-bodied developers and gamers under the guise of ‘ethics in gaming journalism’–and the usual workplace misogyny, and it’s not surprising to discover that some female-bodies are leery of entering the industry. Being female-bodied and/or -identifying in the gaming community and industry is perceived as dangerous, given the male-bodied dominance and the second guessing that comes in working in a male-body dominated field. This atmosphere deters female-bodied and -identifying people from becoming more involved and/or joining the industry, and maintains the male-bodied control over industry and design decisions. As games tend to be made to suit the creator’s thoughts and preferences, it’s not a surprise when, given this disparity, games reflect more male-identifying interests than female. When most of those creators are male-identifying, it becomes difficult to receive equal representation from the games they develop.

Another common phenomenon in gaming today is the idea of benevolent misogyny: representations of gender that may appear positive (subjectively so, to the person who’s evaluating), but are actually damaging to people and gender equality (ie. the idea that women need to be protected by men). Many of the female-identifying players I’ve spoken to have mentioned this phenomenon, especially when playing online. One player discussed a recent issue she had, where her gender came out due to one male-identifying player’s repeated attacks. After her gender was revealed (she uses a gender-neutral username), she saw a change in her teammates’ behaviors: “In the last week, everyone’s been more receptive to help me or send resources… Most of the guys have been unbelievably respectful, but the pickup lines and the sister/wives lines are so, so real.” Since her gender was revealed, she’s seen an unexpected rise in support from her male-identifying teammates, as though they’re suddenly going out of their way to help and assist her. Another player, who regularly plays World of Warcraft (WoW), expressed that she had experienced something similar: “I’ve ended up with random guildies confessing crushes and helping me with quests when I don’t necessarily need it. It makes me question if they’re helpful because I present the way I do or because they enjoy my company”. This appears to be a common trend, as though it’s assumed that female-presenting players need an extra hand, where their male/non-female-perceived counterparts do not receive the same treatment. This creates a negative impact, as female-presenting gamers are expected to take this assistance, and are given it with or without their consent. If they try to go it on their own, or turn down the help, they run the risk of being talked down to, or the chance that the assisting player will respond with anger. It’s a series of actions that appear to be useful, but is ultimately detrimental to the players involved.

Gaming has come a long way in some regards, and there’s still a lot of work to be done. Representation of female bodies, though improved, is still severely lacking both in-game and in development spaces, and sexism is still prevalent, even if it’s not as openly hostile as one might expect.

How We Play
In speaking with fellow gamers who are female-bodied (including trans/non-binary/etc. individuals), many players I spoke with choose to avoid certain aspects of games, specific genres, and/or took steps to appear gender neutral/masculine online as to avoid the mixed responses that come with being perceived as female in the gaming community. Though most have had a generally positive experience, a few trends became clear as regular steps taken by gamers who are female-bodied, and/or are perceived as female in-game, to protect themselves.

I spoke with a number of female-bodied/-identifying players, many of which expressed an enjoyment of single-player games, where they were able to focus on the gameplay and felt most comfortable. One woman shared how,

“Most of the games [she plays] are single player. [Her] boyfriend has been an enthusiastic supporter of [her] getting into more games, and… [encourages her] to play the games he does, like Hearthstone and DOTA… [She has] an aversion to playing online with people who are better than [her],”

so she primarily sticks to single-player games. The lack of desire to play competitive, multiplayer games was common, as most echoed the sentiment of not wanting to slow better players down and the desire to enjoy a game without feeling responsible for someone else’s experience. A fear of judgement was also expressed by some of the players I spoke with, as they had been ridiculed or demeaned for not being at the level their counterparts expected. This seemed most common in response MMOs and FPSs, as the players I talked to had tried and often turned away from the genres after poor experiences with male players. Not all felt this way, however, and others expressed primarily positive reactions after an initial period of surprise amidst their male-bodied counterparts in games like WoW or League of Legends. However, many shared that they only played with people they knew, or had a specific friend who introduced them to the game and looked out for them.

The trend of playing only with friends or other players they knew was also prevalent in the conversations I had, especially regarding online multiplayer games. One person expressed doing this because she felt less than competent with some types of games, and not fun to play with for competitive gamers; another expressed the desire to avoid souring her experience with “online douchebags”. Admittedly, I’ve also done this, for fear of being reprimanded by male gamers and/or being booted out of a game for my lack of skill. Playing with friends is a guaranteed way to know that someone has your back, and won’t abandon you to other players, or for your lack of skill. It takes the pressure off in a competitive setting, and removes the threat of ridicule and shame that lingers for being outed in anyway in a multiplayer setting. This protects players from strangers who could pose a threat, but is indicative of how we treat female-perceived players in particular–these players are often met with surprise, and their skill is attributed to their gender (ie. it’s questioned because they’re ‘too good’, or they’re bad because they’re ‘female’) rather than experience. It is ultimately easier and safer to play alone or with friends, rather than invite judgement of our skills based on how we are perceived. 

Another way female-bodied individuals protect themselves is by hiding their gender-identity. One friend of mine–a fan of the mobile game, War Dragons–specifically picks masculine or neutral-sounding usernames, as to avoid speculation from other players. Another player expressed that she receives surprised responses when she uses a mic to play Halo or Fifa online, and is often mistaken for a young boy before her gender is acknowledged. A different player expressed that she never uses voice chat at all, to avoid the issue all together. Hiding our female-bodiedness is often easier than dealing with the assumptions (either being incorrectly identified and/or dealing with the surprise and what may come after), and the expectations that are associated with a ‘female’ gamer being thrust upon us. 

There are many ways we protect ourselves. It is often easier to try to pass undetected in online spheres, or just avoid them all together to avoid sexist remarks and assumptions. Though many players I spoke with had mostly positive experiences playing online, I was also told stories of being solicited for sex once their female-identity was revealed, or even receiving targeted threats to their player character if they tried to turn down a male-identifying player’s help. With experiences like these, it doesn’t surprise me that most players I spoke to prefer playing by themselves or with friends, should they chose to play at all.

How We Move Forward
The video game industry is always pushing the cutting edge, be it with hardware, software, or tools of the trade. It’s constantly changing and developers have to adapt to the ever-shifting landscape: this includes the social and player demographics as well. More and more female-bodied/-identifying people are involved in gaming, as players and as developers both. Each year sees a growth in their interest, and there are a number of ways in which the industry can adapt and grow to include them going forward.

The industry has been bad at calling out sexism when it rears its head: no one wants to admit there’s a problem, so they don’t talk about it, or call it what it is. We saw this in many industry responses to Gamergate last year, where they dismissed the movement, but didn’t call out their behavior or dismissed the movement as childish and not worth addressing. To be fair, gaming is a subculture that exemplifies trends on our overarching American culture, and the lack of action from the industry mirrors the slow response of police and other officials in dealing with the problem when female-bodies like Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian were attacked. Calling out sexist behavior–hostile or benevolent–is going to be important moving forward, and discussions need to be had regarding the current mentality of the industry, and what they can do to be more inclusive. Having more female-bodied playable characters is a good start, but the marketing still favors a male-identifying audience, especially in online and competitive spaces. Discussing how players interact with the games and each other is going to be central to the conversation, and the industry needs to admit they have a sexism problem before we can move ahead.

Having more female-bodied/-identifying humans in the industry will also help address the disparity, as they can provide insight that the current, male-identifying sphere lacks. Representation is key to accessibility, and one needs to represent the voices one is trying to include. A friend put their experience with this well:

“I actually relished the fact that gaming was a perceived male world. It was a way for me to escape into being myself effectively. At the same time though, I’d always known women who gamed (friends, cousins, etc), so basically the fact that I knew women/girls who gamed, was my way of saying, “Okay, I can do this. I’m allowed to play video games and escape and be closer to myself,” because women already played games. Even though I was aware it was a male dominated space, and I liked that fact, I felt safe knowing that it wasn’t just a male space and I wouldn’t be othered by using it as a form of escapism.”

Gaming allowed this person to be who they needed to be at the time, and they were able to access that because they knew others who played and made it a safe space by just participating. Having that representation allows people to feel comfortable entering a space and play as someone they identify with–the more representation the industry provides, the more prospective gamers they can access. To do this, we need more representation in the industry, and place these people in key, decision-making roles. They can bring a new perspective to the table, and push games to keep up with the diverse player community.

All-female pro-gaming team (Front Row, L to R) Kaching Chan, Nicole Cheung, Kim Kwan, ( Back Row, L to R) Rose Ma, FaFa Yim, Sadie Wong and Cupnoodle Kwan, pose for picture at Cyber Games Arena in Kowloon Bay. 05AUG15

Another thing that will need to change, in order for the industry and the gaming community to move forward, is that female-bodies need to be trusted: that they are just as good as their male-bodied counterparts. Part of the toxicity around the benevolent misogyny in gaming is the idea that female-bodied and female-identifying players are somehow less skilled or are in need of more assistance than their fellow male players. Many female-bodied and/or -identifying players are often just as good, if not better than male-bodied and/or -identifying players. Yet this assumption denies opportunities to these players, and ultimately creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: I’m not good enough, so I won’t play online/these games because no one will want to play with me. This also happens in development spaces–female-perceived individuals often have to work twice as hard as their male-perceived co-workers to receive the same recognition. This is even experienced before they enter the industry, as fellow students second guess and demean their contributions in the classroom or on personal projects. This is, again, indicative of the American culture at large, but can be addressed here by bolstering female-bodied/-identifying contributions as both players and developers. Female-bodied/-identifying individuals are just as good as their male counterparts, both in-game and in development: it’s time people started believing that, and acting accordingly.

Moving forward is going to be a lot of work, but most good, worthwhile change usually is. As the player demographics continue to push for more representation of their diversity, the industry will have to adapt to include a wider variety of players and experiences. Including new voices in their development teams will be important, and addressing the issues of misogyny and sexism with enable discourse around how we can make improvements. It will also allow female-bodied and -identifying people to step up and show just how good they are, without fear of reprimand or their skill being questioned based on their gender identity alone. There will always be those resistant to change and unwilling to grapple with their perceived notions of gender and gender-roles, but they shouldn’t stop us from continuing to grow and enjoying mediums that tell great stories for us all.

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