It is week five of my penultimate academic quarter, and thus I am returning to my week one thoughts on my experience as a girl in a video games class.
After each lecture in Video Games and Visual Culture, the margins of my hastily scribbled notes are dotted with tally marks, counting male speakers vs. female speakers. This semi-scientific evidence gathering is not the main point of my writing on this class, but a partial justification of it. Not one of the 10 lectures so far has had a majority of women speak; in fact not one lecture has seen more than five women speak, out of three hundred students. Attendance fluctuates, but men still dominate the conversation each class. Even side conversations (at least those local enough to reach my hearing range) are dominated by men—recently, by two males behind me bemoaning their friend’s choice to miss out on a gaming tournament to spend the weekend with his girlfriend. Thus, the binary between girls and gaming trickles down to even the briefest, whispered conversation in this course: to be a gamer is to choose between the apparently distinct activities of identification and bonding with your male friends versus entering the mystery that is girl world.
To my eternal dismay, week four’s lecture on Gender and Gaming Representation was led by a guest professor as the course’s regular professor missed that entire week of class to deal with a family emergency. Thus class was significantly more subdued than usual, and although the professor attempted to cover both missed lectures herself the following Monday, she had no choice but to zip through both hastily. This all makes me pine for a course devoted entirely to identity politics in media consumption, a class which would include games, television, film, social media, and the like. But I can’t help but believe that those that would willingly enroll in the class would not be those who could stand to benefit most from it—those people would have to be tricked into learning that information by enrolling in a more general class like this one. I cannot help but feel like an essential opportunity was missed here, to really take the students of this class through some of the gender politics of gaming in a detailed way. Instead, due to an unfortunate confluence of circumstances, we got the drive-by version.
Even so, there were some interesting moments in the class. The professor paused the lecture to screen the following Playstation 4 commercial to ask our opinions.
I, and two other female students, commented on the commercial’s construction of a man’s world in gaming: That no matter what level of fantasy (risky driving, science fiction/military, medieval fantasy), the world of gaming—even in 2013, when this commercial was released—is for men and their friends. One male, armed with an angry but determined look, finally raises his hand to defensively respond that the commercial’s main point is that gaming creates a sense of community. Yes, sure, a comfortable sense of community exists when you’re a straight white male in gaming, because that 17-year-old, Mountain Dew- and Dorito-fueled community is (incorrectly) lauded for being the primary audience for video games. And, much like those two whispered behind me recently, the PS4’s “Perfect Day” is a day spent gaming, in essence, a day spent without women. And gaming’s male bias is no more succinctly found than in the creation of the (often loaded) term “gamer girl” to describe women who play—because “gamer” is apparently not representative enough of women.
In discussing the virtual exclusion of women, it is also necessary to refer to the theorization of gendered physical exclusion. Public spaces like bars and arcades are coded male; to enter these territories as a female is to enter the sphere of male expectation—to answer questions of value and of credibility, but never of consent. These male spaces are replicated in the multiplayer gaming sphere, and in the gaming industry—which is 89 percent men. This is reflected in the numerous contributions to the #1reasonwhy topic on Twitter, wherein women in the industry commented on their unfair treatment. Furthermore, those who may argue that men are inherently better gamers because they game more frequently fail to take into account the gendered division of leisure time across the world. Women, in general, have less leisure time than men, due to the imbalanced ratio of women who engage in unpaid domestic labor outside their careers.
One of the readings we read and summarized this week, Adrienne Shaw’s “Do you identify as a gamer?” addressed this issue. In reality, gaming demographics are not so homogenous: a 2014 study found that 48 percent of all players are women. It is a common mistake to assume that there are vastly more male players than female players; the main inequality lies instead in the industry, where only 11 percent of game producers are women. If gaming has this diverse a community, why, then, do mainstream games still represent this relatively small portion of gaming culture? Gaming studies have found that women prefer third person perspectives with creatures as avatars instead of people—is that such a surprise when nearly nine out of 10 mainstream video game characters, even in fantasy worlds, are 30-something white males with attractive five-o’clock shadows and six packs? (Don’t believe me? Apply Male Protagonist Bingo to a few of your favorite games). Hence part of the reason why we see such little diversity in gaming is twofold: the industry is almost all white men, and they (and society) erroneously assume that the audience who will purchase these games has the same demographics.
In her study, Shaw found that gender was the most influential factor in self-identifying as a gamer. Female interviewees were highly conscious of their gender and took it into the consideration of their responses, while males were entirely unhindered by their gender when considering their gamer identities. Why, if women are the fastest-growing demographic in gaming, do I still feel daunted by the concept of self-identifying as both a girl and a gamer? One of the class’s first assignments was to write a brief introduction about yourself and your gaming habits. My attempts at this all sounded apologetic: Hi, my name is Natalie, and though I’ve logged countless hours on numerous gaming platforms, I don’t really consider myself a gamer: Because I only play casually. Because I’m a woman who doesn’t feel welcome in the community. Because I mainly play process-oriented games like The Sims or casual group games like MarioKart. Because, because, because. Ain’t I a gamer?
I think I hesitate to self-identify as a gamer for two reasons. One is my revulsion, at the tiny but extremely vocal portion of the community who offers naught but a deluge of death and rape threats to women, from players to creators to critics. This small fraction of the community is dragging the name of gamers everywhere through the mud, perpetuating the unfortunate (but slowly changing) social reputation of gaming as a thoroughly juvenile activity. More importantly, this fragment of the gaming community is a part of the steadily evolving culture of nerd aggression, entitlement and misogyny, a culture which is highly protective of the fragile male ego and thus hateful to those who may threaten it—in essence, women.
The latter point touches on my second and most long-standing reason for shying away from the “gamer” label: because submitting myself to the competitive and male world of gaming, as a woman, means subjecting myself to accusations of falseness, to a life of constant invalidation, and likely to verbal harassment. I live in a household full of active male gamers. In their experience, any online multiplayer game played with a mic means expecting horrid streams of hatred from other players. They don’t see it as more than an integral part of gaming culture, a necessary evil that is not even so evil as just a piece of the experience. The use of the word “fag” as an insult or “gay” as a negative adjective is common—and even my housemate, who never uses those words in other, non-gaming contexts, participates in that culture. What is it about multiplayer online gaming (League of Legends, in this example) that promotes this hateful and exclusive culture? I, for one, am uncomfortable with accepting this as normal behavior. Some of those interviewed in Shaw’s piece who identified as gay gamers have learned to respond to the toxic bile in these settings, in what must be a survival tactic. But there are many of us, myself included, who are currently unwilling to wade through that vitriol in order to participate in something that’s supposed to be fun.
So, yes, “Greatness Awaits” those who will buy the PS4 and other consoles, but these offer a very specific brand of greatness, one that is fed by aggression, competition, and the pursuit of victory. These are the themes that haunt AAA games—an industry term for games with the highest budgets and levels of development, and thus the highest profit potential; examples include the Grand Theft Auto series, Modern Warfare, Halo, Assassin’s Creed. What do they all have in common? With the exception of the 2014: Liberation installment of Assassin’s Creed, which features Aveline de Grandpre as its badass female protagonist, each is dominated by male characters, usually white.
So the industry is dominated by these action-oriented, often first-person perspective games. Maybe that’s why I don’t identify as a gamer; I can’t shoot for shit. I don’t have the hand-eye coordination necessary to be a virtual mercenary, nor do I care to practice enough to become one. Headshots and kill rates are considerably less valuable to me than the looks on my friends’ faces as I whip past them as Princess Peach in my shiny pink go-kart. Yes, this princess will be in another castle: the first place podium at the end of Rainbow Road. To be a woman in the gaming community is to constantly prove yourself and your worth as a gamer; to own and exercise the competitive streak that many insist is not biologically inherent in women. You have to be a different kind of better to transcend “good… for a girl.” Through a combination of industry-bred and community-bred exclusion, I choose, at least for now, not to identify as a gamer, likely to the relief of many hardcore gamers. I choose instead to be a girl/woman/person who plays games for fun, who basks in the anonymity of offline gaming, waiting for a more loving leaderboard.
This class, so far, has done a major service in educating me on the world of indie gaming and creating an alternative narrative to the peach-fuzz-lipped, basketball-shorts-wearing, Monster-chugging gamer that once haunted the entire medium/culture in my mind. I am tuning into a hugely heterogeneous spectrum as I study gaming’s many facets, learning as much about the art form as the industry. My understanding of the history and current legacy of gaming, at every level from the player community to the games themselves to the game makers to the industry they work within, is constantly expanding and changing, like the field/medium of gaming itself. To keep myself at a respectful distance from self-identification today is not to say gaming will always feel this exclusive to me; I optimistically insist on believing that it will one day change for the better. Perhaps most essentially, this class has inspired me to play a wider variety of games, and more often. Hopefully the day will come soon where I can proudly link myself to this vastly diverse community of players, outside the shadows of a medievally unequal industry.