Gamers aren’t just geeky young men alone in their rooms anymore (if they ever were). Contrary to typecast, as many as 49% of gamers these days are women, and polls suggest that by the end of 2013, women will make up 51% of the gaming world.
Though they make up about exactly half of the gaming world, female gamers face vehement sexual harassment and exclusion: Phrases like “I just got raped” get dropped on the regular, and those who call attention to gender inequality are swiftly attacked. Last year, Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter to fund a video series discussing sexist tropes in videogames. She met a barrage of vitriolic comments, such as, “Back to the kitchen, c*nt,” or “You disgust me, you f*cking bitch.” (Check out more charming responses here.) Still, recent months have seen a growing discussion of gaming’s sexism problem. We have a long way to go — but it’s possible we’re seeing the first cracks of light.
It bodes well that more conversations, and more public conversations, are cropping up across gender lines. Last year, Kickstarter games specialist Luke Crane asked Twitter, “Why are there so few lady game creators?” In 2011, 11.5% of game developers in the U.S. and 6% of developers in the U.K. were women. Crane’s question prompted an industry discussion led by Filamena Young, whose initial response included the hashtag #1reasonwhy. An outpouring of engagement flooded Twitter, with female industry developers offering to mentor other women (#1reasonmentors), and male allies voicing their support and help.
Elsewhere, creative responses to gaming sexism are getting more play across the Internet. In one recent story that made the rounds on industry websites, a female developer at Seattle’s Meteor Entertainment took subtle sexism in her workplace into her own hands. Tired of seeing her boss’s enormous office pinup poster, “Ruby Underboob,” day in and day out, the employee joined forces with a colleague to swap in a male equivalent, “Brosie the Riveter,” much to her manager’s surprise. His response? “That was a brilliant prank. You called me on exactly the bullsh*t I needed to be called on. I put pictures of half-naked girls around the office all the time and I never think about it.” The posters now hang side-by-side.
In another recent project, New York City filmmaker Shannon Sun-Higginson launched a Kickstarter for a documentary about gaming sexism. Sun-Higginson, a casual gamer herself, was stunned hearing stories from friends about the harassment they faced. "Nobody should have to endure being called a derogatory term simply because of their gender (or race, religion, or sexual orientation, for that matter)," she writes. "It is not only offensive to the victim and detrimental to the public image of the industry, but it also discourages countless women who want to be part of new and creative media." Her response, GTFO: A Film About Women in Gaming, comes out spring 2014.
It will take time for the growing response to percolate and cause a tipping point in gaming, and likely even longer for games themselves to reflect it. In a sample of 669 games, only 24 had exclusively female protagonists. Industry marketers might argue that male characters simply sell better than female — but they likely won’t mention that games with female lead characters receive only 40% of the budget that males do. It’s hard to say male characters unequivocally sell better when their games also have 60% more money for production. As the message permeates that gamers are a far more diverse, gender-balanced bunch that we thought, will game creators listen and develop their products accordingly? Time will tell if the growing discussion leads to change. But the conversation has started — and that’s no small thing.