Sexism and Games: Gaming Culture

When I say I’m a gamer, this is just shorthand for ‘I enjoy videogames’, not an insight into a fundamental aspect of my self-identification, nor a label with which to conveniently categorise me. I am also a reader, and a film and music fan, but I am far from defined by these things. First and foremost, gamers are people: human beings, subject to largely the same experience and condition as anyone else they share a socioeconomic background with. Gamers are not a breed apart, not different at a genetic level. Despite any apparent predisposition to it, no-one is *born* a gamer. I haven’t always been a gamer. No-one has *always* been a gamer. It’s important to bear that in mind.

Gaming culture is not inherently sexist; the statement is as obvious to some as it is unbelievable to others, but I must still submit it to you all as fact. Gaming is not a magnet for those with sexist attitudes, nor does it convert people to sexism. Rather, it has become an environment in which societal sexism has been able to flourish unchecked, mainly due to the apparent absence of women and girls from the industry and player base, and their representation in the medium as a result. It is, essentially, a reflection of societal sexism with the volume turned up to 11. What a terrible prospect, you may say, and I might sympathise with you if similar examples didn’t exist largely unchallenged elsewhere in society: Sport, Business, Education, any culture in which the direct community, or a presiding group of gatekeepers, is made up of a male majority. It would be remiss of me not to mention that the same sort of amplification also happens in female communities, such as the Radical Feminist communes of the 1970s, and is similarly unhelpful. Equality requires equal representation at all levels; like it or not, we all have to live on this rock together so we all need to make an effort to be inclusive.

Within gaming culture specifically, the manifestations of societal sexism have become more overt. Individual sexist attitudes are given the space to grow more malignant, partly due to the close-minded view that gaming is androcentric, and partly due to the anonymity that assuming an online persona enables. The culmination of these factors is that there is a perceived lack of direct repercussion for espousing such attitudes; worse still, the inclination of a vocal many to maintain this perceived androcentricity has resulted in attacks on women and girls wishing to engage with gaming culture, and anyone wishing to draw games into a larger critical conversation.

Examples of this are almost too abundant to list, but I want to draw attention to some characteristic facets of gaming sexism.

Language is incredibly important within any culture; it shapes so much of our reality, and yet we mostly take it for granted. Individual words carry a whole host of connotations, broad histories of meaning that branch out into layer upon layer of associations. Words are more powerful than the average twat with a joypad could ever imagine. Let’s take a look at that sentence, though: ‘average’ is judgmental in and of itself, being the absence of anything extraordinary, and here I am associating being average with using a joypad. Within a basic understanding of gaming, we know that joypads are *typically* associated with consoles (used primarily for games, plugs into your TV), as opposed to the mouse and keyboard associated with gaming on a PC or Mac, so the inference here could easily be that PC gaming is superior to console gaming. Furthermore, the word ‘twat‘, despite its referent, is most commonly levelled at men, most likely used to emasculate considering its associations. Therefore, without conscious consideration, we conjure an image of an unexceptional man playing on a console, even though that isn’t what I have explicitly described. Of course, if that’s not what you envisioned, well done you; you get a real gold star, not a sarcastic one. The point is, though, that these structures exist in language, and these webs of meaning have considerable power over our perceptions of the world.

You only need to spend an hour playing one of the many incredibly popular ‘Call of Duty’ iterations to experience some of the most profane and derogatory language you’re ever likely to hear vomited out of a human mouth. The language itself is largely trained on emasculation – referring to opponent players as ‘bitches’ or those who abuse a game’s mechanics as ‘whores’, e.g. ‘killwhores’, who concern themselves with racking up as many kills as possible, despite the presence of a more important objective. Perhaps most abhorrent, though, is the use of ‘rape’ as a synonym for defeating someone or something. This word is one of the most weighted in the English language, representing an extensive history of sexual violence, normalisation of misogynistic practices, and objectification, amongst several other things. Within gaming culture, though, the concept has become so trivialised that the word is now in extremely common usage. When observed in other cultures, such trivialisation correlates to instances of victim blaming and sexual objectification, so I hope I don’t need to go into anymore detail about how the trivialisation of a concept like rape can only be a bad thing. I hope.

The reason that emasculation is such a widely adopted attack is that gaming culture, as paradoxically as it may sound to most people reading this, is a hyper-masculine space. If the principal view is that gaming culture is predominantly for men, then everyone is out to be the alpha. If gaming culture had a flavour it would be testosterone, and you could make little testosterone floats with scoops of sexual objectification, because the two complement each other perfectly. In a cultural space that ostensibly features male-only interactions, women are not only further prone to sexual objectification but that objectification is exacerbated to the extent that hyper-sexualised female characters are the norm, and ‘booth babes‘ are the staple of any good marketing strategy.

Woe-betide any woman or girl who actually tries to engage with this sacred space too. Before any female candidate can be considered for acceptance into gaming culture, one, or sometimes two, of two things has to be established: either her physical attractiveness must be proven, or her credentials as a ‘true gamer‘ must be proven. Particularly obnoxious male chauvinists within gaming culture (a group which is probably slightly more vocal than its larger societal counterpart, due to all those things I mentioned before) take it upon themselves to act as gatekeepers for the gaming community, barring ‘admission’ to women and girls as often, and with as much mockery, as possible. It sounds incredible, but really we see this kind of infantile exclusivity every day: girls don’t know how to play with Scalextric, girls can’t play football, women don’t know how to run a business, women can’t be mechanics. Oh, you’re hot? Well, perhaps we can make an exception, but don’t think for a moment that it’s because we consider you an equal. It’s pathetic, and stems entirely from men striving to maintain their dominance when women ‘threaten’ their powers of authority. Also, before anyone takes exception, I am not saying that women who do manage to progress in arduously sexist circumstances do so solely on the merit of their looks; what I am saying is they do so in spite of a culture of male exclusivity. More unsarcastic gold stars for them.

However, the most vitriolic and disgusting reactions of the gaming community are reserved for female game-writers, developers and journalists. Sweet mercy, being a professional woman in this industry is all the kinds of terrifying I can’t even begin to imagine. Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of the gaming community’s despicable capabilities is Jennifer Hepler’s treatment following her work on the popular Dragon Age series of games. Dragon Age 2, whilst released to reasonably good reviews, was not so readily embraced by long-standing fans of the franchise, and so a minor witch-hunt began. The result of this was the unearthing of a 6 year old interview with Hepler, which contained some fairly radical (or progressive, depending on how you look at it) opinions on game design. Taken as evidence that Hepler was the sole agent in the ruin of their wondrous gaming franchise, the community backlash was overwhelming. Jennifer Helper was subjected to a torrent of abuse you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemies. Unsurprisingly, comments turned very quickly from criticism of her work, to criticism of her gender and appearance because, of course, this is the most effective type of criticism to those who believe that the measure of a woman’s value is how physically attractive she is. As though that wasn’t bad enough, it extended to threats to her safety, and to her family’s safety; it was, without a doubt, one of gaming culture’s lowest points.

I would love to report that this was an isolated incident, but that is far from the case. Any attempts to address the representation of women by journalists, or even developers themselves, are met with a level of repugnance that often develops into threats of violence, sexual and otherwise. A recent example of this has been found in reviews of the popular Grand Theft Auto series, the latest iteration of which has been found wanting in terms of its representation of women. Gamespot reviewer Carolyn Petit addressed this in her largely favourable review of the game (she gave it nine out of ten, overall), yet despite the good things she had to say, commenters took issue with her observation that women are not only underrepresented (of the three protagonists, none are women) but also misrepresented (relegated to being prostitutes, nagging wives, promiscuous daughters, and just about every other negative female stereotype you could imagine). The full comment thread is still there, and I would invite you to take a look at just how foul some reactions were to this well-reasoned review; at 22,500 comments I wouldn’t advise you try to read them all though, if only to save yourself from the onset of full-blown misanthropy. Anita Sarkeesian, creator of Feminist Frequency, has similarly come under fire for her ‘Tropes Vs. Women‘ web-series, which specifically addresses the issue of women’s representation across gaming history. These conversations absolutely need to happen and, fortunately, critics like Petit and Sarkeesian have the conviction to keep pushing for critical dialogue, even in the face of personal threats.

However, due to high-profile instances such as those mentioned above, and an ongoing push to take the issue seriously by a handful of developers and journalists, some interesting and noteworthy counter-attacks have begun to emerge, such as the #1reasonwhy Twitter hashtag, with which developers and journalists – mainly women, but men also – have tagged personal anecdotes detailing the sexism they have faced in their roles. More aptly put, it’s a ‘devastating account of the crap women in the games business have to deal with‘, and it paints a rather sorry picture.

The greatest irony at the centre of all of this is that the gaming community wants society to take games seriously as a medium. I know I certainly do. Gaming culture has a gigantic inferiority complex, because despite being the fastest growing market in the universe, or being worth a squillion billion dollars more than film and literature put together, it simply doesn’t have the social legitimacy that those other mediums do. Part of that has to come down to the fact that efforts to draw gaming into a wider critical conversation are met with the violent throwing of toys from prams, and tired sexist rhetoric. It’s ironic, because those elements who try to hamper the conversation are the ones holding gaming back from taking its first bold steps into a larger cultural world – precisely the kind of progress that would lend gaming culture the legitimacy it desperately seeks.

Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding though, is the notion that because critics identify that certain games are problematic, that those games are bad by extension. This is far from the case. No-one is telling you that you’re bad for playing Grand Theft Auto (except, perhaps, right-wing scaremongers). The point of the conversation is not to say that you’re bad for enjoying these things, it’s to acknowledge that the media we consume is problematic, and only by identifying the problematic elements can we make it better and more inclusive – pretty much exactly the same critical process film and literature must endure; games are not a special case. That doesn’t mean no more fun, it means the same fun with more people. Problematic media is fine, so long as we acknowledge how it is problematic, and admit that it contains values that we perhaps should not absorb into our own personal value systems. That’s all. It’s really that simple.


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