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The following article comes from the Les 3 sex* Avant-Garde magazine that was published in print in April 2019 and digitally in May 2019. For more information on the magazine or to purchase it, please click here (French only).
☛ Cette chronique est aussi disponible en français [➦].
Translated by Zoe Yarymowich
The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), a benchmark of video game statistics, estimates that the percentage of men and women playing video games is equivalent (ESA, 2017).
Women, although initially in the minority, now represent a significant share in the video game market. Consequently, this industry seems to (finally) understand the demand of their new clientele.
A New Awareness
The year 2018 is the great champion of this new reality as classic games, such as Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry, have added the option—which was, up until then, unavailable— to select female characters (Ubisoft, 2018a, 2018b). The release of the game Horizon Zero Dawn the previous year, with a female protagonist, also illustrates this new shift (Sony Interactive Entertainment, 2017). There is a growing awareness that is also expressed by the design of characters whose image is less hypersexualized with, for example, Lara Croft who gave up the push-up bra and who now favours pants to tiny shorts, all valid clothing choices, but all in all, not very suitable for the jungle (Square Enix, 2014).
This very rapid overview of the video game industry may therefore appear positive. However, this growing sensitivity towards this industry is not representative of the state of play in the gaming subculture. The inclusion of women in the video game world is difficult and the challenges they face are particularly evident (Richard & Gray, 2018).
Not Everyone Can Be Part of the Gaming Culture
This new female presence is often rejected since identifying as a gamer is generally questioned by members of the gaming community when it comes from a woman. In addition to the community’s skepticism about the “real” status of female gamers, simple feminist criticisms of the “video game” world provokes hateful reactions. The gaming community, therefore, comes to be seen as a bastion of hegemonic masculinity where femininity is inherently negative and threatening. Some YouTubers, active and popular members of the community, even express the idea that video games are “created by men for men” (Vermeulen et al., 2011, Translated from French).
Paradoxical Identities: Gamer or Woman?
A lot of women play video games, but the concept of a “gamer” seems to be defined by particular characteristics, and the mere act of “playing” is usually not enough to qualify for the title. Depending on the definition, the number of hours regularly dedicated to playing, the investment in the community (forum, social media, events), the kind of platform used (computer, console, cellphone), or the type of video games played all regulate this membership (Paaßen et al., 2016; Pew Research Center, 2014; Vermeulen et al., 2011). First-person shooter games, racing, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), and action-strategy games are associated with hardcore gamers (Paaßen et al., 2016; Vanderhoef, 2013; Vermeulen et al., 2011), and are therefore more respected by the gaming community (Vanderhoef, 2013). Based on this definition, 85.9% of men and 42.7% of women who play video games fall into the hardcore gamer category (Vermeulen et al., 2011). The 57.3% of women who do not belong to this category are considered casual gamers, a category associated with “passivity” and “femininity” (Vanderhoef, 2013). This statistic adds nuance to the one put forward by ESA and consequently positions women as a minority (ESA, 2017; Vermeulen et al., 2011). In addition to this categorization, which tends to exclude women from gaming, women are also more hesitant than men to identify as gamers and also tend to underestimate the number of hours that they play (Williams et al., 2009; Vermeulen et al., 2016).
The majority of women play video games on their cellphones while men prefer computers or consoles (Limelight Networks, 2018).
Although the gaming community seems to have a framework that aims to exclude women (Vanderhoef, 2013), some still fit the profile of the “hardcore gamer” (Vermeulen et al., 2011). The latter is even more invested than their male colleagues with a higher number of hours played, mainly in massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) (Vermeulen et al., 2011, 2016). However, they still face exclusion and differential treatment.
In the Den of Trolls: Harassment and Threats
This exclusion is expressed, among other ways, by different forms of bullying- bullying which generally takes place online, an environment particularly conducive to it. Indeed, more than 40% of internet users report having been cyberbullied at some point in their lives (Pew Research Center, 2014). Although men are more likely to be victims, the experience of women is far more severe and intrusive (Pew Research Center, 2014), since it often involves the form of sexual harassment and cyberstalking (Fow & Tang, 2016; Pew Research Center, 2014; Vermeulen et al., 2016). In addition, online gaming is considered to be the least welcoming environment for women (Pew Research Center, 2014). Considering that the majority of female gamers prefer online video games (Paaßen et al., 2016), they quickly become the targets of this harassment. The #gamergate is one example, in which video game developer Zoë Quinn was harassed and even received death threats from gamers after her ex-boyfriend accused her, on community forums, of being unfaithful (Emilygera, 2014).
Types of Online Harassment Related to Video Games:
- Cyberstalking: Systematically and regularly sending threats to the various platforms used by the targeted person.
- Doxing: Making the concerned person's personal information public on the internet.
- Swatting: Calling in a false alert to the police so that they go to the targeted person’s house.
The situation is similar on the platform Twitch, where the behaviours of women are scrutinized under a magnifying glass. They are regularly victims of slut shaming and accused of being “fake gamers” who use their physical attributes rather than their video game skills to enrich themselves (Alexander, 2018). This slut shaming is expressed, among other ways, by the existence of the concept of “Twitch thots” from the slang “THOT” (an acronym meaning “That Ho Over There”). This qualifier is attributed to women on Twitch who dress in ways that are “too” revealing (Alexander, 2018). This was the case of Alinity Divine, considered to be a “sexy” streamer, who was then labelled a “stupid Twitch THOT” by YouTuber Pewdiepie (Shield, 2018). The ensuing argument sparked an avalanche of insults and death threats against Alinity. Pewdiepie then "apologized" by justifying himself: "Showing your underwear on stream, that’s our fault. Bending over with your butt on camera, that’s our fault, right ” (Shield, 2018).
Kittyplay, a 26-year-old Canadian, is one of the most followed gamers with over 900,000 followers on Twitch (Kittyplay, 2018). When one Googles her, one of the first results is a Reddit thread with the title: “KittyPlaysGames probably slept with one of her top donors”.
Although the particularity of streaming platforms is the proximity between the celebrity and their audience and that, consequently, each celebrity must deal with intimate questions, women, for their part, seem far more affected by this phenomenon. Ninja Blevins, with more than 10 million Twitch followers, says even he refuses to collaborate with female streamers for fear of raising rumours about possible relationships with them (Frank, 2018).
On the Importance of Reforming the Gaming Community
Women are unfortunately not the only ones to be excluded from gaming culture. Indeed, although the realities of people from the LGBTQ+ community are not discussed in this article, they also find it difficult to find their place within gaming culture (Richard & Gray, 2018). Through the differential treatment of women, racialized people, and LGBTQ+ people, as well as through a rigid definition of what a real gamer entails, the gaming community seems desperate to cling to an outdated and toxic identity. Yet, the democratization of video games is only accelerating.
This negative portrayal of gaming culture should not, however, overshadow the real emergence of greater inclusion in the community. In the past year, the platform Twitch launched the 1,000 Dreams Fund campaign to support female streamers (Alexander, 2018) and the Cheer for Equality campaign to celebrate LGBTQ+ creators (Brown, 2018). Campaigns are being created and oppose the exclusionary culture. The Women & Nonbinary Club organizes meet-ups in Australia to promote the creation of safe spaces (Australian Centre for Moving Image, 2018). In Canada, Girls on Games also aims to be a non-discriminatory safe space to discuss video games (Girls on Game, 2018) while Not Your Mama’s Gamer in the United States has a similar objective (NYMG Feminist Game Studies, 2018).
Video games provide unique spaces for socialization that allow isolated individuals to come together. In addition, video games appear to be an ideal medium for raising public awareness on specific issues. Few mediums have such potential for personal investment since rather than acting as a simple spectator, the person, through exploration and decision-making, becomes the master of their discoveries and actions taken (Neys et al., 2014). These characteristics make video games incredibly relevant strategic tools for bringing about social change.
Released as part of a competition in 2017, the game Behind Every Great One tells the story of a housewife who must maintain her home while her husband, a renowned artist, works. However, it is impossible to complete all of the tasks and the protagonist must find strategies to control the anxiety generated by this failure; strategies that delay the completion of tasks and lead to criticism from her husband and in-laws.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit (2018), features the story of a young boy living alone with his father. The boy who has various interests, some of which contradict masculine gender stereotypes, is led to experience several adventures. As the game progresses, the protagonist’s story unfolds and we are led to believe that these extraordinary adventures are, perhaps, only the fruit of his imagination to flee his reality. A necessary creation to escape a complex, tragic and violent reality.
Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator (2017) has a lighter tone than the previous picks. The originality of the game lies in the concept: playing a gay father looking for a life partner, who is also a father. Thanks to a variety of quests and objectives, one must navigate the dating world to find one’s ideal match. Fortunately, the entire city is made up of other single fathers! A different game that comically highlights same-sex parenting.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018). It is one of the few mainstream games that has a diversified representation of sexuality. It is possible to play as a male or female character, to assume fluid sexuality, and to have partners that are very different from one another, ranging from the sexually unsatisfied elderly woman to a young dandy, to a red-haired lumberjack that is a bear (large and usually hairy men).
God of War IV (2018). While the franchise has been known to offer highly sexualized, violent, and openly sexist games (God of War I, II, III), the new God of War is renewing itself and transcending this heritage. The past is not erased but colours the character's journey throughout the adventure. He must navigate through fatherhood with a frankly toxic masculinity, beyond the realization that this model is harming his son.
Horizon Zero Dawn (2017). Rather than simply adding a female character option, the game mandates a female protagonist, thereby breaking Lara Croft’s isolation in Tomb Raider as the only game with a female heroine. The character is a warrior roaming a futuristic planet populated with prehistoric-looking robots, and no love affair “disturbs” the protagonist in her quest.
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