Women gamers battle misogyny, violence: Will they breach gaming industry's gender divide?
By Sharanya Dutta
When you think ‘gamer’, what is the picture that comes to your mind? Are you seeing teenage boys huddled in front of a TV playing Counter-Strike? Or a bunch of dudes sitting around with beers and playing FIFA 2016? Those watching the industry have observed over the years that this is changing, and it’s time we updated our ideas about ‘gamers’ too.
A study by the Pew Research Center, dated 15 December 2015, shows that 50 percent of American men and 48 percent of women play video games. One commonly cited reason for the high numbers of women gamers is that the very definition of gaming has expanded to include games played on multiple devices, including mobile phones. Gamers are sorted into ‘hardcore’ (like players of World of Warcraft), ‘midcore’ (like players of Clash of Clans) and ‘casual’ gamers (think Candy Crush), depending on the amount of time and money spent on them. Women are largely seen as ‘casual’ gamers in this hierarchy. One employee at an Indian gaming studio who asked to remain anonymous, says that within the industry, games are colour-coded according to their target audience, with blue indicating a game aimed at men, purple for games aimed at both genders, such as Farmville, and pink for — you guessed it — women.
According to an employee in the India unit of an international gaming company who did not wish to be named, “Sixty-seventy percent of the players of casual games are women and are mature players [average age of about 55]. Statistically, most of them play in the casual genres like Match 3, casino and puzzle. It’s a business so companies then work around this data and continue to target their maximum revenue paying customers,” he said, indicating that ‘serious’ male gamers were still the company’s target as they brought in the money. According to a Reliance Games report, Indian women make up 35 percent of mobile phone gamers. (This 2015 piece by Neha Mathews on Deep Dives takes a close look at the world of Indian women gamers, while this one by Mathews, published on Deep Dives this week, focuses on women mobile gamers.)
A 2014 study showed that while 52 percent of gamers were women, the stereotype that women were almost exclusively interested in casual smartphone games didn’t hold true. Forty-seven percent of players of disc-based games were women, while for online games this figure was 68 percent, and 56 percent on consoles. Interestingly, Pew Research Center found that more than twice as many men as women they surveyed identified with the ‘gamer’ label (15 percent vs 6 percent).
This year, ESL One, a large gaming tournament that took place in New York over 1-2 October, where teams battle for a $250,000 cash prize, had only “a sprinkling of women” attendees. One of them said, “I feel like a lot of girls get intimidated to join events and tournaments like this. It's always the token girl issue. Like if you play, no one wants to lose to a girl. But if you win, it's 'oh, they got beat by a girl'. But it's never a good thing for you, it's always a put down by the guy who played you. So a lot of girls shy away from events like this because they're afraid to get ridiculed.”
Misogyny and violence directed at women in the gaming world has been documented aplenty — within games, in several ‘hardcore’ games aimed at men, women characters wear very little and have bodies with exaggerated features to look sexy, and can be beaten or raped. At a recent event in Tokyo, men playing a virtual reality game were banned from touching female mannequins as they started to feel them up at the event. Outside games, women are constantly made to feel like outsiders. When Assassin’s Creed launched, a comic by a user published on SomethingAwful showed Jade Raymond, who was a programmer and producer at Ubisoft, giving a blowjob to promote the game. The most terrifying example of violence directed at women in gaming is the infamous GamerGate in which the Twitter hashtag #GamerGate provided a cover for the systematic harassment campaign against women in the industry in the garb of concern for ethical journalism on gaming. There have been unending reports of the kind of escalating threats women as gamers receive in the community — threats which follow them around on all possible forms of social media — ranging from profanity to rape and death threats. And women are fighting against this from within.
An annoying aspect of the perceived gender divide in gaming is what game developers think are suitable for women. For instance, the new Angry Birds Stella is a pink blitz of female birds and arch-enemies, with the slogan “best friends forever — most of the time” and the agenda of promoting “female heroism”. It starts young: online games for little girls exist largely in a whirlwind of pink, cupcakes, and blonde boys. And popular games like Kim Kardashian: Hollywood carry the burden of intense judgement in the gaming community — with hate directed both at the game and the people who play it, in equal parts. Never mind that the game, launched in June 2014, had been downloaded 42 million times and brought in $100 million by February 2016.
Then there are those who don’t believe women can be good at ‘hardcore’ games. Seventeen-year-old Korean gamer Gegury, after beating rivals at the Nexus Cup qualifiers at Overwatch, had to prove to people that she had won fair and square on livestream. (This after she received threats like, “…I may visit Gegury’s house with a knife in hand. I am not joking.”)
The next time you think of gamers, perhaps you should be thinking of college girls. Or your mum. Or the granny next door.
The Ladies Finger (TLF) is an online women’s magazine