Gaming has long been a boys’ club, this much is widely accepted. Games are given to boys growing up, whereas girls get to play with their dolls. They are marketed at men; badass dudes setting out to rescue the sexy yet helpless girl with lots of violence along the way. But the trend is changing, statistics suggesting that 47% of all gamers are women, and yet, as an industry – and indeed as a community – we rarely welcome this fact. E3, the biggest game expo in the world, continues selling everything through the medium of booth babes year in, year out, managing to alienate the entire female audience in one fell swoop.
Even when someone has the audacity to suggest that hey, maybe we could all get along, or maybe narratives that aren’t overwhelmingly sexist stereotypes could also be fun to play, the backlash is always astonishing. The sheer amount of malice that can come from some gamers when you suggest that broader appeal games could share a shelf with ultra-macho hack’n’slash or war simulator titles has to be seen to be believed.
Earlier this year, Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler was on the receiving end of this backlash. In an interview taken almost five years ago, she confessed to not being much of a gamer and felt that reduced-action options for those gamers who enjoyed narrative more than blasting through crowds would be a nice addition so that people like her could enjoy the medium. This seems like a reasonable suggestion, after all it would in no way affect those who still wanted to kill and maim their way to victory, while offering an alternate option for people like herself who wanted to enjoy gaming but found themselves lacking the wherewithal to finish titles. With her words taken thoroughly out of context and further quotes fabricated entirely a picture showed up on the internet alongside the cruel nickname “Hamburger Helper”. Quickly circulated around the usual places, 4chan and Reddit’s gaming forum, thousands of angry gamer guys set out, pitchforks brandished, to make life miserable for poor Hepler. She spent several days bombarded with hate mail and even death threats for something she’d said 5 years prior because she embodied “everything that’s wrong with gaming”. Never mind the fact that she is a writer and would have no say in gameplay design decisions, or the fact that in reality she was in no way involved in the writing for Mass Effect 3 (something she was accused of ruining), no, this writer, who happened to be female and have minimal gaming experience was single-handedly destroying the games industry. I can’t help but wonder what if Jennifer had been a man quoted as saying such things. We’ll never know, but I suspect the worst that could have happened would have been that he was dismissed out of hand. I think “everything that is wrong with gaming” is this ridiculous mob mentality hell-bent on destroying everything and everyone who doesn’t conform to the mob’s demands. There’s plenty of room for developers to make different products for different audiences, and even to include options within products to make it accessible to a bigger audience; there’s no justifiable excuse for sending death threats to a person who doesn’t want to spend their life making products tailored solely to one small audience.
And now just this week, the undesirables of the internet once again seized the chance to make life hell for the latest woman to speak out on the issue. Anita Sarkeesian of blog feministfrequency.com hoped to use Kickstarter to raise funding to create a series of videos to raise awareness of the issues surrounding gender in gaming. A noble cause, and one worth supporting, one might think. The internet hate machine had other plans, however, and she has been met with much the same response as Hepler.
In a much more positive twist this time, though, Sarkeesian received an overwhelming outpouring of support as well. Smashing her fundraising target of $6000 in no time she has now reached a staggering $150,000, over twenty-five times her goal. Unfazed by the haters, she’s now aiming to make twelve videos in total with a much higher production quality, having started with the expectation that she would only make 5. Hoping to spark discussion about female representation in the media and video games especially, we may yet hope to see female game characters with more personality than their chainmail bikinis.
As positive as it might be, I think it’s unlikely to change the attitudes of the gaming community at large. That’s something that will need a lot more work by a lot more than one person. It’s up to all of us. When you see someone in chat spouting racism or sexism, the easy response, one a lot of people will probably take (and I know I’ve been guilty of this too) is to ignore or mute them. Sure that’ll give you peace of mind for five minutes but they’ll only go on to do it elsewhere to someone else. Next time you see someone giving anyone else a hard time for being different to them take a stand, shout them down, tell them it’s not okay. You might be pleasantly surprised to find mob mentality works both ways. If you take the first step and tell them to knock it off, you can find others will back you up quite readily. If we can make this the norm, we might all be able to enjoy our chosen hobby a great deal more.
Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project is Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and at the time of publication has 9 hours remaining to pledge support.