Women in Gaming: The Transitioning Art Form

Artwork by Rachelle Lee


Women and gaming  have an interesting relationship, in that up until recently, it was virtually non-existent. Recent controversies, in particular the infamous ‘GamerGate’ and the meteoric rise in notoriety of female personalities such as Anita Sarkeesian, have brought the issues faced by female gamers back into the spotlight. Theseis controversiesy brought with it them multiple, competing viewpoints on what it means to be a female gamer, as well as where the industry is headed as it moves out of its infancy and into the realm of the mainstream.

On a whole, videogames are improving in terms of representation and diversity. Some of the archaic and sexist tropes (in both directions) have been readily dismantled as of late. More recent Legend of Zelda games neatly subvert the ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope by having the titular Princess Zelda turn out to be a kickass warrior, a powerful magic wielder, and a capable ruler, despite (or in spite ) of) the player’s quest to rescue her. The ‘Revealing Armour’ trope is almost entirely gone from serious fantasy and action games, with franchises like Bioware’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age leading the way through gender neutral armour. There are more highly capable and diverse female protagonists in games, such as Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, Portal’s Chell, Horizon: Zero Dawn’s Aloy and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s Evie Frye (to name literally only a few). And inIn general, there are just more games hitting the mainstream that have zero focus on gender or stereotypes, with the rise and return in popularity of indie puzzlers, arcade racers and skill-based platformers.

Before I get into where the issues lie, I want to give full disclosure that I personally have never experienced any form of harassment or discrimination for being a female gamer, which is not something I consider to mean that no woman ever has. In fact, I’ve been extremely –  — dare I say it –  — privileged. I grew up on wholesome games like Mario Kart, Pokéemon and The Sims (where players could easily choose female characters. I), and had family and friends who just loved games no matter what, and never for once considered it wrong in any way that I would tooas well. But converselyConversely, however, I also just don’t play many multiplayer games, and frankly, rarely interact with gamers online. Examining my circumstance objectively, I play games in a tidy bubble. And it’sIt is outside thisat bubble where the weird, shady, and sometimes terrible shit happens.

Possibly the biggest recent cultural controversy in videogames is the aforementioned GamerGate, which in brief, saw a number of female gaming personalities subject to consistent and escalating online harassment. What began over a question of the ethics of videogames journalism –  — again in brief, whether or not certain reviewers were preferencing certain developers –  — turned into an industry wide debate over harassment of women in gaming, the apparent ‘death’ of the gamer identity, and the increasing politicisation of videogames. Those in favour of GamerGate claimed to want to stamp out corruption in videogaminges journalism, and combat the rising ‘feminising’ feminisation’ of gaming, which resulted in female developers, notably Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, being doxxed (readREAD: had their personal info published for all to see) by anonymous online groups, to a level that saw both of them flee their homes. Sarkeesian’s online web series Tropes Vs. Women in Games was met with huge backlash for ‘unfairly’ misrepresenting the portrayal of women in videogames. Numerous articles were published painting ‘GamerGaters’ as a misogynistic horde of angry (often white) men, and countered by online groups labelling anyone against GamerGate as a ‘social justice warrior’. The controversy even spilled over into industry sponsors; Intel pulled ads from the industry blog ‘Gamasutra’ after GamerGaters took issue with the way the website was portraying their movement.

Put mildly, GamerGate was a giant mess that tore through the games industry like wildfire and left a sour taste in everyone’s mouths. Had it ended at being a debate over the changing culture of gaming, it could have marked an incredibly interesting development of games from being a hobby to being a respected artistic medium. But Although, the strange focus on the ‘feminisation’ of gaming, from both sides, and the outrageous online harassment faced by some of those involved, muddied the purpose and outcome of the controversy entirely. It stopped being about games, and became about politics of personality. Which, in my opinion, is a huge shame.

BecauseFor what else marks the transition of an artform into something truly respected than when it gains the ability to say something about our society?. The ‘feminisation’ of videogames, and the critical examination of the way women are portrayed and treated in gaming communities could have been a huge moment. Whether or not we agree with arguments of sexism in games and the games industry, what is so fundamentally important is the ability to recognise it as an issue at all. Examining our own bias, privilege and relationship with regards to the media we consume –  — or in other words, stepping out of our own bubble –  — is the first step in making what we create socially aware. Does this mean we should make all protagonists female? Does this mean we should never have sexy characters? Does this mean you we aren’t allowed to enjoy gaming unless its super high brow? Nope. All it means is that games need to be open to discussion and criticism, as all good art should be.

SoSo, I think where so much of the vitriol and harassment that stemmed from GamerGate came from is a resistance to that discussion; because games have so long been just for fun, or just a hobby, discussion around their culture is threatening to many people who see games as an escape or a comfort. And Yet, since it was women who started that discussion, it was women who bared the brunt of the backlash. The good news, however, is that GamerGate has basically faded into history –  — a momentary hump in the continuing evolution of modern gaming. Are female gamers still harassed online just for being women? Is the portrayal of women in games at times still sexist? Absolutely. , but Wwhat matters now is that we’re talking about it.


Rachael Welling

The author Rachael Welling

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