My friend and I were sitting on the train back to Canterbury from London, talking. As tends to happen with me, the conversation shifted to the subject of video games. We were taking about some of the recent trends in gaming, and I mentioned how I thought it was good that there are now more games with female protagonists.
At this point, a member of the public decided to intervene in our chat. At first I assumed he was going to tell us to talk quieter, so I was a bit taken aback when he blurted ‘Excuse me, but why do you care?’
He did elaborate, making a series of arguments in a discussion that lasted the remainder of the hour-long journey. These were his main points:
- That there was nothing stopping women playing video games before, so why should video games and the video game community change to accommodate them?
- That, as relatively privileged males, we only cared about the issue of women’s representation in video games in a ‘fake liberal’ way. He couldn’t believe that we really cared about the issue, continually saying ‘Do you seriously wake up in the morning thinking about how women are represented in video games?’
Let me explain how my friend and I responded to these arguments, and why I do genuinely care about this issue.
Firstly, if there were truly ‘nothing stopping women playing video games’ in previous years, then why is it widely accepted that male participation used to be much higher than female participation? Clearly there was some kind of obstacle for women, otherwise the ratio would have been nearer 50:50.
The answer is that the social norms of video gaming were gendered such that this activity was coded as an activity predominantly for young males. In the marketing tactics for video games, and in the characters and types of gameplay that these video games involved, we saw (and to some extent still see) the same stereotypes of masculinity that we see in other cultural products. For example, popular games involving themes of violence and warfare - such as Call of Duty - having exclusively male protagonists, and being aimed at young men through advertising. And as more young men than women continued to buy and play these types of video games, the norms of masculinity have become internalised, repeated and reinforced.
Of course, the scene in gaming has evolved a lot in the last few years. But as the recent Gamergate saga illustrates, these norms certainly haven’t disappeared, and are still actively asserted by some members of the gaming community. So much so that my friend Rosa, whose forays into game design are an endless source of inspiration and excitement for me, told me that Gamergate made her think twice about entering the game industry as a designer. And indeed, although the gender balance of video game players may be more equal now, this is still not the case for game creators (designers, programmers, etc.).
There are of course wider concerns here about women’s representation and participation in society, of which video games are just one part of the dialogue. Projects like Feminist Frequency, who actively document instances where video games (and other cultural products) use demeaning and sexualising images/representations of women, have parallels with campaigns such as No More Page 3. The overriding aim of these projects is to both illuminate and work to reduce cases in our culture where women – and in particular their bodies – are represented solely as passive objects of sexual desire.
Yet this work is repeatedly under attack by those decrying ‘femenazism’, and in the case of Feminist Frequency, gamers continuing to assert the masculinity of the practice of gaming. This repeated drawing of cultural boundaries has permeated our society, where even today a much lower proportion of women who play video games define themselves as ‘gamers’ compared to men. From the standpoint of an ideal of gender equality, which is something I wholeheartedly advocate, there is still a long way to go. Again, although progress has been made, the norms haven’t disappeared.
Another norm that I have been silently reinforcing so far in this post by talking about ‘women’, ‘men’, ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ as defined groups is the idea that gender is binary. Of course, as soon as I even mentioned the notion that gender is non-binary in our discussion on the train, the man we were talking to tutted, sighed and ridiculed. This is a crucial point though, because true gender equality necessitates a non-binary understanding of gender. When I say that I believe in gender equality, I actually mean to say that all points in which people identify on the spectrum of gender should be equally valorised and respected. I believe that this would benefit everyone – self-defined men included, who would be freed from constraining and dangerous norms of masculinity.
And this is the crux of why I care about the issue of gender equality – in games, other cultural products and society as a whole. We would all benefit as a result of true gender equality.
My friend and I tried to make this point to the man, explaining how having more games with female protagonists doesn’t mean that there have to be fewer games with male protagonists, or fewer games revolving around themes typically seen as ‘masculine’. In an expanding industry now worth £91.5 billion and increasing at 9.4% per year, video game culture isn’t a zero-sum game where making more of a certain kind of game will mean there is inevitably less of another. More than ever, there is room for video games that cater for a diversity of tastes, interests, and types of player.
Games have remarkable potential. They can immerse people in unfamiliar environments with exceptional detail. They allow you to play with your identity, taking on a virtual persona within these environments. They can foster communication and collaboration, friendship and creativity between people, even those who have never met in real life. They can make even seemingly mundane activities fun and exciting. They can present you with interesting problems, and ask you to find innovative answers.
In my mind, better representation and participation by all types of people in games can only be a good thing, because it will give more people access to this potential. Alongside the excellent work that the games industry currently produces, better access to the industry for a wider range of people will allow for new offshoots of creativity, ultimately leading to richer, more extraordinary, and more imaginative experiences that can be enjoyed by greater numbers of people.
For those generally interested in the topic, there's a fantastically comprehensive Wikipedia article covering the main issues, which can also point you towards further publications.