ByKen McDonnell, writer at Creators.co
Now Loading's sentimental Irishman. I can't stop playing Overwatch, please send help.
Ken McDonnell

Though I myself perpetuate the image of your average gamer as a monitor-hogging, controller-clutching, non-sport-partaking young white man, I'm in the minority.

In 2011, a study carried out by the Internet Advertising Bureau revealed that 49% of gamers were women. Fast forward three years later and that number had risen to 52%. Not only should this figure have decimated the image of someone like myself as your average interactive entertainment consumer, it should have had huge ramifications for the industry. But it didn't.

The art form's own advertising, recruitment campaigns and degrading forms of female characterization continually devalue and betray their own audience—why? Because, for the most part, female gamers are ignored.

Meet Your Average Gamer

A depiction of your average gamer. [Credit: http://www.soft.moe/post/96091899825/drew-another-vivian-while-waiting-for-some-stuff]
A depiction of your average gamer. [Credit: http://www.soft.moe/post/96091899825/drew-another-vivian-while-waiting-for-some-stuff]

Before we dive into this, let's take a look at the numbers.

The report in question was carried out in Britain and indicated that, aside from the audience being predominantly female, there are now more people over 44 years old playing games. Middle-aged individuals accounted for 27% of the audience, whereas children and teenagers accounted for 22%—so much for the young gamer image too, huh? Additionally, they revealed that the gamer audience stands at 69% of the British population. That's enormous!

They also found that "the average Briton spends six hours per week playing games, which, according to the report, is “just over 11% of their 52 hours of media consumption a week – the same share accounted for by social media and slightly less than listening to music (14%).“" - The Guardian

But one thing that skeptics were quick to latch onto was the fact that mobile puzzle games emerged as the most popular video game genre for Britain, and the rest of the world. Certain gamers were quick in their attempt to discredit this 52% figure after reaching the conclusion that the majority of these women weren't actually playing "real" #VideoGames—which is obviously nonsense. However, the numbers were quick to put that argument to rest.

Counter-Strike eSports event featuring a team of almost exclusively female players. [Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/radekvebr/]
Counter-Strike eSports event featuring a team of almost exclusively female players. [Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/radekvebr/]

The stereotype maintains that female gamers were only interested in casual smartphone gaming, as opposed to testing their skills on a console or #PC. However, almost 50% of interviewees had played a disc-based game in the six months prior to the test, 68% had played an online game and 56% of female gamers had played on a console.

These numbers ignited a debate around various aspects of video game culture, how female gamers fit into it, and how they interact with it.

But... You're A Girl

Almost everything about mainstream AAA video game development seems to denote masculinity or pander to its desires. What kind of message does this send to the dominant gaming sex? Meg Jayanth ponders how women are made to feel about video games by examining the numbers of the above study:

[Are] more women playing mobile games because women are more interested in mobile games? Or is it because they have been told, over and over again, that “proper” games are not for them? That, more broadly, video games are not for them?

My younger sister, of age 14, is an avid gamer. Her personal favorites consist of Dishonored, Shadow of Mordor and Red Dead Redemption—you'll notice that none of these are "appropriate" for her age. But once male peers in her year uncover the fact that she is, very much so, a gamer, she's either met with degrading remarks or genuine shock. How will these comments and reactions impact on her future interactions with the art form? Why can't she enjoy the same privilege that the young boys in her class do? After all, she's the majority here.

Working In The Games Industry

Alanah Pearce, game critic and all-round badass. [Credit: https://www.youtube.com/user/Charalanahzard]
Alanah Pearce, game critic and all-round badass. [Credit: https://www.youtube.com/user/Charalanahzard]

Yet these degrading comments are merely one of the issues women face in gaming. Despite the fact that women make up the majority of the gaming audience, the number of women working in the games industry remains shockingly low; only 12% of game designers in Britain and 3% of all programmers are women, plus the number of women speaking at industry conferences and press events is minuscule. And it isn’t because women don’t want to work in games—far from it. But women [they] aren't encouraged to pursue these kind of jobs based on the public's preconceptions of what a programmer looks like.

Though there are numerous individuals working towards improving the diversity present in offices across the world, we can see rather plainly that there are those who see nothing wrong with this system and who would see nothing change.

48.8% of people feel that equal treatment doesn't exist in the games industry. [Credit: IGDA]
48.8% of people feel that equal treatment doesn't exist in the games industry. [Credit: IGDA]

Myself and a colleague had the pleasure of attending a talk at GDC 2015 in Cologne, Germany, entitled, 'Turning the Tide: Hiring and Retaining Women in the Games Industry'. 5 women took to the stage to discuss game development and what it was like for them to adapt and work within the games industry's sexist culture. They expressed hope for the future and were keen for additional programs to be established in order to populate development studios with more talented women.

And yet, right there in that very room, we witnessed the gall of those who would oppose these advances, or rather the ignorance of those already on top—whatever is easier to stomach.

A question was raised from a white man about five rows back from the front. It was long, banal and self-indulgent—but let me give you the crux of it. Essentially he was the head of a small little game studio. He made a big song and dance about how he'd hired several women to work alongside him, but that all of them were outside of the tech department. He said that women were more naturally talented when it came to creativity or the arts and not in programming, so why bother to try and encourage them to code?

This was the lead speaker's response, "It's very possible that everything you just said is exactly the bias why some women are discouraged from wanting to code." You can watch it here for yourselves, just fast forward to around the 55 minute mark. The response was naturally met with applause, and a bit of shock from the man who asked the question. Perhaps he wasn't used to having women talk to him like that, or maybe he was rather pathetically hoping to have his sexist viewpoint reinforced by a woman.

Fiona Cherbak, Orna Holland, Kim Pasquin, Catherine Silvestre and Isabelle Tremblay at GDC 2015. [Credit: http://www.gdcvault.com/]
Fiona Cherbak, Orna Holland, Kim Pasquin, Catherine Silvestre and Isabelle Tremblay at GDC 2015. [Credit: http://www.gdcvault.com/]

The speaker demonstrated that this form of rhetoric will perpetuate these mentalities, not only in men, but in women themselves if not stopped. This man is in charge of hiring people for his development studio and believed that women shouldn't be encouraged to be technologically involved with the development of video games. It was a small, but telling example of the challenges facing women in the industry.

Miss Representation: The Female Character

Mika in 'Street Fighter V' [Credit: Capcom]
Mika in 'Street Fighter V' [Credit: Capcom]

However, not only is the average gamer denied positions that are fundamental to the advancement and transformation of the gaming industry and its products, they're denied, to an alarming degree, respectful representation in games themselves. While initiatives across the globe have attempted to populate games with more diverse and less sexist depictions of female characters, we can see that the trend is alive and well across all genres and levels of the business—indie or AAA.

Here are just a few examples.

Grand Theft Auto V (2013)

A prostitute, with payment services displayed in the top left, in Grand Theft Auto V. [Credit: Rockstar Games]
A prostitute, with payment services displayed in the top left, in Grand Theft Auto V. [Credit: Rockstar Games]

The Grand Theft Auto franchise features numerous examples of sexist depictions of women; GTA V is no exception. From the way in which lead female characters are seen as idiotic and annoying objects for male characters to obtain, or, when defending their rights, hyper-feminist, one of the most popular games in the world does nothing but further stereotypes and degrade the average gamer with its depictions.

Just look at this uncomfortable and rather shocking example from one of the latest updates of the game, which saw a first-person mode introduced in 2014.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015)

Quiet's character animations in MGS V. [Credit: Konami]
Quiet's character animations in MGS V. [Credit: Konami]

Another highly successful gaming franchise has grappled with sexist depictions of women from the beginning. The latest installment, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, saw a rather shocking example of how game developers create female characters. The images above are of Quiet, a character who, according to her bio, can't wear a lot of clothes because she suffocates under clothing...

That doesn't stop her from parading in front of the player once you win her affections though, in a rather perverse and derogatory manner.

Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. [Credit: Konami]
Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. [Credit: Konami]

Natsuiro High School

In Natsuiro High School the player is tasked with sneaking around a school campus and taking pictures of young girls in various stages of undress. You can sneak up on them in the showers or the changing rooms, or simply try and get a shot up their skirts as they descend the stairs, sit on a bench or talk with their friends. The goal is to get the best pictures of their underwear. Yes, this is real.

This game is beyond perverted and genuinely alarming. The young girls in Natsuiro High School simply enjoy the attention from the player, or walk away embarrassed or in shock.

What are we supposed to think after playing something like this? How are young girls—though they are most certainly not the target audience—who pick up a game like Natsuiro High School supposed to process these actions, especially when female characters have no power to stop them? They're objects in this game; prizes to be won, and their decency and privacy is something to be snapped away from them by a sly young man. Additionally, what does Natsuiro High School mean for young boys, or men in general who are rewarded for engaging in these kind of perverse and deeply troubling activities by games like this?

These three games demonstrate how women are consistently viewed in this medium. If you've played games, you're aware of it, whether it's how the female character is expected to wear armor that barely clings to her body, or how they're simply ignored by plots or denied vital roles. Things are improving with the likes of #Dishonored2, #RiseOfTheTombRaider and #TheLastOfUs, but the industry has a very long way to go.

What Needs To Change?

Ellie in The Last of Us. [Credit: Sony]
Ellie in The Last of Us. [Credit: Sony]

As you can see, everything needs to change. Whether it's the community that enforces stereotypical and backwards notions about female gamers, industry personnel who fail to hire women in key roles or derogatorily refuse to see them as technologically capable individuals, or those who force sexist imagery into the products we all consume, it's clear that the average gamer is ignored, disrespected and continuously discouraged from enjoying or engaging with video games. Only recently Twitch conducted a survey which demonstrated that female streamers "were far more likely to be the targets of objectifying language and words that focused on their appearance and bodies" than their male counterparts.

The gaming world needs more women in key positions so that change can come from within, as much in terms of positions as in depictions of female characters. As for all of us, and particularly those like myself, we need to come to grips with the fact that the average gamer is a woman, and there's not a single aspect of the industry that respects that.

(Sources: Gamasutra, IGDA, GDC Vault, The Guardian)