E3 2013 left everyone with a lot to talk about, such as Sony’s unveiling of its PlayStation 4 and the classic Nintendo games revamped for the Wii U. But sadly not everything was positive: the exclusion of women and hostility towards those who try and talk about this misogyny is becoming all too familiar in the gaming world.
For those of you who have just read that introduction and groaned, don’t worry. I’m not going to say that all games should focus on female protagonists and I agree that they wouldn’t be suited to every role; some plots could only be progressed by a male character as a woman would react to the given situation entirely differently. But the subject of feminism has never been far from the spotlight this year and, while I wouldn’t necessarily refer to myself using that term, I do think a mature and sensible conversation about it is long overdue in the gaming community.
The event that ignited the feminism debate for a lot of people was the release of Tropes vs Women. Creator Anita Sarkeesian was subjected to a huge amount of criticism from gamers after trying to address the video game ‘damsel in distress’ stereotype in the first episode of her web series back in March. It became necessary for her to disable her YouTube ratings and comments but this didn’t stop haters from posting elsewhere. Insults and death threats became the norm, with statements like this one from yeahokchief appearing all over the internet: “I feel sorry for the guy who gets stuck with this one day. She’s probably going to die alone.”
Mike Mika, chief creative officer at Other Ocean Interactive, then hacked Donkey Kong (review coming soon) when his three-year-old daughter couldn’t understand why she couldn’t play as Pauline. Word soon spread across the internet and gamers everywhere were commenting on his project; unfortunately however, not all of the feedback was positive or even kind. A dad who was simply trying to make his child happy was starting to receive disturbing and insulting messages, with one person even wishing his daughter “dead” because “it would do the world a favour and be one less feminist in our future.”
The feminism debate was reignited once again on 10 June 2013 after Microsoft’s Xbox One press conference at this year’s E3 expo. Sarkeesian posted a tweet making reference to the titles displayed for the console: “Thanks #XboxOne #E3 press conference for revealing to us exactly zero games featuring a female protagonist for the next generation.” She then went on to record fifty Twitter replies on her Feminist Frequency blog, with “Women don’t belong in video games” from @SethForsman and “Were you expecting a cooking and cleaning game?” from @B_Razz perhaps being the least offensive and vulgar.
Take a look at number five on Sarkeesian’s list and you’ll see a tweet from @Jamie_Brereton, which makes reference to the other arguably-sexist component of Microsoft’s conference. During a demonstration of the Xbox One launch title with Community Coordinator Ashton Williams, Killer Instinct producer Torin Rettig told her to “Just let it happen, it’ll all be over soon” after she said she was unable to block correctly. As well as casting Williams in the stereotypical ‘bad girl gamer’ light, Rettig’s comments are of the sort often made by gamers and recognised as a rape joke.
Regardless of how offended you are by them, such events show how common sexism is within the gaming industry. It’s not condoned by everyone and isn’t always in-your-face obvious, but it seems to lurking there somewhere in the background all too often; this raises several important questions that need to be addressed by both the corporations and their consumers. Why doesn’t the former do more for equal gender representation and promote women in the gaming world? And why do the latter react in an openly hostile way towards those who try and talk about the misogyny?
Video game research firm EEDAR found that out of 669 titles featuring leads with recognisable genders, only three percent had women protagonists and less than half gave players the option of playing as a female. These statistics are so low because publishers are reluctant to fund games with female leads as they don’t think the majority of their consumers – ie men – will buy them. And when you see comments like the following from @BEATandDELETE, you can understand why they hold this belief: “Maybe if women were more interesting and capable at life there might be more female led games, like super floral arranger.”
So it seems like a change in the attitudes and consumption habits of this ‘mass’ of male gamers is needed before publishers will affect a shift in gender representation. These are big corporations who exist to make a profit so, regardless of whether you think that’s right or wrong, you can kind of see their point. As thrown at Sarkeesian by @ReissDJO: “Get over yourself. Women make up a small margin of their demographic. Your tastes are obscure and unprofitable. Nothing else to it.”
But wait: a recent report published by the Entertainment Software Association found that females make up 45% of the entire game-playing population, proving that statements like the one above are in fact incorrect. So why doesn’t the industry do more to target this section of consumers and acknowledge their perspectives? Sarkeesian’s critics, such as @twerk_king69, say that it’s because women just won’t buy the games but the reality is that men won’t: “Female protagonists aren’t as interesting as males in the gaming world. Get used to it!”
As @Pokefan1223 so eloquently pointed out: “Games with female protags don’t sell. Maybe if more women started getting into the game market then they would make more, dumbass.” He has a point in that maybe both sexes would be more equally represented if females bought more titles and if they had a hand in their development. But the Entertainment Software Association report also found that women are already the most frequent game purchasers 46% of the time; and seeing as female employees make significantly less money than their male counterparts in the industry, it’s not a totally appealing prospect.
Corporate Vice President of Microsoft Studios Phil Spender provided the following statement to The Atlantic Wire the day after the E3 conference to clarify that the banter between Rettig and Williams wasn’t scripted: “During the E3 briefing, one of our employees made an off-the-cuff and inappropriate comment whilst demoing Killer Instinct with another employee. This comment was offensive and we apologise.” Microsoft also explained to Kotaku: “The demo was meant to include friendly gameplay banter and there was no ill intent.”
So they may have apologised but, as evidenced by the angry responses to Sarkeesian for simply pointing out the lack of female representation, intent means very little in an industry than can be enormously hostile at times. The Killer Instinct episode may have been off-the-cuff but it occurred during a professional presentation for one the biggest technology companies at a massive event. It therefore seems that sexism is actually being reinforced by these supposedly forward-thinking corporations, and it’s still necessary to debate the treatment of women even in one of the most progressive industries in the world.
There are manufacturers who hire booth babes to stand by their products, and marketing people who sign off on inappropriate advertising; corporations who make misjudged tweets and artists who portray females as sex objects. Sexism like this inspires it all the way down the chain to consumers, and the insults at the bottom end are magnified by the anonymity of the internet. Just take a look at the comments made in response to articles such as that by adams5k, or type ‘girl gamers’ into Twitter and see what you get.
As a female gamer, even I can see that Sarkeesian may have been deliberately provocative with her tweet about Microsoft’s conference at E3: it seems pretty obvious that she must have known she’d get a reaction. But members of the gaming community who responded to her in a typically aggressive and offensive manner are simply backing up her point. Forbes writer Jordan Shapiro sums it up in his article nicely: “With responses like these, gamers perpetuate the worst stereotype. Not only do they come across as violent, combative, immature and oppositional, but also unintelligent and unthoughtful.”
To help figure out why some gamers find this open hostility acceptable, I contacted a friend who is a qualified psychologist for some insight. Social psychology research has always maintained that individuals often identity themselves with the group that they belong to – in this case, the male gaming community – and will bond together to defend their identity at all cost. A hardcore base wants respect and recognition for the merits of what they love, but when someone they perceive as an outsider – in this case, female gamers – professes to share this love, they go on the attack.
When part of a group, it’s necessary to get a feel for its rules of behaviour and such norms are often extremely pervasive. This becomes all the more obvious when members start breaking them; just take a look at the article by Pyro62S about being mistaken for a woman following his reply to a Reddit post. After revealing that he is in fact a man, he was ostracised my members of his own group with nonsensical comments like: “You’re a fat man. Keep up the good fight and try to get more overweight female characters developed in video games. Oh, and feminism is fucking stupid and you’re an overly sensitive bitch.”
As for why some gamers would make such attacks when they wouldn’t dream of saying the same things in to somebody in person, this comes down to what’s known as the online disinhibition effect. The internet provides a sense of anonymity which encourages a feeling of protection, and can be seen as a game where the normal rules of everyday life don’t apply. It’s therefore no wonder cyber-bullying has increased over recent years, as tormenters don’t have to see their victims or answer for their actions. As stated in an article for PsyBlog: “Compared with face-to-face interactions, online we feel freer to do and say what we want and, as a result, often do and say things we shouldn’t.”
Sarkeesian has spoken in the past about how to change the current situation and last year told GameSpot: “The creation of great and complex female characters in video games is an involved process, but ultimately developers are going to have to take some risks and step outside of the expected or established conventions.” Rhianna Pratchet, writer of Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider, agrees that it’s the corporations’ responsibility to make changes and it’s good financial sense: “Publishers suggesting that the audience is male and therefore doesn’t relate to female characters is ludicrous and short-sighted… Tomb Raider wouldn’t have sold 3.6 million in its first month of sales if the audience had a problem with female leads.”
And for gamers who debate that their offensive comments in response to people like Sarkeesian and Mika aren’t sexist: don’t tweet, post or Xbox Live anything that you wouldn’t want somebody else saying to your mother, sister or girlfriend. If you’d be ok with another aiming such insults at a female in your family or social circle with the same relentless quality, then you need to so some serious thinking about your attitude.
The anonymity of the internet isn’t an excuse to harass anyone with vulgar insults or death threats whenever you don’t agree with their point of view. If you believe you have a point and want to share it, surely it’s more productive to respond with a reasoned and mature argument? Jokes about ‘cooking and cleaning games’ and the use of the C-word will only go so far towards getting others to agree with your point.
A lot of people are probably bored with seeing the sexism debate go on and on, and guess what? As a woman who both works in the technology industry and writes for a gaming blog, I’m also bored with having to have it. But the sooner sexism is stamped out in the gaming world and the bullying that goes along with it, the sooner we can all get back to doing what we love – playing video games.