Picture a gamer. Actually, scratch that. I can’t picture what you’re thinking, but I can look at the Google results for the term “gamer,” and it’s exactly what you would expect: mostly young, white males. But after over 30 years of providing entertainment to millions, why is the gaming community still perceived as the domain of the white, heterosexual male?
For starters, just look at the cover of the average big budget game that has come out in the last decade. They prominently feature burly men with rippling muscles, frequently looking angry, like they just stubbed their toe. “Uncharted,” “Call of Duty” and “Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor” are all good examples, since they feature their grizzled Caucasian supermen on the cover of the box.
Games that have featured female protagonists often seem geared toward the same demographic, namely, frustrated teenage boys. Despite efforts to create more realistically proportioned bodies in video games, titles like “Tomb Raider” and “Dead or Alive” both sexualize their female protagonists to a worrisome degree. This is ignoring the issue with misogynistic undertones or themes in other popular games, an issue too large to explore here. So that’s another unfortunate strike against greater female participation in video games.
But the portrayal of women in video games has been talked to death. Instead, lets look at some market research. First, women play video games just as much, if not more, than their male counterparts. The Entertainment Software Association, or ESA, released a study just last year that showed 48 percent of people who play video games on consoles or mobile devices are women.
In 2012, research firm EEDAR examined nearly 700 games, and found that games with female protagonists sold upwards of 20 percent worse than games with male leads. Fortunately, there’s an explanation that does not require publishers to make games a “boys only” club. The same study found that games with female protagonists get nearly 40 percent less funding, which the study attributes to publishers having less faith that games with female protagonists will sell, creating a marginalizing and self-fulfilling prophecy.
So publishers and developers are still trying to decide how to make and market games with female protagonists properly, and we can’t wait for publishers and developers to fix the problem on their own. Unfortunately, much of the blame lies with gamers, or at least the community as a whole. The toxicity of online gaming and forums dedicated to gaming has been demonstrated all too well. The most high profile example in recent months was “Gamergate.” A supposed campaign for integrity in video game journalism became a flimsy facade for self-proclaimed defenders of the industry to attack women, going so far as to issue death threats against prominent feminists in gaming.
To an outside observer, the video game community can look hateful and misogynistic. This narrative is frequently reinforced by the fact that the same people issuing death threats against female game developers are often treated as though they’re experts on gender politics. The gaming community and publishers should take steps to address this issue, beginning with an increased policing of communities, such as Microsoft issuing more bans for harassment over Xbox Live.
Fortunately, none of this has deterred people from all races, genders and walks of life from enjoying video games. The real problem is how to improve the image of the industry. For all our progress, video games carry a stigma that previous new genres of entertainment, such as movies, had shaken off by this point in their existence.
At the time of writing, we are no closer to ending hatred online than we are at ending it in real life, but the gaming community can still come together to create a better future for all gamers. Shunning the trolls and people who would spit hatred over headsets, and accepting everyone who wants to enjoy gaming, would be a good start towards that future.