BY: KYLE ANN SEBASTIAN
“Like to play games? Not a n00b? Not a girl?”
Written on a flyer intended as a private joke for members of E-Sports, an organization for video game enthusiasts at UNC, the message touched a nerve by expressing misogynist attitudes not uncommon in video game culture.
Female gamers are often seen as anomalies or treated with hostility. Online female gamers regularly experience harassment from male gamers. Blogs such as Fat, Ugly or Slutty illustrate how pervasive and extreme harassment is, posting photos of harassing messages women have received. Offensive messages run the gamut from death threats and insults to sexual harassment. These experiences cause women to feel alienated and unwelcome in the gaming community; 68 percent of female online gamers report having lied about or hidden their sex to avoid harassment.
Jessica Feng, a member of E-Sports, attempts to avoid the gender question when gaming online. “I never mention that I’m a girl when I’m playing with people,” she said. “It just doesn’t come up or I try not to make it obvious that I’m a girl either.”
“There is still the whole sense of if you’re doing badly in a game you don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, it’s because you’re a girl.’”
Feng also acknowledges that harassment is an ongoing concern. “There have been times when I’ve had to unfriend people and block people because once they find out I’m a girl there are inappropriate messages they are trying to send,” she said.
Feng has modified her online behavior to avoid harassment, limiting her online gaming interactions to people she knows and trusts. “You have to establish that kind of friend base first. When I first started, it was hard to get into [gaming].”
The UNC gaming community is not exempt from the sexism and misogyny that so often characterizes video game culture. One female player ended her relationship with E-Sports due to harassment. Feng says that while she personally has never felt harassed, she understands how someone else could. “It’s just a lot of testosterone … there is a smaller subset of females that play, so it is easy to feel harassed, I guess. I just kind of learned to brush it off.”
One thing Feng says she had to adjust to is the casual use of the word rape. “It’s really common. Every time you sit down to play. I don’t even really notice it anymore.”
“The word rape in video game culture is deployed super liberally in ways that basically just mean the equivalent of doing really well. They’ll say things like ‘Oh, I learned a really rape new combo,’” said Stirling Little, president and cofounder of E-Sports.
Although many gamers deny any ill-intent, the casual use of language that often invokes violence against women can be isolating for female gamers.
Little says he hopes to raise awareness of sexism issues in gamer culture by remaining “critical of gaming from within” and initiating tough conversations about misogynistic language and behavior by fellow gamers. He spoke about the problems facing women gamers at TedXUNC on Feb. 9, where he was the only student speaker.
However, efforts to address and correct sexist behavior are often met with backlash. “A lot of gamers feel like they have this possession over [the] culture. It’s unfortunate that it started off as such a boy’s club, such that a lot of anger is directed toward women as some force that is watering down or changing their culture,” says Little.
There is a degree of irony in a community founded on providing an accepting space for individuals rejecting and marginalizing female members.
Attracting female gamers is complicated by concerns over tokenism. “A lot of women feel super isolated because of this idea that they are made to feel like they are anomalous in some way and so they wouldn’t come out to a club they would expect to be all men, and as a result, it is all men,” Little said.
Although she is aware of other women involved in E-Sports, Feng says she has only played with men. Feng has not found video game culture, in general, to be particularly welcoming. “It’s highly dominated by guys and sometimes they’ll get onto the topic of girls and a lot of them will be like, ‘Girls should stay out of games,’” she said. “And I know that some of it is joking, but it’s a bit inappropriate.”
Harassment and alienation of female gamers has consequences that extend beyond the virtual world into the real world. While females make up 47 percent of online gamers, according to a study by the Entertainment Software Association, the video game industry is only 11 percent female. A study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found females made up only 20 percent of programmers in 2011.
Some industry members such as Gabrielle Toledano, the vice president and chief talent officer of Electronic Arts, claim the under-representation of women is due to an absence of female candidates. “We’d love to hire more women but we can’t find enough of them to hire, especially in engineering. In our industry and the technology world at large, we need to support educational institutions that are working so aggressively to encourage women to pursue STEM careers,” said Toledano in an article for Forbes.
It is possible there are fewer opportunities for video game and software companies to hire women; the number of female Computer Science graduates has decreased from 37 percent to 18 percent since 1985.
However, this argument ignores the role the video game industry has played in creating a culture in which female employees and customers are undervalued. On average, female programmers make $10,000 less than their male colleagues, while female animators make $26,000 less than males in their field, according to a survey conducted by Game Developer magazine. The tech industry has also recently seen a rise in what some have termed “brogrammer culture,” raising concerns over sexism and the alienation of female programmers.
The dominating presence of men in the video game industry is visible in game offerings, which largely ignore female players. A study by the Penny Arcade Report found that out of a sample of 669 games, 300 offered the option of a female character and “only 24 had exclusively female protagonists.” This means 369 games were exclusively male focused. Additionally, games with a female protagonist received less than half the marketing budget of a male-led game. Due to this, women and girls are less likely to have access to or knowledge of video games that feature female protagonists, which may negatively affect their interest in gaming.
Video games serve as an important tool in developing computer literacy and getting young people interested in technology. How can we expect young women to pursue computer science if they don’t begin to develop an interest and competency in computers and technology as young girls?
“I think that one of the good ways to address this is to first address video game culture such that little girls feel okay playing games, such that they may one day become computer science majors and may want to enter the industry,” says Little.
Feeling okay means feeling accepted by both the industry and community of players.
Video games matter. The American video game industry is more profitable than movies and music combined. And women are being pushed out. “[Women are] basically second class citizens in what is right now, by all figures, America’s favorite pastime, right next to football and baseball,” says Little.
Women are interested in gaming—they are approaching half of all online gamers and represent a substantial share of the video game market. Women want to play. They want to buy and create games. The question is whether the gaming community is man enough to let them.
This article originally featured in Campus BluePrint’s February 2013 issue. For more content check out Campus BluePrint in print, available at various locations around campus!