Sex and Gender Issues in the World of Video Game Culture

If you were to describe video games and women by relationship status, you’d say that “it’s complicated.” When pressed, you could add a mysterious “they have a history.”

Fact is, people often bemoan the lack of women involved in media production in general and films in particular, but asking why there aren’t that many women involved in video games–now a more lucrative if not as large an industry as the movies–gets a whole lot of answers with a whole lot of conflict. But it’s a question worth asking.

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For one thing, unlike movies, which pretty much instantaneously attracted attention from both genders, the initial audience for video games was males, original skewing towards younger demographics. Not surprisingly, the people making these games were men too–basement tinkerers, professional programmers, hobbyists, etc. Women have not had the best representation in math, science and technology-related fields, so we gamers inherited a gender imbalance from the get-go.

Since then, however, the demographics of gamers have shifted dramatically. Everyone plays games, from tots to grandparents. The Electronic Software Association estimates that more than 40% of gamers are women, and they make up a faster-growing segment of the gaming population than the stereotypical teenage males media still associates with the medium.

But because the creators of games are still mostly male, it’s not surprising that there’s a bit of contention over the way that women are portrayed. In many ways gaming is mired in the same conundrum as the comic book industry, but can’t use the same excuses about their audience because girl gamers exist, and their numbers are only going to increase at this point.

Any gamer can point to at least one example of what could be considered evidence of the male-centric world of games. One of the earliest and most notorious video games, Custer’s Revenge, had a naked Custer rape Native American women as a reward for completing a stage. Modern games often feature improbably buxom and scantily clad women–their prevalence has only increased as graphic fidelity has. Much has been said about the highly…. idealized proportions of Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, but compared to Ivy from the Soul Caliber fighting series, Lara is practically flat-chested.

This isn’t an issue with games in particular–when there are blogs devoted to finding pictures of women who are dressed in armor that would actually protect them, you know there’s an issue–but the issues of sexism and negative portrayals of women in video games persist in part because of the bad aspects of video game culture. Gamers can be brought together for good; enterprises like Child’s Play have raised millions for children’s charities. But those same role models also do things like the “Dickwolves” t-shirt (an entire article can be written about that debacle alone.)

In part because video gaming has become so defined by the internet, the bad things about the internet–namely, that anonymity and an audience can make jerks out of otherwise-normal individuals–have come to define gamers in turn. Women often don’t want to identify as such on multiplayer gaming platforms like Xbox Live because of the ugly results. I don’t think it’s a matter of most gamers being boorish or sexist; it’s a matter of a few being quite vocal and becoming associated with the many.

Luckily, video game makers are in a much better position than almost any other industry to effect some change in a top-down approach. For one, using female characters in more meaningful ways is something many video games could do without changing the core of the title. It might be asking a lot from a medium not known for its storytelling prowess, but making more of an effort to create characters rather than stereotypes (and this goes for both sexes) will make more satisfying games and passively set a standard that the women aren’t just there to take their clothes off. Areas like customization can be made more gender-neutral, and cut out the more egregious issues, as GeeksAreSexy notes. Publishers and developers can also implement policing and monitoring standards to help victimized players report offenders. Game lobbies can be much more welcoming when everyone realizes that making a crass remark could prevent them from playing another match.

Gamers, meanwhile, can work on their own behavior–it’s as much about personal improvement as anything else. The Penny Arcade rape issue referenced above is an example for learning–the subject can be a delicate one for men and women, so substituting another word like “pwned” or “dominated” instead of “raped” in discourse can help make things more welcoming for women.

The best part is these changes don’t just let women feel more welcomed–they make everyone feel that way. I’d rather play games without people screaming profanity at me, like most people would. While internet discourse is never going to be a magical land where everyone treats everyone else with respect, it’s still worth a shot.

As to adding more women to the ranks of video game production, it’s a mixed bag. The industry as a whole has done a good job of trying to bring in more women, but right now that impact is limited to casual games. As game critique series Extra Credits has noted, just trying to be more welcoming is like Hooters saying their women will be more conservatively dressed–women know that it’s a boy’s club, so even substantial changes won’t change the underlying response.

That means that the other half of the equation is time. Even concerted efforts like toning down game marketing to broaden its demographic appeal are not going to change the culture overnight. But if no one starts the process, we’ll never get to that point either.

Other gaming stories by David Fuchs: “A Bright Future Ahead For Video Games” / “A Wishlist for Next Generation Consoles” / “What Players Want from Video Game Sequels”

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