A Look Into What It Means to be a Non-Traditional Gamer
By: Jillian Bell
January 12th, 2022
The article is from the Winter 2021 magazine. Read the full edition here.
Gaming is a popular pastime nowadays, especially in the wake of the pandemic. Despite how easy it is to get into this hobby, the preexisting community built around it is largely unwelcoming and toxic. Due to the growing popularity, many of the issues that come with this territory are making their way into the public’s eye. The companies who make video games are being held accountable for their unfair treatment of employees, and the sexist mindsets of “traditional” players can be found publicly across social media and in-game chats.
For starters, it is very common to look at the news and see that a major developer of Triple-A games is under fire for a scandal. Most recently, the studio Activision Blizzard (responsible for major titles such as Call of Duty, Overwatch and even Candy Crush) has agreed to a settlement of $18 million in a lawsuit. The suit, filed by California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleged that female employees were subjected to gender discrimination, sexual harrassment and unequal pay.
Ubisoft, another major video game company, is still dealing with legal fallout that came about due to reports of institutional harassment and misconduct. French union Solidaires Informatique filed a complaint that named many high ranking employees as responsible for the toxic environment. As a result, several game developer leads were fired or resigned because of the attention that this case has received.
Putting aside these controversies with sexist employee treatment, it’s also important to note there are not many women who work on games. It isn’t because there’s no interest; it’s mostly because it’s an industry that favors those who identify as male. In her Forbes article, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox said, “Of 144 executives in the Top 14 companies, 121 are men and only 23 are women. So women make up only 16% of Executive Teams, significantly below the average female representation for the industry as a whole.” That is quite low compared to other jobs, as Wittenberg-Cox also points out. “Only 24% of those working in the industry are women, an unusually low figure compared to other creative and cultural sectors.”
Another way that women have found careers in gaming is through streaming. There are plenty of popular female gamers who have large followings across platforms like Twitch and YouTube. Like the women who work to produce these games, the women who work by playing games are constantly bombarded with harassment and abuse. They recieve an alarming amount of hateful and sexist comments in their chats. They also get spam reported so much that their channels receive unjust strikes. This has led to some accounts getting removed outright and creators being permanently banned from platforms.
In fact, many women who play games just for fun make it a point to hide their identity online. They are able to do this by creating ambiguous usernames, not participating in voice chats, and even utilizing male avatars and character skins. In an article on Pink News, Ed Nightingale reported that a survey found 59% of women hide their gender during online games. If they do not, they are more likely to experience gender-specific discrimation, like 77% of the survey respondents.
This is troubling, especially when noting that male-identifying gamers no longer make up the vast majority of players. In Wittenberg-Cox’s Forbes article, she said, “Women make up almost half (46%) of gamers.” So why is it that even though the divide between identities is small (and is steadily decreasing), almost half of the population still feels the need to mask who they are?
Well, the rise of the #Gamergate movement certainly added to the unease. Back in 2014, a female indie game developer by the name of Zoë Quinn released a game called Depression Quest. Soon after, an ex-boyfriend accused her of unethical behavior with a journalist. From there, the online campaign was born.
Essentially, Gamergate was created to discuss professionalism between video game developers and journalists, as well as to bring other topics to light about current culture’s impact on the industry. However, all of the topical subjects originally brought up for debate were quickly overshadowed by the extremists who used it as an excuse to target and attack women in the community.
Thousands of people who decided to join this aspect of the movement went after female developers and media critics. One of the women they attacked was Anita Sarkeesian of the nonprofit organization Feminist Frequency. Under that name, she created a series of videos on Youtube called “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” where she dissected the way in which women were represented in games. Angry hackers within the movement posted her private information across sites like 4chan and Reddit, which resulted in her having to leave her home.
Brianna Wu, another video game developer, was also hit hard by this harassment campaign. She faced many horrific death and rape threats. Because of their volume, and of how personally specific some were, Wu was in constant contact with the FBI. She also only attended events that she knew would feature heavy security. Even as recently as March 2019, she has said that she and her husband are still living under aliases.
Most people who were brave enough to speak out against the foul behavior were met with the same treatment. Actress Felicia Day, a figure in the gaming community, was initially silent on the subject and thus received no threats. But after tweeting articles related to the subject and cautiously mentioning her concerns, her private information was exposed across the web.
The Gamergate movement is by no means the start of all of these extremist beliefs. Rather, it drew power from the angry resentment toward women that already existed on internet forums and as a result, became what it is now. Today Gamergate is known as the “traditional” gamer versus everyone else in the community. In an article in the Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey said “The divide is, in part, demographic: It’s the difference between the historical, stereotypical gamer—young, nerdy white guy who likes guns and boobs—and the much broader, more diverse range of people who play now.”
Speaking of, video game companies realize that their audience has diversified and grown significantly, leading them to increase their efforts to do better by the characters in their games who aren’t men. Resident Evil 3 (2020) put Jill in pants and a shirt, rather than her tube top and mini skirt she wore in the original version (1999) of the game. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a new blockbuster franchise that stars a woman. But changes such as these have sparked more outrage from the toxic male side of consumers, who see these modernized traits as being an unnecessary step away from “traditional” Triple-A games.
What this means is that traditionally in games, women haven’t been depicted in the greatest light. Many of the earlier games are free of female characters, or if they do appear, they’re easily looked over as either background decorations or some sort of lustful trophy that the protagonist wins (like in the iconic ’80s arcade game Dragon’s Lair). Many of them don’t have any impact on the game’s plot, either. If you were to remove the female characters, nothing in the game would change.
Aside from that, more worrying depictions of female characters exist, such as those found in the Grand Theft Auto series. For the sake of an open-world realism theme, there are features found within these titles that glorify the sexual abuse and murder of female characters. In an article on HeadStuff, Kate Harveston said, “In one version of the game, the goal is to kill as many women as possible. Players are also urged to make a male protagonist grope a female stripper repeatedly before a bouncer discovers his tactics.”
A lot of companies are realizing how much of an impact this has on their players and are taking steps to move away from these portrayals. But that’s not to say that suddenly every new release has featured a dynamic female character. In fact, in an article published this year on Forbes, Tomoko Yokoi said, “Female character representation in video games is lacking with only 5% of video games showcasing female protagonists.”
However, 2020 can be looked to as a year that brought notable improvement. In the same article, Yokoi said, “18% of games launched last year featured female characters. Whether 2020 was an anomaly or whether it is the beginning of a new trend to showcase female protagonists, free of gender stereotyping, remains to be seen.”
One game debuting in 2020 that garnered a huge amount of attention was Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II. The sequel to their huge hit followed two female protagonists, Ellie and Abby. Ellie, accompanied by her girlfriend Dina, spends the entire game hunting Abby. Abby spends the majority of the game in the middle of warring factions. During her sections of the game, she is accompanied by a young trans boy named Lev. It is also important to note that Abby is a woman with the physique of a bodybuilder.
In terms of representation, this is a huge step forward. Rather than showing women as frail, they were shown to be ruthless, lethal and complex. They weren’t traditionally feminine, but they were still women at their core. So of course, as much as it was met with praise, it was also met with roaring disapproval. In fact, this game suffered legendary review-bombing, where people who didn’t even play the game gave it a zero just to see the rating plummet. The majority who participated in this were the angry men who were upset at everything Abby represented. They went so far as to send Laura Bailey (Abby’s actress) death and rape threats, which is very much reminiscent of Gamergate.
Regarding the controversy around Abby, many players allegedly took issue with her because of something major she did in the beginning of the game’s story. However, in a Polygon article, Patricia Hernandez said, “While folks say that the issue lies within the overall game, a disproportionate amount of the criticism revolving around Abby focuses on her body, and not what Naughty Dog did with her character in the story.”
Other than that, the outraged fans of the series were also adamant that the entire game was nothing more than “social justice warriors” shoving their “progressive agenda” down their throats. Overall, they cite it as being the worst video game of all time and use it as a symbol of everything that is wrong with today’s culture.
On the bright side, it seems that companies that are serious about improving their games for the better are taking these criticisms with a grain of salt, or even outright ignoring them. For example, the second Horizon game, Horizon Forbidden West is set to be released in February, and its female protagonist does not look like a model, despite what some players called for.
When a promotional image of the game’s protagonist, Aloy, was released, a Twitter user compared it to a fan-edited image of her. In the actual image, she’s rugged looking: fresh-faced, hair pulled back, and staring out with an expression of tough resolve. The fan-edited image featured her with an air-brushed even skin tone, perfectly sculpted eyebrows and a thick layer of eyeliner with false eyelashes. Her lips were shined with pink gloss and she looked off into the distance with a huge white grin. Even though this tweet was supported by a lot of people, it was also met with outrage and disgust.
Some companies have been giving their classic female characters design improvements in modern remakes and sequels. As a result, their original appearances have become symbols of empowerment. The character Lara Croft in Tomb Raider is a great example of this. In the ’90s, Lara gained notoriety for being both one of the first female protagonists of a large adventure game and for having absurdly large breasts and wearing ridiculously short shorts. In fact, her appearance was purposefully created that way because it stemmed from something that started out as an office joke among the developers. Of course, this design was also fully supported by the initial consumers of the series, which, at the time, were predominantly male.
Since then, in the modern day remakes, her body has become more humanly proportioned, and her outfits have been updated. They show less skin and are more accurately suited for the environments she explores. Even so, her classic outfit still exists. It’s actually become iconic to her character. This is because it’s more obvious that Lara’s strength comes from her ability to survive rather than her sex appeal. As a result, her classic wardrobe has become an iconic symbol of power. In fact, in an article on Design Week, Alina Polianskaya said, “The look of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, a fictional female character who has been criticized extensively in the past for her scantily-clad demeanour, has started to evolve in a more body-positive way.”
It is nice to know that in spite of all of the setbacks women face as participants in the gaming community, there are still clear improvements being made in an effort to expand upon inclusivity and tolerance. They may be happening slowly, but that does not mean efforts will halt entirely. The number of female gamers is set to steadily rise as will the number of marginalized gamers. And for the most part, the industry is doing its best to compensate for these new and more diverse players.
Since more people are holding Triple-A developers responsible for their toxic work conditions and negative character portrayals, gaming companies will continue to adapt to fit the new age. Because of this, the field will open up more, and the producers and creators behind new projects will also be diversified. As a result, there’ll be a better behind-the-scenes understanding of growing audience demographics, and so this trend of positive representation should continue on, despite what the “traditional” gamers may say or do.
At the end of the day, the best way to combat the existing negativity is to continue on with advocating for and supporting these positive changes in the industry. And of course, to keep playing the games that you enjoy, no matter how you identify.
Jillian Bell is a fourth-year undergrad student working towards degrees in English and professional writing. She hopes to work professionally in editing, and to one day find her own books on the shelves of stores. In her free time, she enjoys writing about whatever she’s currently hyper-fixated on, reading, and playing video games.