Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist cultural critic known for her online video series “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” was scheduled to speak at Utah State University three weeks ago — until the university administration received an anonymous email saying that if Sarkeesian didn’t cancel her speech, “[it would] be the deadliest school shooting in American history.” The email’s author shows that oppression and persecution know no boundaries. Women and men alike play video games to escape the outside world, but when women seek solace in video games, they are often met with further mistreatment.
The Utah State threat is the latest in a chain of events linked to #GamerGate, a Twitter hashtag spreading defamatory claims about women in the gaming community — including accusing women of using sex to get good press. This tag originated with game developer Zoe Quinn’s alleged affairs with several video game journalists. A movement originally claiming to fight corruption in the press quickly turned into a platform for individuals to accuse women of being manipulative harpies who use their sexuality to get what they want. Male #GamerGate supporters also accuse women of exploiting their experiences of harassment to seek pity and using that pity to their advantage.
Men have traditionally dominated the video game community, both on the playing side and the development side. Although the rape and death threats Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn received are on the extreme end of the spectrum, the overall theme of persecution of women is present in every arena of the video game world — from the development of the games, to the players of the games, to the games themselves.
This problem is much more serious than lewd remarks being yelled through a headset. When members of a community are discriminated by their peers, it makes them feel unwelcome, and in the case of Sarkeesian and Quinn, it makes them fear for their lives. Video game companies need to recruit more female developers to incorporate more diverse viewpoints in the games and make all members of the gaming community feel comfortable.
The Entertainment Software Association conducted a survey in 2013 that found that 45 percent of all gamers surveyed were women. However, only 22 percent of video game developers are female, while 76 percent are male and 2 percent are transgender, according to a June 2014 report from the International Game Developers Association. The 2013 figure of 22 percent is an increase from the 2009 figure of 11.5 percent, but the game development industry is still dominated by men, whose disproportionate presence may deter women from entering the field.
Not only are game companies monopolized by men — some of the most popular video games in history are representations of the “male gaze.” The male gaze is a term used in feminist discourse that refers to images that serve the interests of heterosexual males. These images can range from serving a sexual purpose to a purpose related to power, and are often so ingrained in popular culture that many people do not realize what stereotypes they perpetuate or that they are even there. These can be anything from an advertisement portraying a woman gazing longingly at a man, to a movie told from the point of view of a man in power. Compared to the number of male protagonists in video games, the number of female protagonists is staggeringly low. The female characters in video games are portrayed in an overtly sexualized matter, abnormally busty and with very little clothing. Some popular female video game characters are Kitana from “Mortal Kombat,” Kasumi from “Dead or Alive” and Lara Croft from “Tomb Raider,” all of whom are scantily clad with their breasts revealed.
When people view these images, it instills in them the idea that women in the gaming industry are not capable of being anything more than eye candy. Images like these bolster stereotypes of women that may make them uncomfortable while playing the games or while working for game developing companies. Women may also face difficulties progressing in the field because they are plagued by these images that often lead to a lack of respect among their male colleagues. Though the three aforementioned games were released in the 1990s, they are still well-known and continue to be played by many gamers.
While many of these games continue to perpetuate harmful images of women today, some have made small steps in improving the problematic representation of women.
While Tomb Raider used to contribute to the problem, today’s version has made progress through the game’s protagonist, Lara Croft. She used to wear short shorts and had a disproportionately small waist in comparison to her large breasts, but the game’s rerelease in 2013 introduced a less sexualized Lara, with cargo pants and a smaller cup size. While some games are making strides in their incorporation and fair treatment of women, the industry as a whole is not doing enough.
Video game developers should implement more affirmative action policies to increase the number of women who create the games, while men who want to see more women on the development side should speak out and become allies. We need to incorporate more female developers into game companies to eliminate the animosity toward women in the gaming community. If we do, maybe the gaming world will be open to all who want and deserve to be a part of it — both in front of the screens and behind them.
Inviting female voices into mostly male conversations can only enrich the conversations themselves and lead to new innovations and discoveries, both in the world of video games and in academia. Women have a lot to contribute to these industries. It’s time men gave women the fair treatment they deserve, and hand over the controller.