Women fight back on video game misogyny

Critics call for more diversity in industry

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March 28, 2014 | 7:15 pm

During a Microsoft news conference in June, a male video game producer and female community manager played a fighting game onstage. While virtually punching and kicking each other, the man and woman bantered back and forth.

"I can't even block correctly and you're too fast," the community manager said as she was losing.

For some, this banter eventually went too far.

"Just let it happen. It will be over soon," the producer said.

The producer's remark was interpreted as a rape joke.

"Wow. This is really gross. Male overpowering a female in a game, so of course there's a rape joke. Good one, Microsoft," Nathan Grayson, a writer for the gaming website Rock, Paper, Shotgun, said on Twitter.

In a statement to the gaming blog Kotaku, Microsoft claimed the dialogue was meant to be "friendly" and "there was no ill will."

The news conference was in June during the Electronic Entertainment Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center. It's an industry-only gathering that attracts professionals from all over the world. The event is meant to highlight the future of video games, showing new software and hardware.

Microsoft's demonstration isn't the first time the video game industry has been accused of misogyny. Fat, Ugly, or Slutty is a website devoted to publicizing hateful comments women receive while playing online games.

Video games still are generally considered to be a "boy's club" according to a 2012 study by Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, a video game research firm. The study looked at 669 games that had protagonists with recognizable genders. Of the 669 games, only 24 had female protagonists.

Samantha Allen, 26, a third-year doctoral student in the Department of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University, is tired of games pandering to the same male demographic.

"I'm sick of seeing the same white scruffy face in every single game," Allen said. "Once that face was the face of gaming, but now women make up almost half of the people who play games. We're still waiting for game publishers to catch up to their audience."

Allen said the lack of female and minority protagonists is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Publishers swear up and down that female-driven games won't sell," Allen said. "When they do 'take a chance' on a female protagonist, they don't back the game up with a sufficient marketing budget."

To have more diverse games, there needs to be a greater diversity of people in the gaming industry, Allen said. This includes more women, people of color and members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.

Jackyln Even, 20, a senior sociology student at the University of Iowa, said discrimination always has been an issue for her, despite having played video games since childhood.

"I feel like I'm on the outside," Even said.

Whenever Even's friends see her engaged with video games, they joke that girls don't play games. Even said that sometimes when she shops at video game stores, male clerks talk down to her.

"They act like I don't know what I'm talking about," Even said.

Her favorite games are Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins, because they allow her to make her own choices. In the games, players can choose to be either male or female. Playing a female character allowed Even to connect with the games more than if she were forced to play a male.

After playing Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins, Even felt frustrated with other games.

"I started asking, 'Why can't I be a woman?'" Even said. "Why does it always have to be a white guy?"

Ian Campbell, an independent game developer in Toronto, was asked that same question while working on his latest game, Bleed, a fast-paced action game in which the player darts around the screen and wields twin pistols. One of Campbell's friends mentioned that he'd never made a game starring a woman.

"At the time, I was getting really bored with the direction the game was taking, which was overly serious, violent, and rather trite," Campbell said. "The idea of making something more upbeat with a colorful female lead instantly reinvigorated the whole thing."

Unlike most video game women, Wryn, the heroine of Bleed, isn't hyper-sexualized. She doesn't show cleavage or make suggestive comments. Instead of creating her to simply existing to titillate teenage boys, Campbell treated Wryn like a human being.

"I did my best to conceive Wryn as a fully fleshed-out, real character," Campbell said. "I felt that 'sexing her up' would be inauthentic and degrading."

Anita Sarkeesian is pushing for more characters like Wryn in video games. Sarkeesian is a pop culture critic who lives in San Francisco.

In June 2012, Sarkeesian raised money on Kickstarter for her latest video series, "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games." According to the project's Kickstarter page, the series explores "five common and recurring stereotypes of female characters in video games."

By exploring these stereotypes, Sarkeesian hopes to "highlight the larger recurring patterns and conventions used within the gaming industry."

Sarkeesian's project generated a wave of hateful backlash. Her social media sites were "flooded with threats of rape, violence, sexual assault, and death," Sarkeesian said at a TEDxWomen talk in December 2012. Her Wikipedia page was vandalized with pornographic images. Detractors tried to hack into her email account and distribute her home address and phone number.

In July 2012, an Internet game was created on Newgrounds.com, where players could repeatedly punch Sarkeesian in the face, giving her black eyes and a swollen lip.

"Tropes vs. Women in Video Games" was funded successfully on June 16, 2012. The goal of the project was to raise $6,000 but it ended up earning $158,922. Since the success of the project, Sarkeesian has released two of the 12 scheduled videos on YouTube.

Comments are disabled on both videos.

Editor's note: This project was produced by Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit, online news website dedicated to collaborating with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative work.

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