What kind of person do you think of when you hear the word “gamer”? For most people, a number of stereotypes come to mind: a group of boys huddled around a screen as they play Mario Kart, a teenage guy in his parents’ basement screaming profanities during an online Call of Duty match, an adult man absorbed in a sprawling game while lounging out in a so-called “Man Cave” complete with surround sound and a big expensive 4K TV.
There are some differences between each of these common stereotypical scenarios: we see people of different ages, stages of life, and incomes. We see people playing games with others (both face-to-face and online) or by themselves. But the common thread among them all is that the assumed gamer is male. Women are nowhere in sight, presumably uninterested in gaming or perhaps not even allowed into what is essentially a boy’s club.
It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that there are actually plenty of female gamers out there! According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), women age 18 and older represent 31% of gamers in the US, while boys age 18 and under are only 18%. In fact, the average female video game player is 37 years old. Women are clear a minority amongst the most frequent game purchasers – 63% are male, 37% female – but that’s still a large group of people.[i]
Despite the presence of so many female gamers today, however, there are real issues surrounding the ways that women are represented in games, as well as how they are treated by their male peers. But before we can talk about the issue of women in today’s gaming culture, we have to look back at how we got here.
When the video game industry first started showing up on people’s radars back in the 1970s, it wasn’t considered solely the domain of boys. Atari games were generally marketed to the whole family, and female game developers played an instrumental role in creating some of the most memorable games of the era, such as Centipede, River Raid, and King’s Quest. But the video game crash of 1983 caused a big shakeup in the industry: console manufacturers hadn’t been regulating the games coming out on their platforms, leading to a flood of low quality titles and a subsequent drop in consumer confidence. A couple years later, Nintendo released their NES console in the West, and in researching how to attract customers who were wary of video games, they came up with a couple solutions. First, to ease consumer fears, they would only allow games that received the “Official Nintendo Seal of Quality” to be published on their platform. And second, rather than risk lots of money trying to please everyone, Nintendo would target a specific audience for their new console: they advertised the NES as a toy, and specifically as a toy for boys ages 5-10. It was a massive success, breathing new life into a business that many considered dead. And before long, the rest of the industry would follow in Nintendo’s footsteps.
As the young boys of the late ‘80s grew older throughout the ‘90s, video game marketing adjusted to keep up with them. SEGA and Sony joined in the fray, each competing to attract the teenage male demographic, leaving women of all ages behind. The number of games aimed at females dwindled, and over time it became a cultural assumption that video games were for boys. Naturally, the people who were then most likely to apply for jobs in the gaming industry were young men who had grown up with games when they were kids, and in turn, they made games for the audience that they knew best (and that the industry had already trained itself to lean on): other males. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 2000s, with the rise of Facebook games and then mobile games, that companies started making games that specifically targeted a female demographic. Still today, the industry as a whole is made up predominantly of men; according to the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), 74% of developers are male, and only 21% female.[ii]
What does all of this mean for female gamers today? For one, many female gamers face derision and harassment from their male counterparts. It’s often assumed that women are worse at games than men by default, and that having a woman on your team in a competitive multiplayer game puts you at a disadvantage. When women speak up in online voice chat, it’s not uncommon for male gamers to make gross and inappropriate comments about their appearance and sexuality; as a result, many female gamers avoid talking online, or even playing certain games altogether. And while one might be tempted to think that this is entirely the result of people misusing the cover of anonymity, it sadly happens in some face-to-face events as well: women who show up at gaming tournaments have faced similar treatment from some of the men they meet there.
Another result of the gaming industry being predominantly male is a lack of good female representation in the games themselves. Looking back over the history of gaming (and especially in the 1980s and 1990s), the vast majority of games featured male lead characters, and while many fit into the macho action hero stereotype, we do see male characters who differ greatly in their personalities, interests, and appearance. When female characters appear in games, they’re often overly sexualized and fall into various stereotypes, such as being weak and helpless, or perhaps acting as a femme fatale. And it’s far less likely that a female character will play the lead role in a game. Overall, you just don’t see the same kind of variety and care that is put into male characters; why should it be a surprise, then, that when women can’t find well written, fleshed out female characters in games, they won’t be that interested in gaming?
All of this is not to say the situation is entirely dismal for women and gaming, however. While female game developers are far outnumbered by men in their field, some of them are making big waves in the industry. Jade Raymond (creator of the Assassin’s Creed franchise), Amy Hennig (former writer and director of the Uncharted series), Kiki Wolfkill and Bonnie Ross (who both have leading roles at 343 Industries, which currently helms the Halo series), and Rhianna Pratchett (known for her involvement in the writing of Mirror’s Edge and the latest Tomb Raider games) are all standout developers who play an important role in shaping the games we love.
We also see the impact of the positive female characters that have made their way into games. Even going back to the ‘80s and ‘90s, a few prominent female characters made a big splash in the gaming scene, most notably Samus Aran of the Metroid series and Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider series. They had their own flaws, of course (the old Lara Croft character was notorious for her short shorts and her comically large bust size), but still, some young women were inspired by seeing a woman take on a heroic and powerful role in a game. And when you look at the landscape of games today, you see much better female representation than you did in decades past; a growing number of well-written female lead characters are popping up in games, including Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn, Clementine in Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and Max Caulfield in Life is Strange (just to name a few). Hopefully this will inspire more women to join the game industry, bringing their talents and perspectives to a culture that needs them.
Overall, there’s still a lot of improvement that needs to be made, especially in regard to the way that female gamers are treated by their male peers online. But in light of the growing number of prominent female developers and well-written female characters across the games industry today, there’s definitely a reason for optimism. As women continue to take on bigger roles in gaming – playing, building, and starring in games – the hobby will be seen less and less as a boys-only club, and more like a space where both men and women are free to express themselves and have fun.