Women and Gaming Culture

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.

Lan party PC

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.


[i] http://www.theesa.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/EF2017_FinalDigital.pdf

[ii] http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.igda.org/resource/resmgr/2017_DSS_/!IGDA_DSS_2017_SummaryReport.pdf


Diversity and Gaming Culture

Issues of diversity are a hot button topic in our day and age, both within the church and in broader society.  The growth of the internet and social media has given people of all walks of life a platform on which to voice their opinions and shape the surrounding culture in ways that weren’t imaginable just a few decades ago.  Racial tensions in the U.S. have exploded following multiple controversial police shootings, as well as increased activity from white supremacist groups.  On top of that, concerns surrounding the equality and treatment of women in the workplace have come to the forefront of public consciousness since the fall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #Metoo movement.

Within Christianity, churches grapple with how to make sure that they are welcoming to as many different people as possible: new ministries spring up to connect with unreached people groups, worship styles are altered to accommodate those with varying music preferences, and congregations debate what roles women can fill in contributing to the life of the church.

And then there’s gaming.  Do questions of diversity play any part in gaming culture?  Do Christians involved in gaming circles have any role to play in this discussion?

The answer to both of these questions is a resounding “yes”!  Diversity is just as much a hotly debated issue in gaming culture as it is elsewhere.  Many, if not most, video games are made by largely male development teams and aimed at males (both kids and adults).  Yet there is a strong desire for more diversity in gaming, including amongst game developers; according to a recent study by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), 81% of game developers consider diversity in the workplace to be important, and 85% consider diversity within game content to be important as well (both high marks in the four years that the IGDA has been conducting this study).  In addition, 44% perceived inequity towards themselves and 56% perceived inequity towards others based on gender, age, ethnicity, ability, or sexual orientation.[i]

female game developer

This desire for more diversity provides an opportunity for us to step into gaming culture with the Gospel.  As Christians, we believe that all people are made in the image of God, reflecting his glory; Genesis 1:27, at the very beginning of the Bible, declares that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”  And at the end of the Bible we are given a picture of the whole church, the body of believers, worshipping God at the end of days:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Revelation 7:9-10

For Christians who play games and interact with fellow gamers, we should seek to make gaming culture reflect those pictures from the Bible.  All people involved in gaming – men and women from every background –  should feel welcomed and loved by God and his followers.  We want aspiring game creators from all walks of life to be able to share themselves with others through the games they create, so that everyone can be edified and enriched by the knowledge and perspectives they bring to the table.  People should feel that gaming culture is a place where they can challenge other’s assumptions, and be challenged in turn; that here, too, they find a place where “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17).

Xbox Booth at E3 2015

Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be taking a closer look at diversity in the game industry and in gaming content itself, focusing specifically on how women and how those of different races and ethnicities are treated and represented in gaming culture.  We’ll examine historical trends within the game industry to see how we got to where we are today, we’ll find areas of needed improvement, and we’ll also spot some encouraging ways that diversity is being embraced in gaming.  I hope that this study will prove helpful to those who seek to bring Christ’s love to gamers and to the all the world.



[i] https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.igda.org/resource/resmgr/2017_DSS_/!IGDA_DSS_2017_SummaryReport.pdf

Ready Player One, Geek Culture, and the Church


Geek culture made headlines on Easter weekend with the release of Ready Player One, a novel-turned-film that’s jam packed with references to movies, comic books, anime, and video games. The movie brought in over $181 million worldwide on its first weekend, giving director Steven Spielberg his biggest opening in a decade.  For those who haven’t heard of it, Ready Player One is a story of a dystopian future in which the last place of exploration and wonder is the OASIS, a virtual reality world where everyone goes to be who they want to be.  With all of the ways that the story references geek and pop culture (even going so far as to incorporate movies and video games into the plot itself), it’s very much a celebration of all the creativity found there.

It’s also a story that rejects the idea of God.  In the book, the main character Wade Watts describes his disbelief in any sort of higher power or authority, and how he felt lied to by everyone who suggested that God or heaven existed.  James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS and Watts’ role model, was an atheist as well.  Even when Watts describes his relationship with a kind old Christian lady who lives in the slums with him, he chalks up her adherence to organized religion as “a pleasant fantasy that gave her hope and kept her going.”  While the story doesn’t spend much time focusing on religion, it’s clearly grounded in the humanistic idea that we are all that we have; there’s nothing beyond what we can see and create with our own hands, and all we can do is make today better for ourselves.

In a sense, Ready Player One is an embodiment of geek culture as a whole.  It’s full of creativity and imagination, expanding the mind in new and unexpected ways and challenging pre-conceived ideas; at the same time, it lacks an understanding of where that creativity comes from, and the true foundation that we need to stand upon in order to evaluate the ideas that it challenges (as well as the new ideas that it presents).

And for the church, it’s proof that the need for Christian involvement in geek culture is greater than ever.

Ready Player One movie cameos

Geek and gaming culture has a huge (and ever growing) impact on Western culture as a whole; U.S. consumers alone spent $30.4 billion dollars on the video game industry in 2016.  The popularity of comic book characters has expanded beyond paper pages to now dominate the box office, with movies like The Dark Knight, Logan, and The Avengers gaining critical praise and/or breaking box office records.  Tens of thousands of people flock to gaming conventions like Gen Con and The Penny Arcade Expo every year.  Even the sports world has taken notice, as ESPN now has a dedicated Esports section on their website.

Yet the church has been slow to react to these developments, and sadly, many of the times they have reacted have been more harmful than helpful.  The panic in Christian circles in the 1980s surrounding Dungeons & Dragons left many non-Christians with a bitter taste in their mouths, and the effects of that era still reverberate today.  The church has done very little over the years to ingratiate themselves to the gaming community; the average unbelieving gamer’s opinion of Christians is more likely to be swayed by an old video of a preacher denouncing Pokémon as satanic than it is by any experience of a Christian befriending him or chatting about how the gospel enhances the way we approach culture.  As a result, Christianity (and organized religion in general) is mocked and derided by geeks and gamers, and geek culture has grown up largely without Christian influence.

The church’s general disdain for geek culture has had negative affects on believers as well.  I’ve heard stories from people about how geeky Christians can feel as if they have no place to turn to for support: the geek community views them suspiciously for their faith, while their fellow Christians view them as outsiders for dressing in cosplay or playing video games.  A friend of mine often tells of a time when he spoke at a church about gamers, and after the presentation, two people came up to him, independent of one another, to tell him that they were gamers and that they were afraid to tell others in their church.  I’ve even heard of respected leaders within churches who are unable to tell the rest of their leadership teams that they play games, for fear of the backlash.

dungeon master

With gaming becoming more prominent in all of our lives, Christians simply cannot afford to stand on the sidelines making dismissive comments.  If we want to reach out to those around us, we need to understand geek culture, and be able to provide the kind of insight and constructive criticism that will earn people’s respect and trust.  In doing this, we have a biblical example to follow: the account of the Apostle Paul’s visit to Athens (Acts 17:16-34).

While Paul waited for his companions in Athens, he took time to look around the city and learn about its inhabitants and their customs.  He noted the idolatry in the city, as well as the Athenians’ love of discussing and debating new ideas.  When Paul had the opportunity to address those at the Areopagus, he appealed to their own religious customs, connecting their altar to an “unknown god” to the true God that he wanted to share with them.  He didn’t try to scare them with fire and brimstone or entice them with empty sentimentality; he learned about their beliefs and interests, and presented the gospel to them in a way that they could understand.

Thornhill, James, 1675/1676-1734; Paul Preaching in the Areopagus

The same principle applies today as we reach out to those that God has put into our lives.  Francis Schaffer reiterated this idea, stating it this way:

“Each generation of the church in each setting has the responsibility of communicating the gospel in understandable terms, considering the language and thought-forms of that setting.”

A Christian sharing the gospel with a car enthusiast should know something about cars; a Christian ministering to a group of athletes should be able to talk with them about sports.  And a Christian who reaches out to geeks needs to learn about geek culture.  How does one do this?  It means learning how to play various games with people and creating a healthy, toxicity-free space in which everyone can have fun.  It means going to conventions and complimenting attendees for the work that they put into their cosplay.  It means consuming enough geeky media that you can recognize some of the references you see in a movie like Ready Player One.

As a church, we’ve kicked the can as far down the road as possible.  Geek culture is taking center stage in our society, and Christians need to be able to speak into it, constructively, in order to reach the world around us.  God’s kingdom extends not just to our work and family life, but to our recreation as well; let us throw ourselves eagerly into building that kingdom, in confidence that God will do incredible things through his servants.

March 2018 Site Update!

Hey everyone!  After a long time, this site is finally getting an update!  Over the last few years, I was a part of Gospel & Gaming, a missions organization dedicated to empowering gamers with the gospel, and equipping the church to go out and do the same.  My primary role in the ministry was to serve as its Content Director, organizing the various pieces of content (articles, videos, interviews, etc.) that were published onto the ministry’s website.  Unfortunately, due to some changes within our organization, the team felt that God was shutting the door on Gospel & Gaming and calling us elsewhere.  Personally, I still feel that God is calling me to write about geek/gaming culture and faith.

So now I’m back here!  The Heartland Gamer was a website that I started prior to joining Gospel & Gaming, and it’s where I’ll be posting my writing for the time being.  I plan to start posting new articles in April; between the upcoming celebration of Easter and several other personal issues all piling up at once right now, I won’t be able to put up anything new in March.  But stay tuned!  Next month I’ll be talking about the Ready Player One movie, as well as beginning a series of articles on diversity in gaming culture.

I hope that this website proves to be a blessing to all who read it, and I look forward to sharing more soon!

-Michael Mendis

Following Footsteps: Part 3 – How the Wii Influenced the Wii U

Wii and Wii U consoles
Wii (left) and Wii U

This is the third in a series of three articles examining how the successes and failures of the 7th generation consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) impacted their respective 8th generation successors (Xbox One, PS4, Wii U).  This article takes a look at the Nintendo Wii and Wii U.   The first article dealt with the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, and the second article discussed the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4.

In the early 2000s, Nintendo’s Gamecube console was struggling.  Sony was running away with its hit PlayStation 2, and even the newcomer Microsoft was outpacing them with the Xbox.  Nintendo decided to shake things up, and focus its next console (codenamed “Revolution”) on a radical new innovation that could bring new people to gaming and change the landscape of the industry.  This new console was the Wii, and the incredible success of this system throughout its lifespan convinced Nintendo to bank on innovation once again with what is now their newest console, the Wii U.  Unfortunately, Nintendo would find out the hard way that not all innovations are created equal.

When Nintendo unleashed the Wii upon the world in November 2006, they introduced the public to its innovative new controller, the Wii Remote, which not only had buttons like a normal controller but could also detect motion as players moved the remote around through the air.  The Nintendo Wii and its motion controls attracted not only curious gamers but also wide swaths of people who normally didn’t play games, such as middle-class moms and the elderly in nursing homes.  It became a worldwide phenomenon, quickly jumping ahead of its competitors in sales.

Senior Citizen playing Wii in a nursing home

Spearheading this early success were a few select games that showcased the capabilities of the Wii Remote, and the biggest hit was Wii Sports, a game bundled with every Wii console.  This simple collection of sports-themed minigames required players to perform simple actions with the Wii Remote to control the characters onscreen, such as swinging the remote like a tennis racket or a baseball bat.

A game of tennis in Wii Sports

Nintendo clearly had the successes of the Wii in mind as they developed their next console, the Wii U.  Another new innovation became the focus: adding a large touch screen to a traditional controller.  This new controller, simply called the Wii U Gamepad, became the focus of Nintendo’s marketing, as Nintendo sought to win people over by showing off all the new things this controller could do, such as playing an entire game on the Gamepad while someone else uses the TV, or how certain objects could only be seen on the touchscreen as you point the controller in different directions.  Furthermore, Nintendo pushed the concept of asymmetric multiplayer, a type of gameplay in which those using the gamepad would have a different perspective on the touchscreen to those playing with other controllers and watching the TV.

Just as Nintendo developed Wii Sports to win people over to motion controls, a game for the Wii U was designed to convince people that the Gamepad and asymmetric gameplay would be the next big thing.  This game, announced at the end of their E3 2012 press conference, was called Nintendo Land, a minigame collection that focused on innovative uses of the Gamepad, particularly the aforementioned asymmetric multiplayer (one such minigame, Metroid Blast, is pictured below; in this game, the player with the Gamepad flies a spaceship and attacks the other two players, who are watching the TV and using Wii Remotes to control characters on the ground).

Asymmetric multiplayer on Wii U

While using this minigame collection to attract a wide range of demographics to their new platform, Nintendo also reached out to core gamers by discussing how hard they had been working to improve relationships with third-party developers and publishers.  Winning over the support of these outside developers had been a problem for Nintendo since the mid-1990s; the Wii in particular had seen many highly popular and critically acclaimed games from Activision, Ubisoft, and others pass it by in favor of the Xbox 360 and PS3.  Now Nintendo boasted that they had finally put together the right system and built the right partnerships to bring these developers back into the fold.  They dedicated a chunk of time during their E3 2011 press conference playing up their support with a variety of publishers, with well-known developer Ken Levine stating that Nintendo had “heard the voices of the hardcore gamer,” and culminating when then-CEO of Electronic Arts John Riccitiello stood up on stage and declared that an “unprecedented partnership” had been formed between EA and Nintendo.

In sum, Nintendo tried to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time, capturing the public’s imagination with another wild innovation.  But after a decent holiday launch at the end of 2012, Wii U sales plummeted, and Nintendo has yet to build any strong momentum behind their new platform.  So what happened?

Wii Remote, Wii Balance Board, Wii Nunchuck, Wii U Gamepad, Wii U Classic Controller…

Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes Nintendo made with the Wii U was its name.  While the Wii brand was familiar to the general public, Nintendo had a habit of selling accessories that incorporated the Wii name, such as the Wii Balance Board (used for the hit game Wii Fit) and the Wii Wheel (for Mario Kart Wii).  This caused confusion amongst the general public when Nintendo started to advertise its new console. With most of Nintendo’s marketing focused around the console’s controller, many people who didn’t keep up with gaming on a regular basis thought that the Gamepad was an accessory for the old Wii, and that Wii U games could be played on the Wii as long as you had the Gamepad!  Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata admitted as much during a financial meeting in April 2013, five months after the release of the Wii U: “Some have the misunderstanding that Wii U is just Wii with a pad for games, and others even consider Wii U GamePad as a peripheral device connectable to Wii.  We feel deeply responsible for not having tried hard enough to have consumers understand the product.”

Nintendo message to Wii owners about Wii U
Message sent to Wii owners, to clarify the nature of the Wii U

Nintendo Land also ultimately failed to do for the Wii U what Wii Sports did for the Wii.  Motion controls were simple to describe and advertise to the general public; anyone can imagine themselves swinging a Wii Remote like a sword, just like they used twigs in the front yard when playing outside with their friends.  And since the Wii system only cost $250, many people were willing to take the dive, especially if they had already tried it at someone else’s house.  Asymmetric multiplayer, on the other hand, is a much more abstract concept that didn’t easily lend itself to a strong marketing campaign.

Finally, the promised support from third parties never really materialized.  Outside of a few exclusive titles like ZombiU, Rabbids Land, and Scribblenauts Unlimited, most of the third party games available at the Wii U’s launch in November 2012 were ports of games that were also available on other consoles, and support tapered off from there.  Major titles on the Xbox One and PS4 either arrived late to the Wii U (such as Watch_Dogs) or skipped the Wii U entirely (such as Activision’s new hit shooter Destiny).  The “unprecedented partnership” with EA produced only a few sports games and a couple of other ports, and less than two years after Riccitiello spoke on stage, EA announced that they had no more games in development for the platform.  Core gamers, who had long ago grown wary of Nintendo and quickly saw that the Wii U would not have much more third party support than its predecessor, opted to wait for Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles rather than invest in Nintendo’s new system.  Having failed to win back these customers (and having lost the more casual gamers that flocked to the Wii), the only audience left picking up the Wii U are Nintendo’s most dedicated fans; while these fans faithfully pick up Nintendo’s biggest games, there simply aren’t enough of them for the Wii U to keep pace with Sony or Microsoft’s surging new consoles.

John Riccitiello at Nintendo’s E3 2011 Press Conference 

In the end, Nintendo found that what works for one console, with one set of wild innovations, doesn’t necessarily work for another console with its own strengths and weaknesses.  What made the Wii such a success…

+ A simple, accessible new controller that almost anyone could learn.

+ A game (Wii Sports) that successfully showcased the controller.

…was not easily repeated with the Wii U, which was already hampered by other poor decisions that Nintendo had made.  Altogether, these problems…

– A new controller that didn’t naturally attract either casual audiences or core gamers.

– Nintendo Land’s failure to win many people over to the gamepad.

– The confusing name and marketing, which led people to believe that the Wii U was just an add-on to the Wii.

– The empty promise of renewed third party support, and the subsequent failure to bring core gamers back into the fold.

…have set Nintendo back to where they were with the Gamecube, struggling to find an audience and keep pace with their competitors.  While new technology can help a company stand out, Nintendo may want to avoid betting the farm on just one key innovation for future consoles.