Virtual Reality & Girl Gamers

Words by:  Darcie Boelen
Image credit: Huffington Post


An article about underrepresentation, German Shepherds and actual murder.

As a girl and as a gamer, I’m repeatedly forced to choose between one of two games – a guy doing this, or a guy doing that. Please, hold me back, I might pull a muscle for being so excited.

There are very few games on display in any gaming-oriented store that feature female protagonists on the cover. Game series like Halo, Call of Duty, Battlefield or Assassin’s Creed, which seem to be renewed and re-made every season and are constant residents of the ‘best-seller’ shelves, only ever feature men on the front cover. Even a game like Mortal Kombat which has equal numbers of male and female characters will only have blokes on the sleeve.

And that’s not because the girls in Mortal Kombat don’t wear enough to pass classification. If you can market Lollipop Chainsaw or Tomb Raider with a girl in skimpy clothes, you can damn well do it with any other game. Yet companies refuse to market games with women characters.

And to be perfectly honest, why is it that women are only featured in games when they are sexualised? Lara Croft is the first example that comes to mind, but Samus Aran is also a prominent female character who was subject to such treatment. Metroid, released in the 1980s, had the opportunity to set gender boundaries in the gaming space, but once the bounty hunter’s armour and helmet were removed, Samus was left in a bikini in the final scene. If I wanted to see girls in bikinis, I’d go to the beach, or learn how to Google.

Maybe the next Call of Duty game can have a lady on the front cover, though I really loved the inclusion of a German shepherd for Ghosts. No, really. Animal rights, am I right?

I’m not saying that we need to boycott video games until they close the obvious gender gap, because almost half of all home console gamers are women, and over half of PC gamers are female, but I’m tempted to sell my PlayStation unless someone can offer me an alternative. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to have interesting, well-written and kick ass female characters? Am I really asking for too much?

Of course, there are a few respected female characters, such as Ellie in The Last Of Us. But alas, this is not the shining beacon of a realistic female protagonist – she’s not actually the main character. The playable character is Joel, whose duty is to escort Ellie through an apocalyptic future and bring her to safety. Same applies for Bioshock: Infinite and a number of other games where girls only feature as damsels in distress. Peachy.

Assassin’s Creed refuses to release a full-length video game with a female protagonist, and I’m not talking about a PS-Vita game or a DLC pack character. I mean like a real game, with a big release date and fancy-pants limited edition figurines and art books. Both Assassin’s Creed and Infamous created sequels with a male protagonist, and then followed up with an apologetic spin-off featuring a girl, which was almost sad. It was almost like these companies were saying, “Sorry, we tried, but we don’t want those angry gamers chasing us with pitchforks, either.”

Of course we can access customisable games, but for the sake of this argument I’m talking about set narratives in adult-oriented video games, I’m talking about characters that have entire teams of writers working to create their backstory, their behaviour, the way their hair falls, the way the light hits their eyes. I have spent almost one hundred hours playing Dragon Age and about twice that on Skyrim, because they’re the only games I own that give me access to playable female characters in clothes.

Aside from their obvious lack of women, the gaming industry severely underrepresents the LGBTQ communities and people of colour, too. Why are we always forced to play games as white guys with mummy issues and explosives?

It’s because video games are predominantly made by men, for men. As long as women are disqualified from creating, writing and producing games, there won’t be any games for women. A lot of gaming producers claim that they don’t make games for women because girls don’t play enough games. Wrong! Girls don’t play games because they are repeatedly disappointed with the quality of your games. Girls would play more games and complain a lot less if you gave them more choice. That’s Marketing 101, it’s not something you need several degrees to understand.

At a 2014 conference specifically designed to address the issue of women in the gaming industry, Storm8 senior game designer Elizabeth Sampat spoke about how the change needs to be one of culture, that producers should stop hiring based on nerd-credibility and start hiring based on work ethic.

“If somebody didn’t laugh at your stupid Magic the Gathering joke or didn’t seem excited enough when you mentioned the company fantasy football league, get over it,” said Sampat. “If you can’t find any women who can fit into your company culture, have you considered that your company culture might, you know, suck?”

“If there isn’t room for you in the games industry, then fuck the games industry. I don’t want to be here if you can’t be here.”

There are more and more game companies created by women and catered for women such as Her Interactive and Silicon Sisters. And to their credit they are making a great statement, but this is a problem that is perpetuated by the big companies, who would rather support misogyny than risk losing customers. It’s pathetic, and they should be ashamed of themselves, but I guess you can’t download a spine.

But that still doesn’t answer my question. Why is it that women are excluded from the video game space? Why are so many guys so angry about women hanging around? You would think after all this time they’d appreciate having some female company, but apparently these weren’t the females they were looking for.

A lot of boys feel entitled to a space where women aren’t allowed, as though men haven’t penetrated enough safe spaces that women make for themselves. And yes, that was a good enough reason to use the word penetrate, because recently this debate stopped being about girls playing games. It turned into abusing, stalking and threatening the lives and wellbeing of women and feminists, and extended beyond the consoles and computer screens into real life.

Last year the gaming community and industry drew attention to itself in the worst sort of way via the hashtag #Gamergate. Many Gamergate advocates claimed they were fighting for ethical journalism in the games industry, as most video game journalists have contacts in game production companies. In reality, what they were actually doing was degrading, defaming, abusing and threatening women, turning their quest for morality into a sexist witch hunt.

Zoë Quinn, a journalist and game developer, had to leave her home and hide elsewhere because she was scared for her life. Brianna Wu had to leave her home as well, after receiving threats to her life and her well-being. Anita Sarkeesian had to cancel her presentation at Utah State University when Gamergaters threatened to shoot her.

Headlines like ‘Video Gamers Are Having A Bizarre Debate Over Whether Sending Death Threats To Women Is A Serious Issue’ made everyone stop and raise their eyebrows. It wasn’t just gamers who were involved –suddenly, everyone with a news subscription was asking what was wrong with these people, that they needed to be reminded that death threats aren’t socially acceptable.

It was bad enough that Intel removed their advertising from website Gamasutra, releasing a statement that read: “Intel does not support any organization or movement that discriminates against women.” It struck me as odd that the self-proclaimed ‘nice’ Gamergaters continued to use the same term that the hateful and abusive Gamergaters were using, instead of separating themselves from the nasties like Intel had done. They acknowledged the bad apples, but forced us to stomach them anyway. Thanks, but no thanks.

The good news is that a lot of people have stepped back from it all, are now refusing to identify as a gamer because they are so ashamed of what has happened. It’s encouraging that at least a small percentage of the community are able to recognize the terrible behaviours of their peers. But the gaming culture still reflects the culture it was born into: a male-dominated boys-only club of the seventies and eighties, who complain about how there aren’t enough women hanging around, all the while belittling those girls who are into gaming. Even if you are a nice guy who plays games and doesn’t hate women, if you ignore this issue (I’m not sure how you could), you’re still actively participating in a community that does exclude and depreciate women constantly.

I’m sick of tired of having to play games that force me to experience the same male fantasy over and over again, but I wouldn’t have bothered to publish this article if I was just having a whine about female representation. I’m writing this because it escalated, and being told you’re going to die because you’ve got a vagina and you picked up a controller is kind of weird. Like, really weird.

I had to write about this because it’s not a virtual reality anymore, it’s an actual reality. The reality is that women had to leave their own homes because they were going to be murdered. Women had to cancel educational debates because they were going to be murdered. Women had to quit their jobs because they were going to be murdered. The reality is that I have in the past, and will in the future continue to be abused for my opinions on video games. What that says to me is that the gaming community is fragile, and the slightest crack in the thin veneer of their dignity and honour will bring the whole thing crashing around their feet. And it has.

Gamergaters claimed their movement was to do with journalism and ethics, but this would never have happened to a man. It would never have happened to a man. Anyone who says otherwise is lying or deluded. This style of targeted sexist hatred is something that only women experience, in the gaming industry or otherwise. The video games community is participating in a modern-day renewal of the systematic oppression and degradation that women have suffered throughout history, and a lot of gamers would rather throw a tantrum about feminism than admit that their behavior is wrong.

The reality is that the gaming industry is broken and it won’t be fixed by hiring more dudebros to create another first person shooter game. Game industries need to hire all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds and diversify their productions from the inside out, because the shining reputation of the gaming community is now tainted. This community has deliberately excluded women from participating in the culture and women were threatened with death for trying to change that.

The reality is that women do exist, women do have stories, and women can be heroes. But at the moment, the only heroes out there for gamers are men or German Shepherds. If that means that COD would rather put their faith in a dog than a woman, they’re cowardly and disrespectful. Game developers no longer have – nor have they ever had – a reasonable excuse to exclude women from their stories, their productions, their offices, and right now it seems will only include a woman if she’s wearing skimpy clothes. Which doesn’t seem very safe in a warzone, if you ask me.

Game producers, writers, directors and creators who indulge misogynist customers and support anti-female company cultures need to make a change. I understand that a movement can only go as fast as its slowest walker, but we also should not be bowing to the demands of misinformed, territorial, dummy-spitting gamers who aren’t ready to share their toys.