The subject of the “gamer girl” is divisive by nature. I can’t write an article in a vacuum and I can’t write without any level of personal bias (without saying much at all about anything) so take this into consideration before continuing to read on. My opinion is also not indicative of the opinion of Gamer Professionals as an entity.
I have a lot of experience with both online and offline games. I have been playing them all my life and I have come to understand quite a bit about both gaming media and games themselves. That being said, I’m a white male and as such it is very hard for me to speak about any topic of exploitation from anything from an academic or perhaps a common sense perspective. The absolute slew of online commenters who feel that they can stand toe to toe with some of the greatest minds of the age armed with nothing but anger and a loose understanding of what should be considered “the norm” usually makes me nervous about tackling big topics of social justice or culture, lest I become one myself.
I want to discuss something that never seems to be discussed enough, simply that women are often culturally pressured to prove themselves as ‘genuine gamers’ or ‘genuine fans’ of fringe media. This – to me at least – seems to be unequivocally and irrefutably true. As this excerpt from an article by Kayleigh Connor of Digital Media argues:
” …they (women) are often harassed by the male base for being female gamers due to the expectation that females are not gamers…the population of girls who play more hardcore games, as mentioned before, is increasing, and that is becoming known to the male base online. Unfortunately, instead of accepting these female players as “comrades” in gaming, many male gamers will maliciously harass the female players based solely on their gender.”
Now I know that this is very likely to incense a lot of people immediately as I might be interpreted at this point as pointing blame at any particular group or party. Now, as tempting as it sometimes is in debate to lump one’s problems onto a single party of people, it really shouldn’t be the first thing we reach for as it seemingly does little to further the conversation. Instead we should try to understand this fact for what it is: a fact. As this PEW study shows, only 3% of people surveyed would say that online gaming communities are more accepting of women, as opposed to 44% stating that men were more accepted.
It’s easy to know this as the case as many of us have experienced female gamers being given unwanted attention online, or been subject to it ourselves as a ‘gamer girl’.
Again in the same PEW study, one quarter of women aged 18 – 24 have experienced sexual harrassment, and 26% have experienced stalking.
Conversely, we have experienced female gamers begging for online attention and all too easily getting it. When it comes to the last point, human beings want attention and girls often find themselves in a position to easily get it from men, namely because of the particular sexual dynamic that we have in our society at this time. A TUC report compiled in 2016 has shown that over half of women surveyed have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, which I feel is telling about the current state in which women feel more at risk of unwanted sexual suggestion than men do. Some people do not want attention and others do, but in the case of women, this attention appears to be forthcoming regardless of the intentions of the woman herself.
Women are judged by looks far more than men are and although this gap I feel is very gradually coming together, it remains a big issue in society. The issue is intense to the point that some men have been known to pose as women on MMOs and often are treated differently, from getting help in quests more readily all the way to being given real world gifts by potential online “suitors”. It is not because these people act like women, they look female and that’s all that matters to some in the online community. It’s a madness that has become a not uncommon occurrence in the online world. I will clarify that it is not always for such cynical reasons that men use female avatars, as explored in this article but even so when it comes to multiplayer gaming, a female avatar will elicit a differing response than a male one in the community.
Some of the more, shall I say, popular tropes about the experience of playing a game as a girl vary from being told to “get back to the kitchen” or “make me a sandwich” all the way to threats of sexual assault. A lot of this stuff is simply vitriolic garbage that makes up a lot of internet parlance which seems to target anyone, regardless of gender. Some of it can be blamed on the old chestnut of online anonymity making people bold enough to say literally anything to get a reaction. But it is fair to say that women will not only be the targets of online trolling – as anyone can be – but also specifically targeted comments about their gender.
Another example of this theme that I notice is that of the streaming community. We all notice it if we watch a male streamer and a female streamer side by side; the comments are vastly different and for obvious reasons. A study that discusses gendered conversation in steaming, and thus the experience of female streamers, has shown that they will often be inundated with comments about their physical appearance or with vile comments loaded with sexual imagery. Some though might take it the other way and perhaps call them ‘slutty’ for wearing a dress or a particular top. Do some female internet personalities use this trend to garner fans and perhaps base a career on it? Of course! But does this mean all (or even most) do so as well? Evidently not.
When thinking about all of this, I am left with the feeling that if Anita Sarkeesian was a man I do not believe that she would have received the same amount of hatred that she did. I think that Alan Sarkeesian would have been trolled, and I think that many people would have certainly had some colourful things to say about him, but it never would have risen to the levels that it did, penis withstanding.
The reason why I am able to definitively call this out as being an unfair witch-hunt on a so-called ‘fake gamer girl’ is that when it comes down to it women account for quite a lot of those who actually play games. According to the Entertainment Software Agencies 2016 Essential Facts survey in 2015 the split of those who play games was as follows:
With figures like these, I think it would take a lot of fancy words to explain how so many women are all apparently faking their interest for attention. It simply doesn’t add up.
Not only is it that women make up a lot of the gaming demographic but that also some of the most typically ‘feminine’ games are some of gaming’s biggest selling titles. From the same source we can see that certain titles such as The Sims are some of the most popular:
Now, it must be said that the types of games that men and women play can differ typically – a good break down of this can be found here – but it should not exclude the impact the women make on the gaming industry by the sheer volume of female gamers there are. Is it impossible that women will play more first person shooters in the future? Of course not, but perhaps at first games will have to be made that do not specifically cater to the interests of teenage boys. If you don’t believe me on that one, look at how women are represented in a game like GTAV or Mortal Kombat.
With evidence readily available disputing the idea that “girls don’t play games”, why does it still pervade our cultural understanding? It seems that the myth of the “gamer girl” or more likely the “fake gamer girl” comes from a place of defensiveness and cynicism towards the authenticity of the particular person’s enjoyment or knowledge of games. Ever get that feeling of “ugggh” when a male character turns to a female character, trying to explain something complex, for her to simply explain it perfectly and perhaps better than he can? This faux empowerment is at the core of this issue: women are often seen as needing to be experts of games in order to be genuinely interested and are scrutinized to a much greater degree. Most men do not need to prove themselves as gamers, nerds or geeks. Most men do not have to prove their authenticity to anyone in the same way. They are accepted into the fold even as beginners.
This is not an issue that we actively have to hate gaming for or even change the type of games that we play. All we have to do is acknowledge the fact that women are a big part of gaming and that assuming they are not as interested or into games as you is not only a horrible stance but one that is patently false. This is not a stance we should take towards anyone who wants to come and enjoy all of things that we sing the praises of. Something that we just shouldn’t do if we really want to expand the medium and see it grow for the better. After all, aren’t we all just gamers?