Alright, I’m going to state this, plain and simple, it is hard being a woman who enjoys video games. We experience constant, gender specific abuse, and are often told by our colleagues that this is the nature of the beast; that we are not allowed to be critical of how the video game industry operates as is because it has always existed in this space, and always will. We are told to grow a thicker skin when it comes to harassment, because “men go through the same thing.” The truth is, if you are a woman in the industry with a critical opinion, you will be the recipient of disproportional hostility, scrutiny, and criticism, likely from your male cohorts.
The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) showcased recently how long reinforced cultural notions establish males as default heroes. Of the 76 titles, only 7 of those games had exclusively female protagonists. This is an astounding lack of representation, and it is an issue that affects both male and female players alike. Male players can actually benefit from playing female protagonists as it gives them the opportunity to see a game through the eyes of a female protagonist, and this allows them to challenge the all too commonplace idea that they can’t or shouldn’t identify with women, their lives, or their struggles, a skill that women are already adept at doing when having to play male characters.
For the past 30 years, video games have existed in a bubble that is almost exclusively male oriented; games are designed, marketed, and sold almost exclusively with men in mind. The consequences of this exclusive marketing are far reaching, and in the past year, through gamergate and news pieces about the abuse of women, we’ve begun to see these consequences surface.
Anyone taking a look at the video game industry can identify a sense of male entitlement for a form of entertainment that has absolutely no business being gendered at all. The simplest examples are those where we see women portrayed in hyper-sexual ways, catering to the male gaze, or we see the same tired damsel in distress trope over and over again, in which the male protagonist gets to be the rescuer. I mean, how many times has Princess Peach been kidnapped since 1985? (Pssst…the answer is 12)
Another example of the sort of harassment women in the industry are subjected to can be seen in a video from 2012 of professional Miranda Pakozdi being harassed by her team captain Aris Bakhtanians. In the video, we see Pakozdi trying to laugh off the unending stream of harassment for about thirteen minutes before being unable to endure it any longer. Even speaking up about the issue rallied parts of the community to decry her actions rather than support her. It’s as though they thought her reaction of defusing anxiety with laughter was not normal, and that it implied consenting to offensive behavior.
Bakhtanians said himself, “The sexual harassment is part of [the] culture. And if you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community.” He proceeded to liken the community without sexual harassment to using a football in the NBA. The hostile atmosphere was enough to dissuade Pakozdi from competing in the final round of the tournament.
This kind of attitude isn’t limited to the vacuum of the professional gaming niche either. Women making an impact other aspects of nerd culture are attacked as well, usually with sexually charged or inappropriate remarks. Others who speak out are frequently targets of flash smear campaigns. “In the end I had to step away from the internet,” said Laurie Penny, a writer who had posted a piece on organized harassment, “which was a pain because I need the internet to work.”
Game developer and vocal advocate against the rising tide of online abuse and anonymous harassment, Zoe Quinn, continues to receive threats and experiences doxing almost every time she announces a public appearance. “I’ve had that conversation with Brianna and Anita,” Quinn said during an interview with Ars Technica. “Kind of, ‘Ha ha ha [sarcastic laughter], which one of us do you think is going to die first?'” Quinn has since been forced to use YubiKeys as part of a two-part authentication for all of her personal accounts to combat hackers. She has two sets, one she wears around her neck, and one embedded in her wrist.
Since the interview, Quinn has been hard at work building a support network for victims of online harassment and pushing for greater advocacy for bringing lawmakers and law enforcement into the conversation.
“The judge told me to stop posting,” Quinn said. “Just get offline. No. I’m sorry. Being told, you can’t have this entire line of work without opening yourself up to massive abuse, that’s a free speech issue. Saying I can’t make video games for a living because somebody might decide to perpetuate criminal acts against me, that’s a free speech issue. The phrase ‘in real life,’ and delineating the Internet as a magical alternate dimension… needs to go away.”
The judge’s reaction echoes the sentiment of many men in the video game community. This kind of behavior reinforces the idea that incidents like these are isolated, and only bother women who are too sensitive. It minimizes the risks associated with the online harassment of female gamers specifically. It makes light of the issue of online bullying, citing it as “not that big of a deal,” despite the fact that online harassment, threats, and bullying make up one of the most common issues that social workers are called to deal with on a day-to-day basis. And most importantly, attitudes like this fail to recognize that these insults are disproportionately targeting one gender, as a means to intimidate and maintain hegemonic power for men in the community.
Online harassment, no matter the reasoning, is always about power and positioning, about putting people in their place. “I think fans harass developers for a range of reasons, but again, it is always about power and position,” said Fisk, who was featured in Bullying in the Age of Social Media. “The lack of social cues and perceived lack of consequences afforded online communication also changes the way people treat one another.”
Donna Prior served as community manager for the online game, Star Wars: The Old Republic, leading a team that was told would be using their real names as forum handles. “As any community manager will tell you,” Prior said, “the contractors and staff who hand out your disciplinary action should always be protected [with anonymity].” The community grew toxic and the imposition of the new rules and standards disturbed the hornet’s nest. As the only woman on the team, Prior still receives abusive and threatening messages five years later. The existence of this behavior is a testament to the glacial pace of cultural progress in more insular communities.
The largest takeaway from this is the biggest risk to the industry: that we will lose out on the talents of people who would make fantastic games that we would all be better for playing, because they legitimately don’t want to make themselves targets. Diversity is important to bringing new insights that current leadership may not have.
“It’s something that comes up in almost every conversation with female developers,” says Jennifer Hepler, who was the senior writer on Dragon Age: Inquisition. “Overall, people seem to try to shrug it off publicly and fume privately, and younger women contemplating the field are reconsidering whether they have the stomach to handle what it currently asks of them. A lot of the best artists and storytellers (and quite a few great programmers too), tend to be sensitive people — we shouldn’t lose out on their talents because we are requiring them to be tough, battle-scarred veterans just to walk in the door.”
About the author:
Lydia Mondy is a musician from the northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from feminism to enjoy a tv show.