The Role of Women in Gaming Culture

If you’re fascinated with gender roles and statistics, you’ll find yourself on solid ground in the gaming industry. Nowhere have modern women been so underestimated and made fun of as in this unique ecosystem that has been assigned to men since its very beginning. Girl gamers often have to conceal their identity, settle for “girly” games, and face other gender-based prejudices. Their male counterparts often look down on them for enjoying “violent” games with guns and shooting and tell them off for not acting like ladies. Alternatively, they’ll say they’re not “real” gamers, and ask them for obscure knowledge to confirm their “validity” as fans of a particular game in a ridiculous effort to prove women don’t belong in gaming worlds.

The Background

When exactly did video games become a “no girls allowed” space? Well, we can start by looking at the representation of women in gaming culture. Have you heard of “The Damsel in Distress”? Its most emblematic examples are Princess Peach from the Super Mario series, and Zelda from the Legend of Zelda. Namely, most adventure games, especially the older titles, depict female characters in a vulnerable position, which means they must be rescued by a male character. This plot disempowers girls and robs them of a chance to be heroes of their own ventures. If this is the way video game giants represent women, can we expect male players and society to treat them differently? To be fair, Super Mario has since introduced several games where you can play as Princess Peach. On the other hand, there is still no game from the Zelda series that lets you play the whole game from the titular character’s perspective.

Let’s Dismantle Prejudices 

The fact is, girls play video games, and they rock at it. According to the latest research, the ratio of female-to-male gamers is much more balanced than the market assumes. An available Entertainment Software Association survey, for example, stated that girl players accounted for 48% of US players in 2014 (a steep rise from 40% in 2010). With female gamers on the rise, many tend to assign certain games and genres to girls playing video games. In a 2017 report by the video game analytics company Quantic Foundry, the female respondents preferred puzzle games, simulation video games, and adventure genres. At the same time, women least favored sports, tactical shooter, racing, ground strategy wargames, and first-person shooter games. However, back in 2013, Variety found that 30% of women were enjoying more violent games such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. One of the reasons women might not be as prominent a demographic in the latter genres is the culture surrounding them – should some of the other players find out they’re women, the odds of getting harassed (either in a hostile or “friendly” manner) are much higher.

Gaming Motivation

One of the biggest prejudices in the gaming community is that girls and women don’t have the “stomach” for games, particularly the more gory ones. The truth is that girl gamers certainly benefit from the stress-relief and escapism games (be they shooters, sims, or anything in between) bring. However, their motivation is also based on something else. Namely, some studies indicate that a sense of achievement and social reasons have a more prominent role in motivating women to play. They want to express themselves creatively or immerse themselves in fantasy worlds where their actions are relevant – that’s the achievement aspect. On the social front, a significant percentage of girls involved in multiplayer online role-playing games – 61% of them – stated they played with a romantic partner, as a way to bond. Similar to video games, a large number of female gambling enthusiasts find poker enticing because it’s a mind game; outwitting your opponent is another social aspect of gaming.

Female Characters in Games

We all know that female characters in video games are marginalized. If they appear, they are mostly fetishized and overly sexualized. Surprisingly or not, in 2019, only 5% of games had a female protagonist. When present, women were often in a submissive or passive position, portrayed as “Damsels in Distress,” needing to be rescued by men, or love interests of male characters with no motivations of their own. Female avatars in games are represented as objects and often explicitly sexualized (e.g., League of Legends female champions), thus leading to increased insecurities of girls that identify with them when playing. The negative impact on female interest and identification is obvious; however, most gaming providers nowadays tend to switch towards a more inclusive image and assign leading roles to strong, witty girl heroes. We were encouraged by the most recent study that reported a significantly higher ratio of girl protagonists in a 2020 video game roundup – 18%. While there were still more games with exclusively male protagonists, the difference was just 5%. What’s more, the overwhelming majority of games offered players a choice between a male and a female protagonist – 54%. This trend is something we hope to see continuing.

Bottom Line

The marginalized and objectified role of women in history was often simply replicated in the video game industry, especially at its start. However, as women become empowered and make their voices heard, shaping new role models for girls worldwide, the gaming industry is trying to catch up. More female characters, more women in leading positions in gaming companies, and more diverse and realistic female avatars all contribute to accelerating this culture shift. There’s still a long way to go, but the first baby steps have been taken, and women are undoubtedly on their way to an equal role in video-game worlds.

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