With the advent of online gaming, new relationships have formed across the world wide web: strategies are shared, victories are celebrated, and trash talk ensues. While these moments are vocalized by predominantly male gamers, another story unfolds, one where another group of players remains anonymous and self-muted, in fear of facing cyberbullying, ridicule, and other unwarranted hateful speech. They’re the girl gamers, who are fundamentally invisible to the gaming industry and its male player base.
How many girls are playing video games? According to a study by the Pew Research Center, “59% of girls ages 13–17 are in fact playing video games.” The study also reveals that, “47 percent say they never play online. Another 27 percent say they never even play with someone else in the same room.”
I have experienced all sorts of treatment based on my gender. One notable instance was in 2006 when I played a round of Super Smash Brothers Melee with an older male player. I defeated him, and he praised me in a very patronizing way, “Oh you’re the best girl player I know!” As if to say, “Hey, you’re pretty good for a girl.” I then started seeing issues when I played online with strangers.
Socializing while gaming is experienced via online voice chat or in-game text chat. The moment it is known you are female, the behaviour of a male player can sometimes shift into perverse locker room talk. When I entered a Discord server to play Among Us, I was told to, “Go in the kitchen and make a sandwich.” The N-word was also thrown around too, among other slurs. Suffice it to say, I left that server very quickly.
According to Kaitlyn Williams of Stanford University, “In order to avoid harassment online, women are faced with several options short of giving up on gaming altogether. Essentially, each ‘solution’ involves disguising one’s femininity. It is common for female gamers who play online to choose ambiguous screen names and masculine avatar images. Some womxn go as far as muting their mikes during virtual gameplay so that other players cannot hear their voices and distinguish that they are female.”
Communication and forming relationships are important parts of playing video games. Taking that social component away isolates female gamers, leaving them in the difficult position of whether or not to speak up, risking the chance of being harassed.
Why is this happening? Let’s start with the obvious: the harassment seen in online video games is part of a continuum of the normalization of violence against women (and girls). It seems that with every new form of communication that is invented, comes a new channel for men and boys to reach womxn and girls, and subsequently harass them. Additionally, anonymity provides a shield when playing and communicating with others online. People are more likely to spew hateful words if their identity is unknown to the recipient. Part of playing any kind of game ties in with trash talk, which in normal situations is usually just friendly banter. However, it can be a pandora’s box, leading to an insidious exchange of words. Kaitlyn Williams explains: “While the use of boastful or insulting speech to intimidate or humiliate can have value as a psychological strategy, when the remarks attack someone for their gender, perceived sexual orientation, or race, many would agree that a line has been crossed.”
How can we create a safe gaming environment for girls? It starts with teaching boys proper online etiquette. Just as many parents teach their children how to be respectful of others on the playground, the same principle should apply to its virtual counterpart. Also, teach your daughter how to deal with online harassment. My personal advice is to simply not engage with the player and to report and block them. As the saying goes, do not feed the trolls.
The gaming industry is without a doubt male-dominated. Most women who work in video games are few and far in between. According to statistics published by Christina Gough, a research expert covering sports and video gaming, “In 2019, 71 percent of responding game developers were men, while 24 percent were women.” The bottom line for many women is that they simply feel unwelcome in the gaming industry.
According to The Guardian, “The problem lies in the feedback loop of under-representation in the video games industry. Women are less likely to see themselves represented in games, games advertising, or working in games design and development roles. That means they’re less likely to pursue a degree or career because they don’t feel like they belong.” Video game marketing is aimed heavily at boys and attributes a masculine identity to video games when that shouldn’t be the case. The marketing should be redefined as more inclusive of all gender identities, not just boys. Furthermore, the protagonists of the majority of video games are in fact male, and a majority of female protagonists tend to appease more to a hetero male fantasy.
How can we get more girls interested in a career in video games? It’s all about encouraging them to explore non-traditional avenues. Do not be afraid to invest in a video game console at an early age (I started playing when I was four), and let your future daughter know that behind the video game she enjoys so much are dynamic careers that might be of interest to her.
While creating a video game requires knowledge in computer science, engineering, mathematics, and coding, that is only part of the equation. There are important careers in creating art assets for video games. In an interview with Teen Vogue, Girls Make Games explained, “Many believe that there’s only one primary role in game development: programming. When our campers discovered that game development involved design, storytelling, art, animation, and even music, their eyes lit up. Suddenly it’s not just coding, it’s a whole spectrum of creative expression.” Girls Make Games, created by Laila Shabir and Ish Syed, “is a series of summer camps, workshops and game jams designed to inspire the next generation of designers, creators, and engineers.”
By giving young girls a chance to leave their mark in the video games industry, we can empower them to finally unmute those mics.