Girls And Gaming: Do We Still Have a Problem?

Girl playing videogames in a funny face

It’s been a tumultuous two years in the world of technology and entertainment when it comes to gender. We’ve heard the outcry of the #MeToo movement, which has hopefully put an end to some of Hollywood’s more unsavory habits when recruiting women for roles. We’ve seen more female led movies being released to market in genres where men usually dominate; what with ‘Wonder Woman’ being a box office sensation, and the ‘Ghostbusters’ reboot proving that women can be every bit as funny as men in similar parts. We even, after fifty five years, have the first ever female ‘Doctor Who’.

Despite the constant complaining from some quarters of society that this is ‘political correctness gone mad’, women in positions of power are becoming a more common sight on our screens. They’re also slowly becoming better represented in business and politics as well. The Prime Minister of the Great Britain is a woman. The Chancellor of Germany is a woman. The COO of Facebook is a woman. It feels like we’re finally getting somewhere with gender equality in every field other than one. Gaming.

Origins of Gamergate

Four years ago, in the aftermath of the 2014 E3 show, something called ‘Gamergate’ happened on the internet. It came hot onto the heels of tensions that had already been running high after it was revealed that the latest title in the ‘Assassin’s Creed’ franchise; one of the most anticipated releases of the year; would have four playable characters. All of them would be male. 

That was too much for some elements of gaming fandom, and especially women themselves. They felt that for far too many years, major games had been released for the enjoyment of men, with men in the leading roles, and with the role of women in the games being either to titillate the player, or require constant rescue by the heroic male lead. They were tokens, or trophies, and unrepresentative of the type of women who played the games. Simply put, a large proportion of video game fans felt that the way women were portrayed in games was sexist.

There was also a predictable backlash against this viewpoint. There were those who felt that video games have been the way they are for years, and have always been fine, and there was no valid reason to complain. Those who did complain were called ‘social justice warriors’, and castigated on websites like 4chan. Online debates turned ugly. ‘Gamergate’ was not a fun thing to watch. 

Not All Gamers

When we discuss under-representation of, or even under-service of women by the gaming industry and those who create games, we should point out that there are notable exceptions. The gaming industry is a wide one, containing many subcategories within it, and one of those subcategories has no such issue with catering for female players. That’s the gambling industry. 

Ever alert to changes in the way people engage with gambling, the industry recognized that more and more female players were coming online to gamble, and considered the aesthetic and appeal of their existing games. Realizing that more could be done to make female players comfortable, they took swift and decisive action.

One need only look at and the range of online slots available there to see how easily something can be customized to accommodate the female perspective without making dramatic changes to a format. Players browsing the homepage are invited to try their hand at woman-led titles like ‘Legend of Cleopatra’. Ten years ago, online slots were designed and released with male players in mind. The gambling industry realized they were leaving money on the table by ignoring women, and changed their ways. If a gambling website can offer a game with a female lead on the homepage of its website, why can’t ‘Assassin’s Creed’ make one out of its four playable characters female?

No Progress, Or Slow Progress?

The answer to the ‘Assassin’s Creed’ question is ‘they can’, and in fact, they have. The gambling industry may have beaten them to the punch, but there are some signs that the makers of video games may have started to hear the aggrieved voices of their female players. At E3 this year, the newest version of ‘Assassin’s Creed’ was revealed to have two playable main characters. One would be male, and one would be female. 

Other titles seemed ready to make changes, too. ‘The Last Of Us’, a PlayStation-only title which has a particularly devoted title, is really trying to make up for past wrongs. In the original game, the main character Joel leads a stereotypically terrified teenage girl named Ellie to survival. In the sequel, Ellie is now the lead. Ellie is also now all grown up, and has a girlfriend of her own. Switching the gender of the main character and also making her gay is a move that many major TV shows would steer well clear from. To see a video gaming company attempt it is commendable.

On the side of XBox exclusive titles is the ‘Gears of War’ franchise, which is now onto its fifth installment. All four previous games have featured a man in the lead role. This time around, they’ve gone with a woman. Have all the fans of the series liked the move? Absolutely not, but it’s not expected to dampen the game’s commercial prospects when its released in 2019.

On the surface, that might make it sound like a revolution is sweeping through the gaming world. Statistically, that’s not the case just yet. They’re good headlines, but they don’t change the rest of the news. A statistical analysis of the games which were displayed at E3 showed that only eight percent of them feature women in the lead role. By contrast, twenty four percent had a clear male lead. More or less exactly half of the games there allowed players to choose.

Perhaps just having the option to choose is progress; it’s certainly a better position than the one the industry was in as little as four years ago. But when the ratio of clear male leads is three times higher than the ratio of clear female leads, it seems the road of progress is going to be a long one.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)