Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Getting Women into Gaming: How female hypoagency makes gamers look bad

What got me interested in writing about this topic was an article posted by Anita Sarkeesian, a high-profile and infamous feminist gamer, about a tweet she made after Microsoft’s E3 conference.  Basically her tweet was about how none of the games that Microsoft showcased featured female protagonists; fair enough, and an expected issue she’d bring up.  But it was the responses to her tweet that moved her to make a compilation on her blog that “exemplifies the male entitlement and male privilege endemic in the gaming community today.”
Now this being the internet and all, I expected to see a list of moderate length with plenty of “bitch,” “cunt,” and a kitchen joke or two.  You know, standard vulgar ad hominem fare when the target is a woman.  (Side note: gender-based insults are not unique to women; men are called dicks, fags, or sad little boys in basements who can’t get laid).  I clicked on the article mostly so I could, I don’t know, roll my eyes at the Twitter drama.  However, after a handful of these at the top, the tweets just became… people that disagreed with her.  Among the offensive tweets were disturbing gems like:
“Seriously, big friggin deal.  Far more to complain about.”  
“Then code your own video game.”  
“Video games are not social movement groups.  I can enjoy a good game no matter what gender the protag is.”
Shocking stuff, I know.  The nerve of the first tweet to say there was more to complain about after a conference about a console whose internet connection requirement and inability to rent or lend games alienated entire sections of the loyal, existing fanbase.  And doesn’t the person who wrote the second tweet know that Anita very well can’t code her own video game because society is subtly steering her away from gaining the math knowledge she would need to be a programmer?  And the last tweet, bringing up the fact that ANY sense of entitlement is essentially meaningless when talking about a collection of businesses trying to create and sell something with their own property.  Typical male privilege, not needing or expecting the industry to come to their aid.  They have no idea what it is to be oppressed by completely private and voluntary consumer industries.
But in all seriousness, the reason I bring up this article is that it’s a pretty good snapshot of the “gender issue” debate in the video game community.  This is basically how it goes: there are not as many female “core” gamers, nor as many females working in the industry.  This is because of subtle sexism, social pressures, the patriarchy, and all these other buzzwords of feminism.  The evidence for this is the fact itself: there aren’t as many women as men in this community, so therefore something must be keeping them out.  The gaming community has the additional mark of shame for being a place where bringing this up does not always elicit nods of agreement and plans of action, but instead debate about whether this oppression of women in the community and industry even EXISTS.  And not only that, but people that hold this opinion often say this out loud and shamelessly, and get support!  This of course is just more evidence of how fallen the gaming community is, how hostile to women it is, and how desperate it is to keep it a “boys club” by actively keeping women out.  So most gaming news media and saavy, progressive types like Anita take as a given that the gaming community is actively misogynistic, women are actively threatened, and discussion about gender issues always starts with this presumption and a lengthy explanation of how it must be changed.  And the comments section just refuses to listen by arguing with the premise, and people shake their heads sadly at how far there is to go.
This is illustrated in small in Anita’s blog post.  Anita makes a long-suffering comment about how none of the games shown at Microsoft’s E3 conference have a female protagonist, mood best described as “sadly expected.”  This is assumed to be something anti-female going on, under the assumption that this alienates female gamers because they, for some reason, require a “relatable” protagonist, aka a protagonist with the same genitals as they have.  This is responded to favorably by some, and opposed by others.  Arguments against this premise are considered illustrative of “male entitlement” rather than good old-fashioned disagreement.  And other social networks explode with support for her and disgust at the gaming community today.
So this got me wondering: is the gaming community special?  Is there something backwards about it, or something refreshingly different?  I mean, the narrative of a subculture or profession being anti-female is a familiar one, to say the least.  When there is a demographic gender gap, you can be sure there is opinion and analysis about why this is, and how subtle social oppression of women is causing it.  But these views are accepted in the mainstream, assumed, taken for granted.  Real political and financial power is turned to the task of finding these sneaky social mores and exorcising them with policy and money.  But the gaming community seems unrepentant, thus earning itself an even blacker mark than it already had from the mere existence of the gender gap in the first place.
Like STEM fields and politics and other such gender gap areas, the assumption of female hypoagency is alive and well.  This is a term I borrow from girlwriteswhat’s video here, that I particularly like and think provides a key part the worldview of feminism when it comes to tackling “gender gap issues” like these.  Basically women are viewed as lacking agency, lacking the ability to make things happen in their own lives.  They are, ironically, objectified by the very ideology that claims to hate such objectification.  When feminism sees a lack of women in a given area, their first question is not “why might a woman choose not to get involved here,” but instead “what is keeping women out?” or “What encouragement is lacking to steer them there?”  A gender mismatch is framed as a problem to be solved by guiding, encouraging, removing obstacles from the path of women to get into the area, without an expectation for them to take any action to get there themselves.
This is reflected in the gaming community discussion on gender.  It’s always “What must be done to encourage women to play video games?” “How can we get more women into the gaming industry?” “What is keeping women from being gamers?”  Gaming is not portrayed as what it is: a pastime, a field of interest that people can freely participate in or not.  Instead of being a loose collection of people whose literally only common trait is the fact that they “play video games,” gamers are portrayed as a group with intentions, a group with some greater purpose in mind, and one that is driving women away.
And when a given female decides to check out this gaming thing more, or just dive right in, she often doesn’t consider this enough to be “accepted.”  If she plays video games, she is a gamer.  If she likes playing AAA video games, and plays them often, she is a core gamer.  If she follows the news about games, goes on forums, talks with people about the games she is part of the “gaming community.”  Despite these basic facts, it is common for a female gamer to still express notions of feeling oppressed, harassed, or ignored.  Some female gamers will switch mid-thought from having an enthusiastic discussion about that Halo match she played with you last night to disgust about how a comment by some guy in the audio chat or the shape of her Spartan’s butt makes her feel “unwelcome,” or makes her question every day why she puts up with all this just to be in the gaming community, and is it any wonder more girls aren’t here?  Even after choosing to play video games, even after displaying her own agency, she still sees herself as an object being “pushed away” by her environment.  And the girls that haven’t even chosen to give gaming a try are just as helpless as her, being unfairly “kept away.”  Vulgarity and offensiveness towards women in an anonymous audio chat in a mature game is considered purposefully threatening; never mind that such vulgarity makes an appearance in all trash-talk, regardless of the people involved, often comes in hilariously unintelligible strings, and that revealing that you are a girl pretty much just earns you lovingly-customized insults with some kitchen jokes thrown in rather than the generic curses and insinuations about your mother you would have been subjected to otherwise.  Instead of viewing something like a bad audio-chat experience as an opportunity to take the very minimal action of, you know, MUTING the chat if she doesn’t want to hear what is being said, it becomes a community problem, a Big Thing that has to be dealt with if the gaming community wants to prove they want to keep her around.  
And why doesn’t the gaming community try to keep this stereotype of a female gamer around?  I can only offer my best guess.  The perception of female hypoagency necessitates that a community looking to get more girls involved be “made safe” for those women.  You can’t expect an inanimate object to stick around in one place if there is a force trying to push it away, after all.  So this is the thrust of the feminist critique of the core gaming community: it is uncomfortable for women, and so to get more women in, it has to be made more comfortable.  Though I can’t say I’m old enough to remember, I have heard of this taking place in some professions by doing things like discouraging coworker competition, tightening rules on cursing or making jokes, or changing systems to be more “female-oriented.”  And I think the core gaming community’s “problem” is that it is just too young to have accepted this.  Video gaming may have really come into its own in the past decade, but not that long ago it was EXPECTED to have this gender gap.  Video games were something children played, specifically little boy children that liked to shoot guns or jump on enemies or play sports without going outside.  Playing video games was like reading comic books; it was a hobby indulged by a geeky subculture.  Video games were about monsters or role-playing or spaceships.  They were just another hobby that people didn’t pay much mind to.  And just like how we do not debate or analyze the demographics of the kayaking community or the cross-stitch community, the gaming community did not merit attention.  But unlike kayaking or cross-stitching, video games could ride the wave of incredible technological advancement in computers and electronics we’ve experienced recently.  With more power came more ideas, more experiences that could be delivered through the medium, experiences of higher and higher quality and at lower costs.  The people that grew up on video games made their passion a career and started making the games they wanted to make, and made money doing it.  More people got into this “video-gaming thing.”
  More money meant more talent and, resources, and products, ever-newer ideas being able to be implemented, new experiences to draw new people in.  And before we knew it, video gaming was not just some kids’ toy you outgrew; it was an entertainment goliath, with dev studios making more money than record companies, and releases to rival the biggest Hollywood blockbusters.  Video games took their place in pop culture as a popular and meaningful entertainment medium.  And now gamers weren’t just a small subculture that could be ignored, and the sociologists and people-watchers turned their eye on this new kid on the block, and the eye narrowed; for there was a GENDER GAP.  These flashy blockbuster games drew a distinct lack of female interest, and prevailing wisdom tells us this must be because of something keeping women out.  For lack of a better word, this subculture, which I can remember being scoffed at or all but ignored, became coveted by feminists.  It’s like they were afraid that some party had just popped up right under their nose, and no one invited them.  And so gaming culture started to get the social analysis treatment.  Because a gender gap exists, it obviously goes without saying that something must be done about this.  Women being the inanimate objects they are considered to be, it is up to the gaming community to change their ways to become more female-friendly.  And resistance to this change must mean an ulterior motive of wanting to keep the women away.
But I grew up gaming, grew up loving gaming, and I know their narrative is flawed.  I played video games when they were played by a geeky subculture, when you didn’t use them to break the ice with a stranger, or as a topic of discussion around the lunch table.  There is no conspiracy here, no plan to keep the girls out so that the boys can freely indulge their hatred or disdain for them.  Gamers just are what they are.  Your “invitation” to the gaming community, as it ever was, is the first game you play and love. Your “fellow club members” are the people that like to play the game, too.  And when you are a small, ignored subculture, this seems obvious and normal.  Kayakers are people that kayak.  Scrapbookers are people that scrapbook.  Gamers are people that game.  I imagine due to its tech background, gamers happened to be mostly young males in the earlier days.  The rapid rise of video gaming is recent enough, I think, that to be someone who would be considered a “core” gamer — a gaming enthusiast that follows the hardware cycles, the birth of new IPs, the announcements of new sequels to beloved franchises — they probably have been around since those earlier days.  The franchises, like Modern Warfare, and the technologies, like the Wii and iPhone, that caused gaming to hit the mainstream just weren’t AROUND all that long ago.  And at its root, I think the core gaming community is just an extension of that small, ignored subculture of video game enthusiasts, and reflects their ways.  And the lack of women now is just an extension of the lack of women then.  Just because video gaming as a whole has gone mainstream doesn’t mean AAA fandom for it has, so it’s a little weird to expect its demographics to have gone diverse and mainstream in a short time, too.  But now people know and care about its existence, and that has some women humphing and waiting for those aspects of it they find distasteful to change so they can get in on the fun.  
And perhaps having been free from this sort of politically-laden scrutiny before, the enthusiast gaming community is responding with what I find to be a refreshingly honest “wtf.”  A gaming enthusiast is, by definition, a person that likes playing games.  To be someone that likes playing games, you have to play said games, and to be an enthusiast, all you need do is have a great time doing it and want to play more.  The gaming community is nothing more than a collection of free-thinking, free-choosing individuals that thinks buying games and playing them a lot is a pretty awesome way to spend free time.  There’s no “culture” to change here, no “agenda” or “system.” Is it any wonder that calls from the feminist-minded to make the experience of gaming more female-friendly are met with ridicule or confusion?  It’s like a person saying they’d really like to get into that surfing thing, if you guys could go ahead and make it so you don’t have to be by an ocean in order to enjoy it.  Being into video games means enjoying playing the games THAT ARE HERE; if you don’t enjoy your time playing video games because you don’t like the other people playing, or you don’t like the games that are available, or you don’t like the things being done in the games, doesn’t that imply you don’t like gaming?  If you don’t like video games, why is it so important that you do?  Why do you WANT to like them?  I think it is this confusion, this beef with the premise of feminist critiques of gamer culture that keeps feminist analysis from going down smoothly with the online gaming community like they’ve come to expect.  Video games are not a political body with power; they are not a profession with a lot of money; that is to say, they are not something that a feminist could argue being deprived of disenfranchises a woman or denies her any power.  Video games are a consumer product and a way to spend your free time.  So even those people who would be nodding and agreeing with a portrayal of women as lacking agency in an area of society considered valuable or powerful, like politics or executive positions, sometimes can’t help but wonder why, if a woman wants to get into gaming, she doesn’t just start PLAYING VIDEO GAMES.  And if she is not interested in video games because of what they are, they have a hard time understanding why this is something that should cause them distress, or something that oppresses them.
Well, what about the industry then?  I mean, more female gamers means more money, more market share, right?  Why do the development studios insist on alienating women, why do they insist on making games that don’t actively entice them, or target men instead?  Why don’t they make games that target women?  Well, it’s important to realize that they DO.  The myth of the gender gap in gaming as a whole has been debunked.  Women make up nearly 50% of the video game playing populace now.  In fact, adult women make up a larger percentage of the gamer demographic than the stereotypical teenage boy does.  This is because companies HAVE found and developed games that interest women, and they are happily making money off of these games.  With the explosive growth of the industry, and explosive growth of the tech and available platforms, so has come the growth of new genres, new gameplay styles, new experiences, and some of these have struck big with women, like mobile and social gaming.  Just because they aren’t showcased at E3 does not mean they are not there, nor does it mean they are somehow less “important” or have less “focus.” I hardly think that EA finds The Sims, the best-selling PC game of all time, to be “less important” for the barrels of cash it brings in.  People in the industry don’t scoff at the idea of making the next great Facebook game to catch the obsession of millions.  The “core gamer” market is about the games that push the hardware, about gamers that enthusiastically follow the release dates of new games, keep tabs on their favorite studios, agonize over how to budget and get the most value out of their available money to be able to drink it all in.  Being like this is not necessary to be a gamer.  If the games being made and the atmosphere of the community doesn’t appeal to you, this is not oppression or discrimination, even if you are a girl.  Gaming is mainstream now, its offerings diverse, and to be a “gamer,” all you need do is find a game you like and play it.  I generally don’t enjoy RTS’s, but this does not make me less of a gamer, nor does it mean those that do enjoy them and make them should change to help me feel included.  Being a consumer industry, the video game industry does not owe you anything.  It does not owe you a protagonist this year that you will immediately identify with.  It does not owe you an implementation of that cool gameplay idea you’ve had rattling around in your head.  It does not owe you your new favorite game, your new obsession, your new hang-out with your friends.  And if your tastes are picky enough, or sensibilities delicate enough, it’s possible no one will decide it is worth the time and money to cater to them.  So find something you do enjoy doing; not “enjoy if this changed,” but truly enjoy.  And if that’s video games, here’s a friendly welcome from me.  Unless you think Halo sucks, then screw you :P.


  1. Absolutely excellent article. I've heard this talked about a lot, and you managed to break it down to its roots in a way I haven't seen before.

    "The perception of female hypoagency necessitates that a community looking to get more girls involved be “made safe” for those women. You can’t expect an inanimate object to stick around in one place if there is a force trying to push it away, after all."

    That part, right there, is dead on.

  2. This was a fantastic read. Your reaction reminded me of a lot of the reasons posited by people during the #1ReasonWhy campaign; while I don't want to say that there weren't any sensible reactions, a lot of them I saw were reasons for women to be more involved in the games industry rather than less.

    As for Anita's reaction over "male entitlement" and "male privilege", I found that bafflingly arrogant. The thing about the XBox One at E3 is that to claw back some respect from the gaming community, they had to do two things; focus on games and ignore the controversy. They did both of those things in the hope that they would appeal to the masses and most of the people watching the livestreams were interested in learning about the games, the price and whether Microsoft had changed or removed the DRM. These are the things people care about if they're planning on paying hundreds of dollars for a console in the near future.

    Anita was one of the few (only?) people who had any interest in seeing games starring female protagonists, so it's only natural that there was a backlash when she brought it up. Yet she had the gall to call fellow gamers entitled when she was the one saying, "how dare Microsoft cater to the masses and not to me!"? That's just as you said, with gaming not owing anything to female gamers (or anyone else). And I say that as someone who would also like to see more diverse protagonists but I'm also sensible enough to know that they'll come, in time.

    Anyway, as a fellow GirlWritesWhat fan, I enjoyed reading this and hope to see more from you. :)

  3. I like the phrase "female hypoagency". It explains so much about this mentality, and so neatly. I find it interesting that there are feminists who would assign the same lowered or even lacking agency to their own gender while decrying mens' assignment of lowered or lacking agency to women.

    I've never watched any of GirlWritesWhat's videos, but now you've got me interested.

    "Women being the inanimate objects they are considered to be, it is up to the gaming community to change their ways to become more female-friendly. And resistance to this change must mean an ulterior motive of wanting to keep the women away."

    You've hit it dead on. Of course, this entire entry does, but this part in particular struck me.

  4. Welcome to the madhouse that is 'not agreeing with everything a feminist says'! You can probably expect to be called a gender traitor and a brainwashed pawn of The Patriarchy soon (if you haven't already, I haven't read the newer posts yet).

    Great read, too. The cherry on top for me is recalling the times when being a gamer was something nerdy, and boys were expected to grow out of it. Perhaps that's why gaming culture is unrepentant - we weathered those shaming tactics back then, so we've developed a resistance.

  5. I'd like to point out that being verbally harassed and abused online isn't something that's limited to female gamers. I've been trash-talked and called a faggot, among other things, by some anonymous, dumbass teenagers on PS3 multiplayer before. I suspect these people are dicks to EVERYONE, regardless of which set of genitals you happen to own. :P