This post was written by Akhila Varghese, a Bachelor of Social Work student at X University who is currently taking Whose Lives Matter (DST 300) at the School of Disability Studies.
Even though women helped develop technology, and the gaming population consists of 74% women, gaming culture is dangerous and toxic to women (Crooks & Magnet, 2018). The harassment of women perpetuated in gaming culture is a feminist issue as seen through the over-sexualization of women, heteropatriarchy practices, and lack of intersectional lens.
The gaming industry was not always this way; in the past, video games were advertised for the entire family, appropriate for all genders (Murtaugh, 2015). Sexist advertising in the 90s began to exclude women from gaming (Campbell, 2018). It promoted gaming as a “boys’ activity” to reflect traditional concepts of leisure, play, and relaxation for boys while confining girls to domestic spaces (Campbell, 2018). Today, sexist video game marketing and gamer culture perpetuate this exclusion and capitalize off bigotry. For example, in marketing a special edition of the game Dead Island: Riptide, a decapitated bikini corpse with blood all over her breasts is depicted (Crecente, 2013). A sexualized corpse serves to remind how female characters are routinely portrayed as sexual objects (Crecente, 2013).
The hypersexualization of female characters in games affects female interactions with male players, who are more likely to harass female players if the games they play objectify women (Cote, 2020). A survey states that 77% of female gamers experienced gendered discrimination involving condescending remarks and sexual advances (Sinclair, 2021). As a result, 59% of women hide their gender while playing games to avoid such harassment (Sinclair, 2021). The objectification of women is portrayed in the representation of unrealistic body types, inappropriate clothing for the storyline, damsel in distress characters, and pornographic character tropes (Cote, 2020).
In gaming spaces, players are increasingly aggressive and hostile towards others, especially if the person does not seem to fit the masculine rhetoric (Cote, 2020). For example, trash-talking in multi-player gaming is seen as an aspect of competition, but what does it encompass (Cote, 2020)? Racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes and remarks. It is manifested through jokes about rape, assault-based threats, and sexualized insults that are evidence of a harassment culture motivated by misogyny (Cote, 2020). Gaming culture is sexist because of the hypersexualization of female characters and harassment of female video game consumers (Cote, 2020).
Colonizers first established hierarchy through patriarchy, which rests on the gender binary system in which only male and female exist, men dominating women (Smith, 2016). The prevalence of sexualized female characters assumes that the only audience the industry cares about is heterosexual males who enjoy sexually appealing female characters (Cote, 2020). This assumption is based on heteropatriarchal gender roles of men and boys as logical and rational (Cote, 2020). By doing so, they assert spaces like technology as intended for men, and unfit for girls and women who possess “softer” characteristics which associated them with a lack of competence (Murtaugh, 2015). In spaces like gaming dominated by men, women’s presence is perceived as a threat to the heteropatriarchy by interfering with male bonding or softening the field with stereotypical female characteristics (Cote, 2020). Just as how the colonial world order depends on and is built on heteropatriarchy, the hypersexualization of female characters and gender-based assaults are indicators of gaming as founded on heteropatriarchal structures (Smith, 2016).
The discussion over the inclusivity of women in mainstream gaming culture proposes a cyberfeminism framework (Murtaugh, 2015). Cyberfeminism is feminism interested in critiquing cyberspaces and confronting toxic digital environments (Murtaugh, 2015). Cyberfeminism also brings to digital spaces an intersectional lens. Harassment is more profound for those with intersecting identities (Cote, 2020). Latina women within gaming experience racism, sexism, and heterosexism, as many identify as sexual minorities (Cote, 2020). Black women experience a form of gendered racism that stems from their unique experiences (Cote, 2020). Intersectionality in gaming culture recognizes that racialized, sexual minorities and women are disproportionately harassed (E. Cagulada, personal communication, week 2).
Ironically, feminist presence in technology has been labeled toxic and unnecessary by predominantly white male gamers, those who dominate the heteropatriarchy, who wish to maintain the oppressive structure of gaming (Murtaugh, 2015). There is a particular belief in virtual spaces and any male-dominated space that depicts women as sabotaging male activities and attacking masculinity (Murtaugh, 2015). For example, the GamerGate controversy in 2014 stemmed from accusations that game developer Zoe Quinn had sexual relationships with male game journalists to give her newly released game positive reviews, despite this allegation being proven false (Murtaugh, 2015).
The GamerGate movement posed itself as a journalism ethics movement, but it had underlying misogynistic rhetoric (Murtaugh, 2015). As a result of GamerGate, women began to speak out against sexism in the movement and gaming as a whole (Murtaugh, 2015). However, proponents of GamerGate harassed and bullied them, arguing that gaming is solely an entertainment space that should not be politicized (Murtaugh, 2015). The plights of GamerGate’s supporters to depoliticize gaming remind me of the invalidation of the political/relational model of disability by literary critic Dennis Dutton and others. Dutton believed disability should not be softened and spoken about in social terms, and instead, he described disability as solely the “medical condition” associated with it (Kafer, 2013, p. 5). Viewing disability as objective is to depoliticize disability (Kafer, 2013). A political issue is an issue that has to do with a distribution of power; it challenges naturalness that underlies many social problems today (Kafer, 2013). Disability, like gaming spaces, is assumed to be obvious; disability is a medical condition, and gaming is an entertainment medium. Evidence that racialized women and sexual minorities are disproportionately harassed, and the GamerGate controversy suggests differently. Gaming is embedded in a society where sexist and racist assumptions are rampant; it does not occur in isolation (Kafer, 2013). Politicizing disability understands the experiences of harassment and hypersexualization experienced by minorities as a loss of power due to heteropatriarchal structures.
Forms of resistance to a toxic gaming culture include the efforts of feminist advocates to help gaming companies take responsibility for how their harmful practices can impact audiences consuming their content (Cote, 2020). Anita Sarkeeisan began a Kickstarter campaign to create web videos that address and examine sexism in video games (Campbell, 2018). It started fundamental shifts in the industry as more developers realized how they enable oppression (Campbell, 2018). Andreas Zecher, of the independent studio Spaces of Play, sent out an open letter to the gaming community, recognizing that everyone has a right to play games without fear of harassment (Dewey, 2014).
Even though I am not personally a gamer, unless playing Mario Cart on my phone in the Go Train counts, gaming culture impacts me, and it impacts everyone. It is part of a more extensive debate over who is included in the mainstream culture (Dewey, 2014). It stems from discomfort about women’s growing representation and voice in culture and professionalism, and it is this very logic that motivates gender-based violence in the workplace (Dewey, 2014). I fear this backlash and assault as I prepare for entering the workforce, and I fear for my younger sister, who wants to join the male-dominated medicine career. Challenging gaming culture is an opportunity to challenge heteropatriarchal structures that have long dominated who is accepted and targets of violence due to markers of difference.
Knowing Canada’s history of colonization and patriarchy, toxic gaming culture is no surprise; technology is merely being used as an instrument to exercise misogynistic and racist fundamentals that have founded our society. But what can be done? We must participate in feminist activism that raises awareness of the blatant and more subtle ways oppression is perpetuated (Campbell, 2018). Feminism is a complicated movement that challenges existing biases and stereotypes because it is always easier to conform to the status quo. We need to examine how we enable oppression, and we must hold male gamers and gaming companies accountable for the oppression they perpetuate (Campbell, 2018).
Campbell, C. (2018, July 25). Gaming’s toxic men, explained. Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/2018/7/25/17593516/video-game-culture-toxic-men-explained
Cote, A. C. (2020). Gaming sexism: Gender and identity in the era of casual video games. New York University Press.
Crecente, B. (2013, January 15). Dead Island Riptide’s bloody torso statue sparks anger, confusion. Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/2013/1/15/3878810/dead-island-riptides-bloody-torso-statue-sparks-anger-shock
Dewey, C. (2014, October 14). The only guide to Gamergate you will ever need to read. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/10/14/the-only-guide-to-gamergate-you-will-ever-need-to-read/
Kafer, A. (2013). Introduction: Imagined futures. In Feminist, queer, crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 1-19. (19 pages).
Murtaugh, M. C. (2015). Gaming feminism: An analysis of feminist discourses in the video game blogosphere
Sinclair, B. (2021, May 19). Surveys says 59% of women hide gender to avoid harassment while gaming online. Games Industry Biz. https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2021-05-19-survey-says-59-percent-of-women-hide-gender-to-avoid-harassment-while-gaming-online
Smith, A (2016). Heteropatriarchy and the three pillars of white supremacy: Rethinking women of color organizing. Women in culture: An intersectional anthology for gender and women’s studies, 66-73. (7 pages).