The Sexist Problem Female Gamers Are Facing Right Now

Last month, a popular feminist video game commentator was driven from her home after receiving a number of credible death threats. On August 25th, Anita Sarkeesian released the latest in her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series of videos. The series, which critiques how women are portrayed in video games–most often as eye candy, victims, ‘damsels in distress,’ or other cliches—has not been well received by a number of male gamers, who have harassed her since the project’s inception in 2012. On August 27th, reports surfaced that she had been receiving credible threats that made her feel unsafe in her own home, and that she had temporarily moved out.

Zoe Quinn, creator of the game Depression Quest, recently became the target of a campaign aimed at discrediting her accomplishments after an ex-boyfriend spread rumors that Quinn had affairs with various men in exchange for favorable reviews and coverage. On August 19th, Quinn claimed to have had personal information—like her home address and phone number—online so that others could more easily harass her.

Quinn and Sarkeesian are prime examples of what women in the gaming industry—whether players, commentators, or developers—face on an all-too-regular basis.

According to a 2013 report by the Entertainment Software Association, 58 percent of Americans play video games. Of those, 55 percent are male, and 45 percent are female. Though video games are commonly associated with teenage boys, women 18 and older actually make up 31 percent of all game-playing individuals, while boys 17 and younger make up only 19 percent of the game-playing population. Women spend more than six billion dollars in the gaming industry annually, yet the industry—as Sarkeesian and others have pointed out—is predominantly run by men, and female representation in games is less than respectful.

Upwards of 85 percent of playable characters in are male, and as is the case with various forms of art and entertainment—books, music, movies, TV shows—consumers have a tendency to seek out characters they can identify with. By producing male-centric games—which tend to be marketed to men, produced by men, and just generally geared to men—it sometimes appears that women aren’t wanted, as though their dollars are not worth pursuing. On top of this, when female characters are included in games, they’re frequently portrayed as overly-sexualized people (see: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider). One 2009 study suggested that inserting a sexualized heroine into a game actually has a negative influence on how women are viewed in the world.

To get to the bottom of this, we spoke with Kat Haché, a female gamer and freelance journalist, to discuss what has come to be known as #GamerGate.

For those who haven’t been following, can you give us a bit of background on #GamerGate?

Sure. From what I can tell, a bunch of gamers claim to have concerns about corruption and a lack of integrity in video games journalism. There are claims of nepotism and journalists improperly supporting video game developers. Those would be totally legit concerns in my opinion if they didn’t come to a head concurrently with a harassment/slut-shaming campaign against a woman, Zoe Quinn, for allegedly sleeping with “5 guys” to get favorable reviews because a spurned ex wrote a screed about her infidelity on his blog. One of the men she allegedly slept with, never wrote a review of Depression Quest, so to me, it seems like an excuse to go after a woman who was already harassed extensively when she tried to release the game on steam, as well as other women and so-called “social justice warriors” in the industry that they don’t like. There have been a lot of good articles written about it that dispel the notion that this is about some vague notion of “integrity.”

In your opinion, do you believe there’s a sexism problem in gaming? 

I think there definitely is. My gaming journalist friends like Samantha Allen (who has written excellent stuff on this subject) have gotten pretty awful abuse. A lot of others that I interact with on Twitter have, as well. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist gaming critic, was recently driven out of her home by violent, misogynist threats. Even talking about this subject, I’ve been harassed and was sent violent images. I wouldn’t be surprised to receive retaliation for this interview, either. It doesn’t bother me as much when I get it because this industry is not my livelihood, but I’m personally really of tired of seeing my friends and people who I admire being harassed and driven out of the industry that they love for daring to claim that they have a right to be there.

What steps do you think can be taken to make gaming a safer, more welcoming place for women?

I think that both people in that community and outside of the community have to stand with these women. These problems are certainly not limited to video game culture—women are harassed en masse online whether they’re in a community where they’re underrepresented (like video games or tech) or not. Zoe Quinn wants to start an organization with resources and outreach for other victims of mass harassment. That’s a great start, but we need to be proactive as well. We need to make it a priority to fight the harassment and stalking that women and other marginalized people experience online. Social media platforms like Twitter need to respond more swiftly to harassment and facilitate reporting of these incidents. Law enforcement needs to start taking it seriously and holding people responsible for it.

Who are some awesome women in gaming people should know about (journalists, fans, designers)?

Well, off the top of my head, apart from my good friend Samantha and Anita Sarkeesian, my friend Katherine Cross is a super intelligent, remarkable woman who does games-related writing (as well as a lot of feminist writing in general). Merritt Kopas is a really cool indie developer who has written essays talking about the issues faced by women and queer/trans people in gaming. Mattie Brice has done some great writing as well, although after this mess she’s said that she’s getting out of anything professionally related to the industry, which is a shame. Leigh Alexander is brilliant and has written excellent stuff on this nightmare as well. Holly Green has experienced harassment and talked about it as well.

On a more positive note, I might as well plug my childhood friend Jennifer Culp’s website Gamervescent, which I used to write for and which celebrates the love of gaming in general—happy memories of video games, personal essays, even delicious recipes for video game-inspired cocktails and sweets made by my friend Hannah.

It seems that a lot of the push back on people like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn comes from sites like reddit and 4chan. Those two sites were heavily involved in disseminating nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and a number of other celebrities. Additionally, you’ve personally been targeted and harassed on those sites. Are there any redeeming qualities to those sites, or are they simply dark corners of the Internet that are best avoided?

Yeah, in general I tend to avoid those places after a few threads about me were made on one of their subforums. Another “chan” website that I don’t think is affiliated with 4chan also harassed me for a while, and they still have a thread about me. For peace of mind, I would recommend avoiding them, with the caveat that what they do shouldn’t be ignored. I think a lot of these people operate on the same principle as bullies do—asserting control over others to compensate for a lack of control over their own lives in whatever capacity they can as long as they don’t think they’ll be held accountable for it. When we as a society act like this stuff isn’t a big deal, it enables them and ensures that it will continue. I’m not sure how exactly to keep anonymous gangs of bullies from wreaking havoc, and I don’t think we can eliminate that sort of thing completely, but at some point we seriously need to look at what kind of community we want and start working toward that goal rather than throwing our hands up in the air and acting like their harassment is an inevitable result of women using their voice. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Is there anything else you’d like to add on the topic?

I often feel underqualified to talk about these issues, but a lot of these people who are dehumanized and harassed by these trolls are people who I personally know or have interacted with extensively. They are not just talking heads; they are real people with real feelings and lives and they are my friends. When they are harassed, I see how it affects them.

What I’m asking for to anyone who reads this, is to please stop harassing my friends. It’s not good for your community. I seriously don’t think you get anything but a fleeting rush of adrenaline out of it. It’s really not worth it in the long run. Women offer a perspective on games that has long been excluded and they are only recently having more of a mainstream voice in the industry. Their criticism will improve the media that you love so much and help it to mature. It will bring more people into gaming that felt excluded and bring you more potential friends to share in your passions. I know this sounds simplistic, but I don’t know how else to address this anymore other than appealing to their humanity. I think in the long run, this sort of thing will become less commonplace and accepted, but we have a lot of work to do to get to that point.

Follow Kat Haché on Twitter at @papierhache.

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