Gaming and gender

When I play online everyone assumes I’m male

Continuing on from my analysis of the gender norms inherent in the first person perspective. Like many I picked up Borderlands 2 recently. While it is a game that does have up to two playable female characters, I’m reminded of another reason with I’m disheartened with the gender norms in female character models.

When I’m playing or talking about games online, almost everyone assumes I’m male.

Interesting gender issues

I touched on the possible reasons for this in my Metroid Prime post:

Some male gamers play as female characters when given the opportunity to experience something outside of their normal experience of the world. Confusingly many women gamers like myself play for the opposite reason. To experience our games in an body more akin to our identity, as the “different experience” is often the norm.

So by playing in my preferred body, many gamers still expect me to be male. While this is a liberating choice for male gamers to be able to make, it does enable a certain amount of prejudice against women who genuinely identify as women.

Conversely, some male gamers do not believe me when I state that I am a woman. These moments sway uncomfortably into hints of prejudice.

Some gamers will urge me to shake such slights off. These are normally the same people who don’t have to concern themselves with reality of the wrong pronoun being used to describe them, or the wrong greeting, or even verbal abuse when playing a game. This is all because of me being a “she” instead of “he”. Unfortunately (and sadly so) my presence in games does still (even in this allegedly liberal decade) set a small minority of gamers off into a prepubescent rage*.
Tannis, (insane)ly smart."A view of my character, Maya, labelled as me.

Uncomfortable territory

This is despite the fact that online I do everything possible to flag up the fact that I am female. I use feminine sounding names for usernames, I always use female avatars on forums and other applications that require them. I mark myself as female on my profile. I’m certainly not ashamed of my gender, but I certainly know of many women (that because of the reasons above) use the lack of clarity surrounding their gender to decide when (or indeed if) to reveal that last detail of their identity online.

Such is the ultimate irony of this situation. Because many men play as female characters, and because their isn’t any real benefit to revealing your gender online in the context of online gaming, or gaming discussion. All of us – male or female – are damned either way, usually by the lack of character choice. Somehow we’re encouraging these sorts of assumptions about who chooses to play games.

I can certainly understand this. As choosing to speak up and correct someone on their assumption either leads to regret or discomfort for the person that has made the assumption, or a far worse reaction – an escalation into anger or violence.

I choose to speak out (and constantly correct people) because otherwise how else is this community going to know that a very real, and growing percentage of the people they play with or against are women. It should provoke nothing other than understanding and tolerance, not shock or rage.

Moxxi stands at her bar.Lilith stands on a balcony.

More issues with female character choice

I suspect some of the reasons for this, is the genuine for men to play using a female character – to tap into that different experience of play. I totally understand and respect their decision to do so, but I wonder if they realise how that decision (inadvertently) makes the playing field that much harder for women.

We need to take the root causes about why these odd assumptions about gender online still happen. Games should have more female characters – but crucially, I’d have to argue against the Borderlands method for separating classes by gender and ask instead that all classes have male and female options. It would make things much easier for everyone, and take a little pressure off women who identify as women, and men who want to play as classes like the siren.

I hope this post vocalises a constructive observation of what I (and many other women who play games) go through on a daily basis. I write only to inform and speak more openly on this topic. As promised in my recent post on prejudice in the gaming community.

* I note with interest, that I have being playing video games longer than the vast majority of people who consider my presence in “their game” to be a problem.

Gaming and gender

Metroid Prime and gender norms in the first person

I’ve spent some this month trying to get acquainted with a game that I should have played years ago. It’s been on my to play list for years. The idea that ultimately got me to the title screen was the idea of playing game that’s both combat driven with a strong narrative core, crucially it’s also a game that features a strong female character as its lead – and does so using the first person.

It’s extremely common for a game to feature the first point, it’s normal for a game to consider the second. A game that features both those as well as the third is still sadly rarer than I’d like.

The game of course is Metroid Prime.

A glorious experience

I’ve arrived extremely late to the Metroid series, but what is immediately apparent is Samus Aran such a compelling hero because she is associated with a quiet power, a resolve and tenacity to get a job done. Her brilliant portrayal in the Metroid series over the years (Other M excluded) remarks that her success and strength comes from her skill and experience rather than pre-defined expectations of her character or ability based on her gender.

Being able to play as a female character in any character driven game is always important to me. It aids the process of me getting into the mindset of the game in a way that being forced to play as a male character simply doesn’t enable.

Scanning a boss.A triumphant pose in a save area.

It’s rarer to get this level of comfort when starting a game, I am so used to a male character model being the default in an adventure or FPS game such as this that when the opportunity presents itself, I find myself playing with a sense of elation that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

This may seem particularly strange, especially given the fact that the game is in a first person view. I am spending most of the game looking and experiencing the world through Samus’ visor, seeing the world as she would, with only fleeting glances of her suit and face.

But the idea of being playing a great game, especially one where I am able to play in the “right body” is sublime and is important to me.

Some male gamers play as female characters when given the opportunity to experience something outside of their normal experience of the world. Confusingly many women gamers like myself play for the opposite reason. To experience our games in an body more akin to our identity, as the “different experience” is often the norm.

The problem with the first person view

I suspect that such is the power of Samus’ persona that few would feel uncomfortable playing as her. That said how many first person based games are there where you can play as a woman? Despite the rising popularity of the first person view, a female character model (especially for single player mode) is still not particularly common.

It’s just as well that I have Samus as a guide through Metroid Prime. The game is uncompromisingly difficult at times. I often find myself playing at a level far beyond my comfort zone, as the game stretches and challenges me to be worthy of Samus’ equally uncompromising skill.

I simply wouldn’t have persevered for a character I related to and admired half as much. If I ever need a reminder that I’m playing a game that challenges the norm of this genre I see a flash of Samus’s face every time a missile explodes too close to her, daring me to continue.

A closeup of a map screen.Spotting a space pirate using the thermal visor.

After long thought, the only other recent examples of story driven games in the first person perspective I can think of (with female protagonists) are Portal and Mirror’s Edge. Both of these games (along with Metroid Prime actually) are not first person shooter games. Two of them are first person adventures, with the third being a first person puzzle game. While I find it impressive that I can think of three games that circumvent the gender and gameplay norms of the first person view in such a way, I am still saddened that very few true FPS games continue to ignore their female player base, providing male character models exclusively.

Epic games didn’t include the option of female characters in multiplayer until its third iteration of the Gears of War series. Bungie finally provided the option in Halo Reach (but only after making elites playable first in Halo 2). The ability to play as a woman is still missing from the genres two most popular series – Call of Duty and Battlefield.

The only series I can take any long-term pride in is Rainbow Six: Vegas, which has always given me ultimate level of character creation (in its multiplayer) and has done so from the very beginning. Regardless of genre, women have the undeniable need to be able to experience a game in a model matching their gender, particularly if the game is about customisation and bespoke player rewards based on skill.

Metroid Prime has helped to remind me of this fact, and not only that, it’s made me want this option in even more games.

Gaming and gender

Prejudice and its place in the gaming community

After my last post about how games continue to motivate me, I feel a little ashamed for my absence. Greater still is my shame for our community this month, falling rather short of where I expected it to be in regards to tolerance.

Naively perhaps, I had regarded gaming (to a certain extent at least) to be a hot bed of diversity, more open-minded and liberal than our peers in the normal media would have the rest of the world believe.

Why I’m disappointed

I thought this because of the way that gaming has been treated historically. We have been (and are still frequently) demeaned as being part of a hobby of eccentrics and the socially inept. This is often stated to us as such without a hint of shame, if it isn’t openly implied in conversation.

In truth, I thought we, with our collective appreciation in a hobby that other people look down upon, would be more open-minded when it came to individuals in our community being treated without the respect and tolerance they deserve.

I’ve experienced intolerance for my interests, gender, race and age numerous times outside of gaming. The intolerance I have personally experienced inside the gaming community has diminished to almost nothing. I feel comfortable here. I am however ashamed that I do not speak out more openly about the occasions that I am not so happy of.

The moments when I have been verbally abused online simply for playing a game as a woman. The assumptions made about my inability to play games because of my gender. The telling assumption that because I talk about games online that I must be male (in situations where my real name is not used). While these things may not sound huge to those who have not experienced them, they chip away at your resolve slowly.

Moments where gamers feel uncomfortable playing games in public pale in comparison to the very real and threatening behaviour that happens inside our own walls – on our own turf – where we as gamers should feel safest. If public disdain of your love of gaming is the sole disadvantage you experience when playing games then I consider you extremely lucky.

Even those of us that are not guilty of intolerance in our community, are we helping to tarnish the experience of being here by tolerating such prejudice in gaming? It’s not true to say that there’s nothing that we, the silent majority can do in defence of others. If the perception of gaming in popular culture is every going to change all of us have to the very example of what is great and good in this community and we shouldn’t stand for anything less.

A word on gender imbalance

I’ve been a gamer for a long time. When I started to play games it was with the innocence of a child. As a grew older I became more aware of issues within gaming that was at odds with the other big part of my identity (such as the poor treatment of female characters, the portrayal of female gamers, and the lack of representation of women in gaming). When I started to identify myself as a gamer, it’s almost as if I had to switch off my mind to everything that bothered me. I almost had to focus on the part of our community that left me excited and proud rather than disgusted and ashamed.

I can empathise hugely with anyone (male or female) that’s experienced any sort of negative treatment while playing games, particularly given the nature of our hobby. Gaming it’s meant to be entertainment , it’s meant to be inclusive and rewarding. Instead we’re denying this pleasure to a wider spectrum of people by intimidating diversity away from something that fundamentally belongs to everyone. We’re letting a small minority of gamers perpetuate the very behaviour that we’re accused of in moral panic ridden headlines. Worse still we are all encouraging this behaviour by keeping silent.

Maybe we haven’t progressed as much as I hoped we have. However I adore gaming, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m a living, breathing reminder that many of us want bigger and better things for our community. Gaming is and should be for everyone and there’s simply no reason to perpetuate an agenda of prejudice.

Gaming and gender

Girl gamers should aim higher

As I get older I’m finding the “girl gamer” moniker harder to live with. It’s so at odds with how I see myself. There are many playing fields where women are still (sadly) not equal, gaming is young enough for women to not have to make a distinction.

Gaming can be a fractured community as it is without putting gamers of a specific gender above or below anyone else, but that said girl gamers should be demanding more from the game development community.

Girl gamers

My primary problem with the term “girl gamer” is that it sells an entire genders aspirations for our community very short. It’s a well-documented fact that women play games, I think that’s a total given. Girl gamers should be aiming higher. Women who deem themselves as girl gamers shouldn’t just be trying to raise awareness of the fact that they’re playing games, but raising awareness of the fact that women are not adequately reflected at every point of game development. I want more than a mere acknowledgement than I am here, I want more gaming experiences that speak to me, made by like-minded people rather than a team that doesn’t adequately reflect the gaming population guessing at how to accomplish that.

I’m less bothered about proving women play games, I’m more concerned about the near-complete gender bias when it comes to how games are made. More women should be programmers, animators, and developers, if more women are playing games than ever, why are women in game development still mere punctuation in a largely male landscape? The ladies that are there are incredible and making their mark (as a female web developer I know the difficulties well, the two career paths are definitely comparable) but I cannot help but feel the lessened number of female faces means a shortfall in gamings overall output.

For example, it must have a direct effect on how female characters are portrayed in games (there are some great female characters out there, but some consistency would be an ideal starting point). For every empowered female character there are ten or more patronising or insulting ones.

There is a consistent a lack of features that women might desire in a game (basic things, like being able to choose a female avatar), and then the wider consequences of female absenteeism, namely how we as women gamers are treated and perceived in the occasionally brash gaming community (if you think it can be soul-destroying playing a multiplayer FPS online, you can and do often generate more antagonism with a female voice).

A severe lack of female faces

It’s certainly not always easy for a girl to play games, I will acknowledge that. I’ve occasionally been accused of being able to vocalise my love of gaming more because I am a girl, as if somehow the very fact that I am female automatically nulls the stigma associated with playing games. This is a misconception, and is perhaps why the girl gamer movement is so tempting. Gaming is still a very masculine pastime, and I am looked down upon outside of the gaming community as equally as men are – just for slightly different reasons. Namely the fact that I am interested in things that depart from most people’s understanding of the normal feminine persona (if such a thing exists).

I think the games community as a whole (and that means both men and women) should be championing the women who develop and design our games more, so that overall perception of women in games are improved. Girl gamers should refocus their efforts, rather than the championing the role of women who simply play, let’s champion the women who play and create. It’s not my intention to belittle the girl gamer movement any, but we can’t demand better from the game development community if there aren’t enough people (from a mixed background) working hard to learn how to make games and understand the concepts involved.

There are some great women in gaming out there (this may be a subject I have to return to), but I think a good litmus test is how much visibility people outside of a particular industry have. I’ve no doubt that someone outside of the gaming community could mention a couple of key male figures in the game development industry – but how many women could they name? Not many, if any. It’s a sobering thought.