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“I love video games. I love going back to them because they’re a good escape from normal life,” said Alice Quiros, president of Stony Brook University’s Gamers Guild club.

Quiros is not alone in her passion for gaming. According to the 2014 Essential Facts report by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), an industry trade group of the video game industry, over half of all Americans play video games. However, U.S. computer and video game unit sales growth has continued to fall over the last five years and is nearly half of what it was in 2008.

With growth steadily decreasing, computer and video games are now falling behind casual/social games that are being played on mobile devices and are now the most popular genre in gaming, according to the ESA report.

“People are moving away from consoles, and we’re seeing a movement towards tablets and touchscreens,” said Anne Deger, 33, a teaching assistant of video and computer game history at Stony Brook University.

In order to combat this shift, the computer and video game industries have looked for new ways to expand, and women might be the answer. However, the Gamergate controversy that took hold last summer and continues on Twitter with the hashtag #gamergate brings some concerns about the persistence of sexism and the lack of women in video game culture. “Tech, overall, is very male dominated since its inception as it is in the STEM field. The video game industry strayed even more because of the perception of it as a male pastime,” said Belinda Van Sickle, CEO of both Women in Gaming International, an organization that helps women build a career in the gaming industry, and GameDocs, a game industry service provider that specializes in strategy and marketing.

Although the participants of Gamergate have been accused of being misogynistic, they claim that all they are fighting for is ethics in video game journalism, as several tweets suggest that the news media got the facts wrong in several cases and that they  are conspiring against gamers.

“There is no ‘News Media’,” said Paul Schreiber, the Undergraduate Director of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism who teaches a course on journalistic judgement and ethics. “Journalists just have to try to present the truth as best they can no matter the fall out.”

Even though they consider the argument of a media conspiracy unrealistic, advocates for women in gaming like Van Sickle are afraid that the controversy could have scared women away from the gaming industry.

A 2014 summer survey by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), a professional association for computer and video game developers, revealed that 76 percent of game developers are men, and that a large number of these men admitted that being straight, white males “put them in a position of privilege.” The survey also indicated that many women complained about a frat-boy culture, which included inappropriate sexual or discriminatory jokes.

The number of female game developers is about 22 percent, according to the IGDA survey, and is actually more than double the amount of primary female characters in video games, which was estimated at about 10 percent in a census of the video game world by New Media & Society, a peer-review academic journal that publishes papers in the field of communications.

“My favorite female character? There’s not a lot,” said Wendy Gil, a Studio Assistant at the New York Institute of Technology who works with the university’s animation studio for film and game development.

The characters she decided on were Samus Aran from the Metroid series and Sheik from the Legend of Zelda series, both of whom were believed to be male when initially introduced in their respective games until the story eventually revealed that they were female.

 

A figure of Samus Aran, protagonist of the Metroid Series.

But the underrepresentation of women in gaming may be at a crossroads as the IGDA’s survey also indicated that of those who said they were students, 30 percent of them identified as females. Although the number is low, it is nearly three times as much as the amount documented in 2005.

The IGDA does not know whether this number demonstrates either a bias against women or a continual rise of women in the gaming industry that may increase the number of gamers by appealing to a broader audience.

“The typical gamer was this guy in his mom’s basement with a face full of acne, who was nerd-looking [with] poor social skills. Now it’s a regular person,” said Gil.

Gil has experienced several stereotypes about being a female gamer and game developer. She says that video games reflect what consumers want because the priority for the industry is to sell and make as much money as possible, which has also led to the notorious oversexualization of women as a means for the industry to profit.

“Oversexualization is everywhere and video games happen to be one more medium,” she said. “Demand leads to content.”

Despite the “sex sells” mantra of American business, Deger argued that the content in video games are not necessarily geared towards a key demographic, but are instead influenced by the developers themselves.

If games are greatly influenced by the developers, who are predominantly male, then the industry does not reflect the rising number of female gamers, who now represent nearly half of all gamers, according to the ESA report.

“The market is expanding, yet [the industry] has not changed to meet the market,” says Van Sickle.

According to her, the gaming industry cannot serve the market on hardcore consoles anymore, and the video and computer game industries have to stay competitive or risk losing to new forms of gaming that appeal to a wider market.

“I believe in morals and right and wrong, but this is a business issue. If you don’t grow, you lose,” said Van Sickle.

But others like Quiros warned that if the industry pushed too much, they might receive blowback from the gaming community and participants of Gamergate. The latter had been credited for harassing Intel into removing its ad campaign from Gamasutra, a game-developer magazine that posted an article advising the gaming industry to appeal to a broader audience in the wake of the Gamergate controversy.

Intel released a statement in the fall on its newsroom page that despite the advertisement pull, the company does not support movements that discriminate against women and that it values diversity as a part of their corporate strategy.

When it came to diversity in the workplace, the IDGA survey found that less than half of the respondents reported that their company had an equal opportunity hiring policy, and about 40 percent said their companies did not consider diversity when hiring.

Intel has since made a huge turnaround, as it announced earlier this year that it would invest $300 million to encourage more diversity in technology fields, which included funding programs to support a positive representation within the gaming industry, according to a statement on its newsroom page.

Despite the negativity that has engulfed gaming over the last eight months, gamers like Quiros and Gil do not believe that it is fair to label gaming as sexist, and gender should not matter in gaming.

But change may be necessary if video and computer games want to regain their growth in sales and compete against mobile gaming.

“More people are playing games now,” said Deger. “Gaming isn’t sitting in the basement or in your room anymore. It’s everywhere now.”