The game industry is still predominantly male and game genres and themes tend to emphasize stereotypically male interests, Dr. Carrie Heeter, professor and director of Michigan State University’s graduate certificate program in serious games, remains concerned but hopeful. In her newest chapter, “Femininity and Video Games,” appearing this December in The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies, Heeter discusses the current state of femininity in video games including a trend towards more awareness of and desire to address gender-related challenges females face as players and game industry professionals.
We all remember Anita Sarkeesian, and her videos on gaming tropes Kickstarter. For the most part, we remember all the hateful comments she received, and even an abusive game where players could punch her face. But we shouldn’t forget that what began as a $6,968 Kickstarter campaign eventually raised $158,922 as males and females expressed their outrage and support through financial contributions. Many women and men spoke out against the harassment. Heeter points out that Sarkeesian’s project “exemplifies the mix of sexual harassment, turmoil, and signs of social progress that characterize femininity and video games today.” While in the end it can be viewed as positive, the Sarkeesian saga also reveals how “females engaging with video games in other ways—simply playing them, or even designing them, may risk similar harassment.”
This is undeniable, with sites like Fat, Ugly, or Slutty documenting some of the extreme, explicit harassment women face while playing video games. A natural response from a typical male player or industry professional is to quite rightly deny that he himself would ever do that, and furthermore to feel that he is “just a person,” and doesn’t look or treat fellow industry professionals any differently based on their gender.
The problem is members of the majority group such as males in the game industry, which is nearly 90% male, have the luxury of feeling like “just a person” (Game industry professionals currently include only 3% of female programmers and 11% of female game designers). Members of the extreme minority group encounter frequent reminders that they are not just a person, but rather, they are a female person. According to Heeter, female players in male dominated genres and females in the game industry experience something known as “stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995; Osborne, 2006)— heightened awareness of their minority, outsider status and concern about confirming or being judged in relation to negative gender stereotypes.” Note that stereotype threat is based on majority and minority status and whether the minority group is a stigmatized, socially devalued group. If the game industry was 90% female, women comprised most positions of power in society, and men were viewed as sex objects, males would experience stereotype threat.
Part of why it is hard for game industry professionals to address stereotype threat goes back to the experience members of the majority have of being just a person. It is natural that males don’t understand what it feels like to be a female in the industry. Heeter believes that women in the game industry need to balance speaking up with doing great work. In 2012, Luke Crane, Kickstarter employee, tweeted “Why are there [sic] so few lady game creators?” This sparked the #1Reasonwhy hashtag Twitterstorm, where female game designers tweeted LOTS of reasons why. The results were discouraging and depressing, but probably also eye-opening for the many “just a person” male co-workers. This ultimately led to the rise of #1Reasonmentors “to recruit mentors to begin to address the problems.
The men and women in the game industry need to continue to speak up and help to improve awareness of the issues. We also need to recruit more women to enter the field. Carrie Heeter believes 2012 may have been the catalyst for launching a more collaborative, multi-gendered future of games.
Steele, C. & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology , 69, 797–811.
Osborne, J. W. (2006). Gender, stereotype threat and anxiety: Psychophysiological and cognitive evidence. Journal of Research in Educational Psychology , 8, 109–138.