If you pay attention to news in the video game industry, you are probably already familiar with the current situation surrounding Riot Games. If you don’t, there are many articles already explaining the situation. For those who don’t want to read through any of those articles, the very brief recap is this: Riot games is currently facing a lawsuit for gender-based discrimination from some of their female employees, both current and former. This lawsuit alleges that not only did Riot violate the California Equal Pay act, but it also created a sexually hostile environment for its female employees.
This case is still relatively fresh, and no legal verdicts have been decided yet, but if these allegations prove true they would not be an isolated occurrence. Instead, this lawsuit would only be the latest in a long line to come out of the culture of discrimination that has surrounded gaming for decades.
The bias against women in gaming is something that I have seen in my own life – my wife has experienced harassment not only for being a gamer, but for working at a game store and being interested in game design. She has been dismissed by male gamers who treat her like she doesn’t know what she’s talking about just because she is a woman, and has certainly endured more than her fair share of awkward looks and comments due to her interest in gaming.
But this problem is not isolated to one person, or even one company. It is something that can be found in all areas of the industry, from playing games to designing games to even the characters within the games themselves. We are not that far removed from the days of Anita Sarkeesian or the Gamergate controversy, two situations where female journalists and designers were doxxed and ended up receiving rape and death threats for simply trying to discuss the problems in the industry or try something new within the field.
I know that I am only one small voice in this field, but after seeing all of the issues in this industry I knew that the least I could do was try to help in whatever small way that I can. Please know that I am not trying to accuse anybody or try to tell anybody that “you are part of the problem”. All I want to do is spread some awareness and information around this issue, and why it is such a problem.
While I do believe that the industry in some ways has been improving, there is clearly still a long way to go. I think that one of the things that is holding the gaming industry back from having more equality among the sexes is that there are still a number of myths and misconceptions around women in gaming.
Myth #1: Women don’t actually play video games
This idea, that video games are something that guys do and girls aren’t interested in, is something that I have been hearing for pretty much my whole life. However, while it may have been true at one point, it certainly isn’t true now, and hasn’t been for a while.
While the exact numbers vary, numerous studies have shown that women make up around half of the population of video game players. While it may not be a perfect 50/50 split, these polls have shown time and time again that women make up a significant (and growing) proportion of those who play video games.
And yet, even though this information has been publicly available for over a decade there are still those who choose to deny or ignore it. When presented with this information, there are some people who try to rationalize away these results. I have heard a number of excuses for why these numbers may not actually mean what they seem to say – everything from “women are lying on the polls to impress guys” to “women play games, but not REAL games”.
While the first point can’t really be disproven (because it is impossible to know somebody’s motivations while answering an anonymous survey), there isn’t really anything to support it either. The second point, however, can be addressed.
When people say that women don’t play “real” games, this is really just a very rude way of saying “women don’t play the same types of games that I like to play”. And this seems to be mostly true – according to this article from Quantic Foundry, female players do tend to gravitate towards different genres than male players.
On it’s own this is not a problem, but it becomes a problem when women are belittled for these preferences, or treated like their choices are inferior. Just because you like a certain type of game does not mean that people who don’t like that type of game are “wrong” or “not true gamers”. This field is big enough for all types of people who enjoy playing all types of games.
What is true, however, is that the game industry early on was very targeted towards male players, with macho male protagonists who are often forced to rescue the helpless female through liberal application of violence. This idea was so engrained in the industry that that Nintendo’s earliest handheld system was actually called the “Game Boy”! While many developers have now realized how limiting it is to only market to half the population, I think that the idea that video games are just for boys has been more difficult to get rid of.
Myth #2: Women aren’t interested in developing games because they don’t like tech
Moving away from ideas around female gamers, lets look at some of the misconceptions around female game developers. As shown above, nearly half of all gamers are female, and yet only around a quarter of developers are female. When you look at the statistics surrounding specific fields in the industry, the numbers get even worse – only around 5% of video game programmers are female. What accounts for this disparity? If women enjoy playing games just as much as men, why don’t they represent more of the workforce making them?
One of the common explanations for this phenomenon is that game development is a very technical field, and these types of jobs simply don’t appeal as much to women. It is easy to see where these ideas come from – as a computer science student, the gap between the number of male and female developers is very obvious. Every class I take in the computer science department has male students as the majority, and I have even taken classes where there was not a single female student.
Based on the disparity in the number of women in computer science classes, it might seem obvious that women simply don’t like to code as much as men. But is this actually the case?
I believe that the reason for this disparity between the number of female video game programmers cannot be entirely attributed to differences in preference. Instead, I believe that a culture of marginalization and discrimination in the tech industry has led to fewer and fewer women being interested in these types of fields.
These days, only around 20% of computer science degrees received are awarded to female developers. However, this hasn’t always been the case. Up until 1984, the number of women receiving computer science degrees was rising year after year, peaking at around 37%. However, after this point the numbers began to actually decrease each year.
What could be causing this trend? While the answer is not entirely clear, computerscience.com theorizes that the reason for this decrease was actually caused by by the rise of home computers, which were commonly used for gaming and, as mentioned before, were almost exclusively marketed towards men.
Another reason, as proposed by NPR, was that it could be partially due to a trend in films that was occurring at the time. “Movies like Weird Science, Revenge of the Nerds and War Games all came out in the ’80s. And the plot summaries are almost interchangeable: awkward geek boy genius uses tech savvy to triumph over adversity and win the girl.” These types of movies could also be furthering the idea that computers are a boy’s toy that should be used against women, not by women.
Likely it was a combination of these factors – either way, the result was the same. The culture decided that computers were for men, and this in turn led to less women deciding to join this industry. The lack of women in tech is not simply because they don’t like it, but because they often times do not feel welcome.
How can we help?
These misconceptions and stereotypes that keep women from playing and designing games are not going to go away on their own. I think that the only way to create more equality in the industry is for each of us to do our parts in our own small ways.
One small way to help when designing a game is to simply keep in mind the fact that around half of your potential audience is women, and design it as such. If for no other reason, this is just good business. After all, why miss out on sales by only catering your game to half of the market?
Another option is to make sure that women are properly represented in your game. If you have multiple playable characters, try to have diversity in the types of characters that can be played. And I am not talking about including female characters as a token or as cheap sex-symbols – there is no reason that the depth and variety of female characters cannot be just as much as among male characters. This is one area that I do think has improved in the industry, but there are still many developers that need more work in this area.
Finally, we just need to try and be more open as a community. We need to be more welcoming to people who want to be part of gaming, even if they are different from us.
Until Next Week
That is all I have for this week! If you made it this far, thanks for bearing with me. I know that today’s topic was a bit different than what I normally talk about, and I promise that next week I will be back to my usual game design content. If you like this article check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Facebook, Twitter, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, feel free to call me an SJW cuck in the comments down below. And join me next week for an article about environmental storytelling in games!