/ 11 April 2021

The war on women in video game culture

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Battling bias: Tech Girl founder and eSports broadcaster Sam Wright has faced sexism and discrimination first hand over her more than decade long career in the gaming industry.

Although awareness of anti-progressivism and sexism has been around for several years in the technological community, it was only in 2014 that the first online movement began against what women had to face in this community. 

The #GamerGate controversy was an online movement centred around sexism and discrimination against women in video game culture. It started after a lengthy blog post, written by a man named Eron Gonji, spread. Here Gonji detailed his romantic relationship with a female game developer named Zoe Quinn and alleged that she had multiple romantic relationships with freelance gaming journalists in exchange for positive press.

Although Gonji later admitted he had no evidence that there was a conflict of interest and that the insinuation was the result of a typo in his post, Quinn became the victim of a massive harassment campaign. Her accounts were hacked, personal information shared and she was forced  to leave her home after receiving multiple death threats as well as threats of rape and physical violence. The harassment spread to other women in the gaming industry and those who spoke in her defence.

The hashtag for GamerGate might have ended as quickly as it began, but the worst side of its legacy continues today as female gamers as far as South Africa still feel its effects.

According to a survey done by UK-based company Bryter, although women and girls make up 46% of gamers, one in three female gamers experience abuse or discrimination from their male counterparts when playing video games online.

Sam Wright, an eSports broadcaster and the founder of Tech Girl, can bear testament to it. Having been in the gaming industry for more than a decade and worked both locally and internationally, she has faced abuse and discrimination both while broadcasting and playing video games from the comfort of her home.

When she began in the industry, Wright was told that if she faces abuse, she must not “bitch and moan” about it but rather continue to stay positive.

“I’ve had some pretty rough experiences which I’ve been loud about. I’m in eSports broadcasting, and I deal with people behind the scenes who are in positions of power and were quite happy to insinuate that I must have been trading in sexual favours to get the amount of work I was getting,” Wright says

Wright alludes that she understands such accusations were only made against her because she was one of the first women in South Africa to do her work.

However, Wright is not alone. Jessica Maij from Bravado Gaming has also felt the hard-hitting discrimination from men in the gaming world. Her experiences made her leave the game she was playing at the time.

“I used to play Call of Duty competitively back in the day, and in that game, you rely on teamwork, but a lot of times, those groups don’t want females to be a part of it because they feel as if females are going to bring the team down,” Maij says.

“Eventually, I left that scene and moved on to Gwent, which is a card game and doesn’t rely on teammates for failures or successes. That game is more welcoming as they see females being on the same level playing field,” Maij adds.

Behind the screen: Bravado Gaming’s Jessica Maij at her gaming setup in Cape Town. She stopped playing Call of Duty competitively due to bias against women, but finds Gwent more welcoming. (David Harrison/M&G)

Due to this type of abuse and discrimination, 30% of women playing games online don’t reveal their gender. While 23% of them avoid using voice chat, which is crucial in online multiplayer games as it helps players understand each other and work together as a team to eliminate their opposition.

Wright says that she often does this when she plays with a gamertag (an online identity) that is not gender-specific. She also avoids voice chat and would rather have her friends relay what she wants to say instead of switching her microphone on and speaking.

“When I’ve played online, and someone realises I’m a woman, which doesn’t happen often, but sometimes, I’ll immediately get someone being sexist and abusive because you are a woman, and my friends have also experienced this,” Wright says.

“At the same time, I also play with women who have no problem with using gender-specific tags and also don’t mind using voice chat. I think that the issue also comes from the fact that women are afraid to go into voice chat purely because we are women. We are constantly told that there is harassment, so even if you’re a woman who has never been harassed, it’s easier to avoid it than to completely risk it,” she adds.

There are ways to report sexist and discriminatory behaviour when playing video games, but there are no concrete ways to remove people from the game. While an account can get banned, the person can simply create a new account on a different email address and then play on that account.

Both Wright and Maij believe that while game developers can look into this and try to rid gaming of the problem permanently, there is also no way game developers or publishers can ban every single person who is abusive. 

They still want people playing their games at the end of the day, while banning a large number of players would mean that they would lose a chunk of their player base.

But Wright does feel that the environment is improving as the years pass. From what she has seen, she feels that more people are starting to call out disgusting behaviour on online platforms, which helps women in lobbies playing. But she says that it also matters who addresses the abusive person in the chat. 

“As a woman, I can sit and tell someone to shut up and watch the way they speak, but that doesn’t work, which sucks. But when four other men do it, then they close their mouth, which is quite sad.”

There is no solution for the abuse women in the video game world are suffering at the moment. They are holding on to the hope that things will improve as they keep playing. They will keep hoping to outgrow the box of being categorised as a “female gamer” and just be recognised as a gamer. 

Still, with much work to be done, women in gaming believe that the responsibility to stop this abuse falls on both the gaming community and game developers and publishers.

Female video game protagonists on the decline since 2016

As Sony and Microsoft continue to make strides in what they term “next-gen” gaming, 2020 saw the two competing companies record a five-year low in terms of female-led characters in games released on their consoles.

This is according to a report by Buzz Bingo which shows that only 8.6% of games released on PlayStation in 2020 and 8.4% of games on Xbox released in 2020 featured female protagonists.

From 2016 on, PlayStation has released more than 20 games a year that featured female protagonists, while the majority of games contained a mix of both female and male characters. However, on Xbox, only 7.1% of games feature female protagonists since 2016, which means that male-led games outnumber female-led games five to one on the Xbox.

This is especially surprising as female gamers account for 46% of the gaming community.

While 2020 might have been a disappointing year for female-led games, 2021 shows a steady increase already, with more than 15% of games on PlayStation and 12% of them on Xbox being led by females. Returnal, Horizon Forbidden West and several other Square Enix games are set to release between 2020 and 2021 that feature female protagonists. 

With only 1 in 100 sports games having lead female characters, the female community representation in gaming is still fragile.