48% of gamers in the US are women, according to a Pew research center study. When I chanced upon this data I was surprised because we grow up in a culture where we mostly hear men, including brothers and classmates, talk excitedly about gaming. The country with the maximum number of women gamers is Japan (66%) and in Asia, Malaysia has a female-dominated gaming market (52%).
As students, many of us used to play Mario, Alladin and other popular games in school. Later, I chanced upon Harry Potter’s world by playing the Chamber of Secrets video game and used to play Age of Empires along with my sister. Never have I considered myself a gamer and neither did I talk much about gaming. I, also, did not object to the exclusionary tactics of the men around me when they talked about gaming as if it was a field that they owned.
However, the study that so many women were into gaming was an eye-opener and also hinted at something larger – women gamers are just not taken seriously and I had given in to the culture that said I was not doing anything significant in the gaming world, like the men, even if I was spending time on it. Most American adults believe that people who play video games are men and men are more than twice as likely as women to call themselves “gamers”. It is not difficult to realize that such a culture is a hindrance in promoting women’s interest in gaming.
I also started noticing that many women around me spent a lot of time on playing games on the computer or their phones and yet did not ever brag about it or identify themselves as gamers. I approached my mother who has recently picked up the habit of mining for new cellphone games and playing them whenever she gets time. When I asked what makes her do it, she simply said that gaming was fun and interested her more than TV. She plays Tetris, Angry Birds, Temple Run and racing games on her mobile phone but brushes it all aside to say, “It is just to pass time”.
Also read: Indie Video Games, Women Gamers and Feminism
My friend, Ankita, said that she played games like Farmville and Candy Crush on her cellphone on the long ride to work from home because it was a pleasant distraction that kept her occupied and entertained. I am more into music and I plug my earphones during my commute to work and back. Ankita chooses to play games over listening to music and says it helps her block unnecessary distraction and street harassment during the commute – a preference she has turned into a routine though these games are not “serious”.
Games like Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, Call of Duty or Defence of the Ancients are the ones considered serious because of our culture and the marketing of such products, which also primarily targets men. However, these games may not interest everyone because of the explicit violence. I was introduced to Call of Duty by a male friend but was never drawn to it because it involved violence which did not appeal to me. According to an industry report, 80% of gamers who play Call of Duty are male.
Another reason why women don’t take up games that are popular among men is that they are very gender-specific – the protagonist is a man, taking over the world or shooting opponents, and there is a lot of objectification of women in these games – creating a threatening environment in combination. However, mobile phone games are mostly gender neutral and offer a fluid environment which is a welcoming space for women gamers. So, even if some people are dismissive of that space or refuse to take it seriously, it is time to realise that these games drive the gaming industry as much as any other.
On the other hand, there are many women who enjoy playing games that are popular among men. Kashmila, a woman gamer, is an avid fan of DOTA 2. On playing in a male dominated environment, she says, “Yes, we girls often choose to not use our mic. Mostly, people are like gaming is not for girls or ‘give me your facebook account’ so that boys can get in touch with us.” However, she says turning a deaf ear to all this is something that girls get good at. She says, “As long as you love doing it, it doesn’t matter if someone calls you a noob (an inexperienced player).”
Some games are also more gender fluid, like SecondLife which allow gamers to take on different sexual identities – male, female, trans and others. The Sims allows players to create characters with any physical attribute. But in the multiplayer online arena, virtual sexual harassment is a growing concern.
In 1993, Julian Dibbell wrote about an online rape in a text-based multi-user dimension, known as LambdaMOO, where one user hijacked the system to write about sexual acts involving other users’ avatars. Though such harassment is limited to the virtual world, for people immersed in the game it can feel as real as physical assault. Game creators are trying to better such scenarios by enabling users to block harassers or defend themselves so that the outcome doesn’t leave them feeling victimized.
The gaming industry is a male-dominated space and when women try to make inroads, that space is threatened with repercussions like the Gamergate controversy of August 2014 which involved attacks on a woman game developer, Zoe Quinn. However despite such gender barriers, there will always be girls and women who choose gaming over other options.