The video game industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in India with a huge market and a growing audience that is expected to reach over $300 billion by 2025. This process has been further accelerated with the creation of a huge array of online games that are not only easily accessible online but are also free. For every aspect of life there now exists a game. The rapidly increasing popularity of video games is being accompanied by a growing literature on how these games affect socialisation and behaviour. Despite the industry’s unprecedented growth, it has not been able to ensure that a diverse group of people are involved in the process of game development. This lack of diversity at the level of designers and creators creates a condition wherein most games are catered towards cis, white, able-bodied men.
Studies reveal, the violence portrayed in video games against women in general and marginalised women, in particular, has a profound negative impact on male psyches. Grand Theft Auto is one such game that has been widely criticised for encouraging violence against sex workers. But despite these limitations, many young women have started to actively play video games. Not only has there been a growing audience of female players but the representation of characters in games itself have taken a revolutionary road. But whether this shift significantly changed the gaming culture, is an important question that needs to be answered.
In a conversation with Sanya Khatri, an 18-year old female gamer from India, we came to know about the hostile environment female gamers are forced to navigate in order to excel in the field. Sanya is one of India’s foremost female video game players who have taken the internet by storm with her phenomenal skills as a PUBG player.
Sanya during our conversation shared how she got interested in gaming, she told us, “I remember playing a game called Burnout Paradise which was a racing game and I somehow ended up procuring all the collectables that I had no idea about. That left my cousins and friends stunned. And I realised I was better at this than most of them. That was kind of like a Eureka Moment for me when I decided to plunge into the world of video games.”
She further added, “It was tough to get in (gaming/reports) for the obvious reason that it is a largely male-dominated sector. People weren’t very supportive at the beginning but with the time that changed. Although professionally I started playing E-sports a year back I’ve been in the gaming scene for very long now.” Having said that, one of the major reasons that deter women from pursuing a career in gaming is the relentless online bullying that women gamers are often subjected to.
Cyber Bullying and Harassment Against Female Gamers and Game Developers
In 2014, an online hate campaign against a prominent female video game developer named Zoe Quinn was carried out under the #GamerGate. Quinn had developed a game called Depression Quest narrating the experience of undergoing depression through fictional characters. The game received glowing reviews from critics but the game’s unusual format irked the sensibilities of a group of players who bashed the game and its creator for its unusual format. They argued that video games should focus on “skill” and avoid being used by “social justice warriors” for promoting their fake issues.
Even though #GamerGate was a largely unorganised movement, with ambiguous goals, it quickly managed to create a huge fanbase on Reddit as well as on Twitter. It opposed the growing feminist influence on the video game industry. Some of the most noted women who were targeted were Zoe Quinn, video gamer Briana Wu and feminist media critic Anita Sarkessian. The harassment soon escalated into rape and death threats. Zoe Quin, in particular, was forced to flee her residence and take shelter in an undisclosed location for several months.
Over 40% of video gamers competing in international tournaments today are women. But this has not significantly reduced toxic geek or bro culture that is endemic to the video game industry. Cis, white, able-bodied men continue to hegemonise e-sports numerically as well as ideologically. So even though the gaming industry is more diverse now than ever before, progressive female representation remains limited and women players/video game developers are incessantly harassed online. The gender pay gap between the top male and female players is also a major source of concern.
Sanya observed a similar trend unfolding in India; she said, “There are a lot of inspiring women in E-sports. However, unlike male players whose ranks are determined along a continuum in terms of how well they play, women are placed at two extremes. In India, there are female players who are either extremely good or those who are just starting out. There is no in-between for female players. All the gaps are filled by men and men only.”
Sanya, who is a student of Psychology, mentioned that gaming for her started out as a therapeutic exercise. But once she started playing competitively things got stressful. As they feel equally responsible for presenting the female community of gamers. She further added, “There are people continuously trying to bring you down because they are threatened. I’ve had major breakdowns because it became so intense. But I overcame all the hurdles. In the end, all that matters is that I love doing this and I’m good at it so I won’t let anything distract me from my real purpose, which is to relax and enjoy.”
She concluded by saying, “Male gamers often express shock at female gamers like us playing games that involve shooting and violence. They are unable to process that women can play games that are driven by aggression. The very perception of women’s abilities being only limited to nurture and care is still pervasive.“
Women’s and LGBTQ Representation in Video Games
Women’s representation in popular video games also calls for further scrutiny. Traditionally in video-games, women have disproportionately figured as ‘damsels in distress’ who need to be saved by strong men. The other common trope that is frequently deployed is that of hyper-sexualised female characters who are used to market a game to young men. One study revealed that female video game players who play these hyper-sexualised women in games report less “self-efficacy” and found the characters to be less physically able than their male counterparts.
An interesting turn came in the field of female representation when Lara Croft’s character was introduced in the video game franchise called Tom Raider. Croft was envisioned as an intelligent, athletic and adventurous woman who travels the world in search of mysteries. The emergence of this character was perceived as a step in the right direction especially because in the early 2000s the video game industry was heavily male-dominated. It also marked what commentators call the beginning of the “Lara phenomenon” which led to many creators writing and designing independent female characters in their video games.
Also read: Indie Video Games, Women Gamers and Feminism
Having said that, there were many feminist critics of Lara Croft as well. Croft’s character was criticised for promoting an unrealistic body image among young female and male audiences. The character’s skimpy clothing was also criticised for furthering hyper-sexualisation and objectification of female bodies.
Scholar Maja Makula observed, “Lara is everything that is bad about representations of women in culture, and everything good – and thus analysing the circulation and discussion of Lara in Western culture allows us to explore the current predicament of feminist identity politics, epitomizing the range of contemporary feminist stances in relation to the body and the consumer culture of late capitalism.“
The portrayal of queer coded characters also remains problematic. Historically in most games, queerness has often been associated with promiscuity and moral depravity. Queer characters are also written as either villain or as a source of comic relief. In Grand Theft Auto, the main protagonist Trevor Philips sleeps with men, women and teddy bears along with being completely insane, bad-tempered and merciless. But there has been some improvement in LGBTQ representation in the past few years, characters like Ellie from the video game series Last of Us or Ned Wynart’s character from Assasins Creed Syndicate, both represent some of the more positive and realistic portrayals of queer youth in video games.
Sanya while speaking with Feminism in India remarked, “There is a need for global solidarity to combat this culture of cyber-bullying and harassment. This would mean forming alliances, but that is often not the case. For even when the initiative Is taken or the effort made there still are people within our community itself (female gamers) who tend to backlash and the efforts go into vain.”
Also read: Is Video Gaming Really Just A ‘Guy’s Thing’?
She also mentioned that there is a looming fear of being excluded from the gaming industry if one spoke out up against the unequal world of video games and gaming. People who regularly speak out against such harassment live with the possibility of being shut out by the industry.
Featured Image Source: Cronos Film TV