Women in Gaming: A Difficult Intersection
Why women are uncomfortable with many aspects of gaming culture.
Posted January 8, 2022 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina
- Women enjoy video games, but may face harassment online for playing.
- Harassment in gaming affects women's mental health and makes it hard to enjoy the activity.
- Within gaming genres, some games are more accepting of women than are others.
This article was co-written with Natalie Jeung, LPC, NCC, a mental health counselor and avid gamer who runs educational workshops on video games.
Nearly half of people who play video games are women. Despite this, most women do not feel safe in online spaces. “I’ve almost completely hidden my gender for the past 10 years in online gaming so I could enjoy my hobby,” said one gamer in a 2018 survey.
Being both a woman and a gamer is a difficult intersection. More than half of “gamer girls” feel they must hide their gender using masculine-sounding usernames or voice-changing headsets. Those who do not hide their identity risk facing sexual and verbal harassment from other players. One woman decided that she would “not [touch] a mic ever without a voice changer” because of this.
In a study of one online game, women who used voice chat experienced three times more negative and derogatory comments than men did. 77% of women report dealing with unwanted behavior while gaming.
A popular streamer commented “If I spoke up on any voice chats, I’d immediately hear the dreaded ‘Was that a girl?’ and brace myself for whatever was coming next…[sometimes] it was immediate [sexual] harassment or threats. She soon switched to a masculine-sounding username to avoid this abuse.
Another Black, queer, female streamer has faced severe consequences for existing online. She has endured racial slurs, internet posts of her face edited onto pornographic material, and has even been “swatted” - a form of harassment in which anonymous people send police to a target’s home with a false complaint.
Why Does This Problem Exist?
This toxic environment is largely a result of the way many games are designed. Although the proportion of women working as game developers is improving, it is still dominated by men. Only 30% of game developers were women or nonbinary in 2020, up from just 3% in 1989. The gender disparity behind the scenes has contributed to female characters on-screen being underrepresented and oversexualized. This is off-putting to many women, who often state that they feel uncomfortable playing as or viewing women in skimpy clothing with exaggerated body proportions - like this.
Additionally, structural issues within games further contribute to harmful game environments. For example, most games have policies stating that they do not tolerate harassment of other players, but very few have an effective way to reinforce this policy. For example, chat boxes are often programmed to prevent users from sending written messages to one another with offensive language, but to our knowledge, no game developers have found a way to prevent threats and slurs from being expressed verbally over a headset.
This creates a cycle - the most obnoxious players can freely discourage women and other minorities from playing by saying and doing harmful things. This leaves only those who can tolerate this behavior.
This means that women often avoid fast-paced games which necessitate verbal communication, as disguising their gender is more difficult and there are few consequences for abusive players. Although nearly half of gamers are women, only 7% of people who play fast-paced first-person shooters like Call of Duty and Valorant are women.
Even when women are not directly targeted by misogynistic attacks, they can still be affected by the culture of a specific game. This “ambient sexual harassment” can involve hearing sexist language and attitudes espoused by other players, highly sexualized characters and stereotypical gender roles within a game, and power structures within groups of players which treat people of different genders unequally. This is particularly stressful for those who fear that they may be the “next target” of the hostility that they witness.
Impact on Mental Health
Navigating a toxic environment, even a virtual one, has demonstrable negative effects on a person’s mental health and overall well-being.
For example, a 2010 survey of almost 2,000 middle school students showed a clear correlation between being bullied online and lower self-esteem. Sexual harassment has also been connected to depression, anxiety, and low self-confidence. This is a constant struggle for female gamers who often cannot play their favorite games without either hiding their identity or being harassed.
Additionally, harassment can further undermine mental health in several ways. For example, those who experience sexual harassment in games often ruminate on the experience. Rumination is a typical response to stressors in which a person often and unintentionally spends time thinking about a painful experience. It leads to increased symptoms of depression and feelings of helplessness. It hurts.
In order to manage these feelings, people typically react in a few ways, most of which continue to harm them. Women gamers often respond by trying to convince themselves that the experience was less hurtful than it was, blaming themselves for picking the wrong game, for not being talented enough at the game, or withdrawing from social environments in which future harm is likely. These defense mechanisms form automatically - human brains have not caught up to the nuances of modern social experiences. Their well-meaning attempts to protect us can often backfire.
Women who experience harassment also respond by overcompensating in-game, working long hours to outperform their male peers to inoculate themselves against future harassment, and acting more aggressively online than they would in single-player, offline spaces simply to keep up with their peers.
Women play video games as well as men do, but are often kept out of communal gaming spaces. This is done directly, through targeted harassment, or indirectly, by curating a toxic culture in which women are made to feel unsafe. This is a self-perpetuating problem - women and others who disagree with the opinions shared are often driven out intentionally or leave the space because of disgust or discomfort. This results in a polarized community, one which tolerates or encourages misogyny.
Fortunately, not all gaming spaces are like this. The ratio of player genders varies wildly between different genres. Although 96% of people who play first-person shooter games are men, women dominate the market for match-three games like Candy Crush Saga, in which players move colorful icons around a grid to line up three or more of the same type.
Within genres, specific games can also be more or less accepting of women. The online community for the first-person shooter game Overwatch contains 16% women, about twice that of any other game in its genre. Even though Activision Blizzard, the company which produces the game has come under fire for its toxic work environment, their fanbase has managed to maintain an enjoyable environment for women.
That women play games despite this harassment speaks not only to the tenacity of women gamers, but also how players benefit from games. Women who play games regularly spend time in online spaces enjoy the camaraderie, healthy competition, stress reduction, excitement, and ability to explore identity that video games provide enough to keep playing, despite needing to spend time and energy dodging insults and threats from other gamers. Hopefully, their presence can continue to improve online spaces and encourage the industry to find ways to protect its employees and fans from harassment.
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