At the end of every school year my family would take a road trip. Our endless quest to find the perfect vanilla slice would take us across numerous dodgy motels, the grass brown and scratchy around the heavily chlorinated pool.
In every town we passed through, whenever we’d drive past the familiar red and black sign, I’d excitedly point it out, much to the annoyance of everyone else in the car, who knew that once we parked outside the local pub for lunch, I would instantly peel off to visit the store.
‘At least we can say we’ve visited every EB Games in the state,’ my parents would sigh, as I gazed at all the exact same video games they sold at our local store in Sydney, internally debating whether Jak and Daxter was a better series than Ratchet and Clank.
Each store was comfortingly familiar, having the same blast of air con that instantly dried off the sweat from the stifling heat, the red ‘SALE’ signs draped over every possible surface. Much to my chagrin, they would also often have the bubble pink ‘Games 4 Girls!’ displays, an array of poorly made Horse Riding and Babysitting games nestled beneath, their glossy covers shimmering. Funnily enough, there was no Games 4 Boys section—apparently, that section consisted of every other game in the store.
Our ideas of what constitutes a ‘gamer’ is constantly evolving. Initially more gender neutral when first released, gaming slowly became more oriented towards white teenage boys during the 1980s, a marketing approach that has persisted even as the demographics of gamers change. Digital Australia’s 2018 report found that 46 per cent of Australian gamers identify as female. And yet, even with this high figure, there are still significantly fewer female protagonists within major game releases, with non-male protagonists only accounting for 5 per cent of titles shown at E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo) 2019.
Initially more gender neutral when first released, gaming slowly became more oriented towards white teenage boys during the 1980s.
Shira Chess discusses how ‘the video game industry is now a major part of imagining what femininity should look like,’ due to games that have historically been marketed specifically towards women, like Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and the horse games that used to deride me. These ‘games have been engineered to shape normative ideas about women and leisure’, and games that deviate from this approach are seen to be an incorrect portrayal of women.
Earlier this year, The Last of Us Part II came out. Set in a post-apocalyptic environment, the sequel has players take control of Ellie, a protagonist from the first game. While the game was a sales hit and received largely positive reviews from critics, audience response was polarising. Review bombing occurred within minutes of the game being released to the public, well before anyone could’ve finished playing it. Gamers declared that the now 19-year-old Ellie was ‘ugly’ and needed to be made more attractive, submitting pictures that ‘improved’ her character design, normally by adding make-up and changing her clothes to be more revealing. Numerous death threats were sent to the game’s director over a secondary character, Abby, with claims that her muscular body type was ‘impossible’ for a woman to have—conveniently ignoring the real-life body double, Colleen Fotsch, whose muscular physique inspired Abby’s design.
Yet despite these protests, The Last of Us Part II became the fastest selling PlayStation 4 exclusive, selling over four million units over its release weekend demonstrating that although some struggle with games that no longer present all women as objects that exist for their sexual fantasies, they are now a noisy minority.
The bus home from the city is late (as always), and I crane my neck impatiently alongside the other commuters. Scrunched within my hand is a JB Hi-Fi bag, the blinding yellow garish against the muted tones of the cloudy sky. A gentle tap on my shoulder surprises me. I quickly remove my headphones to find a stranger staring intently, saying: ‘I see you’ve bought GTA V. Is it for you, or your boyfriend?’
My brain whirs, trying to process how he’d react if I called his creepy behaviour out. My nineteen-year-old self mumbles that it’s for me.
My relief is immeasurable when my bus finally pulls up. I politely excuse myself, before the stranger decides to get on the bus with me. The whole bus ride he tells me how shocked he is that I, a woman, would enjoy violent games like Grand Theft Auto, while I panic over being followed home. Thankfully, he gets off just before my stop, admitting that he will now have to walk a significant amount to catch his actual bus.
After getting over my shock, I couldn’t believe the lengths someone would go to, simply to try and pick up a woman who played ‘violent’ video games—was this really so rare?
Like many women I know, when playing online with strangers, I’ll usually try to hide my gender by not using a microphone. This doesn’t stop us from hearing the vitriol dispersed towards other female gamers. This is probably why some men don’t realise that the games they enjoy have plenty of women playing alongside them—it’s easy to presume most players are male when women actively avoid interacting with you. However, when you have a chance to interact with gamers in a different context, this can truly demonstrate the variety of people interested in video games.
It’s easy to presume most players are male when women actively avoid interacting with you.
The first week of a new uni semester is always the worst—but this one was particularly stressful, having signed myself up for a subject that had nothing to do with my degree, but I couldn’t resist adding it to my course list after finding out that it was all about video games. Flashes of the bus stop incident kept popping into my mind, the worry that I was about to walk into a lecture hall full of similar men.
Forcing the thick lecture doors open, a range of people were getting into their chairs, paper rustling as they zipped open pencil cases and clicked open laptops. Some were younger, others older, from a range of courses and countries. Yet there was something special about a group of people, many of whom did not match the standard image of a ‘gamer’ coming together each week to share an interest in video games and how they worked.
We could discuss and disagree on difficult topics surrounding gaming, without the barrage of hate so frequently seen whenever anything gaming related is critiqued online. People who played more casual games or preferred to play on ‘easy mode’ were just as valid as those who enjoyed hardcore modes. Plenty of my classmates were women, and many were also from a CALD background.
There is still a distinct lack of non-white protagonists within video games. A study of every game nominated for a Game Award from 2003 until 2018 found that 60 per cent of these games had white protagonists for the entire game compared to 3 per cent for protagonists of colour (23 per cent were up to the players’ choice, 10 per cent undefined and in 4 per cent you played as both). Although many of the biggest video game developers are based in Japan (Nintendo, Sony, Square Enix, Capcom), only a handful of their biggest games feature CALD protagonists. Mario, Zelda and Final Fantasy all primarily feature characters with European features, even though all are set in fictional locations. Additionally, many games still have white actors playing non-white characters in Western releases (such as Ada Wong, a Chinese American character who was voiced by a white woman in 2019’s Resident Evil 2: Remake).
As with film and other creative industries, smaller independent developers are leading the way in changing this. Florence (Mountains) is a game which explores the daily life of Florence Yeo and her budding relationship. Tell Me Why (Dontnod Entertainment) is one of the first major releases to feature a trans protagonist, as he and his twin explore their childhood house. Both games received positive reviews and awards, many of which commented on the value of having diverse protagonists.
It’s always exciting when a female friend starts telling me about a new game they are learning to play, having previously avoided gaming before because of its reputation as an activity for men.
One reason indie studios are more likely to have diverse protagonists is that most major Western developers continue to consist of straight, white men, which in some instances has resulted in the poor treatment and disregarding of ideas from those who do not fit this mould (as seen by Riot’s multimillion-dollar lawsuit, where female employees frequently faced sexual harassment and gender discrimination). But as Sam Srauy writes, indie studios can only do so much: While ‘indie game developers are imagined as the solution’ to the lack of diverse protagonists, their power is limited in the face of major publishers who create ‘media content that relies on rather than rejects racism, sexism, and homophobia’. There are some sparks of progress in the larger development studios, with games like the upcoming Spider-Man: Miles Morales (Marvel) and the POC in Play Initiative trying to change these issues from the inside. Even the latest Call of Duty release—not a franchise with particularly progressive politics—includes the option to play as a non-binary character with they/them pronouns.
Technology has also changed the way that we can consume video games, with the rise in streaming and esports. Offering an opportunity for gamers across the world to participate, many of the top esports players hail from South Korea, where readily available internet cafes provide an opportunity for working class kids to engage in online games. Likewise, in America, the fighting games community has been celebrated for having many of the top players of colour. However, racism is still frequent with competitive esports players, with some (like Matt ‘Dellor’ Vaughn) being removed from their teams after using racial slurs.
Outside the extremely competitive esports environment, streaming games provides the opportunity for anyone to create an audience, whether they excel at gaming or can barely pass the tutorial. 2018 data from streaming giant Twitch found that 81.5 per cent of Twitch’s streamers and viewers were white males, with streamers of colour often having to heavily moderate their chat to remove racist comments from anonymous online accounts. However, there are drives to try and encourage the development of streamers from different backgrounds, with initiatives for CALD, LGBTQI and disabled gamers (like the StreamElements diversity fund and Facebook Gaming’s Black creator program) aimed at cultivating a more diverse platform.
It’s always exciting when a female friend starts telling me about a new game they are learning to play, having previously avoided gaming because of its reputation as an activity for men, or playing games with friends from a variety of backgrounds. We may not have cleared the last level yet, but by creating an increasingly welcoming and diverse video game community for players, streamers and corporations, we are seeing new stories that can represent a larger part of society, and be engaging for all players.