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Women in gaming prompts diversity debate

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It is no secret that women are misrepresented in gaming culture. Video games have always been regarded as a “guy thing.” The adoption of the term “Gamer Girl” makes it seem as if gamers are male by default and a woman playing games is an anomaly. Anita Sarkeesian, a Canadian blogger and critic, has been speaking out against that stereotype for the past few years. Her nonprofit organization Feminist Frequency tries to bring light to some of the injustices women face in the gaming industry and criticizes tropes in video games, primarily through educational Youtube videos. Sarkeesian makes some controversial claims in her videos that many have criticized. However, one thing we can all agree on is that the onslaught of hatred and death threats she has received make her seem more like a war criminal than a humble critic of the medium.

Sarkeesian’s arguments mainly revolve around the idea that most video games are created with a male demographic in mind, perpetuating harmful stereotypes about women to appeal to their audience. She cites examples of women playing the role of a weak damsel in distress that always needs a male hero to save her. In many of these games, the females are always either the damsel or a peripheral, over-sexualized and shallow character designed solely to appeal to the male fantasy.

The problem with Sarkeesian’s arguments is that they ignore the larger issue of diversity in the video game industry. Women aren’t the only ones targeted in this way – a huge portion of titles that make it to the top of the retail market appeal to this very narrow spectrum of gamers. Publishers say that targeting your specific audience makes sense, but it’s a classic case of the chicken the and egg. More girls aren’t playing games because publishers assume they don’t and exclude them from their campaigns. This has been a self-fulfilling prophecy for a very long time, but the fact is that right now women represent 45 percent of active gamers in the U.S. according to a study published by the Entertainment Software Association ESA.

However, there has been a huge boom in “indie titles” in the past few years. Those are video games produced independently from big publishers, usually in teams ranging from two to 10 developers as opposed to the hundreds at the top-tier studios.

Indie games are known for their creativity, diversity and inclusiveness. As creators are free from the shackles of big budget investments, no topic is too taboo to express through the medium. This is the new wave that we see coursing through the gaming community, replacing ideas of elitism that have seen many an online forum thread debating who is and who is not a “real gamer.” Sometimes it can get so extreme, as with cases like Anita Sarkeesian, who has seen not just online death threats but was forced to move due to phone calls to her and her family filled with threats and harassment.

A more recent case was Carolyn Petit’s review of the acclaimed Grand Theft Auto Five game. Almost every review about this game was touting it as a brilliant masterpiece. Petit praised the game but expressed her concern over its misogynistic sequences and its portrayal of women. She was immediately harassed, and irate gamers launched a petition to get her fired from GameStop as a video game reviewer. All of this happened despite her giving the game a rating of nine out of 10.

The good news is that the gaming community is waking up and taking a stand. These controversial cases have succeeded in putting a face to the issue that we can relate to and talk about. People are also starting to realize that these masculine stereotypes are hurting men as much as women by perpetuating this image of overly macho men that is impossible to live up to.

The future looks promising as more and more people embrace diversity in the gaming community. A new initiative called “Girls Make Games” is not only encouraging more women and girls to get involved in the game development scene, but is also making headlines with the summer camps, events and workshops they regularly hold. A group of young girls have already launched an award-winning adventure game through this program, and this can only encourage more to join. Whether or not you agree with Sarkeesian, she deserves to be treated as a human being, and the way to protect her rights and many like her is through celebrating diversity in gaming culture.

Omar Shehata ’18 shehat1@stolaf.edu is from Alexandria, Egypt. He majors in computer science.

Graphics Credit: ERIN KNADLER/MANITOU MESSENGER