Dream of the ’90s: The Evolution of Women’s Visibility in Gaming

Portal

When it comes to gaming, a common argument I hear is that women are just now entering the industry, and therefore have no right to complain about the culture. They even have less of a vote because, really, they are only doing it to get attention or to impress their boyfriend.

Recently, I posted on Tumblr my commentary regarding a GamerGate post (and not the “it’s about actually about ethics in gaming journalism” kind), which “chronicled” the history of women and gaming. The post argued that since 1995, women typically made fun of boys and their video games. Then, around 2006, we thought nobody was paying attention to us and decided we should start joining gamer culture (making a reference to Portal, with the whole “Cake Is A Lie” meme) and now we set out to ruin video game culture. Typically, I tend to ignore the GamerGate posts, but this one ticked me off. What a bunch of narcissistic, entitled idiots, I thought, and quickly crafted my response. It was only a short, hastily written summary of how this was completely crap based on my own experiences. But upon further consideration and deliberation, I felt like my argument just wasn’t fleshed out enough.

For as long as I can remember, my brother and I begged my mom for a video game console. The Nintendo 64 had just come out, and though we were amazed at the system, we would have easily been content with a Super Nintendo (Super Bomberman on the SNES is one of my favorite games of all time). Our mom never really wanted to have a gaming console in the house. After all, this was around the time Mortal Kombat and reports about video game violence were coming out, and with a seven and nine-year-old in 1996, she was worried about how this may affect her children. However, we did have old school GameBoys, and let me tell you, my brother and I played with those for years (I think I had mine up until 7th grade in 2001 … mind you, this is like the 1985 old school GameBoy, too, though I did have a Color GameBoy).

In 1998, my parents finally relented and got us a N64 at the end of my brother’s fifth grade year. My brother with really ill, and was home from school for a good portion of the year. I brought home his homework and books for him, and tried to be helpful as much as I could (a daunting task for a nine-year-old—those fifth graders had heavy books). After that year, my parents decided my brother and I had earned our N64.

We were ecstatic! As I said before, we would have been happy with the Super Nintendo, but we had scored the granddaddy of video games system at the time. And in 1998, so many great games came out including The Ocarina of Time and Banjo-Kazooie. My brother was particularly obsessed with GoldenEye, and much to my mother’s concern, I was a fan of the Mortal Kombat franchise. We suddenly became the cool kids in our neighborhood because of our N64. Many times we hosted Mario Kart 64 and Mortal Kombat tournaments for both boys and girls. For a long time, even going into college, I was surprisingly amazing at Mario Kart 64.

When we both went into Middle School and High School, my brother and I diverged in our gaming paths. Both of our friend groups enjoyed playing games, but where my brother liked playing the games more, I was more fascinated by watching. It’s not that I didn’t play video games during this time; my game of choice was Kingdom Hearts and the PS2 I played on was a Christmas present I specifically asked for. But in watching people playing, I got a real kick out of analyzing the mechanics and art of the video game. I also read a lot of the strategy guides, figuring out how things worked or how the story could progress. Many times my brother would be stuck, and I would end up telling him, “Oh, you have to do it like this.” We became an awesome tag team that way.

Kingdom Hearts

It’s at this point that many of the “original boys club of gaming” would argue how I was not a “real gamer” because I was more interested in figuring out how to play a game than actually playing it. I firmly disagree on many different levels, but that is another post for another day. I will say, though, that it’s because of my analytical view that I am not surprised I am going into Game Studies. Even my brother commented the other day that it makes a lot of sense, especially since I was so intrigued by gaming stories and their messages.

I admit, though, that for a long time I fell out of games, mostly because I was busy. I had joined my university Speech and Debate team, and though I played here and there, I was usually so busy traveling; I couldn’t commit myself to a game. But even in the 2000s (even the late 2000s), I don’t remember there being a lot of animosity toward girl gamers then. Many of my friends were still into games, and I would hang out with them to watch (or perhaps play) games. Sure, boys still largely outnumbered girls, and there were the “make me a sammich jokes” directed toward women, but the girls in my gamer friend groups were respected and treated equally. In fact, when I really think about it, it seems this extreme misogynistic culture in gaming has only really developed recently. Sure, this is based only on my own experiences, and I’d be at fault if I did not admit to the possibility of looking at the past with rose-colored glasses. 

When I really think back to it, Grand Theft Auto III was probably the first time I was kind of disturbed by a game. I was about twelve or thirteen years old when the game came out, which means my friends who played it were about the same age. The idea of picking up a sex worker, using her to fill your health, then running her over so you can get your money back, all while being gleeful about it … it gives me the creeps thinking about adults playing it, let alone thirteen-year-olds. To be fair, though, I think Grand Theft Auto gets a bad rap, as it is such an easy target. I know plenty of people who play the Grand Theft Auto series, along with other perceived misogynistic games, and they are, in my opinion, all well-rounded, ethical people. The catalyst to this surge of aggressiveness, I believe, is attributed to nothing more than cowardly anonymity.

Wil Wheaton recently published an awesome article about how we need to get away from anonymity in gaming, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s just way too easy to be a jerk, and the majority of their victims tend to be women, LGBTQ, and people of color. Even cis white men (the privileged of the gaming world) are more likely to be subjected to swatting (the act of figuring out where your opponent lives and making a fake police call to get him or her arrested) than any other demographic. In a world that’s dying for their fifteen minutes of fame, making inflammatory comments is just another way to get attention—and to be clear, everyone is at risk of harassment and ridicule (but as the recent months have shown, some more than others). Unlike shows like South Park, though, which makes fun of everyone and everything, the “joke” isn’t funny here.

Grand Theft Auto III, GTA

As someone who has recently gotten back into gaming, openly exploring, analyzing, and yes, playing a lot more games, it’s been really shocking to see how much game culture from my perspective has changed—and not for the better. I thought I understood it as I watched from the sidelines, but in the past few months I’ve been really disappointed. This was not the gaming I grew up with. This is not the gaming most people grew up with. Women have always been around in gaming. As a woman who gamed as a child, I acknowledged cis, white, and straight as the largest demographic of gamers, knew that the industry would focus on their interests (even if it was messed up), but never, up until now, have I felt that gaming should only be restricted to those people.

So in response to the GG Tumblr post, the timeline is incorrect. Women have always been part of gaming. In my experience, we’re not these mythical figures that supposedly bullied and hated you, but now love you for your awesome gaming prowess. We probably didn’t think anything about you ‘cause we were too busy trying to figure out our own teenage-filled angst. Also, even though I like video games, your playing ability really isn’t a turn-on for me.

I think what disappoints me the most is the unwillingness for change in gaming. Diversity in games means evolution, not SJW pandering. It means we are maturing, exploring, and understanding—all the things the founders of gaming wanted for their invention. While I can see fragments of diversity appearing in games, it’s very clear there is a strong and highly irrational group doing everything they can to stop it. While I think this group is small in size, to underestimate them would be unwise on our part. But to underestimate the initiative for diversity in gaming would be equally, if not more unwise (and I guarantee, we are a much larger group).

Despite the craziness of the last few months, I am still optimistic for gaming. Perhaps I am naïve, but I have always tended to have the glass half-full perspective. I’ve stated before in previous posts on my Tumblr that I have not directly experienced harassment in gaming, as a child or now. As I journey back into gaming, the response has been very positive, and I attribute that to those who actively worked to make gaming a welcoming culture. Perhaps this is why I am so confident that the diversity in gaming initiative is so much larger. But my positive experience does not invalidate the experiences of women like Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Brianna Wu. A lot of work needs to be done, and I more than happy to throw my hat in the ring to make gaming better.

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6 Comments on “Dream of the ’90s: The Evolution of Women’s Visibility in Gaming

  1. Reading this has actually made me realise something that’s been on my mind for a very long time now but I’ve never gotten to actually formalising it — this current trend of misogynistic, racist anymosity and violence comes from the younger crowd, the newbies to gaming (relatively speaking, ’cause my first games came on casette tapes, just sayin’) worshipping their holy GTAs and CODs and very little of anything else, the little white cishet pissbabies that use gaming as a way to prove their masculinity.

    Aka… fake geek boys.

    Like

    • Holy shit spread this like wildfire. (And for some absurd reason a lot of larger game developing companies have these ‘fake gamer boys’ as their target group… which results in the lack of interesting protags)

      Like

  2. Man that post pissed me off. If they’d talked to ANY woman who calls herself a gamer, they’d known that they were wrong. SO many woman have been playing since childhood?? But I bet according to them there are no female games to begin with. Sigh.

    Like

  3. It’s funny, because growing up my playing videogames was never contested by boys. They were always just happy to find another kid to play with, one who could draw, no less.

    It’s when I got OLDER that I started to get comments like ‘I’ve never met a girl who games before’ while waiting at a midnight showing or ‘I can’t believe you don’t know this game, I thought you were a gamer!’ when chatting with co-workers and ‘Ooh, you play games, wanna…hang…?’ when, well, existing.

    Like

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