Closing the Gender Gap in Gaming

I will never forget the moment I got my hands on my first ever gaming console – the new and improved backlit Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP (in metallic pearl pink, of course). It was Christmas of 2005 and after two years of what felt like my parents’ purchases consisting only of stuffed animals and mobiles for my newborn baby brother, I was finally gifted with a toy of my own. Outside, the snow was piling up and frost was blurring our windows, but inside, I was filled with warmth when I spotted a neatly wrapped box with my name, carefully placed under our Christmas tree.

At a mere six-years-old, and still yet un-introduced to the phenomenon of gaming, I knew my heart longed for nothing more than this garishly pink and shiny piece of plastic. Through some inexplicable power, this device – which now looks like a badly designed compact mirror – had the ability to transport me to any region in the Pokémon world or bestow upon me the honour of planning a party for Hello Kitty and her friends. But alas, not all that glitters is gold, and after two solid years of my precious Gameboy sticking it through thick and thin, I begged my parents for the next “it” item: the Nintendo DS. And although I had outgrown my bulky Gameboy, I hadn’t yet outgrown the colour pink, and I treasured my brand-new sleek, baby-pink DS as if it were my very last.

Even so, all good things must come to an end, and my golden years of gaming were no exception. The lush green fields and trees I planted in my Animal Crossing town slowly became ravaged by weeds, and I began to deeply neglect the Nintendogs I once vowed to love and cherish in both sickness and health.

Oh, how gaming has evolved

Today, I feel as though I am far behind on gaming culture, with it having grown exponentially in the past decade. What were once waves of niche allure are now tsunamis that stand-out and speak for themselves in popular culture.  We’ve watched this immense evolution gain rapid traction since the late 2000s, and the surge in spectatorship numbers as well as the proliferation of professional gamers has unarguably fuelled this acceleration. Also known as eSports, this new idea of competition facilitated by video games is still yet to be free of many degrees of skepticism and controversy.

During its humble beginnings, professional gaming raised many eyebrows as most of the public at large found it hard to imagine that it could ever reach the standards required of a “true sport”. This presumption was no doubt exacerbated considering the fact that the only physical exertion that was necessitated of the players came from their fingertips. The various skills, precise timing, and intense training required of eSports, however, proved all such judgemental opinions to fall short in due time.

The popularity of gaming culture and the rise of eSports paved the way for many individuals to take on roles as professional players, but it’s no secret that there is a startlingly wide gap between the number of males and females that pursue the career. Aside from the road to professional game-playing, many females face great degrees of difficulty immersing themselves within online gaming communities, because right from the get-go they are treated differently than their male counterparts.

Just as any other culture is composed of its unique values and norms, online communities mimic this very same structure by presenting interested members with their own set of unspoken standards. And while these communities are seemingly open to just about anyone that with an internet connection and an interest in anything gaming-related, it does not overstep the crucial factor that is needed to truly engage oneself with a culture: time. Immense amounts of it, combined with equal amounts of effort and dedication, are necessary conditions to becoming accepted as an acknowledged member of any online community. And while this process is not always swift for everyone, it has made things especially challenging for female gamers.

Speak to me like I’m a gamer

This discrepancy is further evident in the way male and female streamers are both treated and spoken about. The tone of communication and rhetoric used by viewers undoubtedly changes when a man streams his gameplay versus when a woman does. In 2017, research done by a group of computational social scientists – scholars that have worked and studied for years at the intersection of society and computing – revealed that when prominent female gamers would stream, the use of game jargon was visibly decreased and in its place was a heightened language of objectification, consequently throwing any effort to genuinely engage with said streamer right out the open window.

It is clear that many female gamers are not taken nearly as seriously as their male counterparts, and the root causes of these inequalities can be traced back to almost twenty years ago. When early computers were first marketed and sold, they were largely used for simple games such as Spacewar and Boxing[FW1] . These games had a tendency to be geared towards guys, in both design and appeal. This got to the point where Apple computer advertisements in the 80s included boys teasing girls about their supposedly sub-par computer skills.

 One of the first computer ads from the early 80s, it exclusively featured men and boys both promoting and using the product.

One of the first computer ads from the early 80s, it exclusively featured men and boys both promoting and using the product.

 This ad from the 70s portrays owning a minicomputer as sexually appealing.

This ad from the 70s portrays owning a minicomputer as sexually appealing.

In 1983, the U.S. experienced a video game recession and the market deflated from a value of $3.2 billion to a mere $100 million in a matter of two years. What ensued was a desperate attempt to salvage the faint vestige left by the industry by appealing to what remained of their small audience – young boys between the ages of eight and 16. The effects of marketing have disseminated into gaming culture today, with video games labelled primarily as “boys’ toys” and the painstaking attempts at “subtle” sexualization of female characters in modern-day gaming franchises.

 Lara Croft from  Tomb Raider  in an unnecessarily cropped shirt and even shorter shorts.

Lara Croft from Tomb Raider in an unnecessarily cropped shirt and even shorter shorts.

 Tracer from  Overwatch  in her notorious skin-tight leggings that accentuate more than just her legs.

Tracer from Overwatch in her notorious skin-tight leggings that accentuate more than just her legs.

Such events have forged the dramatic gender gap in gaming today, and while this chasm is gradually closing in ever so slightly, there is still a ways to go. While women have begun to waft through the sea of men that largely dominate the gaming scene, they are still only but a drop in the ocean.