Photo by wlodi via Flickr.
Video games are supposed to be a fun pastime – a way to relax after work, put your feet up, and spend a few pleasant hours massacring zombies or aliens. But for many female gamers, this pastime can become increasingly frustrating and even threatening as they are bombarded with stereotypes and harassment from other gamers and even the industry.
“For me personally, I don’t enjoy playing games where I’m clad for battle in a bikini,” says Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, CEO of Silicon Sisters Interactive Inc., the first female-owned and run video game studio in Canada.
Previously, the CEO of the video game studio, Deep Fried Entertainment, Gershkovitch quickly grew tired of developing games that she felt focused on a male demographic. She also became increasingly concerned with the number of video games she saw on the store shelves that featured overly sexualized and stereotyped female characters whose disproportionate bodies were their most discerning traits. Silicon Sisters was thus created, arising from the desire to create female-centric games with female characters women can actually relate to.
“You can get a shallow connection with a player through stereotypes,” says Gershkovitch. “But you’re never going to build something wonderful, or memorable. And that’s what we want to do.”
But the studio’s birth was hit with a surprising amount of backlash from those who were not only against improving the image of women characters in video games, but seemingly against women playing video games at all. The company’s inbox was flooded with hateful and even threatening messages. It got to the point where Gershkovitch decided to stop reading the comments altogether and focus on her games so as not to get discouraged. She now feels that, although such harassment is reprehensible, it can be viewed as a litmus test for the changes occurring in the gaming world.
“People are afraid of change,” says Gershkovitch. “So to me, as ugly as that all was, I think in the end it’s a positive indicator because it shows us that change is happening, even if people are pushing back against it.”
Such change cannot come too soon for gamers such as Midnite Faery, who has asked McClung’s to be referred to by her gaming alias rather than her real name.
“If I speak through party chat [while playing games on Xbox] I get a lot of ‘Oh my God, it’s a girl’ type comments and harassment. Girl gamers are still seen in a certain negative light,” says Faery. “A lot of gaming communities can be scary places for girls to navigate.”
This is one of the reasons Faery created the website Epic Gamer Girl, a place for women (and men) to discuss video games in a safe, harassment-free environment. The site is still in its infancy, but has grown significantly since its creation a year ago, and gained five other writers. She believes her site is a place where real gamers can come as they are, whereas many other gaming sites focus only on the sexual aspects of women gamers.
For some, sites like Epic Gamer Girl are an oasis in the desert of annoying comments such as “Why aren’t you in the kitchen?” and “Tits or GTFO” and other phrases that female gamers often have to endure.
Gamer and blogger Tiffany Martin was forced to deal with this type of harassment after celebrating a Dungeons of Dredmor victory on a forum for the game.
“I joined the forum for the developers of Dungeons of Dredmor because I thought it would be fun to talk shop with other people who like the game,” says Martin. “One day was all it took to get told to go back to the kitchen.” She says that she has dealt with this type of harassment before, but this was a surprise because she thought the other gamers were “sophisticated indie game fans.”
“I was very hurt,” Martin says of the experience. “I felt like maybe now there wasn’t even a place for me in the community.”
Martin defended herself on the forum with a searing and sarcastic comment, but was surprised when one of the developers from the game’s studio, Gaslamp Games, also jumped to her defense on the thread. For her, this was the difference it took to make her feel welcome again.
“I think it’s a sign things are changing,” says Martin. “Since then I’ve seen other places on the Internet where that kind of sexist behaviour also isn’t tolerated. Instead of keeping these men in [the forums] and excluding women, now communities are excluding these men.”
“There are women and men everywhere trying to change the gaming industry for the better, to make it more inclusive,” Gershkovitch agrees. “It’s a burning issue. And it’s not just women complaining about the stereotypes and being harassed, it’s men too because they don’t want to be part of that ugliness. We’re seeing a really big pushback right now.” M