Phillipian Commentary: Playing for Progress

Chances are, you’ve played some kind of video game, whether it be a couple of rounds of Candy Crush or a full-blown match of League of Legends. Video games play a large role in American entertainment, as evidenced by the fact that 90% of American teens reported that they play video games. From 2010 to 2020, the industry’s yearly revenue increased from $78 billion to $137 billion. Despite the great size of this rising industry, prevalent gender-based harassment often combines with the faulty and deficient representation of women, making the gaming environment hostile towards them.

Persistent harassment can discourage women from enjoying their time playing video games. In 2013, researchers studied 163 games of Halo 3 that were played at a variety of skill levels. They tracked voice chat responses to pre-recorded innocuous male and female messages. During their study, they found that players directed three times as many negative comments at the female voice than the male voice, which received hostile sexist comments calling it a “slut” or a “whore” for simply saying phrases like “hi everybody” at the beginning of a game.

So why are women subject to so much harassment while playing video games? Video games are often used to escape from the reality of the outside world. The anonymity that comes from being online, however, can allow cyberbullies to feel less guilty for their actions. Research suggests that the targeting of female gamers stems from the insecurity of lower-skilled male players who see women as a threat to the perceived male-dominated hierarchy of video games (even though almost two-thirds of MMO, PC, FPS[a], and digital console gamers are men). In 2015, the Halo study was re-analyzed with a focus on how in-game skill level impacted the treatment of the two conditions. Researchers discovered that the male-voiced condition received similar amounts of positive comments from men at every skill level, while the female-voiced condition received almost three times as many positive comments at maximum skill level than at minimum skill level.

We should start by making our own differences in the gaming community. If you’re a female gamer and comfortable with it, making your presence known can help decrease the belief that video games are dominated by men. This can be achieved by using voice channels and participating in forums.

Female characters in video games are also often sexualized, which negatively impacts both men and women. In 2002, researchers surveyed the necklines of 425 video game characters and found that women accounted for less than 20% of the characters, but still made up almost 90% of the characters with necklines that revealed cleavage or pecs. The sexualization of women in video games has real-world ramifications, specifically when it comes to the self-confidence of women and the perception of women. Playing a sexualized female character in a video game not only lowers the self-confidence of the women playing but also lowers both men’s and women’s perception of female cognitive and physical ability, according to a University of Missouri study.

Sadly, this sexualized version of women sells. A 2016 study showed that the hypersexualization of female characters generally increases sales of video games while solo female characters tended to decrease sales. The representation problem is reflected in companies that produce video games as well: 79% of game developers are male. This fault doesn’t have to be something we are complacent with. Taking a stand by communicating with problematic companies and supporting less sexualized female characters can show marketers that treating female characters as objects is not a prerequisite to a successful game.

Current portrayals (or lack thereof) of women in video games can combine with gender-based harassment and push women to hide their gender or quit a game. All these factors exaggerate the male presence in video games and maintain the populational advantage that men have in this industry, leading to a self-perpetuating cycle of faulty marketing and minimized female involvement.

It’s not all hopeless, however. A study at Indiana University found that even though there is significant room for improvement, female characters are starting to slowly become more human and less sexualized. Even if you’re not a woman, practicing good online etiquette can change even one person’s day. If you defend someone who is getting harassed, or complement their gameplay, you can help raise their confidence and be a positive influence in the gaming community. Even if you’re online and have a username to hide behind, it’s important to remember that your actions can still impact yourself and others.