Girls: It’s Okay To Come Out of the Videogame Closet

When I was nine, I stumbled upon a gaming section in a store for the first time. After rummaging through space games and shooter games and building games, I held up The Legend of Zelda to my mother and asked if I could get it for Christmas. “No,” she said. “Girls don’t play videogames.” I asked her why not and she said, “Because videogames are for boys.”

She wasn’t scolding me, or trying to be mean. She had the tone she did when she was explaining fundamental concepts: that water evaporates and turns into rain; that I shouldn’t buy the shoes that were snug because they’d hurt my feet after I’d been walking around in them all day; that my father would always forget something if he went to the supermarket by himself. And so, I put Zelda back on the shelf, and watched a little enviously at school when the boys hovered over their gameboys and talked about Super Mario Bros.

The barrier between femininity and gaming is a cultural construct that’s remained surprisingly strong, even in 2017. When it comes to women, gaming has a terrible reputation. Games themselves have traditionally been populated by women characters with bizarre proportions in barely enough clothing to cover them. Gamergate is one of the first things people talk about when discussing the culture. Women make up the minority of developers because of sexism in the workplace.

At the same time, the old belief of ‘only boys play videogames’ is now patently untrue. In the United States, 48% of the 190 million gamers are women. You’d never know, however, because most don’t talk about it. In the realm of the video game world itself, for those girl gamers who are logging on online, they’re hesitant to open their mouths and identify as female. A Pew Research Study found that while 60% of teenage girls play videogames, less than 10% will speak on a mic in a video game space.*

Even Google has yet to catch up. A search of ‘why women don’t say they play videogames‘ brings up suggested searches: girlfriend hates video games, why do guys play video games all the time, my boyfriend plays video games all the time, why do guys play video games so much, adults who play video games immature, men video games relationships, how to get your boyfriend to stop playing video games.

Furthermore, gaming itself – for men and women – is still stigmatized.

It’s a shame. Gaming as an industry has flourished, and games themselves can run the gamut from battlefields to massive open worlds to rebuilding ancient civilizations to time traveling through meticulously reconstructed historical eras. Games can showcase incredible achievements in imagination, design and storytelling.

In moderate doses, games have been proven to be beneficial. They decrease stress and can sometimes soothe anxiety and depression; they’ve been shown to increase resilience; they’re an easy gateway to communities with similar interests, and they even increase executive function. Gaming should never replace exercise, work or socializing, but it undoubtedly has value for building a community, or simply as an escape.

Gamers are programmers, students, engineers, politicians, doctors, lawyers and journalists – men and women. For all those who support gamergate, there are other communities thrilled to embrace women. Even video games themselves are adapting to a more women-powered world; just look at the original Lara Croft vs the newest Lara Croft for proof.

Girls – it’s okay to come out of the videogame closet. (And when you do, look up my gamertag. I hear Destiny‘s multiplayer is great.)

Why you should care about GamerGate

And what it means for global violence against girls and women.

Shortly after publishing, someone under the name "Gaimerg8," posted what they claimed was her home address, also known as “doxxing”.
Shortly after publishing, someone under the name “Gaimerg8,” posted what they claimed was her home address, also known as “doxxing”.

Last week, actress and gamer Felicia Day posted an entry on her blog – “Crossing the Street” –to share her concerns that an online gaming campaign has made her fearful to engage with a culture she truly enjoys. Knowing full well that her words could (and now have) result in an outpour of angry, abusive, and downright vicious attacks, Day’s post has caught attention from the media struggling to understand the ugly phenomenon known as GamerGate – an online movement of gamers openly harassing female bloggers, developers, and critics with violent threats of rape and death. Yes, as women speak out against the violence, victimization, and inequality in video games, the response has been actual violence, harassment, and real threats to their safety.

Grand Theft Auto 5: @GTAForums
Grand Theft Auto 5, Credit: GTAForums

The objectification of women in entertainment is nothing new. One needn’t look very far to see over-sexualized, scantily clad women being dominated by men. Flip through the closest magazine or look at the nearest billboard. Within the gaming culture, women have expressed increasing concern from the way female gamers are treated, to the actual representation of women in games and the amount of gratuitous violence and commodification of female characters. In the popular action-adventure game series, Grand Theft Auto, male characters are free to not only engage in sexual encounters with prostitutes, but also kill them and take their money back. In September, Japanese developers announced a new head-mounted display game that includes a pair of realistic fake breasts that players can grip as they look at a virtual image of a girl whom they can sexually assault. Yet, those who feel uncomfortable with the alarming direction games are headed are not only being shut out of the conversation, they are now being physically threatened. Ironic, isn’t it?

As we grapple with the reality that violence against women, sexual assault, and the objectification of women’s bodies continues to be deemed as an appropriate and acceptable form of “entertainment” in Western countries, the latest conversation around GamerGate highlights a global reality: physical, sexual, and emotional violence threatens every single girl and woman, every single day of her life. According the latest report from UNICEF, an adolescent girl dies as a result of violence every 10 minutes somewhere in the world. Yet, these deaths represent only the most extreme assaults in a long continuum of violence faced by girls on a daily basis, usually at the hands of those closest to them.

Credit: Dolce&Gabana
Credit: Dolce&Gabana

Is this the world we want our girls to grow up in? A world where 1 in 4 women is physically or sexually abused during her pregnancy? A world where more than 39,000 girls under the age of 18 experience early or forced marriage? A world where 98 percent of the 4.5 million forced into sexual exploitation are girls and women? A world where two young girls in search of a toilet can result in brutal gang rape and death? A world where violence is the second leading cause of death among adolescent girls globally?

Our girls deserve a world where they can transition into womanhood without sexuality and gender roles dominating and defining the trajectory of their lives.

For many girls, their first experience of sexual intercourse is unwanted or coerced. Those married as young brides face especially high risks of physical, emotional, and sexual violence along with limited to no personal freedom or decision-making power. The continued lowered status of girls in our global society, coupled with the tendency of men and boys to exert power, are key factors in the high rates of violence experienced by adolescent girls. And when these realities carry into adulthood, those patterns of violence and limitations become a burden for every generation.

Next month the world will commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – a reminder that violence against women is a human rights violation that impedes global progress in many areas, including poverty combating HIV/AIDS, and peace and security, as well as a call for action. So what can we do? Here are some ideas:

  • Raise awareness: Participate in Orange Day – November 25th – by wearing something orange to highlight the calls for the eradication of violence against women. You can submit a photo online with the message, “I wear orange because…”
  • Continue the movement: Join ongoing campaigns like VDAY and ManUp working to engage youth, advance gender equality, and transform communities, nations, and the world.
  • Raise your voice: Look for public rallies and events, such as “Take Back the Night”, raise money for community-based rape crisis centers or women’s shelters, or organize a fundraiser to benefit those working to end all forms of gender violence.
  • Educate yourself: Attend programs, take classes, watch films, and read articles and books about multicultural masculinities, gender inequality, and the root causes of gender violence. Educate yourself and others!
  • Engage more than just girls and women: Check out organizations like MenEngage who work with men and boys to promote gender equality.

We have the ability to end violence against girls and women, not overnight, but in a generation. To do it, we need a global shift in the attitudes towards women, and that means teaching boys and men to challenge and change attitudes around violence and sexism. We must continue to educate and work with young boys and girls to promote respectful relationships and gender equality. And we must not wait for an annual observance to begin. The time to end violence against girls and women is NOW.