Inequality in Gaming
By Trevor Milford (eQuality Project Research Assistant)
On 15 September, professional gamer and game designer Stephanie Harvey came to the University of Ottawa to discuss her experiences in the gaming industry. As a doctoral candidate working on issues involving discrimination in gaming, I was particularly interested to hear Stephanie’s insights on how inequality and virtual harm impacted her livelihood. I’d heard about the event through a promotional article entitled “Ending cyberbullying is everyone’s responsibility” and was familiar with some of Stephanie’s work on spreading awareness about gaming-related gender inequality. Perhaps most notably, she is known for founding MissCliks, an initiative committed to ensuring that “people of all genders can participate in geek and gamer culture without fear of prejudice or mistreatment”.
I was excited to hear Stephanie’s insights, but perhaps even more excited – as I always am – that issues of inequality in gaming were being given a public platform. Many of us recall the relatively recent GamerGate controversy that brought gaming-related discrimination to the forefront of public consciousness. For social scientists like myself, GamerGate can be used as an inroad to bring discussions about inequality in gaming not only to academia, but also to the general public. I was eager for Stephanie to talk about her experiences with misogyny in gaming, both in hopes of applying what she said to my own research on GamerGate and because of the sheer importance of talking about the reality of these problems. Talking about discrimination in the abstract can be a tough sell – it’s an honour when people are willing to talk about their experiences and bring research on discrimination to life, making what we do as academics more “real” and impactful. Having these discussions at postsecondary institutions is particularly timely and important since cultures of misogyny are deeply entrenched on university campuses locally, across Canada, and across broader North America.
Talks like Stephanie’s are a great way to combat discrimination in gaming while illustrating its harms and impacts through a topic that’s engaging for audiences, and for students specifically. While roughly the same percentage of men and women play games, about 3/4 of game developers are male. Females in the gaming industry and industry-related media have received targeted death threats and other threats of violence, have had their personal information publicly “doxxed” by online harassers, and have felt compelled to flee their homes because of online aggression. Although I could continue, in the interest of saving space it suffices to say that it’s difficult to ignore the undercurrents of gender inequality and misogyny run through the gaming industry.
Stephanie shared that misogyny is something she has encountered throughout her career, referring to the gaming industry as a “boys’ club” where women are seen as disruptive to a male-dominated status quo. Women, she offered, are commonly seen by professional gamers and by industry insiders as “creating chaos” by threatening gaming’s patriarchal foundations. She mentioned that she and women she knew had witnessed a range of misogynistic beliefs both from coworkers and from fellow gamers. These include beliefs that women create more job competition, distract men, are less skilled than male players and “bring down” quality of gameplay, and are fundamentally changing gaming itself in a way that is inherently negative – namely to be more inclusive.
Stephanie also linked misogyny in video gaming to the fact that most gaming happens online and that the Internet can enable anonymity (despite some studies suggesting that anonymity actually makes online comments less extreme or contrarian). She described many harassers in games as “keyboard warriors” or “trolls” who wouldn’t behave similarly offline, paralleling harassment in gaming with harassment in online chat rooms, discussion forums or anonymous social networks. The anonymous nature of virtual harassment can make these behaviours seem less real even though they have been shown to have very real impacts for victims. This association means that misogyny both online and in video gaming can come to be seen as unserious, unproblematic, endearing, or funny, ultimately silencing serious discussion about the harms of virtual gender discrimination.
I was anxious to hear more insights and to tease apart a couple of Stephanie’s claims that I found problematic – for instance, that “men are genetically better” at certain types of games, that “men are more social”, and that “in social life men are really good at competition” (is the implication that women are not?). However, about ten minutes after she began to speak about women in gaming, Stephanie’s allotted discussion time reached its end. Since audience questions had been interspersed with Stephanie’s talk, much of it until this point had been directed by queries from the audience. It wasn’t lost on me that save for the two questions that Stephanie had time to answer after starting to speak specifically about women and gaming, all but one audience question had been from male audience members. None involved gender, or even discrimination more generally (except for one question posed by a male in the front row – “How do you feel about female gamers using their bodies to make a living?” – posed as if this were something problematic and shameful. To be fair, Stephanie’s answer was “I’m all for it”). There was no critical discussion about GamerGate, very limited discussion about harassment or bullying, and little discussion about how the inequalities for which Stephanie works to raise awareness could be resisted or mitigated.
I was taken aback that no one really seemed to care about discrimination or inclusivity – not necessarily in a radical feminist “let’s overhaul the game industry!” sort of way, but even just in a way that hinted they were willing to discuss these issues at all. Instead, the audience largely seemed focused on issues such as how to make money off gaming professionally, what made X game such a great game, or how to secure prestigious positions as game developers. I was surprised that there was evidently limited interest in more critical lines of inquiry than the venture capitalist potentials of gaming. Of even more concern, it seemed lost upon the audience that they were enacting patriarchy by dominating a discussion that had been advertised (and even reported on afterwards) as about (gender) discrimination in gaming to solicit get-rich-quick tips. For me, this illustrated a key problem: patriarchy is normalized. And because it’s normalized, we can fail to recognize it, fail to recognize the harms it creates, and fail to recognize when we perpetuate it. This is true whether our terms of reference are the gaming industry, a university campus, or society in a more general sense. So, readers, I implore you: please help to de-normalize it in whatever way you can. Maybe by making a game about it. …I’ve heard you can get rich quick.