Sexism in video gaming

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Media critic Anita Sarkeesian drew attention to sexism in video gaming with her video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games

Sexism in video gaming is prejudiced behavior or discrimination based on sex or gender as experienced by people who play and create video games, primarily women. This may manifest as sexual harassment or in the way genders are represented in games, such as when characters are presented according to gender-related tropes and stereotypes.

The demographics of video game culture have changed since the 1980s and 90s, when video games were perceived as something of interest mainly to young men. Women make up about half of all game players as of the 2010s.[1] This change, as well as publicized incidents of harassment such as the Gamergate controversy in 2014, have contributed to industry professionals and media increasingly paying attention to issues related to sexism in video gaming.



Harassment can involve sexist insults or comments, death or rape threats, demanding sexual favors in exchange for virtual or real money, or criticism of the presence of women and their interests.[2] In some cases, female players are also stalked, whether online or offline.[3]

Women are sometimes marginalized as "intruders", as it is assumed they do not play video games that aren't associated with female players such as the Sims, music video games or casual games. Conversely, insults towards men focus mainly on their alleged lack of manliness for playing "girl games" or disliking violent games.[4] As a result, women may face offensive behavior at conventions, competitions or in video games stores. It may affect female gamers, journalists or game developers, even when they are invited to talk at a conference or to present a game.[5][6][7][8] Since the release of the NES, video games advertisements have been accused of strengthening this tendency by targeting only men.[9][10] In the 1980s, women stopped being represented playing video games in advertisement and scantily clad women started being used on game covers and ads.[9] Some women saw their non-sexualized female character designs rejected, and others reported sexual harassment in the workplace.[11][12]

According to a 2014 survey created by the International Videogame Developers Association about the satisfaction of working in video game development, results show that females claimed insubordination from subordinate male colleagues, a preference for white males in management position, and a preference for males in hiring and promotion.[13][14] In the same survey, many female developers complained about how peers did not take their video game credentials into serious consideration and reported invitations to "meetings" that were actually romantic dates.

Sexual harassment occurs frequently in many online settings relating online video games. Specifically, 65% of women report harassment and statistically receive three times as much derogatory or insulting remarks than men. With anonymity masking gamers, women are susceptible to extreme misogynistic and violent remarks.[15]

Video games conferences have been criticised for using sexualised advertising such as 'booth babes', creating a demeaning image of women, and for failing to stop harassment of female attendees. This has led some to adopt or share codes of conduct for managing these issues.[16][17][18][19][20]


Insults are frequent in online gaming. However, according to Stephen Toulouse (moderator of the online gaming service Xbox Live), between 2007 and 2012 women were the most frequent target of harassment.[3] However, data from Riot Games lists racism and homophobia at the top.[21] Furthermore, derogatory words for homosexuality are used almost constantly in online gaming.[22]

In 2012, a study of the Ohio University showed that the same person playing Halo 3 online with a male and a female profile using recorded voice messages received three times more negative comments with the female profile, despite similar game scores. Even welcoming everybody at the beginning of a game could lead to sexist insults against the female profile.[7][23] A 2015 study of Halo 3 player interactions found that less skilled male players display a tendency to make frequent, nasty comments to female gamers.[24] The researchers suggested that the poorly performing males "attempt to disregard a female's performance and suppress her disturbance on the hierarchy to retain their social rank."[25]

A study from 2006 showed that 83.4% of gamers had seen the words "gay" or "queer" used as derogatory names, and that 52.7% of gay gamers perceived the gaming community as "somewhat hostile" while 14% perceived it as "very hostile".[26]

According to Lucy Waterlow, there appears to be a deep history of sexual harassment in the video game industry and women who play video games on online forums such as Call of Duty are often told they should "return to the kitchen", along with other slurs[27]. However, the changing demographics that have been seen in the video game community (an increasing proportion of people who play video games are, as it appears, female.[28]), have led to certain consequences. The largest change in terms of who plays video games has been that of gender proportions. This translates to more women playing video games than ever before, “almost reaching parity” with the number of men that play video games. The most visible and immediate ramifications of that have been the resistance of men and even some women within the industry.[29]

Critics have stated that there is an increasing pervasiveness of the sexual harassment of women in the video game community. A study conducted by Kate O'Halloran in 2017 found that women receive an almost amplified amount of harassment in the setting of online video games than they do in real life, whereas preferential treatment is given to men by other men. The difference in the treatment of women further diminishes the desire of women to participate in video games, or, as O'Halloran found, to completely conceal their gender identity and allow other players to assume their gender. Liliana Braumberger, a participant in O'Halloran's study, states that this stems from the fact that the men who engage in this form of sexual harassment have the invisibility and anonymity that comes with participating in an online server, and that men have a certain sense of entitlement that leads to the invisibility of women. She feels that this discrimination and erasure potentially have the same effects on other people who do not identify as men, not necessarily just women.[30]


Events in 2012 to 2017 brought sexual harassment in video gaming to mainstream media's attention in the United-States,[3] United Kingdom and Germany:[5]

  • In February 2012, the behavior of a Tekken team coach against a female player of his team during a Capcom competition named Cross Assault provoked an outrage.[2] He interrogated her about her bra size, asked her to remove her shirt, took a webcam to film her breasts and her legs, smelled her and discussed her appearance during the live broadcast of the tournament on the internet.[3] He then stated that sexual harassment and the fighting game community are "one and the same thing" and that it would be "ethically wrong" to remove sexual harassment from the community.[31] After a few days without any reaction from the sponsoring company, the female player eventually gave up the competition.[32] Capcom later issued an apology and stated that "any inappropriate or disrespectful comments will not be tolerated during filming".[33] The team coach also apologized afterwards.[3]
  • In May 2012, the Kickstarter crowdfunding of videos on female representation in video games received wide coverage due to the cyber-bullying of its founder, the feminist video-blogger Anita Sarkeesian. Her Facebook, YouTube and email accounts were subsequently flooded with hateful and sexist comments, death and rape threats, and photoshopped pictures of her getting raped by video game characters. A game was created, inviting players to beat her up.[3][6][34] She eventually collected $160,000 out of the requested $6,000.[35] The most recent threat against Anita Sarkeesian was in Logan, Utah on October 15, 2014. She was scheduled to deliver a speech on a Wednesday evening until an anonymous email message arrived a day before, stating that there would be a mass shooting if the event was held.[36]
  • In France, the female blogger Mar_Lard brought attention to the sexism in the video gaming community in May 2013 by publishing a blog post named Sexisme chez les geeks: Pourquoi notre communauté est malade, et comment y remédier, a compilation of sexism problems in the geek community.[7][8][37]
  • Parts of the writing of the 2016 video game Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear attracted controversy and resulted in hateful and sexist harassment to the developers, with Eurogamer's Robert Purchese reporting that criticism focused on two scenes perceived as pushing a political agenda. The first is the character Minsc's quip, "Really, it's about ethics in heroic adventuring", a reference to the Gamergate controversy. The second is an optional dialogue tree in which the cleric Mizhena mentions that she was raised as a boy, indicating that she is a trans woman.[38] Colin Campbell of Polygon reported that writer Amber Scott faced online harassment and insults, and that the game's Steam and GOG pages were bombarded with complaints that the transgender reference constituted "political correctness," "LGBT tokenism" and "SJW pandering."[39] Scott said she wanted to address elements in the original Baldur's Gate that she considered sexist, including its depictions of Safana as a "sex object" and Jaheira as a "nagging wife" played for comedy.[40] She had previously commented: "I get to make decisions about who I write about and why. I don't like writing about straight/white/cis people all the time. It's not reflective of the real world, it sets up s/w/c as the 'normal' baseline from which 'other' characters must be added, and it's boring."[41]
  • In November 2017, the cosplayer Christine Sprankle announced that she was quitting Magic: the Gathering cosplay due to persistent harassment.[42] In a Twitter post, she named MtGHeadquarters/UnsleevedMedia as having made her "life hell this whole year".[43] In response, Wizards of the Coast posted a tweet saying they are "saddened", and that the bullying and harassment is "unacceptable".[44] Additionally, many professional Magic players posted an open letter in support of Sprankle and in criticism of the harassment.[45] Jeremy Hambly, the accused, remarked that Wizards of the Coast may likely issue a ban that would affect his ability to play Magic Online among other formats.[46]


A study performed by Jesse Fox et al. suggested that due the Proteus effect, manifesting a sexualized character in a video game can have adverse mental effects. They designed a study in which 86 women from West Coast university played a virtual reality game. Women who used sexualized characters that looked like them had a higher rape myth acceptance than those in other conditions, which is the validation of incorrect and stereotypical ideas about rape that blame the victim, and increased body-related thinking which can lead to increased self-objectification. It can be suggested that those who use sexualized characters in video games are more likely to develop harsh attitudes in regards to women and their own selves in reality. They state that it may prompt a kind of safeguard for the self, or that they are more likely to blame a rape victim for the act due to avoiding imagining themselves in the same position.[47]

In another study 181 students from private liberal arts college in North Carolina were tested. Group exposed to highly sexualized images from video games (in comparison to control group) was more tolerant to sexual harassment but showed the same rape myth acceptance.[48]

Karen E. Dill and Kathryn P. Thill state that adolescents, particularly boys and those who play games, are ignorant of the adverse impacts of detestable media content, and therefore ignorant of the when they are affected adversely. Theories such as the cultivation theory, social cognitive theory, ambivalent sexism theory, and hegemonic masculinity theory all aid Dill and Thill in discussing the repercussions of perpetuating gender stereotypes in media like video games. These theories also illustrate the ways prominent video game characters are gendered and what is received by the user or viewer. They write that "Gender portrayals of video game characters reinforce a sexist, patriarchal view that men are aggressive and powerful and that women are not healthy, whole persons, but sex objects, eye candy and generally second-class citizens."[49]

According to Jeffrey Kuznekoff and Lindsey Rose, the fact that gamers experience misconstrued portrayals of appearance, violence, and sexual objectification can impact their understanding and communication with other gamers, especially female gamers. In addition, these gender portrayals become increasingly prominent because of the mass appeal and number of users of online multiplayer games. They found that the female voice received nearly three times as many directed negative comments than the male voice or control. They also found that there was no correlation between the number of directed negative comments and the skill level of the other player. On several occasions, the female voice received strong sexist replies for phrases such as "hi everybody" or "alright team let's do this" despite the female voice having almost the same win percentage as the male voice (56% to 61%, respectively). Additionally, they found that when the other player responded with a positive remark, they were more likely to ask questions. Overall, Kuznekoff and Rose found that there were hypernegative effects with hostile targeting of the female voice.[50]

In 2015, a three-year German study of 824 gamers found, when controlling for age and education, that there was no correlation between sexist attitudes and time spent playing video games, or with preference for video game genres. The longitudinal study was based on cultivation theory, and the results broadly showed that playing video games did not lead to gamers becoming sexist.[51] The authors Johannes Breuer, Rachel Kowert, Ruth Festl and Thorsten Quandt have, however, been keen "to make clear that [their] study does not show that sexism is not an issue in/for games and gaming culture. There are many content analyses of popular games that show that female characters are underrepresented or presented in an overly sexualized manner and there is also ample evidence that many players, particularly female, have experienced sexism in their interactions with other players."[52]

A study published in May 2016 investigated the common perception of a gender performance gap.[53] The researchers analysed the performance data of over 10,000 players (both men and women) in the online MMORPGs Everquest II in the United States and Chevaliers III in China. The study contends that "perceived gender-based performance disparities seem to result from factors that are confounded with gender (i.e., amount of play), not player gender itself".[53] Lead author Cuihai Shen stated that if there was a gender disparity favoring men then "they should advance to higher levels within the same amount of play time" however their analysis indicated "women advanced at least as fast as men did in both games".[54] Shen outlined that there was a difference in play style between the genders, and stated "women did spend less time playing overall than men, they chose characters that are more assistive, and were more drawn to social interaction and helping others.[54][55]

A study was conducted on 154 Italian male high school volunteers. They were tasked with playing one of three different types of games. The first was Grand Theft Auto. Females in this game are secondary, usually strippers and prostitutes that are used as sexual objects by players. The second was Half Life 1 and Half Life 2. Although this game is violent, the female character plays a lead role and is not depicted in a sexist or sexual manner. Lastly, there was Dream Pinball 3D and Q.U.B.E. 2, which contain no violence or sexuality. Afterward, the volunteers were shown one of two pictures that showed females as victims of violence. Participants then rated whether they felt sympathetic, moved, compassionate, tender, warm, softhearted, disregarded or indifferent on a scale of 1, not at all to 7, very much. The study concluded that those that identified strongly with the male characters in the sexist-violent video game, Grand Theft Auto, showed the least amount of empathy towards the female violence victims. "The portrayal of men in the media as socially powerful and physically violent reinforces assumptions about how men and boys should act in society, as well as how they should treat women and girls. Exposure to sex-typed media characters can have real world consequence."[56]


Female activists actively promote changes in the way women are portrayed in games and how they are treated by the industry and gaming public as a whole. Media critic Anita Sarkeesian, for example, has – through her organization Feminist Frequency – given lectures and training to help change gaming culture.[57]

A prevailing perception is that the gaming industry is not fit for female workers because of sexism. According to Richard Wilson, CEO of TIGA, "typically, 80% of the workforce is qualified to degree level or above, but the proportion of women studying subjects such as computer science or games programming courses is low. There is only a comparatively small pool of potential female employees available to work in the games industry."[58]

Initiatives on the part of gaming companies include codes of conduct and the adoption of trainings and standards to ensure safe and respectful workplace.[59] In an attempt to combat sexism, the French government in 2016 proposed pieces of legislation that would give bonuses or incentives to video game creators that promote a more positive image of female characters in their games. Furthermore, these proposals outline a rating system that distinguishes games that promote a positive female representation and those that do not, with the latter getting the highest age 18 rating.[60][61]

See also[edit]


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