Sexism in video gaming

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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]


Although insults are frequent in online gaming or on internet, women are, according to Stephen Toulouse, moderator of the Xbox Live between 2007 and 2012, the most frequent target of harassment.[3] However, data from Riot Games list racism and homophobia at the top.[21] Derogatory words for gay 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 men "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]

Another study about online harassment in gaming, also from 2012, said that to date, there had been very little empirical research into online harassment and few existing studies have been focused on the motivation behind the harassment.[27]


Events in 2012 to 2014 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 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.[28] After a few days without any reaction from the sponsoring company, the female player eventually gave up the competition.[29] Capcom later issued an apology and stated that "any inappropriate or disrespectful comments will not be tolerated during filming".[30] 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][31] She eventually collected $160,000 out of the requested $6,000.[32] 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.[33]
  • 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][34]


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.[35]

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.[36]

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."[37]

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.[38]

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.[39] 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."[40]

A study published in May 2016 investigated the common perception of a gender performance gap.[41] 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".[41] 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".[42] 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.[42][43]

In an attempt to combat sexism in videogames, France has 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, they propose a rating system that distinguishes games that promote a positive female representation and those that don't, with the latter getting the highest age 18 rating. This legislation is still in the early stages, with the hope that the proposal will be finalized at the end of 2016.[44][45]

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."[46]

See also[edit]


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