Do women play video games? That’s an old and tired question and everybody would think that with the overdose of information from that sector, everybody would agree that yes, yes they do. Of course, being a woman in the Indian gaming scene, the scenario is a little different. Gaming in India is, still, relatively small compared to the rest of the world but it’s a rapidly growing industry. Of course, the basis doesn’t change. We know that women also play video games, but really do we actually think about it?
The easiest way to think about this is when playing online, against other real life players. The statistics tell us that a healthy amount of women play video games and a decent amount of that should be also playing online games (just like guys!). In which case, when playing video games, how many people consider that the players they’re playing against are women? While many people agree that they do consider the different genders of the players they’re playing against, many also agree that it just doesn’t come that easily. According to Nibedita Sen, she tends, “to default to assuming they’re men, unless proven otherwise.” This obviously brings up the extremely ingrained idea of the video game being a male-only space when even the women playing it, fall prey to it. Speaking as a gamer myself, I rarely stop to think as to whether the opposing player is anything but a man unless explicitly stated otherwise, even though I am a woman playing.
Of course, there doesn’t have to be the binary of, “Is it a man? Is it a woman?” all the time. As Sourya Majumdar puts it, at least as far as MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) are concerned, he, “tends to associate the gender of the avatar (or player character) with the gender of the player, even though they may not always correspond.“ Considering how much more common female avatars are in games such as World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2, it’s an interesting reversal of the initial situation.
One of the more common sentiments regarding women in video games is the insistence that they receive ‘extra help’ and are actually ‘privileged‘ because, obviously, other male gamers are obviously killing themselves over having a woman near them. Insulting, either way. The question of whether such preferential treatment has ever really impacted players remains. For Nell (name changed by request), it was in the middle of trying out a dungeon in an MMORPG Shaiya when, “This guy asks me in the middle of the run if I’m really a girl (because my avatar was one). I said that I was and he was really nice to me throughout.”
While Nell’s might have been a pleasant experience, not everyone views such help similarly. Nibedita, while factoring some of the help as her having, “the fortune to pick MMOs with good communities”, explains that some of the help can easily be read as unnecessary hand-holding or ‘mansplaining‘, the term that has taken parts of the internet by the storm. Of course, everybody needs help when playing online video games at some point or the other (trying to figure out game mechanics, figuring out where the next boss is, etc.) but the insistence of helping out some players just because they are women smacks of the kind of thinking which states that women need to be helped. Irritating, especially in the case of seasoned female players who play the game as well as anybody. While its great if people are nice to you, ideally, people should be nice regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman and sometimes the ‘niceness’ can be really unnecessary.
On the flip side of course, we have the question of harassment in video games. Video games have garnered themselves a bit of a reputation for having a toxic community for female gamers, with several recent events such as the Gamergate controversy not helping things. While there appears to be a section of people who dismiss such claims, more and more women are now coming out to speak of their experiences. To absolutely clear here, harassment doesn’t just mean rape or death threats. It can range from what people might think are overused lines (“Go to the kitchen and make me a sandwich!”) to the aforementioned rape or death threats to outright sexual harassment. For Diya (name changed on request), it was being ignored by certain male players while for Nell, it was the gendered slurs that were often used (“stupid cunt”). Outside of video games, while not harassment per se, there is the general idea of disbelief whenever a woman speaks about playing video games whether it’s a, “But how can a girl be good at this game?” to “Wow, my first girl gamer!” Annoying at the very least, downright insulting otherwise.
All of which contribute to a general atmosphere of hostility and fear on both sides. As Rizal Saifullah puts it, “Most women I have interacted with, have either been hostile or suspicious when you’re nice to them as they think you have ulterior motives.” This is the point at which where many gamers (despite meaning well) find themselves unable to talk to each other and hence the cycle continues. And despite the continued discussion of women playing video games and women coming forward with stories of their gaming experiences, the perception of gaming as a male-dominated space continues. Much of this is probably similar to Sujayendra Krishna’s experience where the idea of gaming as a male hobby was so “ingrained into my mind that I cannot help but feel surprised at the number of women I meet today that are into gaming.” Neither is it something restricted to just the male players. Upasana Agarwal recalls how difficult it was to get many girls, she knew at school, to get into gaming with her. “Maybe because of the gendered aspect of it, but also this idea that video games are not ‘serious’ enough and so no one really recognised it as the art form it really is.”
Well for gaming to be recognised as the art form it wants to be (and considering the absolutely amazing games out there, it deserves to be), it needs to be more open to criticism and this includes treatment of its players and/or characters. Despite all of the above, things are changing, however slow it may seem. Many see the Gamergate scandal as a sort of wake up call for the gaming community, especially considering the large amount of press it got. As female gamers stop being a novelty, the trope of the ‘gamer girl’, will die a quick death. Gaming is evolving, not just as an art form, but also in how accessible it might be in the future. Playing video games now still requires significant hardware (such as a pretty up to date PC or gaming consoles such as the Playstation or Xbox). The advent of mobile gaming is pushing against these boundaries. While mobile gaming still lags behind PC in terms of sheer hardware and therefore is still not recognised as a legitimate form of gaming (more like gaming as a hobby rather than hardcore gaming) by many gamers, it’s not difficult to see it becoming its own thing in the future. It is also not difficult to see many women (considering how many people have smartphone/tablets as compared to gaming consoles) could consider this as their entry into the world of gaming.
At the end of the day, the ideal is simple: there are no ‘girl’ gamers just like there are no ‘guy’ gamers. Gamers are just gamers and whether one expresses that through swearing at everyone equally (as long as they’re not gendered) or not treating it as something so amazing so as to make it exclusive, the recognition that we have a shared hobby that we love and enjoy is the important part.