What Can Feminist Philanthropy Do to Address Sexism In Video Games?

Student game makers participate in teams at a Girls Make Games event. (Photo Credit: Girls Make Games)

The video game industry has long been thought of as a “boys’ club.” Even before August of 2014, when the events of Gamergate painted a horrible picture of the worst case scenarios for women in the games arena, representation of women in games and a lack of female game developers left much to be desired.

According to the International Game Developers Association, women make up 47% of the people playing video games, but only 22% of the people creating them. Likewise, women have been historically under- or misrepresented in games. Too often, female characters in games were (and still are) over-sexualized, cast as tired tropes like the “damsel in distress,” or used as reward fodder for gamers who would normally be expected to play males.

In response to female-led movements like #MeToo and Gamergate, along with a rising interest in boosting girls’ interests in STEM skills from a young age, the industry has seen an inspiring uptick in female participation, but it’s still got a long way to go.

Take Sony for example. As an industry mogul and the owners/creators of PlayStation, the name “Sony” sticks out in video game news headlines, no matter the release season. Its main audience base is in its home country of Japan, but PlayStation has managed to maintain its status as a top console around the world by releasing popular titles as “PlayStation Exclusives” — such as The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption, and other AAA titles. Sony has managed to keep its status as a games giant despite competition from Microsoft (Xbox), Nintendo (Nintendo Switch, Wii, etc.), and Valve (Steam, the largest game distribution platform for PC gamers).

In October of 2018, Sony announced that it was delaying the PlayStation 4 release of Senran Kagura Burst Re:Newal, an anime-style fighting game featuring scantily-clad school-aged girls, until the US-based publisher (XSEED Games) could remove a sexually explicit “Intimacy Mode” from the game, which allowed players to undress and grope the underage female characters.

Sony received an impressive amount of backlash for this announcement, as fans of the game claimed Sony’s request was unfair censorship, but the company has held true to its decision. In April of 2019, Sony announced its intention to adopt new standards that restrict the amount of sexually explicit content — or content that otherwise demeans or exploits women — in games that are released for PlayStation.

Company representatives cited a worry that Sony “could become a target of legal and social action” as its reason for curbing certain types of content.

This is progress, but the quote isn’t exactly inspiring — Sony’s official statement makes it sound more like the company is protecting its own reputation, rather than taking a stand against the exploitation of women in video games.

Because video game companies like Sony have such a large say in the media that makes it to market — the media that we, the players, eventually consume — it’s critical for games giants to take a stance when it comes to sexually explicit and exploitative content. Until we have equal representation in video game development, simply restricting content in the interest of protecting the company’s reputation isn’t enough.

Feminist philanthropy has a huge opportunity to make an impact in this sphere. The number of female game developers continues to grow, and as more female, LGBTQA+, and minority thought leaders enter the video games industry, it stands to reason that video game content will continue to include more accurate, inspiring, and fair representation for its players.

Philanthropic organizations are also working to close the gap between girls and careers in coding and game development, although there are very few organizations specifically dedicated to encouraging female games developers. Girls Make Games is one: a program that inspires the next generation of female game designers, has reached over 5,500 girls in 51 cities around the world through its summer camp, workshop, and game jam series. Women in Games International (WIGI) is another, and is devoted to promoting inclusion and advancement of women in the global games industry.

Other organizations like Girls Who Code and Generation Giga Girls (G3), while they do not explicitly aim to improve representation in the games industry, work to improve the pipeline of female engineers in the U.S. by teaching girls coding skills and data analytics from as early as middle school.

The games industry has always been a hotbed of cultural and social discrepancies, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. An influx of female game developers, storytellers, and content creators have found voices for themselves in the competitive market, and the next generation of girls are setting their sights on careers in game development, media, and marketing.

How can you support female game developers?

  1. Buy their games. This may seem like a no-brainer, but game developers’ careers only thrive when their games do.
  2. Support an organization. Membership in WIGI, a donation to Girls Make Games, G3, or Girls Who Code, or buying a ticket to an organization event puts girls one step closer to success in the industry.
  3. Take a stand. Video games are, at heart, an entertainment media. If you’re not having fun playing a game because its content makes you uncomfortable, say something about it. Honest game reviews from players are the bread and butter of industry giants like Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo — and unless gamers stand together against sexually explicit and exploitative content, these companies will have no reason to change their policies.

To learn more about organizations leading the charge to close the gender gap in STEM, read about Generation Giga Girls’ partnership program with the Elsevier Foundation and how feminist philanthropy is supporting the WE@UCLA program’s goal to tackle gender inequality in engineering.

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Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist headquartered in Annapolis, MD and Philadelphia, PA. She has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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