2015 has become a controversial year for the great debate of whether or not women are actually ‘gamers’, or just casual plebs who stick to Candy Crush on their phones. Despite several studies in recent years disproving that stereotype, ranging from the ESA’s annual report to more independent ones by people like Ashly Burch and researcher and author Rosalind Wiseman, the myth still holds ground in the Internet gaming culture as a whole.
Well, yet another study has come out, this time by renowned statisticians Pew Research Center, showing that of the nearly two-thousand people polled, 42% of game console owners are women, most of which are between ages 18 and 29, matching up with previous studies performed by the ESA and other organizations. This is compared to only 37% of men. This study explicitly excludes smartphones and social media apps and focuses only on dedicated gaming consoles, and that’s really important because every time one of these studies shows up saying that adult women are in the same percentage or higher as men who play ‘real’ games, the Internet tends to scream back with unfounded points meant to refute and muddle the findings of the professional study.
The old go-to response to these surveys in recent years has been that women only play casual smart phone games, and because of the mass adoption of casual gaming on the devices, it’s skewing the data. Other arguments range from assuming the women only played on their boyfriend’s devices or that they only own game machines because they bought them for their kids. These people read a headline and go into the article already having made the decision that it must be wrong in some way. It must be flawed. There’s some inherent problem to it or minute detail that must dismiss the whole thing as ‘clickbait’ because it dares to question what they’ve already decided must be right.
Worse than that is how that culture and idea is spread by the games media, who are gamers themselves at heart, reporting on the subject. People who themselves only glanced at the above graphic and skimmed others in the Pew release decry it for factors that, if they’d only spent a moment longer with the source material or done a little bit of that ‘investigative journalism’ thing, they’d have answered their own questions. Another fun fact many are pointing to is that in another of Pew’s polls, focusing on portable gaming, they used very poor wording in their preface paragraph and again in the poll graphic, mentioning the SEGA Genesis. Most people see the graphic (below) and use it as proof that Pew doesn’t know what they’re talking about, citing a home game console as a portable, and therefore the associated poll saying more women own consoles than men must be wrong as well.
If you read the Pew release article, the paragraph above that graphic says “Some 14% of U.S. adults have a portable gaming device such as a PSP or Sega Genesis game player, similar to the share who owned one in 2009”. To the uninitiated, that’s this little device right here, a dedicated portable SEGA Genesis game player:
The whole point of Pew even mentioning this device was to show that yes, they’re talking about dedicated gaming portables and not smartphones or tablets or other devices. The very example they used to prove their point was immediately used against them by games media and consumers who don’t know what this specific device is, let alone that there’s been several models of it over the years. A very poor choice of words on Pew’s part, yes, but it is NOT evidence that an associated poll, showing something you innately feel must be wrong, actually is. One assumed goof (that turns out, actually isn’t a goof at all) doesn’t automatically negate anything Pew says about gaming, or imply that they don’t know what they’re researching. That’s a logical fallacy.
Many of those game journalists who spread and reinforce this mentality of immediate dismissal don’t even realize that what they’re doing is hurting the overall conversation, and in turn, the very people they otherwise claim to support. The consumers who listen to them, on the other hand, are far more aware that their actions and dismissals and slander are hurting the cause of women being seen as equal in the same consumer space as them. Even girls do it to, it’s not limited to strictly male ‘gamers’. This group of consumers sees these articles and comments either that they don’t believe it because they’ve personally only met a handful of female gamers (agreeing with the dismissal but not being dicks about it), while the other (more vocal) side are shouting about how this is feminist manipulation of the data or trying to reinforce sexist presumptions that they must all be straight women who bought the consoles for their boyfriends or kids because surely a woman would never want to play something for herself, right? These unicorns don’t exist!*
These are the same people who will immediately dismiss this article, or any similar thinkpiece dripping with feminist tones, once they find out it was written by a woman, or rather, once they assume what the headline must mean and therefore decide not to read the article at all and instead rant about the presumed premise based on its ‘clickbait’ title. I must just be a sexless man-hating SJW feminist on her rag, right? If I were a guy, I’d be dismissed as being whipped or called a ‘cuck’ for writing anything even hinting at pro-feminist thought. These sorts of articles aren’t for them. They’re set in their dismissal before it even begins, and no studies, research, logic, or even asking for basic respect will persuade them.
Luckily, the industry is trying to break away from those self-fulfilling marketing ploys that created this segregated consumer culture in the first place and instead, has finally started to trust the data. At the last E3 we had a wonderful show (and wonderful reception) of female characters leading their own games and not falling into the pandering schemes of the past by marketing to teenage boys with raging hormones. Instead, they are marketing towards the data: adult women and men who want to see female characters done right and not reduced to the sum of their parts, objects of desire for male characters, or fueled by stories of sexual abuse and subsequent revenge or the ever popular ‘daddy issues’ trope. In general, the data shows that most people want female characters that are as respected by the game’s authors as the male characters they churn out, and some people, according to Burch’s study, simply want some differentiation. Someone new to play as other than the idealized male power fantasy.
But back in the digital world, the vocal and the passive seem to immediately decry any data pointing toward a non-male-dominated gaming world, and decry any criticisms of existing female characters who may be strong but are otherwise completely undermined by objectification, or stripped of their consent, in some way. As an example, Samus Aran can be the badass bounty hunter all she wants, but at the end of the game, you’re still rewarded with seeing her mostly naked if you play well enough. That’s ultimately the incentive of the game: see her in more scantily clad outfits. Nintendo even went a step further by making her skin blue and claiming it’s clothing.
Metroid: Other M is actually a pretty fun action game at its core, despite not being a very ‘Metroidy’ experience, but painting Samus up to look like a porn star while giving her daddy issues and out of character confidence issues undermines any of the high-adrenaline moments of badassery. At the time of Other M‘s release, this disappointment was echoed throughout gaming media and fans alike, but if the same conversation were held today, these same complaints would be decried en masse as feminist SJW nonsense, and the game would solely be judged on its non-atmospheric gameplay and ambitious presentation.
And that’s just one character, of many that people try to throw out as token ‘sexy female characters who are also strong’ to ignore any criticisms to the media we love. I won’t even get into Bayonetta, Lara Croft, or the fact that of the five to ten genuinely positive representations of women in gaming that are thrown out in these arguments to somehow dismiss the criticism, there are hundreds of thousands of male characters who are shown positively, or even neutrally. The argument implies that because there’s a handful of token positive women, it validates the disproportion. It’s the same argument that white people throw out to excuse a racist joke: “I have a black friend so it’s ok”. I also won’t get into the difference between objectification and idealization, a difference between male and female character representation trends that’s been disseminated and discussed many times before.
All of this has been said time and again, usually with threats of violence for simply speaking up or pointing out existing trends. Gaming is a ‘boys club’ due to toy marketing in the 80s and 90s and gaming latching onto those booming brand-new segregation trends in an effort to revive the industry. But once games took hold and broke away from the ‘toy’ association, the marketing didn’t really change. What we’re left with is a generation of gamers who’ve been told all their lives that these wonderful experiences are tailored just for them, yet somehow women have been playing these games all along and they can’t comprehend it because it goes against every subconscious thing that marketing has taught them. Even many women fall into the trap too and decry anyone, male or fellow female, who speaks up against that idea that gaming could possibly be shared equally with positive representations for both binary sexes. The studies keep showing time and again that the industry and its consumer base is maturing, but the attitudes in many of the consumers have not.
That’s part of why this most recent poll is so telling. It’s a national poll with error checks and controls done by one of the best such organizations on the planet. And what’s more telling is that, to them, the difference between 37 percent of men and 42 percent of women owning consoles is considered negligible, and it matches up with data from the same study conducted in 2010. This poll specifically queried adults 18 and over.
The Burch poll went the opposite route and specifically targeted school children across the country, up to age 18. Their study went a step further by directly asking people if they think the current trend of female portrayal is sexist or whether or not they’d like to play as a female character. The data shows, generally speaking, that the older people get, the more they notice troubling trends and the more they would like to play as a female character either for immersion’s sake or just for something different. This is the exact opposite attitudes of the vocal and sometimes violent detractors on the Internet.
What we can infer from all of this is that in general, most gamers want to see the industry evolve and mature and address its mistakes so it can move forward as a whole. We think that inclusion is a wonderful thing that gets more people to experience the wonder and fun we have been so lucky to enjoy, without at all hindering those experiences for ourselves. Most of us gamers were kids when the industry was becoming a massive juggernaut and now we’re in our twenties and thirties, matured and moved on with our lives, and expecting our favorite media to mature with us and evolve over time just as every other entertainment industry has. We, the vast majority of gamers, have grown up and slowly but surely, gaming is growing up too.
But then we have people sending death threats to Jimmy Kimmel because he doesn’t understand the point of watching a game stream.
But hey, maybe this latest poll is just as corrupt and skewed as the countless others because I happen to be female and I own like twenty consoles and they didn’t have a control for that. While we’re at it, let’s keep denying climate change in the face of 97% of all global research on the subject saying it’s real, man-made, and a threat. Adult women can’t possibly make up half of gamers, let alone be the largest demographic. Everyone can’t be gamers like me, right? …right?
*We do, and we’re far more common than you think.