Approximately 2/3 of the U.S. population plays video games. The video game industry has grown from a niche market to cultural mainstream, yet many publishers are sticking to games that appeal to their original niche demographic: young white men. As a result, the protagonists of the vast majority of AAA game releases are white males. Protagonists of color are extremely rare, and female characters are often relegated to being the objective of a game, not its hero.

In response to this disparity, Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian has started the video series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games.”

I have been playing video games since I was around 4 (I’m 30, do the math) and have considered myself a feminist for my entire adult life. I’ve been aware of the lack of female protagonists and the more blatant objectification of women in games, but it wasn’t until I watched Sarkeesian’s first episode (embed above) on the “Damsel in Distress” trope that I really started noticing things. I was watching a livestream on Twitch.tv of the new indie game Sword and the Stars: The Pit when I saw the end stats screen (screenshot is from Steam, not Twitch):

That image really drove home everything Sarkeesian was saying in her first video. I wondered if that would have jumped out at me before I watched the video, or if such examples of that trope are so ubiquitous that it would have passed by like white noise.

We have been told that games with female protagonists don’t sell (Becky Chambers tears down that argument/excuse) and that is why we get the white male dominated games that we do. It hasn’t helped that risk-averse publishers have just let the white male market perpetuate itself. If you make games that mostly appeal to white males and don’t make games to appeal to other demographics, then take the argument that only games that appeal to white males will sell well because that is your market, you are self-perpetuating.

However, despite this self-perpetuation, the market is broader than it seems. Here are some interesting statistics from the Entertainment Software Association:

  • Forty-seven percent of all players are women, and women over 18 years of age are one of the industry’s fastest growing demographics.
  • Today, adult women represent a greater portion of the game-playing population (30 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (18 percent).

Now, it is true that these market numbers include what some gaming hipsters would perjoratively call “casual games,” but it certainly indicates that there is potential for games that appeal to a female audience.

I think the biggest reason that Sarkeesian’s series is so important is that it leads us to think about how portrayals of women in games affect the attitudes of white male gamers towards women. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years around gaming communities, and no person can honesty deny that there is a real problem of sexism and misogyny. Female gaming livestreamers are often verbally abused and constantly hit on and men who stand up for women get attacked for being “white knights.” Much in the way that television shows like Roseanne and Ellen helped chip away some prejudice towards women and LGBT people, there is an opportunity for games to influence attitudes and redefine what it means to be female in a video game. There are indie games that are making strides in that regard, but until more major publishers of AAA games join in, the same old stereotypes and tropes will continue to dominate.

I strongly suggest you subscribe to the Feminist Frequency YouTube channel and check out the first video in the series. I eagerly await the next installment.