This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Video games have always been a part of my life. When I was a little girl, I used to watch my big sister playing Guitar Hero like an early 2000s rockstar. I grew up around people playing Call of Duty and Final Fantasy, and in my teens, I picked up the same hobbies.
But when it became my turn to play, I quickly realised just how male-dominated gaming still can be. According to a 2020 report by Forbes, only 16 percent of executives at the top global gaming companies are women, and a 2019 Statista survey found that only 24 percent of game developers are female. It’s a pattern clearly reflected in the design of many of my favourite video games in which the protagonists are rarely – if ever – women and where female characters are often so stereotypical that they are impossible for me to identify with.
Although gaming might have been a predominantly male hobby in the past, data shows that more and more girls are picking it up every year. According to the market research firm Newzoo, women now make up 46 percent of the gaming community worldwide. Niko Partners, another market research company in the sector, estimated female gamers in Asia to be one of the fastest-growing audiences in the industry.
But episodes of misogyny, harassment and racism are still rampant in the gaming community. Female gamers often feel like they’re in a hostile environment where their male counterparts insult them or constantly project their fantasies onto them, leaving them feeling objectified and sexualised.
I photographed nine female gamers playing in the privacy of their rooms in an effort to reclaim the image of gamer girls, and talk to them about their experiences in this rapidly changing industry.
Delphine started streaming on Twitch in 2020 and joined Afrogameuses, an organisation bringing together Black female gamers in France. “There’s a really strong sense of sisterhood there,” Delphine says. She moderates the Twitch channel of Jennifer Lufau, the creator of Afrogameuses, who also goes by Jane Bond and Invinciblejane.
Unsurprisingly, her role as a moderator has exposed her to a lot of hate. “I don’t understand what Twitch is doing,” Delphine says. “There are people with usernames that shouldn’t be allowed.”
Delphine says Black women are especially targeted on the platform, but she has also found strength in her community. “There’s violence, but there’s also a lot of support and kindness,” she says. “You have to have the right connections.”
“I could spend hours gaming, just walking around or creating characters,” Anaelle says. She loves storytelling and character development – she even took a course in order to try and make a career out of it. “Over time, I learned more and more details about how the video game industry works, in particular about developers working overtime and harassment,” she said.
Eventually, Anaelle decided to let her dream go. She developed depression and had to move back in with her mum, but gaming is helping her get through these tough times. “Gaming is a way to get away from things. Often, it’s the last door into an outside world when you’re locked away,” she says.
Anaelle has one major critique of the industry – both female and male characters are so extreme in their representations of masculinity and femininity that no one can relate to them. “[Male characters] are often either playboys or super cool guys,” she says. “When it’s a girl, she has to be super sexy with anatomically impossible body proportions. They aren’t real characters.”
Véronique got into gaming when she was about six by watching her older sister play. “I grew up with it, it’s a part of me,” she says. “It allows me to let off steam and spend time with myself.” She was bullied in school, but through gaming, found friends she could rely on for support. “We were labelled as nerds. At the time, that was a bad thing. Now, nerdiness has become a culture,” she said.
Véronique is also on Twitch, but the platform makes her nervous. “When we’re streaming, at least us girls, we wonder if it's really worth showing our face,” she says. “We expect to get lynched.” Although women join the platform just to have a good time with friends like everyone else, they’re often made extremely uncomfortable, she explains.
“It’s sad to think that most of the people on these platforms are guys and that most of them will judge you, make you feel like an object and say you shouldn’t be there,” she says. “It’s even crazier to think that before turning your webcam on, you have to ask yourself these kinds of questions.”
Sarah started streaming three years ago. Initially, she encouraged her brother to start streaming because she thought he’d be good at it, but the tables turned and he ended up helping her launch her own channel. “I did my first two streams with my hair uncovered,” Sarah says. “But it didn’t look like me and it didn’t feel like me.”
Sarah says there are almost no hijabis playing on the platform. “I had looked for an example to follow, so I thought I might as well create one myself,” she says. The next day, she decided to stream with her headscarf on. “I was shaking because I was really scared people would comment about it,” she says. “You have to be prepared. But I couldn’t care less about trolls, in the end I show them that it doesn’t affect me and that they’re idiots.”
Sarah often plays GTA and likes to make up different voices and personas for every character. But when she plays a hijabi character, she usually gets comments about jihad and terrorism. “People find it hard to invite me onto their channel because of my headscarf. They think that if I come, it will get talked about,” Sarah says. “I have lots of plans, but for that, you have to make yourself heard, you have to make yourself seen. And people also have to accept what they’re seeing.”
When Djella was in high school, the French NGO Becometech, which aims to encourage girls to get into IT, came to speak to her class. “At that time, I wanted to be a lawyer,” Djella, who loves shooter games, says. “My mum pushed me to join the organisation and I told her, ‘IT is for boys’. That was my first reaction.”
But her mum insisted, so she gave it a go. “Having your parents’ support helps you break the mould. It shows that society doesn’t define what you do,” Djella says. She’s now got a scholarship to study at EPITECH, one of the best private schools for IT and computer science in France. “I was accepted on the day of the interview,” Djella says. “The judges said they had never seen a girl as passionate as I was.”
Royale goes to the same school as Djella. In the future she wants to be a programmer, to “create robots and build useful things,” she says. “As a person of colour, there aren’t any characters that represent me. It makes me angry.” Once, she was invited by friends to play on an app that had no characters of colour available. “So, I was a flower. I wanted to be a real person, but there just wasn’t one,” she says.
Molika Va, 39
Molika is vice-president of Next Gaymer, an organisation offering LGBTQ+ gamers a safe space to talk without fear of being stigmatised. When she was a teen in the 80s, gaming was even more of a boy’s world. But she’s always been passionate about gaming and followed gaming news very closely.
That’s how Molika first got to know other women in the community. “We looked for each other, we sent each other messages through ads in magazines,” she says. Over the years, she became close with her pen pals. “Talking about gaming in real life just wasn’t a thing for us women,” she says. “I saw it go from a secret passion to something that was more common. Today, you can be any age and play, just like watching TV.”
When I looked up Next Gaymer online, I saw a group photo on their homepage that surprised me – there were so few women in the frame. “For a very long time, I was almost the only girl that went regularly. At events with around 100 people, there are just two or three women,” Molika says.
She doesn’t think that queer gamer girls don’t exist, but that they tend to stay home because the community is overwhelmingly male. “That was a real problem with the organisation,” she says. “When I joined the committee, I wanted that to change.”
Last year, Molika created a girls-only group within the organisation. “I’ve often been asked if it’s a community within a community,” she says. “It’s not. It’s a space that allows girls to find other girls without a struggle. Otherwise it can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Preeksha’s room is filled with drawings, pictures and personalised figurines. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Indian or South Asian character in a video game,” she says. “I’d like to be immersed in a game, to be able to identify a bit more with the characters, even if it’s fiction.” It’s this desire to relate to gothic and fantasy worlds that inspires her art. “I really enjoy what I’m doing,” she says. “In my drawings, I try to create characters that look like me, in an environment that I like.”
Tifany has been gaming since she was four, but she started getting really into it around the age of ten when she played online on the PS3. “I would modify my voice so people thought I was a guy,” she says. “I made a friend, who I’m still friends with now, and he got to know me as a guy. That was my first friend.”
After she changed her username to reflect her real identity, people started calling her a “dirty slag” and saying things like, “Get back in the kitchen”. “I get those [sorts of messages] a lot. I also get flirty messages. I get a bit of everything,” she says. “You have to learn to defend yourself. Whether it’s through self-depreciation or going on the attack, or just laughing at it and ignoring it. But it can go further, it can become harassment.”
After finishing high school, Tifany got a job at the gaming store she’s been going to since she was a kid, but where she feels she’s not being taken seriously. Once, when she was helping some customers, she noticed they wouldn’t look her in the eye. “They would only speak directly to my male colleague,” she says. “When I was behind the register, they went to look for him.”