The day after the BBC premiered its woeful Grand Theft Auto drama The Gamechangers, which we covered here, its Horizon strand took a stab at addressing video gaming's (somewhat out-dated) public perception by asking: Are Video Games Really That Bad?
The answer, inevitably, and obviously to anyone who's played video games more than once since 1985, is no, categorically not. Games are great, and valuable to society in so many ways. But while the programme was somewhat behind the "specialist" (i.e. that of the games media and associated communities) thinking on the subject, fair enough given its mainstream reach, it wasn't a bad documentary at all. And one of the stats the show served up, which might surprise those holding archaic opinions, was that video games are now enjoyed in relatively equal numbers by men and women alike, a fact previously highlighted by The Guardian, here on VICE, at Kotaku and on many other sites.
But you can't publish a piece that mentions this relative evenness without comments and social media feedback to the tune of: bullshit. Apparently there's a division between who can and can't be called a gamer, and weirdly that's dependent on what kind of game you play. So, you're playing a game, but you're not a gamer; and to some angry internet keyboard warriors, if you're playing mobile games, nah, you're not a gamer. And women, they just love Candy Crush and those freemium titles that stink up the App Store, don't they? Obviously. Not gamers.
We've all read words to that effect online, and when VICE ran a positive piece on how we're all gamers today, the amount of shit that the article's writer received on Twitter for daring to classify lovers of games that aren't Dark Souls or multiplayer competitive shooters as "gamers" was outright disgusting. Some people with way too much time on their hands and far too little perspective even made YouTube videos in a weird form of retaliation to the article. Really, guys? (And you are all guys.) Come on. Lighten up. Go outside. See a tree IRL. They don't all sway as madly as they do in your favourite epic fantasy RPG, honest. Some of them even smell nice.
I wanted to speak to some female gamers of Great Britain, who love the medium and commit countless hours to enjoying it, in its many and varied forms, about this nonsense attitude that "girls only play casual games", and more. So I did. And these are the women I spoke to, talking frankly about their experiences, in their own words.
Chelsea is in her early 20s and from Derbyshire
"I've been gaming for about 15 years, since I received Pokémon Red and a Game Boy Color for Christmas. I've been pretty much addicted since then, and have owned a very wide range of consoles up to my Xbox One and PC today. I was constantly introduced to new genres via my friends, and I love how video games take you to another world – and I think that's what keeps me addicted now. Right now I'm playing The Evil Within and I'm consistently playing World of Warcraft and Pokémon Alpha Sapphire. In terms of an all-time favourite, picking just one is very difficult. Through sheer amount of hours played I would have to choose World of Warcraft and Pokémon Crystal, but I also have a special place in my heart for Dragon Age: Inquisition.
"I play online almost daily, and I do use voice chat quite regularly. I find that the voice chat community is not always welcoming of women, particularly on games like Call of Duty, which you would associate with the 'dude talk' type of players. I have been harassed in the past for being female on these games, and it does put me off going onto voice chat sometimes. I'm always surprised when I hear harassment these days as while it used to be extremely common when I was younger, I always assumed that the community would have grown up by now. I assumed wrongly. It can often be a lot easier to keep quiet if I want to just play the game.
"I've found that the people who do act like that are quite young, or certainly less mature than other players. I also use voice chat in MMOs such as World of Warcraft, and I find that they are more welcoming, I've definitely had less people take notice of the fact that I'm female in those – they are more interested in succeeding at the game.
"I think women generally have a harder time getting into games than men, and that attitude possibly comes from the way video games are advertised. It's quite unlikely to see a female-led game advertisement, particularly one that actually shows a female playing the game. It's certainly got better in recent years, but there is still a lot that could be done. I think it comes from old stereotypes too, like the idea that mums sit and play mobile games all day whereas men work all day and play video games to unwind at night. I would say I'm split on that opinion, though. I don't have many female friends who play 'hardcore' video games if you could call them that, but I also don't have many that play casual games either. I'd like to think that this is just coincidence and is down to my friendship group though. My female friends who do play video games definitely play more 'hardcore' games as opposed to casual games.
"My male friends around my age do not have that opinion, that women can't or don't play the bigger games; they're aware that women play all sorts of games. I find younger males do have that opinion, though I have four younger brothers and they definitely think like that, despite the fact that they see me playing many different games. Women around my age are definitely more interested in gaming than women in their 30s.
"I think having more female characters to play as in video games could help younger girls get into gaming. I know that I was very happy when Pokémon introduced a female playable character. I think that a lot of the issues are attitude issues, with the idea that women just don't play games passed down to younger players who subsequently feel alienated. The way some males act on voice chat is obviously an issue too, but I think that's a much more difficult one to fix and there will always be people who act like that. I find that standing up for myself and calling them out on their immaturity can help, but this might be a dangerous thing to teach young girls and shouldn't be necessary. It could also help to have more female teams in online eSports tournaments, but I don't feel like it should be a quota situation. Perhaps more encouragement that it's a safe community is needed? Overall, I think both the games and the advertising of them need to change, but it's not a thing that can be fixed overnight."
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Claire is in her mid-20s and lives in London
"Video games have been a massive part of my life for as long as I can remember – an interest in them was something my dad actively encouraged in my brother and me. My earliest memories come from the Amstrad and Mega Drive, and my dad letting me stay up late so I could play as Tails while my older brother completed Sonic 2 for the first time. I'm not going to pretend I was helpful at all; I probably spent most of my time telling him to slow down so I could catch up. After that I got my own Commodore Amiga and played point-and-click games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle; the former of which continues to be one of my favourite games of all time and certainly one of the funniest.
"I got my first PC for my ninth birthday and would do most of my gaming on there, either on PC games or with an emulator. I downloaded Pokémon Blue and was obsessed with the franchise instantly – I still have an embarrassingly encyclopaedic knowledge of it to this day. Transport Tycoon consumed my life for a long time, too.
"I've always been a fan of massively immersive sandbox-style RPGs and adventure games, as well as simulation and strategy games. I took two days off work when Grand Theft Auto V was released. I restarted Fallout: New Vegas recently and have been playing that to gear me up for Fallout 4. My flatmate and I play Left 4 Dead and I also still go back on Skyrim every now and again, which feels like putting on a pair of comfy slippers by now. I've stacked up about 200 hours on there but I can still find things to do and discover.
"Playing online was never really something I've become involved in heavily. I did play GTA Online though, and have dabbled in other multiplayer games on occasions. I tend to stay off the mic to save the effort of baiting 13-year-old boys then getting angry at them – I get enough shit from men who think I got lost on my way to the kitchen at football grounds to hear it when I'm at home as well.
"But I do think that it's so important for women not to be put off, and to keep doing it though, to keep challenging these stereotypes and fighting idiots who have archaic views on what genders should be interested in. There is a constant pressure for women to prove that they are allowed to exist in the gaming world, either by being great at these games or having an encyclopaedic knowledge of them, or gaming in general.
"That women play more 'casual' games than men is, of course, completely untrue – I don't think that women like me are anomalies, we are more common than people think. But I also think people should like whatever the hell they want to like without fear of reproach. So what if some only play casual games? That doesn't nullify the other women who are hardcore gamers and it also shouldn't be something to be embarrassed about – take it from someone who has played and completed seven different iterations of Harvest Moon, which was surely the main inspiration behind Farmville. It's such an elitist view to take. The gaming world should be far more inclusive and accepting but you can see parallels in any other hobby.
"I think for some women trying to get into gaming it's just too difficult because you're constantly being pressured to prove yourself – something I also find in football."
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Nicola is in her early 40s and lives in Yorkshire
"I've been playing video games since I can remember, as far back as maybe 10? I recall my friend having an Atari system and we'd spend hours playing those early games. Growing up, my dad built a Nascom and I've fond memories of buying computer magazines with games codes in them, coding line by line to create simple text adventure games. Later we got an Amstrad CPC 464 and I spent many hours completing levels in Manic Miner and Chuckie Egg.
"As a teenager this enthusiasm waned a bit, as I was never allowed any of the fancy early console systems – I'm an only child by the way. But my friend who had a younger brother had them all, and we'd often go to her house, a group of us, and play Sonic, or on her Game Boy.
"I stopped gaming when I went to university and never thought much more about it, until I was on holiday with my then boyfriend in Sicily. I got badly burnt by the sun and had to spend a couple of days indoors. My boyfriend's brother had brought his PlayStation with him to the apartments we were staying in, with a copy of Tomb Raider. I completed it in those two days, and promptly bought my own PlayStation when I returned to the UK. I remember the guy in the store asking if I was buying it for a boyfriend or brother, and he seemed surprised and pleased when I said that it was for me.
"After that I bought a PS2, and then an Xbox 360 after seeing my younger brother-in-laws playing Gears of War. I could not believe the jump in graphical presentation in that game, and I just had to have it, in the same way I had to have Tomb Raider. I got chatting with some guys at work who also had Gears, and the next minute I was buying an Xbox Live Gold account to play online. I've been hooked since.
"Nowadays I like RPGs, because they're like a really long novel to me. I definitely think there is more scope in that genre to have better represented male and female characters, compared to other game types. FemShep is my idol! I have a huge girl crush on my FemShep.
"Have I had shit from guys for playing games? Oh yes. I've had all the standard 'fat, ugly, or slutty' stuff, 'How big are your boobs?' and so on. I've even had a picture of someone's penis sent to me. I've also experienced in-game harassment on Rainbow Six: Vegas, Call of Duty games and Halo titles, been team killed repeatedly, received messages calling me a whore, and been told that I cheat. Though I take that as a sign that I'm pretty good at shooting stuff in the face online. Someone once asked me to 'clambag' them on Halo, next time I kill them.
"I've also experienced scorn for playing games in my real life. My friends don't always get it, and seem to think I'm the butt of the joke sometimes. I don't think they realise how sophisticated games are these days.
"I think the idea that women playing games is limited to 'casual' mobile stuff is ludicrous. In my experience, most of the women I know who play games, they play like me, in silence, or in party chat. It's not worth the hassle most of the time to engage in open game chat. And I play every day, for at least a couple of hours per day. My husband does not play games and cannot understand it at all. When the telly is in use, I used to move my Xbox to another TV; now I stream to my PC instead, or use PSTV.
"I definitely think the current games culture is biased against women playing video games, but I don't think there are barriers for female gamers to get into it. To be honest, I'm of an age where I don't actually give a fuck what people think or say about me, so I'm not likely to be put off by any societal pressure on women and games."
Lucy is in her early 20s and lives in London
"My earliest gaming memory is getting a PlayStation One for Christmas when I was about four years old. It came with Wipeout 2097, and my brother got a copy of Tomb Raider. I was terrible, awful, but I loved it. Growing up I went through all the generic PS1 games everyone remembers, like Spyro and Crash Bandicoot, which utterly hooked me. On PlayStation 2 I completed the Tony Hawk games multiple times, same for Ratchet & Clank, Canis Canem Edit and others. I swapped to Xbox 360 after playing Gears of War with my brother one Christmas and from there I think my teenage years were more dominated by gaming.
"Nowadays my gaming time is reduced a lot by university, but I'm still excited for Fallout 4, Mirror's Edge: Catalyst and, of course, Dark Souls 3, especially if its world is like the first game's. I'm not as big an online fan but I'm looking forward to trying out Rainbow Six: Siege and The Division at EGX this weekend.
"A lot of action games may have one or two female characters that seem more token than anything else, and tend to have the same personality types or roles. RPGs tend to have a much bigger world and a larger variety of characters, both male and female.
In Bloodborne, my main character is female. The normal default for gaming tends to be a male protagonist, and given the choice most of the time I'd customise my character and make them female. The lack of choice is not something that will deter me from a game, nor would the ability to choose be a major selling point for me, but having the option is always nice. Even if it's a non-human, bizarre-looking character, having a female voice and a female avatar seems more immersive to me.
"I think that we're at a time where gaming is more accessible than ever to a general audience, especially with the wide array of indie games constantly being released. For bigger releases, though, a lot of those coming out soon are from a series – Fallout 4, Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, Black Ops III and so forth – and for someone newly interested in gaming they may not know where to begin, and are unwilling to jump in in the middle of a series. I've never really felt that big games aren't marketed towards women, but with a rise in female protagonists big games such as Mirror's Edge: Catalyst may be perceived as more appealing to a female audience – it's certainly refreshing.
"I don't tend to play online much nowadays because the games I'm currently into tend to be single player, but in the past I've experienced a few negative things for being female. When Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 came out I spent hours playing versus mode online, both with friends and alone. I was good at it, too, as you'd hope with the time I put in. My usernames are always just made-up words, gender neutral sounding, but for Left 4 Dead I'd sometimes use the mic if I could hear the other players. It wasn't uncommon for me to hear 'Get back in the kitchen,' or similar remarks, or just to be kicked out of the game entirely. I realised that there was no point engaging with the verbal stuff when it happened – what can you do when your teammates have just voted you out of a game after hearing your voice? It used to anger me at the beginning, but after a while I learned to shrug it off.
"In person, the most annoying thing is feeling like I need to defend my interests, or to 'prove' myself. Sometimes after finding out I'm into gaming, the immediate follow-up is asking what consoles, which games, how long for, did my boyfriend, brother, flatmates or someone else male get me into it, as if I need to pass a checklist to verify my hobby. A lot of the time it's someone genuinely being interested in some common ground, but sometimes you do get people that think you're doing it for attention, and I think this is a mindset that is certainly more prominent online. The anonymity that the internet offers over real life will probably help fuel any toxicity present, too, as well as the rise of streaming games, where people may feel that good-looking women are just doing it for the attention or for money. Granted, some may be, but that would only be a small percentage of the overall streaming population.
"I've never really felt like my hobbies set me apart from other people and that I get more attention for it at all, and with gaming ever becoming a more popular pastime I think this mindset will probably fade."
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Zoë is in her mid-20s and lives in London
"The first game I remember playing was this ancient thing on an original Apple Macintosh, about angels, possibly. But the first I ever owned was Command & Conquer. I still remember the double-width CD jewel case it came in, it had a real heft to it. Right now I'm playing a lot of Metal Gear Solid V, but also Guild Wars 2, Dota and a bunch of real-time strategy games.
"I think there is a lot of derision from inside the gaming community that considering it more than a hobby is dangerous – that you instantly become a basement dweller who turns into a vicious dog when a corporate brand they have loyalty to is criticised. In that respect I don't think of myself as a 'gamer', and Leigh Alexander was right when she said 'gamers' – as in, the neat package of 16-24 year old males that we love to advertise to – are dead. But I think it's really important we recognise how influential games are in our lives. So yeah, gaming is very much more than a hobby for me, but the debate might be semantic, since what I really want to draw out that its been more than just a pastime, I've made friends, improved my mental health and its shaped the way I think, and I'm not sure that's encapsulated in the word 'hobby'.
"The internet has taught me a lot of things, mainly that there are a lot of stupid white men on it. When it comes to the hardcore versus casual 'debate', I say: there is no wrong way to play. Games like Monument Valley are way better than Call of Angry Men Duty, so even if the women/men, casual/hardcore dichotomy were true and totally not nonsense, it wouldn't be a good result.
"There is a triple, read quadruple, read septuple threat to women getting into gaming. Access to technology is one – a direct path can be drawn from why STEM fields are so male centric to why gaming is so male centric. Being smart is 'not for girls', and while there is really noble pushing back on this, it's still pervasive. Advertising loves simple demographics, and girls like pink and inoffensive things, and the market research tells them that they are right because that is what our culture has told women to like for so long. Games campaigns are typically fronted with men and the male gaze in mind, and a lot people don't see anything wrong because being a white cis heterosexual male who is able is the default category. In short, the paradigm sustains itself and it can be really hard to break out of that.
"I've received a lot of harassment when playing online, though I don't speak or talk about my womanhood with random Joes. I've taken the negative view that everyone on the internet is a massive shithead until proven otherwise. And I don't give them chances to prove me wrong most of the time.
"I play in a competitive Dota 2 team, and it's taught me a whole lot about myself and it's one of the reasons I think that games can be so influential. Believe me, you think long and hard about teamwork and perception after 2,000 hours of Dota. I fucking love eSports, and not just to play. I still have a soft spot for StarCraft: Brood War, as it taught me so much about myself. How determined I was, how I practised, the way I considered systems and other people.
"It's great to watch eSports, too. The last TI (The International, the world's biggest Dota 2 tournament) was amazing. I cheered for the Korean teams, because underdogs woo. Women in eSports have a long way to go, however, and it all ties into the same problems. Women in teams are considered trophies, never viable competitors, and that's because there isn't the support groups to help them grow. It's the same for the hosts: women are eye candy to tie the production together. They all do tremendous jobs, but you wonder why people like Sheever, who is perfectly capable, get less input in post-game analysis then their male counterparts.
"Another shifty meme is that woman aren't competitive. Pull the other one. Women are rigorously told that being competitive isn't womanly. Look at the kickback towards the Beyoncé-supported Ban Bossy campaign for example. Yes to more women, and fewer sausage fests, please!
"I focused on games for my university dissertation – I studied archaeology. I wanted to really explore if video games could be used to teach concepts in a non-didactic fashion, so I ended up with something comparing archaeological methods with game playing, comparing them as different types of process. Was constructing a Harris matrix akin to playing through a campaign of Rome: Total War? Some of the ideas didn't get properly developed, but it was good nonetheless, and an example of the influence that games can have. I grew up on Age of Empires and Total War, and I'm now trying to make a career in heritage, and my views of the past and the way things are structured will have been influenced undoubtedly by a game designer somewhere.
"And as for Gamergate... It's been a harassment scheme for the worst of the worst the community has to offer, where the only people welcome are bigots of every flavour. If I meet anyone who likes Total Biscuit for example, I know instantly that they're shit ducks, which saves me time I guess. In they time they might all face terrorism charges, which would be a blessing."
Thanks to all contributors for their time.
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