As video games constitute a relatively new medium of expression without an agreed-upon history, any attempt at a genealogy of the form is necessarily provisional in nature. A feminist subfield of the genealogy is even less codified, but recent frictions around gender and inclusivity in games have revealed key stakes in video games connected to larger issues of women in technology and the sciences, issues of gender and representation, and the broader conditions of women in male-dominated fields.
Video games are one of the ways that the young are socialized into familiarity and conversancy with computational media.1 Play also helps shape and reinforce a child's understanding of normative gender roles. As Carrie Heeter has characterized these dynamics, “Video games intricately intersect with gender identity and act as a lightning rod for internal and social negotiations about appropriate portrayals and performance of femininity.”2 Game designer and scholar Mary Flanagan, in her iconic book Critical Play (2009), discusses the ways in which gender-based power dynamics are extended into the play space of games: “Feminist criticism and practice has played an important role in informing such disruptions with technology, as well as examining how power relationships are upheld and how intervention is orchestrated.”3
Brenda Laurel is known for her groundbreaking interventions into the connections between gender and technology, particularly her research on youthful play and her cofounding of Purple Moon in 1996, a company focused on game design for girls. Purple Moon was one of several start-ups that also included Her Interactive, Girl Games Inc., and Girl Tech, all dedicated to attracting the interest of young females to games as a means of intervening early in their lives toward greater ease with and interest in computational technologies. As Carly Kocurek put it, however, this also became the cause of some criticism for both Purple Moon and the girl games movement: “Laurel and her company faced pushback on multiple fronts. Game reviewers, for example, often panned the games, and feminist critics attacked the gender essentialism inherent to the idea of games for girls.”4 Nevertheless, Laurel is credited with having drawn substantial critical attention to the problem of gender-based negation of females in technology-intensive roles from an early age, and the potential of play for transforming this paradigm.
While to date the video games industry was and remains male dominated, there are several women (like Laurel, who spent two decades in mainstream industry) who have emerged as iconic figures. Among these are Jane Jensen, best known for her groundbreaking Gabriel Knight adventure games; game developer Kathy Sierra; Roberta Williams, game designer, writer, and cofounder of Sierra On-Line; Janese Swanson, software developer and founder of Girl Tech; early commercial game designers and programmers Carla Meninsky, Carol Shaw, and Brenda Romero; Danielle “Dani” Bunten, designer of the pioneering early multiplayer game M.U.L.E.; Joyce Weisbecker, the first female indie game designer; and hypertext fiction writer and information artist Judy Malloy.5 Their contributions are only now beginning to be properly historicized.
It cannot be underestimated the degree to which the lack of gender parity in the video game industry, the tech industry, and the STEM fields more generally is impacted by a gendering of technologies such as video games. For example, according to a study by Gamasutra in 2014, women make up only 13 percent of game designers, and are statistically likely to be paid significantly less than their male counterparts.6 “Gamer” is still implicitly understood to be a male term, although the demographics of game players are actually quite different. Scholars Carly Kocurek and Jennifer deWinter have outlined the lack of female representation in the games industry, as well as within games themselves, though half of gamers are now female.7 They identify barriers to women in the industry that are indicative of larger cultural biases, including the popular imaginary of the computational as strongly masculinist; the paucity of female player-characters; bullying and harassment in games culture and the industry; and gender bias in the workplace, from recruitment to advancement and retention. Scholars such as Shira Chess and Adrienne Shaw have also underscored the importance of diversity in sexuality and gender in video games.8
In addition, many entities have sprung up that advocate for gender, sex, and race-based difference in video games. Women in Games WIGJ (originally Women in Games Jobs) was founded in 2009 with the mission of attracting, retaining, and supporting women in the games industry, as well as advocating for diversity in the games workforce as a positive strategy for financial success and enhanced productivity.9 Different Games Collective promotes inclusivity in games, raises awareness, creates public programming around diverse participation in games, and hosts a conference highlighting creative and critical voices of marginalized participants in games culture.10 Tanya DePass, founder and director of I Need Diverse Games, serves as the diversity liaison for GaymerX, an annual LGBTQ-focused gaming convention.11 The Queerness and Games Conference (QGCon), cofounded in 2013 by Mattie Brice, Chris Goetz, Chelsea Howe, and Bonnie Ruberg, takes an intersectional approach to topics of gender, race, ability, body type, and class as they relate to queerness, broadly defined, in games.12
Since the mid-2000s, the increased presence of women and socially defined minorities in the video games industry and game culture has resulted in a backlash that came to a head in 2012. In 2007, prominent industry professional Kathy Sierra was bullied, threatened, and doxxed online.13 In 2010, the satirical games site Penny Arcade posted comic strips prominently featuring rape jokes. When criticized that their references to being “raped by dickwolves” promoted rape culture, Penny Arcade doubled down by creating and selling “Dickwolves” memorabilia, including T-shirts and pennants. The subsequent hostility on both sides of the debate prompted a discussion about the rampant “rhetoric of sexual violence” in game culture.14
The 2012 harassment of Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic, attracted press coverage of the ongoing culture war around the presence of women in games. Sarkeesian had initiated a crowdfunding campaign to finance her planned web series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games for her blog Feminist Frequency. The project drew an outpouring of online incitements to rape and kill her, while the campaign itself generated nearly $160,000 in donations, far exceeding its $6,000 goal.15 Sarkeesian, while only one of many targeted women, has come to personify for some an organized feminist critique of the stereotypical representation and objectification of women in games; for others she represents everything that is wrong with so-called social justice warriors (SJWs) who wish to ruin the “fun,” apolitical space of games with their progressive politics.16
The 2014 harassment campaign known as GamerGate initially targeted indie game designer Zoë Quinn, when a former boyfriend publicly accused Quinn of providing sexual favors in exchange for positive reviews of her game, a claim later confirmed as baseless by the game review outlet in question.17 Still, an organized harassment effort was initiated. Actor Adam Baldwin coined hashtag #GamerGate in relation to the Quinn corruption conspiracy, and the term's use was fanned by Baldwin's 190,000 Twitter followers, leading to a broader online movement that circulated on websites, Reddit subthreads, and 4chan and 8chan threads.18 Soon after, the hashtags #1reasonwhy and #1reasontobe were spawned to discuss the fraught conditions of women's presence in the games industry and the encouragements of women to enter into the industry, respectively.19 In 2013, noted game designer and developer Brenda Romero resigned in protest from the International Game Developers Association (IDGA) after scantily clad models were presented as entertainment during a Game Developers Conference party.20 Game developer Brianna Wu was targeted with threats of rape and murder after posting a joke about GamerGate supporters.21 The attack on Sarkeesian redoubled when the first installment of her Tropes series was released in 2014.
Leigh Alexander described the incidents as evidence of “sharp growing pains” in the industry.22 Scholar Anna Everett observed: “Any cursory survey of user comments on gaming sites easily uncovers troves of racist rants that betray how deep-seated racial antagonisms are among gamers and trolls who occupy popular games’ message boards.”23 These eruptions mark a persistent anxiety around the presence of women and socially defined minorities in technological fields, including the global, multibillion-dollar industry of video games.
Interventions into games on the level of their creation, historicization, and criticism have grown and diversified. Emergent and established scholars, writers and makers like Meghan Blythe Adams, Anna Anthropy, Bridget Blodgett, Mattie Brice, Justine Cassell, Alenda Chang, Shira Chess, Mia Consalvo, Amanda Cote, Suzanne de Castell, Anna Everett, Mary Flanagan, Mary Fuller, Tracy Fullerton, Kishonna Gray, Robin Hunicke, Katherine Isbister, Henry Jenkins, Jennifer Jenson, Yasmin B. Kafai, Helen Kennedy, Tanya Krzywinska, Jennifer Malkowski, Janet Murray, Soraya Murray, Helen Nissenbaum, Celia Pearce, Carolyn Petit, Amanda Phillips, Gabriela T. Richard, Bonnie Ruberg, Anastasia Salter, Anne-Marie Schleiner, T. L. Taylor, and Gabrielle Trépanier-Jobin, among many others, contribute in various ways toward the expanded definitions of the “gamer,” the games industry, and gamic representation as inclusive of women and socially defined others.