A friend of mine, a self-proclaimed gamer like myself, has a simple theory for why any girl starts to play video games. “They have the potential for cinematics of a movie or the personality of a book, but also have a really unique interactive element,” she observes. “As long as we like movies, books, and agency, we can like video games.” I asked my father the same question, suspecting that he may arrive at a more sexist conclusion. He instead pointed out that many females were introduced to the world of gaming by the men in their lives. Very few of us picked up a controller out of organic interest.
The history of women in gaming has been complicated, in part, by our unwillingness to self-identify as members of the subculture. We are a large but silent consumer body, due to the highly sexist attitudes prevalent in the industry. While many fields within the disciplines of science and math are shifting towards gender equality, interactive media has been slow to adapt and accommodate. There is an unsaid rule among most women to hide their association with video games. Even here at Wellesley, I rarely find friends who share their gaming habits as readily as they will their television preferences.
The first video game I ever played was “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” on a blue Nintendo GameCube about fifteen years ago. I was introduced to the series by a male cousin. We enjoyed traversing through the virtual landscape while engulfed in silence, guiding our protagonist through crepuscular caverns and across fecund fields. Had it not been for his inclusive tendencies and consistent encouragement, I doubt that I would have continued playing through the years. Gaming is a world dominated by ingrained sexism: at parties, we would use the video game systems until the boys came along. We always had something to prove as we competed with them; we were never represented in the games we played.
This past weekend, rumors erupted that “The Legend of Zelda” would, in its next release, be providing players with an option to switch the gender of the protagonist, Link. As one of the first major video games that prominently featured a woman in its title and gameplay, the series has always provided an illusion of promoting some form of gender equality. However, their incorporation of women has been somewhat problematic. Rather than feature female characters as the title suggests, the series has subtly suggested that there is no role for women in situations of power and enterprise. Although the player’s endeavor is to assist the mythical queen Zelda in her quest to recover her fallen kingdom, gameplay centers on Link, a male character who displays courage and initiative. While he travels the world, fighting battles and achieving glory, she is relegated to a passive position, virtually disappearing from the storyline. Her only contributions occur in her male form, Sheik, hinting that she is comparatively useless as a woman.
With this release, “The Legend of Zelda” is taking a marked step forward in its incorporation and empowerment of girls, reflecting cultural changes in gaming consumption.
Naturally, as a woman, I was intrigued and pleased by the concept, and posted an article with some thoughts on my Facebook wall. The privacy setting was switched to public at that time in order to encourage civil dialogue.
The morning after was overwhelming. In shares and messages, I had been referred to as a “c —,” a “dumbass,” and told to “go f — [my]self.” Male gamers had sent me justifications for why the male character should be a man, asking if I wondered “whether or not he wanted to be a woman” and asserting that his manhood was “canon.” After much debate, I set the privacy to “friends only” in order to preserve my patience.
Certainly, it’s my right as a human to voice an opinion and have a discussion without being threatened and sworn at for doing so. In many fields, including gaming, ingrained sexism prevents women from speaking out, sharing thoughts, and debating, which, in turn, leads to underrepresentation in those vocations. Though over 50 percent of gamers are women, the number of female workers in the industry is less than 15 percent. The chauvinism in the field was revealed especially in 2014, when the Gamergate controversy erupted, in which developer Zoe Quinn was targeted by an ex-boyfriend who posted heavily misogynistic comments about her online. As a result, prominent female gamers were subjected to intense emotional harassment by their male counterparts.
Since then, progress has been made. Major gaming companies have taken initiative to encourage more women to join them as designers, programmers and players. Gaming is for everyone. Now is the time for both the industry and the consumers to realize that as well. Creating female protagonists is not enough; rather, it is a first of many steps to equalizing the gaming field.