The experiences of women and nonbinary gamers in the gaming industry
The history of women in gaming shares similarities to women's representation in other mediums. Since the beginning of games, there was inequitable access for diverse female leaders and narrative voices. On the consumer side, women were often seen as a minority in the core gaming audience. However, it is obvious that isn’t the case with a growing 41% of all US gamers being female.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are an active and ongoing process of expansion in games, movies, television, radio, and in nearly every industry outside of media, too.
This work towards representation and accurate reflections of our lived communities doesn’t stop at women. Nonbinary and LGBTQIA members of the community are also struggling to ensure the gaming industry not only depicts and understands their experiences but gives access to different narrative voices and creative decisions.
In this article, we’ll explore some history and highlight the women, nonbinary and LGBTQIA members of the space to see how they're defining a future for a new generation of individual gamers.
Play Who You Are
As an art form, games are flexible and autonomous. Unlike any other medium, they give agency and identity to a participant. In other words, not every video game is Pong. Sometimes you’re flying a plane, driving a kart, or solving puzzles. You pick what interests you to play. Your identity is in your choices.
Taking that power of choice further, some games have you design your character. Your character becomes a visual extension of yourself.
Often falling under the genre of “role-playing games”, This type of custom play has helped foster further representation of women, nonbinary, and LGBTQIA relationships and experiences.
Most infamously, the Mass Effect video game series helped challenge the commonplace gaming industry norms of its time (in a way very similar to how Star Trek helped break racial barriers during its initial television tenure).
Released in 2007, Mass Effect didn’t repeat the cycle of a male protagonist, leading female love interest, and everyone saves the world. It allowed for a fully customizable protagonist. This protagonist could then operate in a world dictated by player choice. Narrative decisions such as values, relationships, and friendships were also fully up to the player.
For the power of its story and freedom of expression, the Mass Effect series is still regarded as one of the greatest of all time.
Until Mass Effect (and similar games like Dragon Age and Fallout 2), the history of diversity in games was slim.
As time progresses, attitudes change, markets expand, and changes are made. More games today include women leads, diverse stories, and player agency. However, we can’t equally ignore the need for more representation in the business offices that create games and the scholarship that surrounds them.
A woman shouldn’t just be the face of a game’s cover art. She should also be the face in a board room, leading or on an engineering team, and steering vendor relationships with marketers.
Groups like Women in Games advocate for women working and thriving at all levels of game design. They note that women can and should join any level of a gaming studio’s team. From the hard sciences and skills to the softer and more operational skills, there is a place for women to help propel progress.
It is important for diverse identities to feel like they belong across an organization, not just in silos. This allows for continuity, tenure, and sustained change.
On the academic side, authors such as Jane McGonigal have penned deeply intriguing and important texts on games. For example, in Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World a futurist approach to games and states of play intersects with narrative and female identity.
We all have a story and we are all able to play. It is an exciting time for the gaming industry. It is learning to adapt and grow to better represent the people that find joy in its capabilities. Understanding its flawed beginnings in diversity also teaches us exactly what we need to do (and avoid) to create a more authentic experience for a new generation of players. At Vanta, we strive to be as diverse and inclusive as possible. Our leagues are accessible to all, and we ensure that our coaches represent a diverse population. More companies need to take active steps to improve the experiences of marginalized communities in order to ensure a more comfortable environment for all.