ELLE, June/July 2019 (PDF)

Trolling, abuse, online harassment – the headlines about the world of gaming are shocking. But really, the virtual door for women has never been more open.

“I game for the fun, the stories and the sense of completion." “I got into video games through a friend, and they instantly held my interest.” “Games give me a euphoric joy and a sense of achievement.” When you lob the question “Why game?” to the 70,000-plus female gamers residing in the heart of the internet, aka Reddit (more specifically, r/GirlGamers), these types of tremendously positive responses are hit right back. On this forum, tips, tricks and hot takes are bookended with game techniques and innocent discussions about everything, from “Are you a better player with your bra on or off?” to “How many earrings have you lost from taking them out to put your headset on?” But this is just a relatively small pocket of women who love an industry that’s impossible to squeeze into a single box.

Sadly, these forums are also a place where many women seek refuge from trolling and abuse, with an almost overwhelming amount of anecdotes confirming reports that misogynistic abuse is too often a daily occurrence for women playing online multiplayer games. This is a heartbreaking reversal of what games were designed to be: escapes, meditations, social experiences or simply a way to relax. “It’s for this reason I have everything on footage as evidence,” writes user RoyalDog214, who has resorted to actively recording her screen every time she logs in.

While women gamers come to each other for advice, blocking and reporting abusers is usually the only course of action that can be taken. Some gamers, like TalesofTheTable, are encouraging change from within. “What else can we speak up about?” she asks the forum. The responses are upsetting and, at times, hopeless: tales of women having to play on mute, young girls being targeted with, frankly, paedophilic language, and women of colour and those in the queer community copping endless abuse. All of this leads to women giving up their much-loved hobby because the trolls have taken their toll. But a solution does exist, and it involves encouraging more women to consider pressing play in the first place. “It feels like this huge catch- 22,” says gamer Ontelligent. “Part of making people not assholes is to have more women, queer folks, POC, etc. [be more] open about who they are [so that it becomes the norm instead of the exception], but in doing that, they open themselves up to all the hate that comes from a toxic and/or ignorant part of the community.”

“So many people I know, mostly older co-workers or family members, think gaming is a form of social isolation,” says Alice, a 22-year-old gamer from Melbourne who estimates she spends at least four hours a day playing online. “It’s funny because these are people I see on their phones a lot, and they judge me!” Alice shuns social media for social games, saying she learns everything she needs to know about her friends by playing with them. “I see [gaming] as the healthiest thing I’ve done in ages,” she explains. “I really recommend just giving it a go, especially if you’re trying to spend less money going out, want to meet people all over the world or are looking for a way to de-stress from your day.”
She’s right. Several studies have shown that along with reducing stress levels, video games (including fully immersive games such as World Of Warcraft) can help improve a person’s mood and their sense of autonomy, fulfilment and achievement. Further to that, a recent study out of the University of Oxford showed there is no link between violent games and violent behaviour in adolescents, debunking that age-old myth favoured by radio shock jocks and strict parents.

Like most gamers, Alice says she’s also tired of how poorly women are represented and how they are treated by some male gamers, confirming that the two games most notorious for abuse and misogyny are Overwatch and Apex Legends. But she won’t let it deter her. “Most of the time you can just choose a non-gender character, like an animal or something, and people leave you alone, but sometimes I want to play as a badass girl and have no one give me shit about it. That would be nice!” She adds, “There are a lot of other games out there that are just made for fun and are not so bad... I went to PAX [a Melbourne gaming convention] last year and it was cool to see how many different options there are and how many women or gay men there are challenging the industry. I was surprised, actually.”

Greg Louden was the senior narrative designer for the game Quantum Break and has worked as a visual effects artist for films including Gravity and Prometheus. He says that during his career, he’s found “the more women and people from the LGBTQI community who join the industry, the better our work is. I’ve seen more recruitment and more discussion regarding inclusiveness and I’ve also seen more and more women in leadership and key roles... The #MeToo movement has shaken up all industries [I’ve worked in], causing big change for the better.” Louden and his sister, Sarah Louden, are co-founders of the Australian game development company Convict Games, making Sarah one of the few female founders in the industry. She, too, has noticed a rise in women entering the industry of late. The siblings’ mission is to smash gaming norms and their first project, Stone, has done just that. The rated-18+ stoner-noir story follows a hungover anti-hero koala on the hunt for his lost partner. More surprisingly, however, it boasts Bukowski and Hemingway-esque narratives, an in-game television where gamers can watch full-length cult Aussie films (including Australia’s first silent film and first blockbuster) or discover new bands, a strong female character and, most notably, a story arc rich in queer culture.

Stone is just one of many new games pushing against the cis grain and working towards normalising inclusiveness. It’s unique in that it infuses stoner-noir (the kind you see in films such as Inherent Vice, Night Moves and The Big Lebowski), with queer culture — something that has never been done in an Australian game before. “Most stoner-noir literature – like Hunter S. Thompson’s, Charles Bukowski’s and Thomas Pynchon’s – and cinema is from the 1970s. All the stories are usually very heterosexual,” says Louden. “We knew we wanted to make it Australian and make it [relevant] to today. Queer culture is a movement we wanted to respect and honour.” Also, he notes, “a lot of my favourite romantic cinema today is queer: Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name and Carol, so we wanted to bring this revolution to games as well.”

At last count, the gaming industry was worth close to $192 billion, just one billion less than the global film industry and $108 billion more than the recorded music industry. And this isn’t only thanks to your 13-year-old cousin who’s glued to Fortnite or Shirley Curry, the 82-year-old grandmother who uploads YouTube videos of herself playing Skyrim to more than 500,000 subscribers. The industry includes everything from VR to mobile puzzle apps, consoles, PC, streaming sites, e-sports and more. Apple just launched Apple Arcade, the first subscription gaming service, which offers nearly 300,000 games to the App Store’s one billion gaming customers. That Candy Crush addiction you had a few years back? Yep, gaming!

Most gamers, coders, animators, developers and writers will attest that games are an art form that ought to garner the same attention as film and music – playing them certainly triggers similar pleasure centres, not to mention offers more cognitive benefits. And finding your flavour is like choosing a book at the library or your go-to genre of film or music: there’s so much to choose from. For every misconception about gaming itself, there are even more when it comes to making a career out of it. “I don’t think people realise how hard games are to make,” says Brooke Maggs, a writer and narrative designer from Melbourne who is now based in Helsinki. “Game companies need lawyers, they need marketing people, PRs, writers, coders – they need all that, and let’s be honest, they could probably use more editors,” she says with a laugh. “Because we see a lot of Call Of Duty and Fortnite, people think that’s what games are. But they can also be really short, beautiful two-hour experiences.” Maggs is currently working with Remedy Entertainment on Control, a much-hyped action-adventure shooter game, but has also worked on magnificent indie games. Notably: The Gardens Between, a beautifully calm, meditative world of puzzles (unlike other “twitchy” phone games, she notes); Paperbark, a truly stunning Possum Magic-style love letter to the Australian bush; and Florence, an interactive story about a Melbourne girl’s heartbreak.

As for more female empowerment in the industry, says Maggs, there “have been some really great games lately with a strong female protagonist.” She pauses. “Although, funnily enough, they are all white women with red hair. Which is interesting... And really long hair as well. And it flicks around when she uses her sword... Wow,” she says, laughing. “I still think we probably have a way to go in terms of the larger studios, but it is actually getting better.”

Games may be challenging for independent creators to make, but Maggs says their role is important. “Because it’s getting easier to get games out on platforms, we’re starting to see more diversity,” she adds. The rise of Dream Daddy is a great example of this. This hot dad dating simulator (yes, really) became a viral hit after launching in 2017 off the back of a joke about dads at Disneyland (#DILFSofDisneyland, anyone?). But more than the joke, the game blurs sexuality lines (you play a hot dad looking to romance other hot dads) and also addresses issues such as toxic masculinity.

Maggs is an award-winning creative writer and a recipient of the Women in Games fellowship. The Film Victoria grant is just one of many intended to open doors to creatives, coders and those who wouldn’t otherwise consider working in this industry. Last year, Maggs helped run Plot Twist, a Melbourne-based series of workshops that teachers writers in various fields about narrative design. This, she says, is just one of many examples of career paths open to women right now that will ultimately create the change that is needed. “We get people from a number of different backgrounds who don’t realise that their skills are applicable,” she says. “The structural understanding of how narrative works doesn’t change. What changes is having to negotiate a player, interactivity and how you’re going to use mechanics to generate that kind of story experience.”

When it comes to working in the industry, Maggs says she has experienced the usual mansplaining and being talked over, but hasn’t herself received abuse. “One thing sticks in my mind, though,” she says. “I had just finished a talk at an event, and this girl came up to me and asked if I had experienced any sexism working in game development, and do I have any trouble from men working in my day-to-day? And I thought about it a lot later. I realised that basically what she was asking was, ‘If I work in this industry, will I be safe?’ And I can’t say for sure that she won’t experience sexism. But I think that’s why more women and people from diverse backgrounds should be in games. They’re very welcome and they’re very much needed.”