Women in games

The subject of women in games is three folded; firstly there is the issue of very few women working in the industry and the necessity to increase the women presence by persuading women to become game developers and encouraging employers to hire them; then we must consider the women that play games and what kind of games they like to play; lastly we need to look at how women are represented in games and what this implies for the players.

Women in the game industry

In introducing the #1ReasonToBe panel at the 2013 GDC (Game Developers Conference) Brenda Romero delights at seeing so many women in the audience as, she says, when she started to work in the game industry the women developers would not fill the stage (‘#1ReasonToBe’ 2013). In the presentation at the 2014 GDC conference (Sampat 2014) Elizabeth Sampat states that “only 10% of workers in the game industry are women” and that the game industry is dominated by “white men under the age of 25”.

So even if things have improved from the 1980s when Romero started her career in the industry, the percentage of women working at the making of games is still very low. So why there are very few women in the game industry? That is what game developer Luke Crane asked on Twitter in November 2012 and it prompted a huge response from women (and also some men) developers with the hashtag #1reasonwhy where they talked about their bad experiences at work, like being talked down, judged on their appearances and even being sexually harassed (Hamilton 2012). At the 2013 GDC conference Romero talks (‘#1ReasonToBe’ 2013) of how “it felt like I was working through a construction site” when she attended the industry conference E3 that featured everywhere “lightly dressed booth babes”, so that she would find hard to discuss business with men distracted by the presence of these women. And Kim McAuliffe (‘#1ReasonToBe’ 2013) says that “one of the reasons so few women are in the industry is that the assumption that players are male makes females feel they are on the fringes, they are on the outside; she also talks of the imposter complex, of feeling an outsider, because she didn’t want to work at games where the player had to shot other people, she wanted to work at games for kids and family that are considered not “core games”. Jess Loeb also writes (Loeb 2015) about the imposter syndrome; how she was made feel incompetent, despite being a qualified engineer; how she internalized the vision of herself the others were projecting; how she had her creative power crushed. Also Elisabeth Sampat (‘#1ReasonToBe’ 2013) gives as a reason why women do not become game developer the fact that they never thought about that; because even if they played games, that would not imply that they had any idea that they could make games.

However the women that work in the game industry are also happy to work at the making of games and advocate for more women to join the industry; in response to the #1reasonwhy hashtag Rhianna Pratchett started the hashtag #1reasontobe to encourage the reporting of positive stories to highlight positive aspect of working as game developers in order not to put off women that might want to begin a career in games (Hamilton 2012); and a panel #1ReasonToBe was introduced at the GDC conference to have women talk about their experience in the game industry, and become a model and reference for other women. At the panel in 2013 Hunike states (‘#1ReasonToBe’ 2013) that “games are the most exiting medium we have for communicating human experience to one another; they reach further and deeper with every year that we explore games; and it is now time to embrace the global reach, that we have, to create a global community, one that embraces a new culture”. Kim McAuliffe (‘#1ReasonToBe’ 2013) refers how in filming for the making of the NatGeo game she had the possibility to travel to exotic places, to get in proximity with animals and “possible most exiting of all you might get to watch kids play the experience you have created for the very first time, and for kids this game is nothing short of magic”. Romero (‘#1ReasonToBe’ 2013) expresses her enthusiasm at working at games as “every day I create something, I make something out of my head that somebody else pays for” and “I work with the most talented and creative people on the planet”.

Besides having more women working in the game industry can make it a better place to work for the women (and men) that are already working in there. But how to encourage employers in the industry to hire more women? In her speech at the GDC 2014 conference Sampat (Sampat 2014) demystifies some of the excuses that employers usually give for not hiring more women. First of all they claim that “women don’t want to work in games” as it is expected that women that want to work in games should have been passionate about that since they were young; but Sampat shows that more than half of the women that are currently working in games never thought about that until they were given this option and encouraged to start to make games by friends, relatives, colleagues; she claims that even women that have been playing games all their life would never make it to a game development career without support; she herself would never have started making games if not for the suggestion and encouragement of her friends; so she asks for people and employers to take positive actions to show to women the possibility to work in game development, giving them also the opportunity to try it and see if it is something that could be of interest to them. Another reason for not hiring more women that employers give is that they can’t find women developers that would fit the company culture; but what is this company culture? If this culture is so restricted that can’t fit any women that is willing to work for the company, Sampat declares, then the culture needs to grow to become more diversified and inclusive.

Having more women and more diversity in the game industry is important also for increasing the creativity and the variety of the games created. Mattie Brice (‘#1ReasonToBe’ 2013) refers that she was told that “when they explicitly put serious games as something they wanted to include in this conference, there was a spike of women developers’ presence in that conference; there are more women doing games for change, there are more women doing other things”. So it is possible that women are not joining the game industry because they are not allowed to fully express themselves; what are considered “core games” are not interesting for women. While having more women developers would bring more diversity in the industry; the industry needs to change in the first place to allow for women the express and develop their diversity.

Women gamers

Things seem to be more positive if we consider women playing games; a report of the Entertainment Software Association released at the beginning of 2016 (‘Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry’ 2016) shows that the difference in percentage between female and male player is not that big with 41% female vs 59% male playing games. This shows how the fact that the game industry looks at their audience as young males means that they are neglecting a huge portion of their audience.

Gamer Demographics 2016
Gamers demographics (‘Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry’ 2016 pag. 3)

However Nick Yee (Yee 2017) believes that a simple percentage cannot explain all the differences between male and female players, and so he conducted a survey to analyse if there was a difference  in the genres of games played by males and females; even given the limitations in the methodology, the results are interesting.

Female player percentage by genre
Female player percentage by genre (Yee 2017).
The percentages listed refer to the proportion of gamers within each genre that are female.

The survey (Yee 2007) shows that Match 3 and Family/Farm Sim games are more likely to be played by females then males (where Match 3 includes Candy Crush Saga, Bejeweled, Farm Heroes Saga and Family/Farm Sim includes The Sims, Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, Story of Seasons, Stardew Valley); while Sports games (where Sports includes FIFA, NBA 2K, Madden NFL) are played mostly by men; and Yee notes that the variance between genres average is very big with “the genre averages range from 2% to almost 70%. This is a 35-fold difference, and illustrates why an overall statistic for all gamers (ignoring genre) can be misleading and confusing.”. Yee also suggestes that the differences could be explained by the fact that male and female gamers have diverse motivations for playing games as he had found in another survey (Yee 2016).


Primary motivations for playing for male gamers
Primary motivations for playing for male gamers (Yee 2016)
Primary motivations for playing for female gamers
Primary motivations for playing for female gamers (Yee 2016)

This difference in genres played by male and female gamers brings the question if some genres are in themselves not appealing to a female audience or it is possible that some genres are developed only taking into account male players and that is why they are not appealing to female players. Looking at the way women are represented in games could give some answers to this, at least for certain genres.

How women are represented in games

Laura Mulvey (Mulvey 1999) talks about ‘male gaze’ in films; how women were presented in the in the scenes from the point of view of the male protagonist; they were there just to be looked by the male protagonist and, through him, by the male spectators; they were sexual objects for the satisfaction of the ‘male gaze’. Even if the media are different, this same ‘male gaze’ perspective can found in video games that usually portray the women in roles that are passive and secondary, and render them with features that appeal to the male players. In the video series on her YouTube channel (‘Tropes vs Women in Video Games – Season 1’ 2017) and (‘Tropes vs Women in Video Games – Season 2’ 2017) Anita Sarkeesian explores the different tropes that are used in video games to portray women. One of this is the ‘damsel on distress’ trope (Sarkeesian 2013– Part 1); this is an old trope that has been used in literature and in films in the past; the woman is seen as defenceless and unable to look after herself, so she needs that a male protagonist looks after her and rescues her from perilous situations where she has ended up, usually due to her naivety and lack of cleverness; the first well known game to use the trope was Donkey Kong released by Nintendo in 1981; the game was vaguely based on the King Kong story and featured the hero ‘Jump Man’ that had to rescue ‘The Lady’ that was kidnapped by an ape; since then the trope has been widely used in games; even more recent games are keeping using the trope and actually, with the development of computer graphics and the games becoming more realistic, the trope has been used in more violent situations that include rape and domestic violence (Sarkeesian 2013 – Part 2); sometimes the woman is given some power to react to the situation and try to escape by herself, but in the end she will always need the help of the male hero; Sarkeesian claims this could be a way for the game developers to show they are readapting the trope, giving more depth and power to the female character, while they are actually keeping the core feature of the trope untouched.

In his speech the 2013 GDC conference Tom Abernathy (Abernathy 2013) advocates for more diversity in games and for more games that have female protagonists or where the player could choose a female role; he refers how he was awaked to the issue by his own daughter that wanted only to play games where she could identify with the character she was playing and Abernathy discovered that there were very few games where the player could get a female avatar. Abernathy gives three motivations for having more diversity; one is moral, as there should be a moral pressure on developer to make games that satisfy the needs of all the players and allow for their diversity; another reason is the fact that more diversity facilitates creativity, so the game industry would benefit from diversity because that would give more possibilities and more options in the creation of games; the last reason, the one that Abernathy claims would be more significant to game producers, is financial, more diversity would encourage more people to play games, as they would find roles with which they could identify, and that would mean more revenues for the game producers.

Abernathy (Abernathy 2013) postulates that “People like seeing people that look like them in their entertainment”. Kim McAuliffe (‘#1ReasonToBe’ 2013) mentions that she started playing games with male protagonists and that did not bother her because that was available; but then, when she found a game where she could play as a girl, she did not want to play anything else even if she was limiting her possibilities. So the issue of being able to identify with the character while playing has some fundament.

Yet even when women are made protagonist of the games they are not treated in the same way as men, usually their body are hyper-sexualized in order to satisfy the male players (Sarkeesian 2016 ‘Lingerie Is Not Armor’); while the women protagonists are put in dangerous situations where they would need protective clothes that cover their bodies, so that they would not be vulnerable to attacks, they are instead given lingerie-like armour that keeps parts of their body exposed, making them more sexually appealing, but also less protected from the blows of the enemy; Sarkeesian contests that while it could be claimed that this is a show of sexual power and so it is empowering for the woman, in reality this hyper sexualization of the female character is made for the only benefit of the male player and is therefore an objectification of the female character. Also the way female characters move in games contributes to this hyper sexualization and objectification of women (Sarkeesian 2016 ‘Body Language & The Male Gaze’), female characters move differently from male ones; they always swing their hips more like if they are models at a fashion show instead agents in a combat and perilous situation; Sarkeesian comments how, even in games where the woman character is not subject to the usual stereotypes like in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (2015), still the female protagonist moves in an unrealistic and sexualized way. So there is not only a need to have more female character as protagonist, but also to develop them in a more respectful wa, to have them portrayed and rendered in a way that is consistent with their personality.

Furthermore the problem of how women are portraited in games does not affect only female players, but has a big impact on male players. Players get used to worlds where females are subordinate to males, where women are objects of which men can dispose as they like, world where sometimes it is fine to rape and violently assault women. If what is happening is games would be happening in real life, we would have an uproar of protest from women and men as well, so why do we allow this to happen in games?


The issue of women in games can be divided in three aspects: women in the games industry, women gamers and how women are represented in games; these aspects are interconnected. Having more women in the game industry and allowing them more possibilities to create what they prefer would facilitate the development of more varied and diverse games. And more diversity is essential to allow for more people to enjoy playing games without having to limit themselves in the choice of genders and titles.  This would encourage more women to play games and a more variety in the genres of games they would play.

But having more women game developers would also change the sexist culture that exists in the industry and the hyper sexualized way women are presented in games; this would benefit both female and male players, as they would experience in their games a culture that respects and valuates women.


‘#1ReasonToBe’. 2013. GDC Vault. http://gdcvault.com/play/1018080/

Abernathy, Tom. 2013. ‘Secret Sauce: How Diversity in Your Game Narrative = More Players and More Money (Oh, and a Better Game Too)’. GDC Vault. http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1018021/Secret-Sauce-How-Diversity-in

‘Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry’. 2016. Entertainment Software Association – Essential Facts. http://essentialfacts.theesa.com/Essential-Facts-2016.pdf

Hamilton, Mary. 2012. ‘#1reasonwhy: The Hashtag That Exposed Games Industry Sexism’. The Guardian. November 28. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2012/nov/28/games-industry-sexism-on-twitter

Loeb, Jess. 2015. ‘I’m an Engineer, Who Happens to Be Female, Who Happens to Be in Games.’ LinkedIn Pulse. October 22. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/im-engineer-who-happens-female-games-jess-loeb

Mulvey, Laura. 1999. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 833-44.

Sampat, Elizabeth. 2014. ‘Women Don’t Want to Work in Games (And Other Myths)’. GDC Vault. http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1020430/Women-Don-t-Want-to

Sarkeesian, Anita. 2013. ‘Damsel in Distress: Part 1 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games’. YouTube. March 7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6p5AZp7r_Q

Sarkeesian, Anita. 2013. ‘Damsel in Distress: Part 2 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games’. YouTube. May 28. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toa_vH6xGqs

Sarkeesian, Anita. 2016. ‘Body Language & The Male Gaze – Tropes vs Women in Video Games’. YouTube. March 31. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPOla9SEdXQ&list=PLn4ob_5_ttEaZWIYcx7VKiFheMSEp1gbq&index=7

Sarkeesian, Anita. 2016. ‘Lingerie Is Not Armor – Tropes vs Women in Video Games’. YouTube. June 6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jko06dA_x88&list=PLn4ob_5_ttEaZWIYcx7VKiFheMSEp1gbq&index=6

‘Tropes vs Women in Video Games – Season 1’. 2017. YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLn4ob_5_ttEaA_vc8F3fjzE62esf9yP61

‘Tropes vs Women in Video Games – Season 2’. 2017. YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLn4ob_5_ttEaZWIYcx7VKiFheMSEp1gbq

Yee, Nick. 2016. ‘7 Things We Learned About Primary Gaming Motivations From Over 250,000 Gamers’. Quantic Foundry. December 15. http://quanticfoundry.com/2016/12/15/primary-motivations/

Yee, Nick. 2017. ‘Beyond 50/50: Breaking Down The Percentage of Female Gamers By Genre’. Quantic Foundry. January 19. http://quanticfoundry.com/2017/01/19/female-gamers-by-genre/


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