The #MeToo movement has swept through every sector of entertainment, including video gaming. A toxic element of gaming culture has permeated the industry on every level, from development studios, to tabletop conventions, to any online game. Women have endured harassment in gaming as both players and developers.
While many instances of harassment occur behind doors, much of it occurs online and on gaming platforms for the world to see and hear. Prior to the embrace of #MeToo, Gamergate prompted an internal war in video gaming. Vitriol, discrimination, and harassment was thrown at prominent figures like Anita Sarkeesian and women in gaming in general.
How Does #MeToo Impact Women’s Existing Struggles in the Video Game Industry?
It’s no secret that women have traditionally experienced a tough time in the male-dominated gaming industry. However, 45% of gamers are women, naturally leading women to pursue video game design.
However, they aren’t always treated equally. While industry employers like Riot Games promote inclusivity in game design in their marketing and recruitment materials, women who work at the company say it’s a different story in the company itself.
Women have criticized Riot Games for cultivating a work environment in which sexism and harassment are rampant. In the wake of this revelation, other video game companies are shaping up or facing consequences.
Systemic Changes in Games
Equal pay, a workplace free of harassment, and representation in the workforce for women is an ideal start, but it doesn’t fix everything. Women in gaming understand that sexism is a systemic problem and more firmly rooted in video game and esports culture than in many areas of entertainment. It also extends more broadly to geek culture and related events like conventions, where women cosplayers are often the targets of harassment.
The phrase “representation matters” isn’t limited to audiences actually seeing people who look like them in video games. It also means these characters are represented respectfully. If more than half of the characters in video games are women but they’re all sexualized, treated like objects, and have no agency, the representation can be harmful. Calling this behavior out is necessary, but when Anita Sarkeesian did it, she became a Gamergate target.
Systemic issues are particularly insidious when it comes to harmful norms. For example, cyberbullying is common to many who spend a lot of time online. This is especially true for the first digital natives. Combine that with a rigorous competitive online environment and the fact that many men encourage each other to test and violate boundaries regularly. Women in gaming deal with these problems constantly, sometimes forming isolated gaming groups or industry coalitions. Dealing with the pressure, harassment, and targeting can feel like another job rather than a fun activity, and it can be especially disempowering.
Trauma in Video Game Culture
Along with #MeToo has been the pressure for many women in gaming to share their experiences as victims. Since the environment can be toxic and women’s jobs are at stake (in an already challenging industry for stable employment) when they name names, the pressure to contribute to #MeToo can feel overwhelming for some. Many women, including those at French studio Quantic Dream, continue to name companies that support existing sexist frameworks for the harassment of women in gaming.
As a community, we need to believe #MeToo survivors and accept the truth when multiple women come forward about a particular brand or platform.
Part of the reason, in addition to the gender-based power differential, was also at the crux of the initial spark surrounding Gamergate: The video game industry and esports are highly competitive. Gaming industry positions themselves are crunch-focused, underpaid, and seldom last long, making it a notoriously challenging industry (before you even add in issues of sexism and harassment).
Defining Sexual Harassment and Industry Lawsuit Barriers for Women
It isn’t easy for anyone to come forward about sexual harassment. Women in Hollywood have been coming forward and speaking up against harassment in the dozens. While this puts their careers at risk, many of them also have the privilege of millions in the bank.
Women in video game design, however, usually don’t have that luxury. Most earn an average of $50,000 per year, and some industry positions are contract-based, meaning they provide employment for a limited amount of time or only for as long as a game development phase lasts.
Although sexual harassment is specifically an unlawful employment practice per Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, the legal process to address it is long and costly. It’s difficult for a woman in the video game industry suing what is basically a temporary employer over harassment in a low-wage job.
What Can We Do to Make the Video Game Industry Safer for Women?
The required changes are not just about creating an inclusive work environment. Video game studios need to take an active role in banning hate speech and harassment. They must commit to realigning video game culture. They can’t simply sponsor women esports teams or put a woman protagonist in a game; the changes must be major, real and something they continuously and boldly support.
By partnering with reputable organizations with a longstanding history of promoting systemic change in favor of women’s safety — such as the Take Back The Night Foundation — gaming studios can make a positive difference and take preventative measures from being the next named in the #MeToo movement. While individual actions can make a positive difference, true systemic change develops from many individual actions and widespread awareness.
Even the best-meaning gamers can’t change their harmful habits if they aren’t aware of how these smaller infringements promote a toxic culture. For this reason, education is key, and this is a responsibility of all gaming organizations.
Systemic changes are crucial. By reaching out to organizations prepared and funded to help, gaming companies can meaningfully incorporate awareness into the cultures they inspire.