Why Female Gamers Are Fed Up With Being Male Fantasies
Each time WafaGames founder Kathy Gong walks into a meeting, she gets asked the exact same question. ‘How can a woman lead a gaming company?’
“It’s really frustrating,” says the Gen.T honouree. "Because it happens in every single meeting. I know what the subtext is, ‘You’re a woman, therefore you clearly can’t understand gaming like we do, so what are you doing here?’”
A lot of stereotypes exist around gaming: namely that they are the preserve of socially isolated teenage boys who probably haven’t had sex. But that mindset not only illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the entire industry, it also perpetuates the idea that women have no place inside it.
In April 2017, Gong decided to fight against this, and along with her partners Radwan Kasmiya and Wu Mingzhou, she co-founded WafaGames. This gaming studio tells the story of real-life historical crusades, but in an exciting, innovative, modern way—and with just as many well-rounded female characters as male ones. A few months later, Gong was selected as one of 35 global innovators by MIT Technology Review thanks to an innovative AI algorithm created by WafaGames—oh, and she is also one of the youngest chess champions and chess association masters in China.
“Anyone who thinks women are just a drop in the ocean of the video game consumer market couldn’t be more wrong,” she says. “Sure, maybe early adopters were male because years ago, all the story lines were based on war and were generally very male-centric, and you needed to [play on consoles like the PlayStation], which all feels geeky and nerdy. But it’s changing a lot. Mobile phones are making games far more accessible—and now the data shows that while there are still more hardcore gamers who are male, women are rapidly catching up”
In fact, over 40 percent of gamers are female, according to an Entertainment Software Association report, and another by Barclays predicts that women will spend a ground-breaking US$1.5 billion on gaming this year alone, making up a third of the projected US$3.5 billion the industry is expected to rake in.
So given the money gaming companies can make from women, why are they still grossly underrepresented in video games—or depicted as teenage-boy fantasies, with massive boobs and prancing around in a pair of hot-pants?
“When I started in the industry, I didn’t consider gender issues,” says Gong. “I didn’t give much thought to it at all, in fact. But once I was in, I suddenly felt personally affronted by how female characters are presented—sexualised like a sex toy, and just playthings for male entertainment. In our game, it’s all based on real people and the women are strong, well-rounded characters. They’re warriors and important figures, not just sex slaves.”
This remains a rarity in the industry. Male characters come in all ages, shapes and sizes, while female characters are uniformly young, slim and sexy. Lara Croft springs to mind, but often it goes much further than that—with certain games reminiscent of pornography: in Hitman for example, female characters hide latex fetish gear under nun’s habits, while male characters wear normal clothes.
The history of misogyny in the industry is a long and slightly horrifying one. With men traditionally dominating all top-level positions including writers, artists and creators, female lead characters have been few and far between. As late as 2015, Alex Amancio, the creative director at French game publisher Ubisoft, explained in an interview that there was not one playable female assassin in the blockbuster Assassin’s Creed Unity because generating them “was really a lot of extra production work”.
Women in tech are really under-represented, and women in games, even more so. When I was a tech entrepreneur in internet startups, the female to male ratio was 10 to 1, in games it is even less than that
— Gong Xiaosi (Kathy)
Women started fighting back around the Gamergate incident. In 2014, a jilted former lover of indie game developer Zoe Quinn published transcripts of her life online. Gamers were outraged over charges that Quinn’s game Depression Quest had received favourable reviews due to an alleged romantic relationship with a journalist, and showered her with death and rape threats that terrified her into hiding. None of the chargers were true. Female gamers fought back, demanding more equality in the industry.
“Oh, you have to fight. I have many arguments with my team,” says Gong. “Some have worked in gaming culture before and when I asked them to represent women fairly, they said, ‘No, that’s how women have to look; if we make females warriors it won’t sell, men don’t want women to be that way—they want them to have big boobs.
“That’s why we need more women to work in the industry,” she continues. “There are definitely not enough. Women in tech are really under-represented, and women in games, even more so. When I was a tech entrepreneur in internet startups, the female to male ratio was 10 to one—in games it is even less than that. Now I actively try to promote and hire women whenever I can.”
Today, women such as Gong are openly designing content that depicts women as realistic leading characters rather than sex objects, sidekicks or damsels in distress. By challenging the male-dominated narrative and shining a light on the women who work hard—and play just as hard—investors are rolling in.
One of them is Gen.T honouree Pocket Sun, whose investment firm SoGal focuses on female-led startups. “Gaming as an industry, similar to most industries, didn’t have women in mind to begin with,” says Sun. “This can only be improved when we have women at the highest level of the industry – creation, commercialisation, policymaking, tournament design… There are women in gaming panels at conferences, but the pathway to diversity doesn’t lie in segregating women and men, it lies in ensuring women make their mark at all levels of the industry.”
With women such as these charging to the top of the industry, the days of animated sex toys for female characters may well be behind us—and once women start getting represented fairly on screen, their journey will be just as exhilarating as any video game.