The middle of the COVID-19 pandemic found me in a hospital room that resembled the colorful interior of a bouncy house except for the IV bag and a TV that loomed high above my bed. Initially, my doctor told me that “further tests” would require only a few days, but after a solid week, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease—a chronic autoimmune disorder with no known cure. Although my family and friends provided me with love and support, they could not shake away the misery that etched its way into my bones. But video games could.
When the nurse entered the room, I sat up. On her cart sat another TV and two game systems, an Xbox One and a Nintendo Switch, ready for use. Super Kirby Clash was my favorite game of the bunch. I played for hours on end in my hospital room as a reward for my required laps around the dismal, colorless hallways. Though my body plummeted into powerlessness, my mind was captivated by Kirby’s powerful sword strikes and the game’s dynamic art style.
Although video games provided me comfort during the day, their absence made my nights in the hospital feel lonelier. The instant messaging platform Discord, where communities of video game players come together to chat, was my lifeline. Every night, I cradled my phone in my hands to check if my friends were there. Whenever I saw them chatting, I hopped on the voice call. I always asked what they were doing, and nine times out of ten they would say they were playing Minecraft, Stardew Valley, or another game. Hearing the excitement in my friends’ voices made me miss them dearly.
Video games are a common area of interest for everyone in my friend group, but they helped me solidify the relationships I had already established in the real world. I’m an autistic woman, and playing video games has helped me improve my socialization skills, providing me with a mental list of dialogue boxes that I can use whenever I interact with people beyond my community.
Defining the Video Game Community
The video game community is made up of people strung together across both digital and physical spaces, united into sub-groups by their love of specific game genres. The word “gamer” generally refers to someone who plays video games, but not everyone uses the term to identify themselves. I only use it as a joke or a term of endearment among my friends, because the word often makes people think of a stereotypical dude playing video games for extensive periods of time without ever leaving his home. Society seems to view video games as a hobby for young men, but in my experience, people of all genders, races, and ages actively participate in the video game community.
As an introvert, I struggle to make friends and carry conversations. But video games help me bridge that social gap. When I was a little girl, my sisters didn’t show them much interest. Sometimes I felt like an outcast at home. Other times I was happy because I didn’t have to fit into society’s traditional construction of “girlhood,” which to me meant exploring fashion. It wasn’t until high school that I discovered my friend group of women and non-binary people who loved playing video games.
Through gaming, I gained confidence and built my own community, largely from the group of friends I made while an undergraduate student in upstate New York. In my junior year, my friends and I set up a Soul Calibur VI tournament. I was going through some difficult times at school, and the aggressive button smashing and the cheers of my friends reminded me that I was not alone.
Women in Video Games
According to Forbes, “In 2020, women accounted for nearly 41% of all gamers in the United States. And in Asia, which accounts for 48% of the world’s total gaming revenue, women now make up 40–45% of the Asian gaming population.” Still, many women and non-binary folks feel underrepresented within the gaming world.
“Actually, I think it’s a space where all of us have always been present,” says Dr. Kishonna Gray, a professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies at the University of Kentucky. But she believes that white, cisgendered men have marginalized and questioned women’s involvement in the video game community: “I think we have to advocate for ourselves to be visible in those spaces. We have to let them know, ‘No, we’ve always been here. We’ve always been gamers, but y’all have ignored us.’ When games went online, so many folks were shocked to hear that women were there, that people who spoke with accents were there, that people were speaking different languages there.”
Unequal gender representation within the community has led researchers to examine the choices made by game designers as they create characters. In a 2022 article, Anastasiia Danylova shares studies that reveal how the self-esteem of women who play video games can be negatively affected by sexualized depictions of female characters. And in a 2017 article, Laurent Bègue and his colleagues explain how the objectification of female characters can instill sexist views in men and boys: “the amount of exposure to video games should predict the endorsement of gender stereotypes.” (That said, gamers of all ages and genders have agency in how they view characters, and it’s important we don’t forget that.)
Unfortunately, the video game industry continues to neglect women and non-binary people when developing storylines. Consistently, protagonists are male. One example among my childhood favorites is the box-bashing, crystal-catching marsupial Crash Bandicoot. Female characters were sparse and portrayed only in relation to the male leads, rather than as individuals. Crash Bandicoot’s first female character, Tawna, was originally designed in the late 1990s as Crash’s girlfriend, only accessible to players via bonus levels as she was kidnapped early on by the nefarious Dr. Neo Cortex. It was only in 2020 that Tawna was redesigned for Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time as a fully realized character and an agile fighter with abilities distinct from Crash’s, but she was only playable for a couple of levels. Designers also added an option to play the entire game as Crash’s computer-wiz sister, Coco, who seems to express her femininity in whatever way she wants.
When I heard that Bridget from the fighting game series Guilty Gear was confirmed to be a trans girl, I was over the moon! She provided an opportunity to play as a well-rounded female character and showed women and LGBTQ+ gamers that we belong, that we’re full-fledged members of the community.
People have differing opinions on the importance of women’s representation in video games. Sometimes these voices foster dialogue on inclusivity. But there are moments when disagreements have spiraled out of control, exposing long-term tensions within the community.
Gamergate: Misogyny in the Video Game Community
In 2014, as a Washington Post article explains, video game developer Zoë Quinn’s ex-boyfriend, 2D animator Eron Gjoni, accused her of cheating on him for the purpose of advancing her career. From there, “Gamergate” descended into an online tirade against women in the industry. Quinn, outspoken game designer Brianna Wu, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian who wrote against the use of female tropes in video games, and others received death threats, sexual harassment, and other forms of abuse. The viral misogyny ravaged our community.
“There were a lot of mean things that were said about me,” said Dr. Adrienne Shaw, associate professor in Temple University, where she focuses on the relationships between gender and video games. “I had to block a lot of people from Twitter. But nothing tangibly happened except feeling constantly worried that something was going to happen. One of my deans had a panic button put in my office just in case. Now, whenever I get a bunch of notifications on Twitter, I assume something bad has happened and that I’m being attacked again.”
The media coverage of Gamergate helped to expose these problems to a wider audience, though it also caught the attention of the alt-right. Breitbart News commentator Milo Yiannopoulos turned Gamergate’s toxic masculinity into something they could turn to political use. Steve Bannon, then the executive chairman of Breitbart, said, “You can activate that army. They come in through Gamergate or whatever and then get turned onto politics and Trump.” Through Gamergate, many in the general public saw the video gaming community with a new sense of fear.
Eight years after Gamergate, those of us who were young when it happened still remember that toxic energy. Shaw reflected on Gamergate’s aftermath as part of a long-standing problem of misogyny in the community: “It’s something that has existed, and it was just particularly loud at that particular moment. But it never really went away.”
The Intersectionality of Race, Gender, and Video Games
Playing video games is a part of my identity as a woman. The same goes for my friend and avid gamer Grace Mahieu: “I had always been like a tomboy growing up. As I got older and became more feminine, I realized that my gender expression didn’t necessarily matter, that part of me still wanted to play video games.”
When I was a kid, I rarely described myself as a tomboy. Usually, I would say I’m a girl who loves to play video games. As my sisters and I got older, they were playing sports and wearing makeup, but I kept playing. Today, I continue to identify as a woman who loves to play video games.
Racially white and ethnically Puerto Rican, I am privileged to not have to worry about racism in the community. Most of the video game protagonists I encountered as a kid were either cartoon animals like Crash or white people, such as Sonya Blade from the Mortal Kombat series. But Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe was the first video game in which I really saw and engaged with characters of color in the gaming space. As an adult, I have grown to realize that racial representation is essential for the health of the community.
The need for racial representation goes beyond the characters. For Dr. Gray, it’s recognizing the diversity of gamers that make up our community.
“Whenever I’m searching for gamers who are streaming a particular game, it takes me forever to find a woman, a person of color, and I never see visibly queer folks either, so the algorithm plays a role in that too,” she says. “It’s perpetuating these notions of who’s ideal and whose bodies we care about, and there are some people whose bodies are undervalued, devalued, diminished. There are a lot of things that influence why it’s these white cis heterosexual men who are the biggest earners in the space, and it’s not by accident. It’s not by happenstance. It’s the valuation system that keeps them on top, and I think that needs to be addressed.”
But she also shared an experience that spoke to the positive power of the gaming community: “As a Black person, I often use the n-word in my everyday speech patterns when I am talking to other Black folks.” Once, she used it when playing anonymously online, and someone assumed she was white. “They got really upset at the other people, and they were like, ‘Why are you allowing this white woman to say the n-word?’ And everyone was like, ‘No, no, she’s Black. She’s Black.’”
Gray learned that day that she had a privileged way of speaking, and she stopped using the n-word in spaces where not everyone knew her. “It really reified just how particular ways of speaking are important in those spaces and very important for people who are protecting their space from the hegemonic elite outside.”
The online gaming community offers its own form of protections to its players via anonymity. The ability to mask your identity in the gaming space can embolden some to launch their prejudice in the public eye. When I used to play League of Legends with a high school friend and his group of friends, who I had never met in person, I always answered truthfully about my gender on the few occasions I was asked about it. Most of the reactions I got were of surprise. Despite warnings that women who played the game were subjected to toxic behavior, it never occurred to me that I should hide my gender. However, Gray’s experience also shows that behind the anonymity of the gaming space, there are communities who want to provide protection and support to those who are wronged.
YouTuber SkittenSays, who produced livestreams of her gaming experience, explains her personal connection to the intersectionality of race and gender in the gaming world: “For women and for me as a Black woman, not only do I have to worry about people being misogynistic, but I also have to worry about people being racist and coming into my stream and typing in all caps the n-word and stuff like that. So I think it’s something that I’m always aware of, and thus it’s something that guides my actions and reactions, on my channel in general, but specifically on stream.”
But when someone in the comment section of her Mass Effect: Legendary Edition livestream repeatedly requested that she flash them, “Literally everyone in my comments was like, ‘Hey bro, we don’t do that here. You need to go.’ I wasn’t even paying attention, so I didn’t see it happen until later, and that person just ended up leaving.
“While I’ve been lucky enough to foster a supportive and inclusive stream community, and to experience minimal racial/sexual harassment while on stream, it’s not without considerable thought and effort into how I present myself and my personality,” she says. “Actually, that’s why I stopped streaming: the stress was impacting my mental health, so I stepped away.”
Gender and the Gaming Community
Despite the hostility that women and non-binary people in the gaming industry sometimes face, both as players and developers, we continue to play. I play for a variety of reasons, including the ability to relive my childhood getaways from real-world problems. But the biggest reason is because I want to build and retain my community.
When I was in high school, I asked my friend Amalia if I could borrow her copy of Kingdom Hearts II, in which you play as a teenage boy who wields a colorful “keyblade” against Organization XIII—a group that seeks to use the hearts of the good for twisted goals. After pouring weeks into the game, I got stuck on the fight with Demyx, an Organization XIII member with the power to control water and ice. Late one Saturday morning, Amalia and I sat on my bed taking turns trying to defeat him. After ten attempts, Amalia succeeded. She smiled at me in accomplishment, and I thanked her profusely for all her help. To this day, I think back on the memories we made together as friends who both love the game series.
Now organizations like Black Girl Gamers and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image’s Women & Nonbinary Gamers Club advocate for change within the community and building safe spaces. Groups like these are on the rise. They show the world why we matter to all video game communities, both big and small.
Women and non-binary gamers are resilient, creative, people who help make the community a welcoming and diverse place for anyone who wants to join. I am proud to be a woman who plays video games.
Dayna Pilger is a former intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and an alumna of George Mason University’s Master of Applied History with New Media program. She works as an archives technician for LAC Federal on assignment at the Library of Congress. In her spare time, she is an avid gamer who plays Super Kirby Clash, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, and more.