Matt Gemmell

TOLL is available now!

An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon


gaming & women 4 min read

I’ve been playing video games since 1986. The longest I’ve gone without playing any games since then is probably about a month. I’ve owned most of the consoles and handhelds, and I’ve played games on various computers too. I even have a few on my iPhone, like most people.

I’m not a hardcore gamer, though. I don’t care terribly much for shooting games (though I’m enjoying Killzone on the PS4, and I’d buy a console to get a new Uncharted), and I have no interest in war-related titles. I also prefer my RPGs to be of the gentle Zelda style; I’m not one for stats and turns. I couldn’t care less about achievements or trophies. I rarely play online.

I’ve never played a Pokemon game in my life. The only sport I care to simulate is ice hockey. I like driving, but not racing. Platform games are great, but above all I love stories. I don’t mind how much or little I get to do, as long as the story is compelling.

I’m not sure how my gaming preferences intersect with yours, but if you were to ask me if I’m a gamer, I’d probably feel uncomfortable.

People who do lay claim to the term use the word “gamer” in the same way that others say “mountain biker” or “birdwatcher”. It’s a full-time, legitimate hobby and interest that you pursue, rather than a sort of leisure activity. That seems faintly silly to me, and I know that’s not really fair, but there you have it. That’s not why I’m reluctant to call myself a gamer, though.

Instead, it’s because of the gamer community, if there is such a thing - and I don’t really believe there is. There’s just a lot of people playing games, most of them not particularly interested in any larger aspect of their chosen activity, and that’s fine. The word ‘community’ is convenient, though, so we’ll just use it. That community has a serious problem with women.

The latest examples are the stories of Zoe Quinn and Dina Abou Karam, but you may also remember the saga of Anita Sarkeesian trying to talk about the representation of women in games, or Jennifer Hepler having the temerity to prefer the story to the shooting, and wishing she could skip the latter as easily as the former (me too).

Then there’s the everyday reality of the incessant abuse and harassment women receive online from fellow gamers, every single day.

I’ve already said that I enjoy games, and I want to make it clear that I also think games are important, even if I can’t quite take them entirely seriously. Gaming is a legitimate and rich pastime. Games are art, and I’ve had some incredibly involving and moving experiences with them. In terms of immersion and value for money, they surely make a mockery of a trip to the cinema. I’m a fan.

But then there are the other fans. A minority, we’re all quick to remind ourselves (and hope), but the numbers don’t actually matter - we’re not criticising the silent, civilised maybe-majority. The problem is all the rest.

The gaming world is a cesspit of maladjusted, comically aggressive, emotionally (and maybe actually) adolescent males who have a deep fear and distrust of women. The problematic gamers are, naturally, almost exclusively male - and no doubt skew towards the young side. No-one’s surprised by that. I’m not surprised.

What I am is disappointed and ashamed. I’m even a little bit sorry for them, because these guys seem to be afraid all the time. Their pride is fear of mockery. Their sense of reputation is fear of humiliation. Their aggression thinly veils a profound fear of any change to what they see as a domain where they’re free to act in any way they like.

Take a moment to scan through a page or so of Fat, Ugly or Slutty. There’s a troubling vein of stunted social abilities, lack of empathy, immaturity, posturing and misguided machismo. These are children, feeling they’re free to act as they please, and an industry too afraid of losing money to do anything but keep reinforcing their negative behaviour.

I’m not sure where it comes from. It’d be easy to assume that it’s a simple matter of having poor personal role models, and seeing damaging examples of male-female interaction. The industry itself certainly serves up enough artificial and pernicious images of women in relation to men, in game after game. But all of these people? All from shaky homes, or just too woefully oblivious to measure the imagery against their own actual lives? I find that impossible to believe.

I think that, sadly, they’re just us. They’re what we turn into when we’re left to our own devices for too long. They’re the result of exposure to competition without supervision, audience without moderation, and action without sanction. They’re why video game stores are filled with hoodies, and smell like bowling shoes. They’re the dark mirror of our modern youth, particularly the confused male sort.

It’s as sad as it is distressing, because these children (and adult pseudo-children) are clearly suffering. They’re absolutely terrified of losing any part of what they see as their domain, and for some reason they particularly perceive women as interlopers, pretenders and an intolerable taint on some imagined honour, or standing, or purity of the ‘sport’.

It’s a deeply damaged psychology, where the players aren’t easily divided into perpetrators and victims.

There are naturally many, many gamers who behave themselves, of course. That’s not in question. There are naturally many, many football (in the British sense) fans who behave themselves too. But their respective entertainments are notorious for appalling misbehaviour on the part of their most zealous proponents.

The existence of an unremarkable majority isn’t an excuse to wash our hands of the actual problem. The gaming industry owns it. The parents who sit downstairs while their teenager is upstairs playing online on his Xbox or PlayStation own it. Everyone else who’s playing owns it.

It’s embarrassing, truthfully. I’m ashamed of these people, and how they sadly characterise an otherwise innovative, artistic and exciting field of endeavour with so much potential for evolving how we think about entertainment and narrative.

I also genuinely pity them, because I can’t imagine what it must be like to exist with those fears and insecurities over what is, after all, just a pastime for them.

But most of all I feel frustrated for the people - the women, usually - who are on the receiving end of this pointless, pathetic and ultimately baseless anger. A community that so desperately needs the perspective and moderation and self-illumination that gender diversity can bring, not just for the sake of the hobby but as a tool for living their own lives.

Show me an angry man who spews hatred towards someone he perceives as different or a threat to him, despite the whole industry catering to his own tastes above all else. Then show me a woman who persists in pursuing an activity she loves despite a vocal and hostile element throughout its community.

I know which one I’d call a gamer.