Culture and Gender Norms
Accessibility, Gaming & Gatekeeping
Revisiting the topic of gaming once more, today we look into the evolving tribalism of gaming, gatekeeping and accessibility on multiple fronts. “Power to the Players” should be and is more than just a slogan.
In the earliest video games, issues such as gender stereotypes and toxic fandoms hardly registered, as talking points. While certain game titles for the old Atari 2600, such as Indiana Jones or Pac-Man [ 1 ] certainly featured a male protagonist, most of the oldest games had no gender inclinations at all. Playing a game like Space Invaders ((Space Invaders. Taito, Arcade Cabinet, 1978.)), Centipede ((Centipede. Atari 2600, Atari, Inc., 1981.)), or Asteroids ((Asteroids. Arcade Cabinet, Atari, Inc., 1979.)), which only had a small, 8-bit ship to represent the player, with no indications of gender. However, as early as the 1980s, we start to see very unbalanced gender representation. Even though the games for the old Atari had many genderless games, their commercials feature predominantly men or boys playing them. This somewhat innocuous gendering of games was exacerbated by the North American video game crash of 1983 [ 2 ]. The short version of this crash is that the market was flooded with too many consoles and games of poor quality, and the previous market boom ended in a bust.
Infamously, Atari paid $21 million USD for the rights to make the E.T. home video game and rushed it out with only six weeks of development. Obviously, a terrible move for the biggest video game company of the era. Two years after this crash, Nintendo of America brought the Nintendo Entertainment System to market, changing the traditional marketing strategy from having game consoles featured in the electronics section and instead moving them to the toys section of retail stores. This came with the fateful choice of placing the NES in the, by then, already gendered sections of girl or boy toys, and they chose boy. The success of the NES that followed had ramifications for video game marketing and development for decades to come.
The Early Years
There was a clash of pop culture and video gaming in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s. Saturday morning cartoons were a big part of it; a lot of the program was driven for boys—G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men. A lot of these toy developers and the folks who were working on these cartoons desperately wanted video game tie-ins, not only because it meant more money, but because it meant more media out there. That was when the pendulum swung, culturally.
In the early Atari days, nothing was detailed enough to say that the characters or environments were imagined as masculine. Most of the games of that time were androgynous, innocent fun. It would be charitable to call the games of this era anthropomorphic; most of these games were genderless. When pop culture in general began to push for a male-advertised audience, video games followed suit.
In Nintendo’s subsequent break-out hit with the combined Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt cartridge, very little about the game was considered feminine by the era—granted, the ’80s were hardly very progressive in terms of women’s representation in the first place. Things really start taking off with The Legend of Zelda, which starred Link, and featured the titular female character as a textbook damsel in distress. This continues with Castlevania, where Simon Belmont was pitched as a knock-off Conan the Barbarian with Indiana Jones’s whip. With these, the gaming industry reinforced all kinds of traditional, and arguably toxic, masculine stereotypes.
Meanwhile, the damsel in distress serves as the centerpiece for most of these games. In Super Mario Bros., the goal is to rescue the princess. Similarly, though there was a story in The Legend of Zelda, the game is still centered around, again, saving the damsel in distress. Almost all the games early in the Nintendo life cycle that featured more than 30 minutes of gameplay featured this story element at their core.
The Mega Man series might serve as an exception in that it has no damsel, but the fight against Dr. Wily is still framed in a male-leagued capacity. Early RPGs tended to have this at their core, too. Even in Ninja Gaiden, which for the most part serves as an exception, switches halfway through when Irene, the pseudo-love interest, needs to be rescued as well. A lot of this comes from how time constraints dictated the creative writing in a lot of these projects. Consider, also, that there was a significant lack of female developers in the industry.
A female protagonist for a video game did not appear in earnest until Samus Aran herself, who is revealed to be female only at the end of 1986’s Metroid; in this way, Samus almost doesn’t count as female representation, because you can play through the entire first game not knowing at all that she is a girl. After that, the next major female playable character would be Princess Toadstool in Super Mario Bros. 2, itself a port of Doki Doki Panic!.
Console Wars and Gatekeeping: Creating your own sequestered market share
When Nintendo released the NES console, this paved the way for video games to become home entertainment. From that point on, Nintendo and Sega’s rivalry drove the market forward. Sega would unveil Sonic the Hedgehog in his first game in 1991—and this is where the trash-talking began. There was a Sega commercial, before the Super Nintendo had even come out, because the Genesis beat them to the market, which started the nonsense about so-called “blast processing”—a term that was nothing more than a marketing buzzword. For the year between the Genesis’s release in ’89 and the Super Nintendo release in ’90, Sega had the edge in processing power. It was not the only 16-bit console, competing with Atari’s Turbografx-16, but despite some passionate fans, the Turbografx-16 fanbase couldn’t even really be called a cult following; no one was going to buy a new console just for Bonk’s Adventure. So, until Nintendo caught up, Sega was the most technologically advanced by default.
However, based on sheer capacity, and thanks to coming out ever-so-slightly later, the Super Nintendo hardware is, arguably, superior to the Genesis, “blast processing” be damned. By the time Sonic came out, one of the greatest Super Mario games ever made, Super Mario World, had already been released. This somewhat explains the attitude and edginess that Sega delivered Sonic with, as they hadn’t had a landmark mascot for two systems running, and so trash-talking started as early as ’92. The companies utilized all the marketing techniques of Coke vs. Pepsi like it was the soda wars all over again to create a viral marketing campaign that led to fights breaking out in schools.
Even in the comparatively affluent 1990s, it was rare that a household could afford to own both consoles because the prices were so astronomical, given that the technology wasn’t very commonplace, and the prices on the games themselves were unregulated. At the time, a console would run for about $200, and the big ticket 8-bit games tended to sell for $50, then jumping to $60 for the 16-bit. Nowadays, for a tenth of that, you can play Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog on your phone. Adjusting for inflation, these games would be selling for $80 to $90, easily. This era of gaming required a commitment, not just financially, but also time wise, because the early Nintendo and Sega games were not eight-hour playthroughs.
This commitment, coupled with the boys’ club that was gaming in the ’80s and ’90s, bred a sort of brand loyalty that has since not been found in Millennials, and which led to trash-talking and even pushed kids to violence at a young age. The industry thrived on its intentionally cultivated male crowd of gamers that were convinced that this hobby was more than just a fun pastime but an institute of pride and prestige.
During the transition from the 16-bit to the 32- and 64-bit, your fandom was arena combat; the comics industry had this to a certain extent, with Marvel and DC, but those fandoms were far more civil compared to Sega and Nintendo. Tabletop gaming wouldn’t develop this until much later, by means of a sort of cross-pollination. Really, the combative fandom was video games. And that combativeness grew up and intensified with that first generation, because as that generation of gamers got older, the divides grew deeper.
If you look now, that competition hasn’t gone away. Nintendo and Sega may have been traded in for Sony and XBox, but the same rivalries are there. And, as games became more accessible, this old guard of gamers became snobbish, relying on the Cranky Kong mantra of “video games used to be harder to beat,” and “back in my day.” There was a culture of “you kids get off my lawn” among the 20- and 30-something Gen X-ers who played games at the time. That attitude still exists, it hasn’t gone away. It’s maybe gotten a bit quieter, but it’s still there. But, to gloss over the reason for this attitude would be to do those gamers a disservice, because what you must remember is that the gamers of that era had to suffer for their fandom.
It’s common to see crackpot conservative politicians railing against harmless things like music and kids’ pastimes and gay marriage but left-leaning Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Tipper Gore, and Jack White were campaigning against the video game industry, claiming that it was harmful to children. This also wasn’t the sort of flash-in-the-pan one-time campaign for five years, either. This platform persisted across decades, carrying the baton from Mothers Against D&D, and this ended up intensifying with the rise of the Grand Theft Auto series, especially when they went 3-D. People don’t tend to remember GTA and GTA II as well, because while those games still had the violence and the criminal activity associated with the series, they stayed in a top-down angle, but GTA III served as the tipping point for a lot of things. Ultimately, this did end in the flawed but reasonable compromise of the ESRB rating system.
No Girls Allowed: Creating the Old Boys Club of gaming
It’s hard to pin down exactly when, but sometime in the mid-’90s, a new and disturbing behavior emerged in gaming culture and within nerd culture as a whole: overt misogyny. It was the inevitable result of the transition in marketing video games from gender neutral to boys only. Years of reinforcing this stereotype in every commercial way possible [ 2 ] manufactured this hard tilt towards male-only entertainment, which had the dual effects of cutting the potential market in half and allowing developers to ignore any concerns about sexism in their games. Targeting games towards men and boys in the far less progressive ’80s and ’90s meant that women could be used as decoration [ 3 ] or even reward [ 4 ] in video games. It’s hardly a wonder, when all this is considered, that video games continue to feature many problematic tropes, such as the Damsel in Distress, or that many modern game titles are created specifically with a straight male gaze in mind. After all, sex sells, doesn’t it? Why not take advantage of a sexy image here or there to market your game?
Tracking the transition from the Super Nintendo era to the 3-D era is a bit difficult. Though the Super Nintendo was replaced by the Nintendo 64 in ’96, games would still be released for the SNES until as late as 1999. Then, the 32-bit era hit. The original PlayStation dropped in 1995, allegedly based on technology developed for a CD hook-up for the Super Nintendo that was then sold to Sony. However, the PSX didn’t really pick up steam until it started picking up some exclusives. Crash Bandicoot may have been compelling, but it certainly wasn’t setting the world on fire. The watershed moments came when the system moved beyond the basic games that were just starting to pour into 32-bit, like when Crash got a sequel.
The big turnover moment that pulled many people from the Nintendo bandwagon onto the PlayStation was, of course, Final Fantasy VII. That game changed a lot of the landscape for a lot of people because it told an incredibly comprehensive narrative, and it did so with a visual style that hadn’t been seen previously in a console game. It changed a lot of attitudes towards gaming and forced the community to reevaluate their ideas about what was and wasn’t possible on modern technology. And, for what it’s worth, that title features some strong female characters. Granted, Cloud Strife may still be the unambiguously white male protagonist and there are some holdover damsels in distress, it’s one of the first times that strong female narratives really presented themselves in a storytelling sense. Cloud’s crossdressing also serves to normalize LGBTQ+ representation, albeit with some rather crude and problematic rendering.
To speak toward the target audiences, the PlayStation’s marketing campaign was not specifically hyper-masculine the way the previous generations had been, though it did sort of soft-use masculine themes. Sony’s “You Are Not Ready” campaign endures as one of the most memorable marketing campaigns of the past 40 years and should be quoted alongside “Got Milk?” and “I’m Lovin’ It.” The Sony marketing was certainly testosterone-driven, but it didn’t have the same level of toxic masculinity as the intentionally competitive console wars. It was more about impactful animation.
That’s not to say that the PlayStation was without its games that fell into those tropes, of course, but this is also when things like Ecco the Dolphin were coming out. There were now games in the market that spoke to girls, but they were not predominant at all. The problem with those early games for girls is that they were still in that very girly vein. There were a couple of Barbie and My Little Pony titles, and certainly a subset of games that were designed as “girl games.” The sense of “gaming is for everyone” was nowhere near close to the picture.
Then again, DuckTales and Rescue Rangers both featured playable characters in Webbigail and Gadget, despite Scrooge McDuck and Chip and Dale being male protagonists. Disney serves as a different beast entirely in this case, having put out a Little Mermaid game for the NES years prior.
The Microsoft XBox was more of a magnet for toxic masculine gamers than the PlayStation. XBox was the first console that let players communicate over a voice connection through XBox Live. For that reason, it was the place to play shooters. It was where Halo lived, and it was where a lot of the big shooter franchises preferred to release because of the online capabilities. XBox clearly held the edge in that market, but XBox Live was where toxic discourse in gaming took off to an extreme degree.
It was in those XBox Live Call of Duty lobbies that players could hear every swear word and racial epithet screamed at them by a little white kid sitting in his parents’ basement. In the early days of XBox Live, in games like Unreal 2: The Awakening, the game had a very cool team-based multiplayer with giant maps and whatnot, and the trash-talking wasn’t there yet, so people mostly just gushed about how awesome it was to be able to play online and talk to people.
Then Halo 2 dropped, and everything changed. It turned from a very “good game, Charlie Brown” culture to players unloading every word they shouldn’t say on each other in not just frustration, but rage. This manufactured hard tilt toward male audiences only picked up in the ’90s and accelerated into the ’00s, but the early 2000s was really when it hit its perfected form. Marketing all but ignored women for decades, even though video games as a medium are supposed to be accessible to everyone, and, in its inception, was. Even now, though there have been many successful titles that feature female protagonists, often they are the sort of cheesecake, fan service-driven games, or features women as ornamentation, like prizes or arm candy.
As much as Lara Croft is often touted as the main female gaming protagonist, the original Tomb Raider games sold her as a sex symbol. It wasn’t until the more recent games when they toned down her physical dimensions and gave her stories that were more relatable, not just to women, but people in general, that they started portraying her as more of a survivor-type character, which drove home a narrative for her.
In the early games, Croft was envisioned as an adventuring socialite who came from old money and sought adventure for pleasure. This was propagated by the Angelina Jolie movies as well, to a certain extent. This persists in Metal Gear Solid with the character of Rain, where contrivances were found to squeeze in some fan service. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong in doses, but this was the pervasive norm in games for years.
Fan service is supposed to act as “sizzle,” and be a little illicit, but when it becomes the industry standard, it’s a problem. Metal Gear does deserve props though, as it featured Snake-Eater, who was a big woman, and a solid badass, but that was much later in the series, after some of that self-awareness kicked in. And, of course, Snake-Eater doesn’t undo or make up for the way Rain was treated, especially given that Snake-Eater predates Rain anyway.
On the topic of misogyny, GamerGate is a culturally embarrassing episode. Though it is a product of the times, it’s hardly the exception—it really is, unfortunately, the norm. In the wake of GamerGate, and because of the awareness that event raised, Steam has over 66 titles featuring a female protagonist. The PC platform is being reclaimed largely by girl gamers, and Twitch streaming has been another great boost for gender equality in gaming. Indie developers really play the biggest part in this shift. The Steam Greenlight program that started in 2012 allowed people to give Steam $100 in exchange for access to early pre-beta tests, and so gamers were able to personally help projects they liked to move forward. This allowed smaller development studios to bring their games to light [ 5 ].
There were a lot of women that grew up in this male-dominated era of gaming and wanted to change the landscape on their own. And so, by taking skill they’d acquired, they were able to get these indie games made that were embraced not only by women, but by men as well, because they found ways to tie in complex narratives that transcended ideas of male or female marketing, while empowering women in general. The women who attend conventions like PAX are no longer booth babes, serving as eye candy to promote a new game, but a ton more female developers than have ever been in the industry before.
Moving Forward: Games rated E for Everyone
Gaming culture in North America, and even around the world, has had many issues regarding equality and sexism. While efforts have been made to change the landscape of game culture, they have only been made recently, and we have a long way to go yet. Still, there are many hopeful examples we can look to. A quick browse of Steam shows numerous titles that feature a female protagonist [ 6 ]. That is an incomplete list, as it relies on the games being tagged as such, but even so it shows that more PC games that have female lead roles are being made.
A remake of the previously quite chauvinistic Tomb Raider, complete with an overtly large-breasted and scantily clad protagonist in Lara Croft, sees a much better treatment in this newer iteration [ 7 ]. Now, Lara is a woman of average proportions who is thrust into a dangerous environment for the first time in her career, and quickly proves herself to be incredibly resilient and clever, surviving certain death scenarios and outsmarting many male antagonists. Likewise, the more recently released Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice [ 8 ] features a badass female Celtic warrior who battles her way through hell itself, slaying demons left and right, to save the soul of her dead lover. Yes, that bit of the plot is still an overused trope, but the rest of the game is quite solid.
With triple-A titles such as these being produced, alongside many more Indie games, such as the critically acclaimed Undertale [ 9 ], the future of gaming looks a lot brighter and more inclusive. With female gamers and their allies finally raising their voices, game companies cannot continue to ignore them, and while change can be unsettling, it is necessary, and indeed, better, to be more inclusive in the most prolific form of media ever created.
Despite a problematic history and a long maturation cycle that has veered, much like our culture has, in radically non-progressive ways, we are starting to inch back to something resembling progressivism. The last 6-7 years have been a real litmus test for that. More female voices have been working their way up in not only the indie companies, but in big development studios. To be fair, women have been in the industry for much longer than that, but they’re only now getting the recognition they were due this whole time. The other half of that is that the big studios are acknowledging their own voices as well.
Women are getting more of a say in the creative process, but early video games in the late ’80s through the ’90s, everything was about “Japan knows best.” America didn’t really get a say in how video games were developed until the late ’90s and early 2000s, when North American developing houses became more commonplace. It’s fair to say that Japanese society is very chauvinistic, and so the expansion to North America helped that rise away from misogyny.
The writing and the narratives in video games have changed. The people who are being shown to us on the big screen have changed, and all in positive ways. We’re seeing more diversity, not only in women protagonists, but women and men of color. The stories are not just stereotypical stories about black and brown characters in “the ’hood,” but complex narratives that reflect the many walks of life one can encounter. We’re evolving beyond the stereotypes, and we’re on a much better track. There’s still work to be done, and there are still toxic elements that need to be sussed out, and bridges that need to be built, but we are getting there much faster than it looked like we would in 2010. The future doesn’t necessarily look bright, but it looks a hell of a lot more inclusive.
- “One of the earliest examples of actual feminine representation in gaming, Princess Toadstool’s availability as a player character in the Super Mario Bros. 2 U.S. adaptation of Doki Doki Panic! Was a precedent changing step forward.” “Super Mario Bros. 2.” YouTube, uploaded by TASVideosChannel, 23 Feb. 2018, youtube.com/watch?v=noHA_Vq0iXY
- “The subject of more than one documentary, the Console Wars of the late ’80s and early ’90s (and then again in the early ’00s) framed the modern state of gaming today. They were every bit as vicious as Coke vs. Pepsi.” “Console Wars.” Paramount+, uploaded by Paramount+, 23 Sept. 2020, paramountplus.com/movies/video/4ECA1036-8A7D-FF9C-7922-82AAC4352BB6
- “A haven and magnet for the absolute worst of toxic masculinity in gaming for decades, the Halo franchise has only recently grown, with feminine and queer customization available in Halo Infinite.” Black, Jordan. “Halo Infinite.” Metro, 9 June 2022, metro.co.uk/2022/06/09/halo-infinite-and-queer-customisation-in-multiplayer-games-16749817
Logistics management professional by day and nerdy superfan by night, Rob Kaba has management skills equally suiting both corporate logistics or tabletop and MMO games. He embodies these roles, providing critical assistance to any endeavor lucky enough to have him. Mr. Kaba’s most well known for his cosplay of “The Dude”, complete with rug, as producer of Steam-Funk Studios’ first client, Cosplay Court Case. His early assistance was critical for both The Living Multiverse and The Unconventional.
- Pac-Man, Atari 2600, Namco, 1982.
- Joey the PM. “What Was the Great Video Game Crash of 1983?” BugSplat, BugSplat, 28 Aug. 2020. bugsplat.com/blog/less-serious/great-video-game-crash-1983/.
- Sarkeesian, Anita. “Women as Background Decoration.” YouTube, YouTube. 16 Jun, 2014 youtube.com/watch?v=4ZPSrwedvsg.
- Sarkeesian, Anita. “Women as a Reward.” YouTube, YouTube. 31 Aug. 2015. youtube.com/watch?v=QC6oxBLXtkU.
- Morris, David. “Valve Software to Shutter Steam Greenlight Program for Indie Developers.” Fortune, Fortune Media IP Limited, 11 Feb. 2017. fortune.com/2017/02/11/valve-greenlight-indie-games/.
- “Female Protagonist.” Steam, Valve, store.steampowered.com/category/female_protagonist/ Accessed 19 Apr. 2022.
- Tomb Raider. PC Engine, Square-Enix, 2013.
- Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. PC Engine, Ninja Theory, 2017.
- Undertale. PC Engine, Toby Fox, 2015.