Now that it’s 2020, I keep thinking about how it felt to be a woman writing about gender in video games back in 2010.
Ten years ago, the gender imbalance in the video game industry was not seen as a problem to be solved so much as a mundane and largely unquestioned reality. It wasn’t uncommon for notable women who worked in the video game industry to be fetishised, harassed, or both. In 2007, game designer Kathy Sierra gave up her career and left public life after being harassed and threatened online; at the time, the incident was considered somewhat unusual but wasn’t clocked as a portent of what Sierra described in a 2014 Wired editorial as “the slow, steady increase in both frequency and horror of online harassment” in the years to follow. Most of the popular games of the day weren’t made by women, weren’t about women, and were pretty limited to portraying a certain type of gruff macho man power fantasy. Call of Duty’s multiplayer had no female character option until 2013, despite proclaiming it depicted “modern” warfare.
Halo: Reach, which came out in September 2010, included the option at last to play as either a female or male Spartan, though the game didn’t change based on this decision. Some role-playing games of the era, like Mass Effect, allowed you to play as either a man or a woman as well, and although these games also featured no significant change to the story if you did so, they were nonetheless heralded as the most progressive options of the time. The best-known games of the era that forced you to play as a woman were gender-swaps of more famous fictional men (e.g., Lara Croft being a sexy lady version of Indiana Jones, Joanna Dark being a sexy lady version of James Bond). The short list of exceptions to all of this, such the character Jade in Beyond Good & Evil, were held up as proof that gaming had more than enough options for what was assumed to be a tiny minority of women who had any interest in playing them.
Games were for straight men, and gaming websites were, too. Outlets like IGN, Spike, and UGO regularly featured ranked lists of the most attractive fictional female characters in games; IGN did the same thing with real-life women, too. Even at gaming websites that were trying for something more serious than the usual “enthusiast press” standard, analysing games’ portrayal of gender and sexuality still wasn’t common. These gaming sites, too, were staffed predominantly by white, straight, cisgender men, often of similar middle to upper class financial backgrounds.
Again, none of this was considered strange or even remarkable—after all, that was the subsection of people to whom video games had been marketed since the 1990s. As laid out in a stellar reported timeline written by Tracey Lien for Polygon in 2013, market research had created a “chicken and egg” situation after finding that more boys than girls played video games in the 80s and 90s. Because of that, advertisers focused on marketing games to boys, thereby ensuring that gaming would get socially coded as a masculine pursuit in the decades to follow.
It made sense, then, that the most successful and well-known people who were writing about video games were the people to whom video games had been marketed to and catered toward in the decades prior. In 2020, this is an astoundingly boring observation. In 2010, pointing this out was seen as bizarre, worthy of mockery, harassment, and even threats.
Of course, lots of different kinds of people have always played video games. In the 2000s, indie game development and indie games criticism scenes were growing. The rise of blogging platforms like WordPress, the early days of YouTube, and the rise of social media made it possible for marginalised gamers to find one another and have the kinds of discussions mainstream sites and games weren’t.
By 2010, websites like Feminist Gamers, The Border House Blog, Sexy Videogameland, and Shakesville (a feminist blog that covered games sometimes) were helmed by critics who weren’t straight, or white, or men. Sometimes these blogs tackled complex social issues, but they also wrote more mundane impressions of games they played. For me, these sites normalised the idea that different kinds of people play and enjoy games, despite what marketing had told me and so many other people for so long.
Back then, I didn’t know very many women in real life who played games, let alone ones who wrote about games for a living, so the existence of these blogs made me realise I wasn’t alone, and that if I wanted to write about social issues in games, there would be other people out there who would care. Unfortunately, all of the above are now defunct, and most of them have deleted their archives. Critical Distance, which started in 2009 and still exists, still runs a weekly round-up of the best video game posts from blogs all over the internet. Its archives show off years of critical debates about games, some of which feel thankfully dated.
When mainstream sites tried to tackle topics that were commonplace in indie spaces, especially the ways that games framed gender roles and sexuality, the response was often angry blowback from readers. Take, for example, Abbie Heppe’s review of Metroid: Other M, published at G4 on August 31, 2010. Most other reviews of the game at the time were neutral to positive, with some complaints about the controls and linear design. In addition to voicing those complaints, Heppe’s review raised several issues with the narrative and structure of the game, specifically its gender politics, which put the ordinarily self-assured and independent bounty hunter Samus Aran under the thumb of a male military commander and inexplicably reduced her to a childlike state of fear during a confrontation with Ridley, a frequent Metroid enemy whom Samus had bested several times before.
Heppe explained how, in Metroid: Other M, Samus gets “restricted from using her abilities—some which could open a path or save her life in the future—until a bland male character dictates it to her. She does this because she likes him, but only as a friend. No matter what way you rationalize this mechanic, when you’re 10 minutes into the lava sector and you can’t use your Varia Suit yet, you will understand how painfully stupid this plot device is.” Heppe also lambasted the poor writing of Samus Aran’s dialogue: “Samus uses the phrase ‘confession time’ like a 12 year old girl scrawling in her Lisa Frank diary but really, the Alan Wake-meets-Lifetime Channel Original Movie narration gets old faster than you can say ‘daddy issues.’” Heppe gave the game an overall score of 2 out of 5.
In 2019, if you ask any Metroid fan about the portrayal of Samus in Other M, they’ll likely dismiss the game as a sexist disappointment that did its protagonist wrong. But that wasn’t the dominant opinion when Heppe’s review first came out. In a post titled “Backlash,” the Brainy Gamer blog described the outcry against the review as “immense (459 comments, and counting) and personal,” then included several examples of comments Heppe had received, like these gems:
“The female reviewer turned it into her opportunity to let loose her feminist and anti-sexism views about the story and said very little about actual GAMEPLAY, GRAPHICS, and all the things that really matter when playing A VIDEO GAME!”
“I’m not even a Metroid fan, I just think they should have a better criteria to rating games. Maybe they shouldn’t be reviewing games during their time of the month? Oh wah wah.. it’s not empowering to women anymore.. wahhh… Who are video games like Metroid made for? Boys! (This isn’t Cookin’ Mama)”
Brainy Gamer’s post characterised this backlash as an example of “what happens when a writer for a high-profile outlet chooses to address a game critically—I mean when he or she functions as a critic instead of simply a reviewer.” In the early 2010s, as evidenced by the comments on Heppe’s review, the idea persisted that game reviews—especially those with scores—were meant to be technical-focused buyer’s guides. The idea of analysing a game’s themes and tones, especially using any form of feminist analysis, was considered by the types of people who hated Heppe’s review to be irrelevant and definitely not something that should impact a game’s score.
This rhetorical division played into generations of gender-based stereotypes that see objectivity as inherently “masculine.” Criticism of a game’s tone and narrative was seen as more subjective and therefore intrinsically biased, as well as more “feminine.” In other words, criticising a game on feminist grounds was some girly feelings crap that would not stand in the world of gaming, a technical pursuit for technical men.
Many of the comments Heppe received back then expressed sentiments that would be—and still are—repeated, time and time again, to marginalised critics who analyse social issues in games: “Silly feminist and their emotions geting in the way of professionalism.” Heading into the 2010s, feminists were seen as boring killjoy outsiders to gaming who couldn’t possibly understand it, similar to your parents, or Jack Thompson.
That same month, August of 2010, a different controversy was unfolding in gaming. On August 11, the Penny Arcade webcomic put up a strip in which a video game hero decides not to bother helping out a non-player character, despite that character’s plea that “Every night, we are raped to sleep by dickwolves.” Shakesville guest blogger Shaker Milli A published a post about this strip, admitting to generally enjoying the dark humour of Penny Arcade but not being a fan of this strip in particular, which they felt made light of rape and was another example of how “rape victims are often doubted, mocked, and insulted openly.”
Back then, gamers used the word “rape” casually, all the time, as a synonym for “defeat.” It’s fallen out of fashion so much over the course of the past ten years that it’s hard to imagine how often people used to say it. (In 2012, former Kotaku deputy editor Patricia Hernandez wrote about having once used the term herself, and her reservations about it.) The Penny Arcade strip and Shakesville’s response to it became the flashpoint of what grew into a years-long debate over rape jokes and, by extension, the casual use of the word “rape” in video game spaces.
Penny Arcade followed up with a second strip featuring the author and artist’s stand-in characters joking directly about the idea that anyone would become a rapist just from reading their comic (“If you’re raping someone right now, stop,” they told the reader). On October 6, 2010, the site started selling dickwolves-themed merchandise. After much criticism, they pulled the merchandise from the store on January 26, 2011. It wasn’t until September 5, 2013 that Penny Arcade published what could very generously be construed as an apology by the comic’s artist, Mike Krahulik, in which he expressed regret for “everything we did after that comic” while standing by the original comic and its joke. “If we had just stopped with the strip and moved on, the Dickwolf never would have become what it is today. Which is a joke at the expense of rape victims or a symbol of the dismissal of people who have suffered a sexual assault.”
The most disturbing aspect of the dickwolves controversy was the amount of harassment spewed at people who had expressed discomfort at the original strip and at the proliferation of the word “rape” as a slang term among gamers. This type of organised harassment against perceived enemies to the sanctity of gaming was a trend that would continue through the 2010s. In February of 2012, an old 2006 interview with Bioware senior writer Jennifer Hepler began making the rounds on Reddit.
Hepler, who wrote multiple Dragon Age games, had suggested that games could be more inclusive by giving players the option to “fast-forward” through combat the way they let players fast-forward through dialogue. When the interview resurfaced, users on social media began harassing Hepler, with many echoing the original Reddit post’s claim that she was “the cancer that is killing Bioware.” The suggestion was that a focus on narrative at the expense of combat would “ruin” Bioware games, a statement that is all the more tragicomic in Bioware’s current post-Anthem era. This harassment played into the false, gendered dichotomy that posited women only care about video game stories, while men (the real gamers) care about what’s really important, which is combat. This debate blew up further into arguments about whether games that don’t have combat are truly games at all. Later, in August of 2013, Hepler left her job at Bioware after receiving violent threats against her family.
The idea of “real gamers” also played out in gaming communities themselves. Even women who played competitive games at a high level still struggled to be respected as equals. In February of 2012, Capcom put out a reality show featuring Street Fighter and Tekken players facing off as part of a promotion for the company’s new mash-up fighting game Street Fighter X Tekken. The show is now remembered for featuring an incident involving the head of the team of Tekken players, Aris Bakhtanians, sexually harassing a female player. Bakhtanians defended himself at the time by saying “the sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community… There’s esports for people who like esports, and there’s fighting games for people who like spicy food and like to have fun.”
Bakhtanians’s statement got some pushback, but it was also often misunderstood by people who didn’t have the full context of the social divide between the fighting game community and the rest of esports. The fighting game scene has historically been more racially diverse than other esports scenes—while most of esports is Asian and white players, in the fighting game community it’s just as common to see black and Latinx competitors reaching the top ranks, as well as running tournaments and becoming professional commentators and casters. The fighting game community is proud of what makes it different; Bakhtanians’s choice to rhetorically capitalise on this very real social divide in order to justify harassing a female player was a manipulation that did a massive disservice to the fighting game competitive scene, as well as the women who have competed in it.
His behaviour and comments suggested that women needed to put up with harassment not only to be “real” fighting game players, but to maintain the authenticity of the scene. It’s a disservice that is still being repaired to this day. At Evo 2019, longtime female participants in the fighting game scene spoke out about wanting to be heard and respected when they describe the harassment they’ve faced at competitive events, and how hard they still have to fight to get that respect.
On May 17, 2012, feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter for a video project called Tropes vs. Women In Video Games. That went fine.
Just kidding: Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter went viral, and, like so many other feminist critics in gaming before her, Sarkeesian received a deluge of harassment and violent threats that lasted for years. Just as marginalised gamers could find one another online and make their voices heard, so too could bigoted gamers, through shared call-signs of being in favour of dickwolves and against Sarkeesian or even Jennifer Hepler, who was grouped in with the collection of perceived enemies of video games.
Bigoted gamers who wanted to keep anyone unlike themselves out of video games had a lot of enemies in 2012, as it became increasingly clear that a lot of different kinds of people could make games. In January of 2012, the release of Indie Game: The Movie—a documentary that followed the creators behind Fez, Braid, and Super Meat Boy—signalled the mainstreaming of indie games, thanks in part to the increasing availability and accessibility of game-making tools. A burgeoning queer indie games scene was growing as well, with several queer and trans women at its forefront. 2012 saw the release of games like dys4ia by Anna Anthropy, Lim by Merritt Kopas, Howling Dogs by Porpentine, and Mainichi by Mattie Brice. Although each of these games was different in design and approach, they were often described in the same breath as the others, even if only for the reductive reason that each had a trans woman as its solo creator.
2012 also heralded the start of the “Twine Revolution,” a huge influx of interactive fiction games developed using the free and easy-to-use Twine engine. It was a phrase coined by Porpentine in a November 2012 post titled “Creation Under Capitalism and the Twine Revolution” on Nightmare Mode, a blog founded and run by former Kotaku staffer Patricia Hernandez. (Patricia started working at Kotaku full-time in 2012, alongside several other familiar names.) The most famous game to emerge from the so-called Twine Revolution would probably be Depression Quest, a game by Zoe Quinn with additional writing by Patrick Lindsey and music by Isaac Schankler. That came out on February 14, 2013, and would go on to receive widespread critical acclaim, as well as to become the catalyst for Gamergate.
These games heralded a shift in the gender imbalance in video games. In late 2012, the hashtags #1reasonwhy and #1reasontobe emerged on social media. The first hashtag began circulating on Twitter in answer to why there were so few women making games. Women and others filled the #1reasonwhy hashtag with depressing but realistic examples of the barriers to entry for would-be game designers, with some talking about the scrutiny of their appearance and others sharing stories of sexual abuse at gaming conferences. Rhianna Pratchett, the lead writer of the Tomb Raider reboot that would be released in 2013, participated in the hashtag as well, talking about how often she has to remind her fellow game designers, “What if the player is female?” As a follow-up, she then encouraged others to share inspiring stories of being in game development under the #1ReasonToBe hashtag. These hashtags are still in occasional use today, and the Game Developers Conference now hosts an annual #1ReasonToBe panel focusing on the experiences of various marginalised people in video games, with recent years expanding the panel’s focus beyond just women.
Meanwhile, the Pratchett-penned Tomb Raider reboot had seen its own share of controversies and general scrutiny in the run-up to its release. In December 2010, Tomb Raider art director Brian Horton explained that he wanted protagonist Lara Croft to have a bit of “baby fat,” then added, “Lara Croft as a sex object isn’t our goal. No unlockable bikinis.”
The rebooted version of Lara Croft did not have as extreme an hourglass figure as her original incarnation, but she certainly didn’t have “baby fat.” The rebooted Lara instead seemed like a stereotypical cool nerd girl who could hang with the guys. Well, barely. “She isn’t going to be as tall as the men around her – about a head shorter,” Horton said at the time. “This reinforces the feeling that she’s against all odds.”
In 2012, Tomb Raider executive producer Ron Rosenberg told took that back, saying, “Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game.” Rosenberg’s waffling underscored the tension that triple-A games were experiencing about how to present and market a female lead character. For example, Rosenberg had first described how the player would probably want to “protect” Lara, saying, “She’s definitely the hero but you’re kind of like her helper. When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.”
Despite the confused marketing campaign leading up to the game, the Tomb Raider reboot largely worked, allowing its protagonist to shift between realistic displays of vulnerability and toughness in ways that Metroid: Other M had attempted but failed to do with its heroine in 2010. Tomb Raider also received widespread critical acclaim and sold well enough to show that gaming audiences of 2013 were ready for a different kind of hero in a triple-A game.
The success of Tomb Raider arguably paved the way for other female characters to front triple-A games in the latter half of the 2010s: Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn, Kait in Gears 5, Ellie in The Last Of Us: Left Behind and the upcoming The Last Of Us Part 2. Most of the other well-known triple-A video games that came out in 2013 didn’t star female characters. Instead, games like Bioshock: Infinite and The Last of Us gave us what would be high-profile examples of what was becoming a trend: big-budget games focused around dads. Kotaku’s own Stephen Totilo observed the early phase of the “daddening of games” in February of 2010, and in 2013, Mattie Brice dubbed it “the dadification of games.” This trend continued all the way through to 2018, when God of War rebooted its franchise in dad-themed form.
These games focused on the idea of the protagonist of the game serving in a paternal role to a younger and more vulnerable person. At times, these games’ lead designers drew the parallel more literally, casting themselves as the fathers of their game’s characters. Ken Levine described seeing Bioshock: Infinite’s Elizabeth as like a “daughter” to him (admittedly, that was in the context of not wanting to see porn of her). God of War’s Cory Barlog has also cited his own experiences with fatherhood as influencing the game’s direction. Much digital ink has been spilled over the patriarchal themes in these games, some of which is catalogued in Critical Distance’s compilation of Bioshock: Infinite-related writing.
Like Metroid: Other M in 2010, Bioshock: Infinite released in March 2013 to largely positive critical reception, but it also had its critics. Writers delved deep into the game’s two most prominent female characters: Elizabeth Comstock, the doe-eyed, Disney princess-like encapsulation of white female fragility, and Daisy Fitzroy, the black female leader of the Vox Populi, a group of militant revolutionaries fighting against the Founders’ oppressive rule. Many debates in the early 2010s about the portrayal of women in triple-A games had focused predominantly on white women, such as Samus Aran and Lara Croft. Bioshock: Infinite’s decision to frame an innocent and sheltered white woman as a sympathetic helper, and to cast its a politically radical black woman as an extremist villain, led to critical conversations about the intersection of race and gender in games. Many of the game’s detractors sympathized more with Daisy’s plight than with Elizabeth’s.
Much of the pushback against Infinite’s reductive narrative didn’t happen at mainstream gaming outlets, but rather at smaller venues with fewer resources, such as re/Action, an independent and short-lived video game blog founded and led by a trans woman of colour in Mattie Brice. In July 2013, that site published an article by my friend Soha El-Sabaawi, who wrote about her own heritage and also the ways in which Bioshock: Infinite did wrong by Daisy Fitzroy, writing, “As I fought [the Vox Populi] to progress Booker and Elizabeth’s stories I kept asking out loud in my empty apartment, ‘Why? Why am I doing this?’ With every member of the Vox Populi I murdered, I was erasing their history and oppression one bullet at a time. They aren’t the enemies. They aren’t my enemies.”
Just as in previous years, there was an ever-escalating pitch of blowback in response to writers who critiqued games through lenses other than technical specs. In just three years, critical discussion of gender in games had gotten a lot more nuanced than, say, the average Metroid: Other M review from back in 2010. Even mainstream publications had begun to regularly address the gender politics of games, including intersections of race, queerness, and other forms of marginalization, thanks to the increasingly diverse voices of both critics and game creators.
In March 2013, Feminist Frequency released the first video in the Tropes vs. Women In Video Games series, garnering a level of outrage that had by that point become predictable and expected. After Depression Quest came out in February, it received widespread critical coverage and accolades, but it also received blowback from a vocal subset of gamers who didn’t see text adventures and the many byproducts of the Twine Revolution as meriting the same level of coverage as other types of games. A similar type of blowback fell upon Gone Home, a 2013 indie game about exploring an empty house and learning about its inhabitants. Both Depression Quest and Gone Home were set in the real world, telling stories of about societal forms of marginalisation—mental health in Depression Quest’s case, and a queer coming-out story in Gone Home. Both games were about day-to-day life and the mundanities that make us human. For many critics, the release and success of games like these signalled an exciting shift in perceptions of what games could do or be, what stories they could tell, and who could tell them best.
By 2013, many mainstream video game publications had significantly diversified their mastheads as well as their gaming coverage. Games like Depression Quest and Gone Home got written up alongside big-budget, mainstream games. Meanwhile, the rise of Patreon and other crowd-funding methods allowed more marginalised critics and indie video game creators to make a living, if often a meager one. The conversations that had once been on the sidelines, such as ones about how exclusionary the video game industry could be, had entered the forefront.
For bigots, that change came too fast. Some began to suspect a sort of conspiracy among journalists that had “forced” them all to see the value in small, experimental indie games that were so different than what had come before. These games, some argued, were hardly games at all and could not possibly merit this much praise and attention.
It was this line of thinking that sparked and fuelled the hate movement now known as Gamergate, a movement precipitated on the false, derogatory claim that Depression Quest developer Zoe Quinn slept with a Kotaku journalist in order to garner positive coverage of the game. This line of thinking was first proposed in a blog post written by an ex-boyfriend of Quinn’s on August 16, 2014. Bigoted gamers seized upon it, taking the opportunity to rail against Quinn while arguing that this could account for the successes of other marginalised people in the games industry.
Along with many others, predominantly women, I was accused by total strangers on social media of sleeping around in order to get ahead in the games industry. Given that I was an underpaid freelancer at the time (my previous full-time employer, the Boston Phoenix, had gone out of business in 2013), this accusation is darkly funny in retrospect, but since I had already been receiving death and rape threats for years by that point, I found it pretty hard to laugh. Others, such as Mattie Brice, Jenn Frank, and others were harassed so much and received so many threats that they left the internet and significantly scaled back their public presence in the years to follow.
Kyle Wagner’s Deadspin essay, “The future of the culture wars is here, and it’s Gamergate,” laid out how Gamergate’s tactics worked. Participants organised on forums like Reddit, 4chan, and later 8chan and Kiwi Farms to issue coordinated attacks against specific designated targets, often using multiple anonymised social media accounts to give the illusion of a huge volume of support. Those attacks included harassment and threats on social media, with the potential to escalate to calling someone’s employer and attempting to get them fired, or, in the case of journalists, targeting publications’ advertisers and attempting to convince those companies to pull funding. If you’re on the other end of a campaign like that, it might seem easier to just give up and stop doing what you’re doing—to stop writing feminist criticism of a video game, for example. These were tactics that had already worked before, as seen in the coordinated response to anyone who criticised Penny Arcade’s dickwolves comic, or the coordinated response to projects like Tropes vs. Women In Games. These tactics were very effective at driving people off the internet, as Kathy Sierra, Jennifer Hepler and many others could attest—if they were still in the public eye.
This year, the New York Times published a collection of essays titled “Everything Is Gamergate,” with the subheading, “Five years ago, a series of vile events changed the way we fight online.” But Gamergate had not changed the way we fight online. What changed was the internet, and by extension video games, which slowly but surely had become more accessible to more people.
I knew many of the people involved in every controversy that unfolded. We all went to the same Women In Gaming panels at conferences, the same meetups for marginalised people at industry events. Other people would mix me up with the handful of other women writing about games, so at a certain point, I figured I may as well keep track of what they were saying, especially when I disagreed with them. We didn’t all like each other; we weren’t all friends, as the Gamergate conspiracy theorists believe. But we were peers united by the fact that other people kept grouping us together, kept casting us as enemies. There was no grand organised conspiracy—just an increased presence of marginalised people, finally given the means to find one another and to talk about and make the games they had always wanted to exist. It was just a series of conversations—a blog post here, a Twine game there. And yet those individual conversations, each one not so important on its own, became powerful when taken as a whole. Powerful enough to frighten bigots, who in turn, worked together to frighten us back.
At the outset of 2010, I was 23 years old. I had been working full-time for the Boston Phoenix since 2008. I covered the nerd culture beat, including cult films, comic books, and video games. I reported on local gaming events and met several Boston-area indie video game developers: obscure up-and-comers, like Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu. Most of the time, I wrote about competitive video games, especially shooters and fighting games—my favourites.
On March 31, 2010, I tossed off a post titled “Gears of War 3: Adding a Female Character?” According to the extended universe of Gears of War comic books and novels, the majority of women in the post-apocalyptic Gears universe were forced into birthing camps instead of fighting the invading Locust horde. The only women who were allowed to fight were those who were infertile, after first spending their childhoods and teen years in these camps. The comic books described one woman, Alexandra Brand, who as a teenage girl was raped repeatedly by her captors before finally turning 18, at which point she was officially declared infertile and sent to fight on the front lines.
In 2010, my criticism of the gender politics of the Gears universe was not that deep. I kept it dead simple, writing, “What if a woman just didn’t want to make babies, and wanted to serve humanity in another way?” After all, I reasoned, Gears of War was clearly a power fantasy for its beefy, cartoonish male heroes. Why weren’t women allowed to participate in the absurd power fantasy, too?
My hastily written and thinly argued post blew up. It even got linked on Kotaku. I got messages from people who said they wanted to hurt me, to shoot me, to prove to me that a woman like me couldn’t survive in a battlefield—virtual or otherwise.
At first, I viewed these messages as stupid and dismissed them. Night after night, though, I lay awake questioning my career choices. The more messages I got, the worse I felt.
I didn’t take good care of myself in the wake of that experience. I read every single email, every comment, every forum post about what I had written. I wrote multiple follow-up blog posts and responded to far too many comments. I wanted gamers to see that I wrote the post because I care, because I’m “one of them.” I could tell they saw me as an outsider. I thought if I could only convince them I wasn’t, the harassment would stop.
I blamed Kotaku, at least in part, for linking to my article in the first place, even though I knew that wasn’t entirely fair. But none of it felt fair. What if someone came to the Phoenix offices to kill me, all because I had written a blog post? Why did I have to be so scared, just for writing down on the internet that I wanted to play as a female character in one of my favourite games—ideally, a female character who hadn’t been raped repeatedly and marginalised from birth? It didn’t seem like very much to ask.
Now it’s 2019. Gears 5 came out earlier this year. It has a female character who is not only playable but the lead character of the game. She didn’t grow up in a breeding camp. Although the post-apocalyptic world of Gears is still just as harrowing, its female characters aren’t in constant sexual peril. Instead, they’re in a lot of different types of peril, just like everybody else in the world of the game. I reviewed Gears 5 for Kotaku, a website where I now work as managing editor.
The past ten years almost sound like a victory, if I just leave out how bad it felt to experience. After all, it’s normal to talk about gender in games, now. It’s not even that weird for a game to have a female lead. It’s almost trendy. Replacing your muscle-bound white dude character with a thin white woman is just another way to stand out in a crowded marketing landscape full of too-similar titles. You could even make the white lady gay, really blow some minds.
I can be jaded about that now, because I recognise that the changes we’ve seen still haven’t gone far enough, but in 2010, it would have blown my mind, because all of that was impossible for me to imagine. Video games still have so many more daring stories they could tell, but it’s obvious that the medium has changed over the past ten years in vital and easily observable ways. Unfortunately, that change has not come easily, and it has not been nearly as transformative as it should have been.
At the beginning of 2010, I had no idea how often I would be terrified, over the next ten years, to be writing about video games and gender. I had no idea how tired and jaded I would become by the time 2020 arrived. I had no idea that Gamergate would become international news, that various people I had met in passing at local gaming meet-ups would become talking points for mainstream political pundits beyond the world of games. I had no idea how much games would change, and how hollow and pointless the supposed victories would often feel in comparison to the fear and the pain I experienced and watched my peers experience.
In the early 2010s, the world of games criticism felt small. The few people who pushed back against the status quo tended to stand out. In the early 2010s, they were easy to find, easy to follow, easy to remember. Easy to target. It was just video games, but it felt huge and all-consuming. My peers and I felt like we were fighting for our lives. After all, our lives were threatened, often, because of the jobs we had. It’s hard to keep a healthy perspective when you’re in that situation. Even now, it’s hard for me to tell which of these controversies mattered at all, which ones moved the needle forward and which ones didn’t. I’m also sure that there were plenty of groundbreaking games and debates that I missed entirely.
Many of the people whose work influenced me the most in the early 2010s have left games journalism or the games industry. The ones who have stayed this whole time are not the same. Many have significantly scaled back their online presence. Over the past ten years, the hottest gaming tips I learned from my peers were about how to delete my address and phone number from people-finder websites. I have trained myself to close the tab when I’ve read too many cruel comments about myself. I have improved my reaction time at muting and blocking people on social media. I can barely recognise the person I was in 2010. Man, she thought she’d seen some shit. But she had no idea.
She is still me, though. And even now, I lie awake at night sometimes and wonder why I chose to do this, just as I used to wonder back then. I think about the people who quit, the ones who got driven out by hate mobs, lack of resources, or both. Especially the ones whose work was much better and much bolder than mine. I think about how independent and diverse newsrooms helped propel these changes, and how afraid I am of losing that. There’s still so much left to do, and still so many bigots who wish more than anything for a return to a more exclusionary status quo.
All I know is, I’m not done yet.