Ever since the invention of video games, they have been the target of criticism when it comes to appropriate gender representation. From the early days, the only female representation in video games has been that of princesses calling upon the hero to help save their kingdom, a damsel in distress who must be saved by the main character, or the desirable leather-clad accessory with a Russian accent and other side characters.
While this longstanding tradition of misogyny has seen some changes with recent video games having female leads, there is a long way to go before it can be ripped out. But that’s not the only form of sexism prevalent in the video game world. Whether it’s a female game designer, an esports athlete, or even a recreational gamer, they all have stories of being discriminated against, harassed and gaslit by their male counterparts who dominate the industry in almost every aspect.
According to a 2019 survey by IGDA, 71% of game developers all over the world are men. It also revealed that while a majority of gaming studios have non-discrimination, equal opportunity or sexual harassment policies, 59% of all video game developers believe that they are never adequately implemented int he workplace while another 31% are unsure. Moreover, 65% of developers all over the world believe that the gaming industry discriminates against gender and sexuality.
While there is limited data available for the video game industry in Pakistan, the situation seems to be much worse. Technology, in general, is considered a masculine career path, and anything related to video games is not considered a reliable career option to begin with.
“While it depends on where you work, what company you’re working for, game studios in Pakistan can be very toxic environments for women,” says Maha Nawaz, an Associate Game Designer at Mindstorm Studios who is also an ambassador for Women in Games (WIGJ), while talking to MIT Technology Review Pakistan.
Being a woman who works at a game studio in Pakistan brings challenges that sit on top of pre-existing barriers that women in every field have to face. Warda Rashid Khan, an Associate Producer at Big Immersive, says that even when we think of a gamer today, we usually think of boys, it is assumed to be something that only boys can be interested in, not girls.
Khan says that she has been playing games since she was a child and for most of her life, she always got one of two reactions from men when they learn about her unconventional hobby. “Either they make fun of you for something you’re not very good at and mock you, or they are just shocked to see a female gamer in the first place.”
When it comes to gaming studios and workplace environments, both Khan and Nawaz have faced their share of struggles. “This industry is so ingrained with the stock toxicity that men do not want women around them because they don’t feel comfortable working in an environment with women,” explains Nawaz, pointing out that the sexist and degrading behaviors can be seen in popular studios as well.
This includes many layers of casual sexism wrapped up into a huge wrecking ball heading toward the motivation of women who are game developers, designers, and artists. More often than not, they are given female-oriented projects, considering that those are the only tasks they might be able to accomplish.
“Categorizing someone based on their gender alone is annoying,” Nawaz explains, saying that women can be just as talented and bring more to traditional gaming projects such as Triple-A or strategy games, but they are not given those types of projects.
In many situations, women have a hard time fitting in with their colleagues who subscribe to more mainstream gaming culture. Nawaz elaborates her perspective, by quoting a personal anecdote from an internship interview at a well-known game studio in Lahore a few years ago.
With shining credentials under her belt, the lead game developer and associate project manager interviewed her for the position of a game developer intern. “The first thing that they asked was what kind of games I played,” recalls Nawaz, who personally doesn’t like to play multiplayer games. “What they wanted to hear was that I play Call of Duty, FIFA, and games like that.” However, Nawaz enjoys playing games like Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider, or God of War, on the basis of which she was judged and laughed at her face.
“They were asking me questions about the stuff I was supposed to learn during the internship, which is quite ridiculous,” Nawaz says. Later in the interview, Nawaz was met with hostility and misogynistic condescension when she said that in five years time “I see myself opening my own game studio”. After that incident, Nawaz started questioning herself. While her motivation took a hit back then, she got up and persevered.
According to Nawaz, women are discriminated against, based on their gender, and are intentionally asked questions that an entry-level employee might not know the answer to, and their performance is nitpicked. The irony of the assumption that women have no knowledge of video games in the first place and the expectation that a woman must have expert-level knowledge upon entering the industry, makes it needlessly stressful and demotivates a lot of women.
This compels one to ask where these sexist behaviors originate from in the first place. For most people, the answer is simple: Boys play games and girls don’t, so boys know more about gaming. However, according to Newzoo, 46% of all gamers are women.
“These sexist behaviors originate from men’s stereotypical beliefs that women don’t play and don’t know anything about video games,” explains Nawaz. This belief is not limited to the gaming industry, however. Women in almost every sector of society have to bear the brunt of mansplaining.
She explains that there are people who will encourage and appreciate your expertise in gaming, but there are always people who would tell you to move on and get over the gaming phase. Through the years, these behaviors have been changing for the better. Most of this change is visible on social media, where girl gamers are being more accepted and encouraged.
Talking about social media groups or forums for gamers, Khan says, “the reaction that I would get five years ago and the reaction that I get today, is completely different in a positive way.” She explains that it used to be shocking to see a girl who plays video games, but now, as it becomes more common, what matters is what the gamer has to say, regardless of their gender.
Queen (QUEEN Live Gaming), a Pakistani video game streamer, explains that the passion for video games comes naturally and from a young age. Most girls at that age are not interested because many mainstream video games include gory details and dark storylines.
Saad Zaeem, CEO of Caramel Tech Studios, says that around 20 years ago, the major consumers of video games were boys, and girls usually played with ‘barbies and dollhouses’. While this ratio has changed by now, the boys who grew up with video games, are now entering the workforce and tend to work on video games more often than women. He provides a comparison with the opposite scenario where women dominate the fashion world because they are the major consumers of fashion.
According to Zaeem, another reason for the lack of women in the gaming industry is that even if they are interested to work on something like that, they usually move into the domestic space after a while rather than having a career in the gaming industry. He suggests that gaming studios need to create more opportunities for women, as they will bring in their talent, ideas, and content that appeals to other women.
“If you look at the global gaming landscape in the past 10 years, Farmville was a hit, because women were playing and Candy Crush is still a massive success because women are playing.” According to Zaeem, since men are often the developers, the games out there focus on male consumers. Perhaps, if more women were game developers, there would be more games targeted toward women.
According to a survey by Newzoo, strategy games are in the top three most popular genres among men and women alike. Moreover, men and women both have the same favorite video games on each platform: Candy Crush Saga on mobile, Call of Duty on console, and World of Warcraft on PC. However, in Pakistan, the general assumptions continue.
There are next to no female professional gamers, and very few online streamers. Maha Nawaz points out that sexism is prevalent not only in the gaming industry workplace but also among the consumers. “Even if a username in a multiplayer online game depicts that the gamer is a girl, other gamers will either start harassing her or being creeps toward her.”
Madiha Naaz is a Pakistani who leads the Middle East’s first all-female professional gaming team. While she thinks she has been lucky to find an encouraging environment and a great organization, it’s not so easy for many women who want to become gamers. “Every girl who is a gamer has to face harassment, especially online,” says Naaz, explaining that girls are not expected to be good at games, so guys tend not to want girls on their teams.” However, she expresses hope for the future of esports, as the attitude toward women has been changing in the past few years in Pakistan and all over the world.
“There are these professional organizations which are coming forward and they are taking up the idea of having mixed-gender teams. Times are changing and women are being accepted into esports,” says Naaz.
Nawaz says that there needs to be more women in management in the gaming industry. She knows many women who have been working in the game development industry for years, and have had to cross difficult barriers in their career path just because they are women. “They are so good at their jobs and so talented that I feel that they shouldn’t have had to go through all that in order to prove themselves. These women have to carve their way through and get to the top,” she says.
Zaeem points toward the sports industry, which has opened its arms to include women in the past 50 years but still struggles to provide the same opportunity and viewership to them. “Slowly, the world is moving towards a better place where women get more opportunity and the right kind of opportunity”.