Feminist video games now!

  • Forum
  • 09/24/2018

  • Mathieu-Robert Sauvé
Credit: Getty

In 5 seconds

Pascale Thériault conducts doctoral research on video games from a feminist perspective – and find them full of male stereotypes to be overcome.

Are women who play video games dangerous? That’s what Pascale Thériault is trying to find out through her doctoral research in the department of Art History and Film Studies at Université de Montréal.

“There are currently almost as many women playing video games as men, the young researchers notes. "Why is the gaming industry taking so long to adapt to women’s values?”

The video games industry is slowly moving towards parity although it continues to use many stereotypes, she adds. “Female characters are few in number, hyper-sexualized and often either playing the role of damsel in distress or spoil of war."

What is a feminist video game? There is no consensus on that point, Thériault says in her thesis proposal. “What would be feminist in a Barbie strategy (staging normative femininity) would not be in a Psycho Men Killers strategy (which refuses femininity and instead appropriates codes that are usually associated with men, like violence, for example)." The women’s gaming community does not speak with one voice but gathers, rather, “a plurality and a diversity of feminist practice expressed both in game development and play,” she adds.

Machine-gun battles against three-headed monsters and adventure missions where the hero survives the apocalypse are not about to disappear but, according to Thériault, there may be a new kind of game on the horizon. What is certain is that video game entertainment is no longer a guy thing. “Before, women gamers were more keen on games of skill played on their phones rather than quests played on game consoles or computers. But they are now increasingly interested in the same types of games that interest all players,” explains Thériault.

Gamergate, which pitched the world gaming community against itself, took over Twitter in August 2014. Passions ran high (and were accompanied by death threats, harassment and the blocking of sites, among other things) at the launch of Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn, an independent developer. According to critics, the media and its coverage of the launch suffered from pro-feminist bias. To which feminists replied that that critique was an expression of the industry’s misogyny.

Three phases of research

In her thesis proposal, submitted last May, Thériault summarized the different feminist approaches to video games. It is unusual to study gaming from a feminist perspective although it has been done before. Scholars have considered “queer video games,” “gendered gaming habits” and “the place of women in game development”.

Thériault notes three phases in the feminist study of video games. The first, in the 1990s, addressed the issue of “design problems and the behaviour of women gamers in a context where women had no place in the video games industry.” The second phase, around the turn of the millenium, considered more deeply the sociocultural context and young women’s gaming experiences. The video games industry was analysed in the context of the boom in online games. The third phase, which began in 2010, takes a more inclusive view in which questions of gender and sexism are considered in light of racism, masculinity and identity.

The thesis proposal is to describe different feminist trends present in university departments. But the author knows that will not be easy as there is currently no consensus on feminist video games. “How does one draw up a typology of feminist experience at a time when there are so many different points of view and different feminist struggles? Even scholarly research doesn’t always agree on the different elements of feminist practice of this kind,” writes Thériault.

Expressing the zeitgeist

As part of her research, Ms. Thériault will interview close to 20 women, half of whom will be developers and the other half players. This methodological approach will, she writes, “draw from a wide range of experiences and establish a landscape of all of the different types of gaming feminism that my status as a white, heterosexual woman does not allow me to experience.”

Her analysis of the content of these interviews will make it possible for her to establish a typology of “feminist gamer practice” that considers form, narration, gaming mechanisms and “possible subversion and appropriation”.

Ms. Thériault does not think of herself as a big player of video games but she does like them, especially role-playing games, narrative games and alternative games. “I wasn’t allowed to play video games as a child so I came to them late. I think it’s important to study this sector, as it’s a part of popular culture. Video games media is an expression of the zeitgeist.”