A surprise sex change casts a light on gaming’s inequality

How can the gaming industry root out sexism? Changing players’ virtual sex might be a start.



Teacher Barbie, pilot Barbie, presidential candidate Barbie, and now: video game developer Barbie. Mattel’s latest doll wears a headset and loose jeans and has the gusto to enter a notoriously misogynist profession. It’s a long way from the 1992 model whose lexicon included, “math class is tough!”

She’s just one of several new breakthroughs for women in the games industry. In France, the minister of digital affairs is meeting with game gurus in an attempt to mitigate sexism, while British MPs have called for implementing incentives to create gender-inclusive games. At the ground level in Canada, a new Toronto art gallery incorporates games into mystical arts aimed, primarily, at women.

However, the most controversial of these developments was a change to an online game called Rust, which saw some male avatars switched, at random, to become women. The developers of Rust, a British company called Facepunch Studios, say they didn’t intend to make a feminist statement — the game simply requires a quota of females, who, like the males, are naked and rendered realistically. Instead of creating a customization tool, the developers determine each character’s genitals themselves: no choice, no loincloth. Even so, the response says a lot about the obstacles women face in the world of gaming.

Although players of Rust, a survivalist game, must regularly cope with predators, radiation, hypothermia and near-starvation, they took to social media to rage that they couldn’t work under the female condition. “As men, we view ourselves as the stronger gender,” one protester from Rhode Island, who identifies himself as Scot, told Maclean’s via email after denouncing the game on Twitter. “A male changing to a female can give you a feeling of stripping you of your identity and leaves you with a certain vulnerability.”

For all the complaints, though, the misogynists appear in the minority. Rust’s ratings remain high on Steam, the site on which it’s sold. What’s more, it has prompted some men to try to change the minds of their sexist peers. “There are a lot of people saying, ‘Get over it. This does not matter,’ ” says Robert Parker, a 33-year-old in Waterloo who’s spoken out against sexism on Twitter. He argues the assigned genders may also teach men what it’s like for women to have to play male characters.

A female avatar in the game Rust. (playrust.com)

A female avatar in the game Rust. (playrust.com)

When it comes to game design, masculinity is in the very name of the games, from Pac-Man to Super Smash Bros. and the popular Game Boy console. Grand Theft Auto has no female protagonists, and the new Call of Duty has just one, a burlesque dancer. “It’s all driven by the minds of teenage boys,” says Rob Robson, head of computer programming at Humber College, a program where fewer than four per cent of students are female. And yet according to Pew Research in 2015, 48 per cent of women play video games, compared with 50 per cent of men.

That may explain other recent developments. A 2015 breakout hit, Life is Strange, revolves around a female protagonist with a female sidekick. “To a lot of people, it was unquestionably the best game that came out last year,” says Parker. “The majority of players were men. It will be held up as how to do that well.” Meanwhile, Bungie, the developer behind the first-person shooter game Halo, created a more welcoming atmosphere in its new game, Destiny, which lets people design their own avatars. The company hired a female “social designer” who determined strangers in the game must befriend each other before communicating. Female characters also wear long sleeves and armour, unlike in Halo, where the female, Cortana, is naked.

Perhaps the greatest force for change is proving to be when male developers have daughters, creating a phenomenon dubbed the “Dadification” of games. Paul Glinker, a Toronto game developer, says he changed the types of games he creates after the birth of his daughters, who are equally interested in Barbies and Xboxes. He recalls a speaker at a recent gaming conference in San Francisco breaking into tears onstage when discussing his daughter and women in games. “He said we have to do better,” says Glinker, “because what we’re doing now isn’t acceptable.”


A surprise sex change casts a light on gaming’s inequality

  1. So…. as a female gamer, this female “social designer” is the reason that I can’t have matchmaking for raids, Challenge of the Elders or Nightfalls? Whoever their “social designer” is… should be fired. The only people this benefits are the very large clans (primarily male) that still play the game.

    People like me (in a smaller clan) are forced to go to outside sites, put our personal gaming information out there and beg for people to group up with us so that we can do these parts of the game. For some Nightfalls I feel like a prostitute, I camp out in my best armour right near the start of the nightfall and accost other players going past me with PSN notes asking if they could send me a group invite or will join my group. Yes… this is sooooo much better than quickly being able to join a game with strangers… of whom 99.9% are genuinely nice people who could care less that I’m a female. In fact the most harassing thing EVER said to me in about 1000 hours of playing Destiny is “are you a female?”… and on saying yes, they say “oh, just curious” or “sorry for my bad language”.

    Depending on the game, harassment is really a non-issue in online gaming for women who “talk game” (ie: strategies, what the group should be doing, etc.). Yes, women who use the mic to taunt men with “girl gamers rule” or “hows it feel to be beat by a girl?” or other ridiculousness will invariably get harassed in return. Some games are bad… for everyone. I can rarely play CoD without some 15 year old making a sexist comment… but I went 80 hours of multiplayer gaming in Battlefield 3 before getting one sexist comment… and even then I’m not sure if the comments were sexist because it was a bunch of Spanish speaking men from Brazil who did the harassing. One incident.

    For articles like this… here’s a novel idea. Instead of speaking with feminists, with advocates, with people who make a living by trying to become “feminist consultants” to the gaming industry… why does no one speak to female gamers? Why not jump into Destiny… make a note of the female gamertags/names… send a PSN note as a journalist and ask GAMERS how we feel women in online gaming are treated.

    I play online FPS games with a mic. I blog and comment on a gaming website. I’ve been to gaming conventions like PAX. Harassment is rare and the sexual harassment that female gamers endure is not much worst than the harssment that young men endure, that “foreigners” that don’t speak English endure, that anyone with a goofy nametag endures or that someone who plays poorly endures. When you play against 100 or so people in a night… you will meet all types of people… but as noted, 99.9% of them just want to talk about the game and win the game.

    The greatest “force for change” would be to get more women gaming… as gamers… not as some “feminist force for change” and we want games to represent us. The fact is that female gamers want the same thing men gamers want… good games. A good quality game is still rare, and when a game like The Witcher 3 comes along… I really don’t care if I have to play as a male character, in the same way that men have never cared about playing as a female in order to enjoy the Tomb Raider games.

    The gender wars in gaming is a manufactured issue. Feminist writers and advocates who make a living from feminism have to have a “cause” and video games is a good one because not many male gamers are familiar with the spectrum of various feminist ideologies. I don’t see feminists advocating for change in the romance novel industry (which is the largest selling genre of ALL books published)…. yet this industry continues to utilize tropes and outdated gender norms much more dangerously than video games ever have.

    • Very well said! Not sure why journalists cannot seem to get a handle on accurately representing gamer culture. Been failing at it since the 90s.

    • Exactly. ‘The game is the thing.’ I play an older FPS and I don’t think females are even a topic in the game, it’s monsters and bad guys and completing missions. I don’t see why having no female characters would be a deal-breaker, like Lara Croft, it’s just an avatar, you are playing a GAME!

  2. the game simply requires a quota of females, wow that says a lot on how SJWs are ruining computer gaming.
    And players are forced changed to be women get comments like “just get over it” “well it will help you understand women” are just nonsense.
    If I play a game I want to chose what I will be. And if I have been playing a game and building a character, I would be pissed off if someone decided to screw with it just to fill a quota.