Exploring Intersectionality in Video Games

An illustration of a controller tangled in string and suspended between two hands.
Illustration by Casey Chin (Getty Images)

Not so long ago, this was the image that likely came to mind when you heard the word “video games”: a teenage boy huddled in the dark, alone in front of a screen.

An illustration of a teenage boy huddled closely in front of a brightly-lit screen.
Illustration by Uran (Dribbble).

Today, this is no longer the case. With over 2.6 billion players worldwide¹, gaming is no longer the niche, “nerdy” hobby that it was once imagined to be; instead, it now sits at the heart of popular culture with an incredibly diverse global community. Despite this reality, however, the gaming industry has unfortunately not treated everyone as equally or inclusively as they should. Two such groups that have repeatedly fallen by the wayside are females and disabled gamers — particularly those with motor impairments.

Gaming as a female

It is no secret that video games have largely been a male-dominated industry. A 2017 IGDA survey found that nearly 350% more men work in the industry than women².

Female representation within games also remains woefully low. In fact, in some ways, it has gotten worse. For instance, the number of games with female protagonists dropped from 9% in 2015 to 5% in 2019 ³.

The few female protagonists who do appear in games often fall victim to one of two classic tropes: the “damsel in distress” (e.g. Princess Peach from the Super Mario Bros franchise) or the “strong but overtly sexualized heroine” (e.g. Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series). Princess Peach, for instance, is kidnapped in 13 of the 14 games she appears in⁴.

A visual comparison of Lara Craft from the Tomb Raider video game series over the years (1993–2014).
The evolution of Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series (1996–2015). With the help of social media and sexism movements, such as #Gamergate, Lara Croft is seen with far more realistic proportions and less sexualized clothing in the most recent release: Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015). Photo by Gamesgrabr.com.

These alarming statistics may, in part, explain the rampant sexism that occurs within the gaming community. Despite making up nearly half of the gaming population, female gamers remain to be one of the most frequent targets of online harassment and discrimination. In one study, women were found to receive 3x as many negative comments as men when using voice chat⁵. Their reported experiences have ranged from sexual threats, taunts, and come-ons to more extreme cases of being stalked online or in-person⁶. Regardless, the consequences of such toxicity remain the same: women are forced to either stop playing or find ways to cope.

Of course, coping is often the preferred option. One of the most commonly reported strategies by women is to simply hide their gender identity. This might involve changing their screen names and avatars to be more gender-neutral or masculine in nature, modulating their voices to sound deeper, avoiding the use of voice chat completely, or, in some cases, even pretending to be young teenage boys⁷.

Gaming with a motor impairment

It goes without saying that video games have historically favored able-bodied gamers. Ever since the NES (1983), controllers were built with full two-handed functionality in mind; joysticks, D-pads and buttons quickly became the norm in gaming hardware, and developers designed their games around these devices with little to no flexibility. Unsurprisingly, this has posed serious challenges for individuals with motor impairments.

A visual comparison of the NES controller from 1987 and the upcoming PS5 and Xbox Series X controllers.
An illustration showing the visual similarities between the NES (1983) controller and the upcoming PS5 and Xbox Series X (2020) controllers. Image by Morgan Tremaine (Nerdist).

Take an individual with cerebral palsy (CP) for instance. As a motor disorder that permanently affects their mobility and posture, an individual with CP will often experience stiff muscles, spasms, and other involuntary movements. When playing video games, this might mean being unable to reliably press buttons, move analog sticks or even hold the controller.

The most notorious example of this challenge in present-day video games are quick-time events (QTEs). Often referred to as “button-mashing”, QTEs are essentially in-game moments where players are required to repeatedly press buttons in order to progress. These actions require rapid precision, which, for an individual with CP, can be difficult or downright impossible to overcome.

A screenshot in  Man of Medan (2019). Players must press “A” whenever heartbeat spikes slide across the screen.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan (2019). A game known for its QTEs that many players (both disabled and non-disabled) describe as being “too fast” and “unforgiving”. In this example, players must repeatedly press the “A” button at the correct moments to avoid being killed.

The pacing of games — especially multiplayer games — can also pose significant challenges. In one study , participants with motor impairments were found to engage with multiplayer games far less frequently than single-player ones⁸. Based on interviews they conducted, the researchers concluded that this was likely due to the inherently competitive nature of these games. Unlike single-player games, there was no way to pause or slow down gameplay; the participants simply could not “keep up” or play at a level like everyone else.

“I used to play totally different kinds of games — racing, GTA, skateboarding, but now play mostly casual or sim games since I can go at a slower speed. I no longer play multiplayer since I can’t keep up with other players.”

— Study participant with a motor impairment (Porter and Klientz, 2013)

To a similar extent, communication in online games might also pose challenges. Until recently, in-game communication was largely done through text. For most able-bodied gamers, this was a relative non-issue; it would likely take no more than a few seconds for them to type out a message. For an individual with CP, however, typing something out might take 10x as long, which would immediately put them at a disadvantage in a competitive environment.

“[…] there was always a issue when I needed to write in the chat. I need about one to two minutes to make a complete phrase, it is hard, and today I saw how inconvenient was that [sic] when I was trying to make a call to my team and got ganked [killed] by four players.”

— /u/Knabbenn on Reddit⁹

Evidently, both females and individuals with motor impairments face significant barriers when it comes to playing video games. But what happens when it is not simply a matter of being one or the other?

What happens when that individual with CP also happens to be female?

Gaming as a female with a motor impairment

This brings us to the concept of intersectionality. Intersectionality occurs when multiple human differences collide to exacerbate current challenges or bring forth new ones. In the case of a disabled female gamer, these are numerous.

Consider the scenario where an individual wants to play an online multiplayer game. Given the difficulties of communicating over text, a disabled male gamer might opt to use voice chat. Given the potential for online harassment, an able-bodied female gamer might opt to do the opposite, using text rather than voice. A disabled female gamer, however, does not have the luxury of choosing; while her disability prevents her from effectively communicating over text, her identity as a female might make it difficult or uncomfortable to use voice chat. Consequently, she becomes trapped in a personal battle between convenience and safety. Should she protect her anonymity at the expense of communicating with her team? Or should she bite the bullet and risk the potential for harassment?

The marginalization of women and need for anonymity might also discourage a disabled female gamer from seeking out support groups. There is no doubt that many disability communities exist across the online gaming sphere; however, joining and participating in one may often mean needing to give up their anonymity and, in turn, their gender identity. While this might not mean much to a disabled male gamer, it could very well be a deal-breaker for a disabled female¹⁰.

A screenshot of the Discord website and its many disability community servers.
A site showing various Discord servers available for disabled gamers. As a largely text-, voice- and video-based platform, however, participation in these communities often means making compromises on privacy and anonymity.

The combination of these factors might therefore push disabled female gamers away from playing certain genres of games completely. Without the usual coping strategies, these women may opt to play single-player games rather than multiplayer games in order to protect themselves — despite it not being as enjoyable of an experience¹¹.

Illustration of a video game level in which a woman must cross several dangerous obstacles to reach a door on the other side.
Illustration by Kathrine Anderson (Polygon)

As it would seem, intersectionality makes understanding discrimination far more complicated. However, if we want to make video games as inclusive as they should be, we need to embrace this complexity and tackle it head-on.

References

[1]: Wijman, T. (2020, June 25). Three Billion Players by 2023: Engagement and Revenues Continue to Thrive Across the Global Games Market. Retrieved from https://newzoo.com/insights/articles/games-market-engagement-revenues-trends-2020-2023-gaming-report/

[2]: Developer Satisfaction Survey: Summary Report (2017) (Rep.). (2018, January 8). Retrieved from International Game Developers Association: IGDA website: https://igda.org/resources-archive/developer-satisfaction-survey-summary-report-2017/

[3]: Sarkeesian, A. (2019, June 14). Female Representation in Videogames Isn’t Getting Any Better. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/e3-2019-female-representation-videogames/

[4]: Anita Sarkeesian [Feminist Frequency]. (2013, May 7). Damsel in Distress: Part 1 — Tropes vs Women in Video Games [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X6p5AZp7r

[5]: Kuznekoff, J. H., & Rose, L. M. (2012). Communication in multiplayer gaming: Examining player responses to gender cues. New Media & Society, 15(4), 541–556.

[6]: O’leary, A. (2012, August 02). In Virtual Play, Sex Harassment Is All Too Real. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/02/us/sexual-harassment-in-online-gaming-stirs-anger.html?_r=1.

[7]: Fox J, Tang WY. (2017). Women’s experiences with general and sexual harassment in online video games: Rumination, organizational responsiveness, withdrawal, and coping strategies. New Media & Society. 19(8):1290–1307.

[8]: Porter, J. R., & Kientz, J. A. (2013). An empirical study of issues and barriers to mainstream video game accessibility. Proceedings of the 15th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility.

[9]: Knabbenn. (2020, April 7). Voice chat in League is a question of accessibility. Retrieved from //www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/5whpqs/im_bill_gates_cochair_of_the_bill_melinda_gates/

[10]: Knabbenn. (2020, April 21). I’m in a female-majority discord gaming server. Not once did we hear any complaints from the guys in the server being harassed or otherwise feel uncomfortable. If we can treat guys like normal human beings I don’t get why they can’t do the same to us. Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/GirlGamers/comments/g5e1ba/im_in_a_femalemajority_discord_gaming_server_not/

[11]: Mclean, L., & Griffiths, M. D. (2018). Female Gamers’ Experience of Online Harassment and Social Support in Online Gaming: A Qualitative Study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 17(4), 970–994. doi:10.1007/s11469–018–9962–0

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Kogulan Sivaneshan

Kogulan Sivaneshan

UXD graduate student @UofT. UX Design Intern @UbisoftToronto. Obsessed with Dota 2, Twitch & coffee.