The Invisible Demographic – Teenage Girls In Gaming
Over the past several decades, gaming has evolved beyond our wildest imaginations. Since the invention of Pong in 1958, developers have pushed the boundaries of possibility. We have enhanced graphics, smooth and immersive gameplay, and with the PS5 we even have haptic feedback! However, as well as the games themselves, something else has evolved too. The player base. Once considered the hobby of only teenage boys, gaming is now a popular mainstream form of entertainment. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that spans the full range of demographics. Everyone is welcome, from young children to old grannies. Unfortunately, as with all progress, there are those who seek to push back. A vocal minority, particularly adult men, feel that gaming should remain a male dominated hobby. This can unfortunately lead to toxicity within certain communities. The biggest victims of this pushback, as is often seen in all forms of media, are teenage girls.
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I remember my very first experience with videogames. I was about 5 or 6, and my parents presented me and my brother with our very first console, the PS1. None of us knew anything about gaming, and my parents hadn’t even realised we needed a memory card. We used to stare at the screen in confusion when it wouldn’t allow us to save, and our early childhood gaming experiences involved playing the same levels over and over and over again.
My very first game was Croc: Legend of the Gobbos. It was a cute platformer that unfortunately has been lost to the annals of time. The time such as Spyro and Crash Bandicoot, Croc never saw a revival. However, it will always hold a special place in my heart for introducing me to the wonders of gaming. As I got older, I discovered a whole range of titles and genres. There was never a point in my childhood where I lost interest in gaming.
When the PS3 came onto the scene, it brought with it my first introduction to online gaming, and that’s when my gaming experience began to be tinged with negativity. Up until that point, I’d only gamed in single player mode, or through couch co-op with my brother or my friends. I’d never had the chance to game with strangers, but I was so excited at the prospect. A whole community that I could share my love of gaming with? Awesome!
Unfortunately, what I’d hoped would be an epic new chapter in my gaming enjoyment, turned out to be the opposite. I’d heard about the game Call of Duty, and I loved it from the first moment I tried it out. I didn’t have much experience with fps games, but I picked the controls up fast through playing the campaign mode. When I first went online, I was excited to pit my skills against real life players for the first time. My username was a variation of my real name, and after my first set of matches finished, I noticed I had a couple of messages in my chat box. How exciting! But when I opened them, my excitement quickly faded. What I had thought would be messages of support and encouragement from a job well done, were actually hate messages. ‘Get back in the kitchen,’ ‘This is a boy’s game,’ ‘I bet you’re ugly,’.
I couldn’t understand it. These weren’t angry messages from the opposing team that we’d beaten. These were my own teammates. The people I’d been playing alongside, who I’d felt a bond with just moments ago. Things only worsened as time went on. My brother and I pooled our money together to buy a Bluetooth headset, and I’d hoped I’d finally be taken seriously. I had a great mind for tactics, and with a headset I was sure that my teammates would now see that girls could be just as good as boys. However, this was not the case. When I spoke, I’d be met with shock and derision. Boys would ask “are you a girl?!” with such disgust, and they’d laugh when I confirmed it. I’d get sleazy messages asking me to be their girlfriend, or just plain sexual harassment. After a few weeks, I gave up trying to use the headset, and just muted the whole lobby the second I joined a game.
Even my peers at school would tease me. Some of the boys in my class played Call of Duty, and I’d try to join in their conversations. But even though many of them were my friends, they wouldn’t hear a word I had to say. They insisted that girls weren’t ‘real gamers’, and I wanted to prove them wrong. We organised an online match between all of us, and I won, much to their surprise. But even after that, I wasn’t welcome to play online with them, or to join their discussions. So I gave up, and I stopped playing online, letting gaming be a solitary hobby once more.
For most of my early adulthood, I avoided the gaming community. I still played games by myself, but I’d let my brother keep the PS3 when I went off to university. I bought a cheap PS2, and played all the games that I’d loved in my youth. The games untainted by negativity. I continued to avoid online gaming until after I got married. My husband had an Xbox One, and so, tentatively, I tried Overwatch.
I was thrilled to find that there were other women playing it with me, and that after the round was over, people would ‘like’ my accomplishments. I didn’t receive any hate mail, and I became obsessed with the game for several weeks. Since then, I’ve tried plenty of online games, and it seems that at least the culture of boys sending cruel messages has died down.
Last year, I even made a Twitch account, and that’s been the most amazing journey for me. I was so nervous when I started, I didn’t think anyone would watch me. I’d heard that Twitch was only for boys, or girls who relied on their sex appeal. As a covered Muslim woman, I was worried there just wouldn’t be an audience for me. But that wasn’t the case at all, and I’ve built a strong following of both guys and girls who like me for who I am. I’ve also met several amazing female streamers who are loved for their personality. I was relieved to discover that Twitch could actually be a really positive place for women. But one thing I still see, and that’s still very much a problem, is that teenage girls are not respected within the community.
Gaming forums, particularly on reddit, are very polarised. Some are wholesome places where people of all ages and genders come together to talk about games. However, others are breeding grounds for toxic masculinity, and promote exclusivity. Many memes circulate the internet where the punchline revolves around girls not being able to game. There are discussion boards that actively suppress women from being able to post. And worst of all, there are places dedicated to the objectification of girls within gaming.
Recently a site was found that linked to Twitch streams of ‘attractive’ female streamers. The followers of this site would then jump into these streams and harass the woman. Thankfully, Twitch has now stopped the site from being able to embed streams, but it’s concerning that it existed at all. It shows that there are still those who seek to objectify women, even when all those women want to do is share their love of gaming.
When we have groups that see women’s value as being intrinsically linked to their beauty, it festers deeper issues. Teenage girls are too young to be sexualised, and so their involvement in the gaming community is often overlooked. Of course, there are many wonderful gamers who welcome any and all demographics, but that doesn’t negate the problem. Whilst there are still those who seek to diminish teenage girls, it means that teenage girls will continue to feel unwelcome. In fact, the majority of female gamers have experienced harassment because of their gender. At an age where stress is felt more acutely, teenage girls may be discouraged from pursuing their hobby because of this.
Possibly the most infuriating phenomenon is that games aimed at teenage girls are met with ridicule. Obviously, any game can be played by any demographic, but as with all products, there’s a target audience. There are so many genres of games out there, and often people just ignore titles that don’t appeal to them. However, when a title deliberately caters to the teenage girl demographic, that’s when the problems arise. It’s very common to see a swarm of adult men post negative comments and reviews about a game they never intended to enjoy. They deliberately seek out games aimed at teenage girls and try to sink them. Not only is this incredibly petty, but it could lead to developers halting production on games for the teenage girl demographic.
Recently, the game DC Super Hero Girls: Teen Power got dislike-bombed on YouTube after being premiered during the February Nintendo Direct. It also received thousands of upvotes, presumably from the actual intended demographic. The comment section makes it clear that the majority of downvotes were from teenage boys/ adult men. There are comments of derision regarding the fact that you can go to school and make friends, or that you can go shopping. These are activities that appeal to teenage girls, but they’re being treated as a laughing stock. Things like this can damage a girl’s self-esteem, which is doubly awful considering the high rate of teenage depression.
Whilst progress has certainly been made since I was a teenage girl, things definitely need to go further. Gaming has become a fully mainstream hobby, and the majority of teenage girls now play videogames in their free time. It’s time that society accepts this. There needs to be stronger backlash against sites and forums that dedicate themselves to harassing female gamers. I’d like to see Twitch and other streaming sites offer more protections to streamers when it comes to embedding links elsewhere. And I’d like to see schools openly talking to the students about how important it is to accept each other. Gaming is such a huge part of teenage life, and it should be discussed in the curriculum.
Hopefully as time goes on, things will continue to improve. I envision a future where teenage girls and boys can play and enjoy the games that appeal to them, without any judgement. I really hope that the culture of girls being excluded goes away, because I hate to think of other teenage girls missing out on years of gaming experiences like I did. I shouldn’t have had to avoid online gaming because of the reactions of guys, and neither should future generations of teenage girls. Until then, we need to promote positivity, and encourage studios to continue making games aimed at all ages and genders.
That’s all from me today
If you’re a girl who grew up gaming, what were your early experiences of online gaming?Let us know in the comments.