Gender and Sexism in Online Gaming Communities

September 12, 2012

PROJECTS: Leveling Up



While news about sexism in gaming came as a shock to many media outlets in recent months, researchers of gender and game culture were not surprised. In fact, much scholarly work over the past decade has documented how sexism, racism, and homophobia persist in many online communities, including gaming communities.1 There are some recent studies, however, including discussion of Starcraft communities by my colleague Yong Ming Kow, that reveal the persistence and success of some female gamers. In this post I hope to briefly review some perspectives on gender and sexism among gamers and in online communities, an important barrier to examine in the interest of understanding connected learning environments, and conclude by comparing and contrasting some of my own data from online communities of LittleBigPlanet2 players. I conclude by arguing that questions still remain as to whether we are seeing online communities embrace gender equitable social standards, how women gamers negotiate gender status in these communities, and why. 

Recent data suggests that while interest in gaming among young female players is growing, young women are still playing console and handheld games at rates far less than are young men.2 Two related perspectives provide leads as to why this may be the case: the cultural barriers of the community impede the proliferation of women gamers, and the enabling or constraining effect of gender categories that women adopt as gamers. With regard to the first suggestion, recent news coverage has demonstrated that many online contexts can enable sexism towards women not unlike that faced by women in many face-to-face contexts.3 One important example is Anita Sarkeesian, who after posting youtube videos that critique sexism online, was vociferously condemned through comments and emails, her life was threatened, and people posted violating pictures and video games in her likeness that simulate violent assault. Social codes may exist in online communities that do not restrict but rather condone sexist behavior. This suggests that cultural contexts can matter in shaping whether or not sexism is allowed. 

The second perspective argues that as young women grow and adopt dominant, age-specific gender identities that place restrictions on gaming, fewer women play games. This perspective assumes that cultural ideals of femininity and womanhood that exist in the context of the child (situated locally, nationally, and globally) inform whether and how gaming is taken up by players. In this view, collectively endorsed ideals of womanhood do not accommodate most forms of gaming or gamer identity; for a woman to be a gamer she may not be taken seriously, and may not even be a “real” woman at all. Contemporary research on technology, gender and selfhood finds that technologies can become gendered through their cultural appropriation, and that women differ in the ways that they engage with technology. Most pertinent to the cases at hand, Royse et al. (2007), in their study of women gamers, find that women adopted three types of gendered selves with regard to gaming.4 Some women, like those Kow identifies in his post, are “power gamers” who play many kind of games and employ gaming technology in ways that contest and produce different kinds of gendered selves that enable gaming. “Moderate gamers” used games casually as distractions, and typically reinscribed gender divisions. And lastly, “non-gamers” saw games as a waste of time, and reproduced a gendered femininity opposed to gaming altogether. No research to date has quantitatively examined the whether these identities are adopted in different magnitudes and can be used to explain observed gender differences in statistics, but it remains a likely possibility.

Like Kow’s post on female players in Starcraft II player communities, I did not find many active and/or prominent women gamers in the online communities. However, among the few that I identified, I found that they did adopt variations of “moderate gamer” and “power gamer” identities, and these variations informed the kinds of activities that they pursued in the online community and in the game. One moderate gamer, Julie, was an active leader of a game-based competition modeled after the “Survivor” television series; as part of her job, she oversees the organization of the contests that occur in both the game and in the forums, and handles conflicts between players.5 She was not interested in other aspects of the game, such as level design, which is widely held by the community to be the most desirable activities and skill sets. Julie could not pinpoint exactly why she was not interested in level design – she simply was not interested. Mary, another player, is respected by the community for, and prides herself in, her regular welcoming of new members on the Introductions page of the community. Her own created avatar wears a dress and has lipstick, which many consider to be female-identifiable clothing. She also favors community management and social upkeep over level design. These two players represent women in the community who are not typical game players, but rather engage in community- and game-level activities not atypical of women in other settings.

One player who stood out in my data was Abby, who was well known among the community as a respected level designer. She considers herself quite tech-savvy, much more tech-savvy than most women she knows. She confirmed that there are very few other women who are gamers, let alone level-designers, but she saw this as an opportunity rather than a hindrance. Abby, whom her older brother introduced to the game, reflected that gamer guys treat gamer women much differently than they do other boys, noting that the majority of them think it is really cool when a girl is a gamer. It gives her more attention among gamers:


It’s fun to win against a bunch of guys in a game (i.e. Call of Duty) because at the beginning, they just think ‘Oh she’s a girl, she probably isn’t a real gamer.’


For Abby, the position of woman gamer identity affords an “underdog” effect in a community dominated by male gamers. Moreover, this effect reveals the cultural assumption in this context that the categories of “woman” and “gamer” are not assumed to be typical.

Although my sample of observed and interviewed women gamers is small (N=3, people!), data reveals that cultural assumptions persist among community members regarding the lack of alignment of the female gender category and gamer identity. These assumptions may permeate among the identities of women themselves, but certainly persist in the cultural context of the players. A more interesting question may be how online communities vary in the extent to which these supposed competing codes of “woman” and “gamer” are policed; LittleBigPlanet2 online communities typically have low barriers for entry across a number of skill and status characteristics (including age, nationality, and skill), and may be less sexist than other online contexts such as those in which Anita Sarkeezian endured gender-targeted violence. Identifying characteristics of online communities that maintain low barriers for entry, including the maintenance of a gender-inclusive environment, is an important goal for research on peer-supported learning and engagement.


(1) Gray, Kishonna L. 2012. “Intersecting Oppressions and Online Communities.” Information, Communication & Society, Vol. 15, Issue 3, pp. 411-428.

(2) Kaiser Family Foundation. 2010. “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds.”

(3) Newitz, Analee. 2012. “The Great Geek Sexism Debate.” io9.

(4) Royse et al. 2007. “Women and games: technologies of the gendered self.” New Media & Society, Vol. 9 (4): 555-578.

(5) All individual names have been changed to protect the identity of respondents.


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