“I’m actually a level 80 priestess in World of Warcraft,” said one female-identifying student who wished to remain anonymous while speaking on her history with gaming. “I played a couple hours a week throughout high school.”
The apprehensiveness to identify openly as a gamer is not uncommon, given the pastime’s longstanding connotations of socially inept young men immersed in solitary, pixelated fiction. But while gaming itself has grown increasingly prevalent in pop culture, it is still commonly perceived as catering overwhelmingly to men.
WesWIG, which stands for Wesleyan Women in Gaming, is a new student group seeking to bring issues of gender in video games to the forefront. And, of course, to play games.
“This was actually our brainchild from over the summer,” said Camille Casareno ’15, one of the two founding members of WesWIG and an avid gamer. “We started working at [the Office of Admission] together in August and we found out that we had this mutual love of video games. We were like, ‘Why don’t we find other people who do the same thing?’ So we made a club.”
Meeting regularly to play games as a group, WesWIG cultivates a casual atmosphere.
“We’re trying to aim not too late where people want to go out with their friends or do other things, so maybe people can just drop by with us, play for an hour or two, and then go on with their activities,” Casareno said.
Co-founder Katherine Lindeman ’16 described the group’s loose organizational process: members and friends bring an assortment of consoles, with few rigid expectations.
“Whatever people have they’ll bring,” Lindeman said. “We have my Xbox, so we’ll game on that. But I only have two controllers, so we’ll have a couple of people there and a couple of people on their computers.”
Given the ubiquity of MacBooks at Wesleyan, however, there is a clear common ground from which to start these gaming sessions.
“Just based on what people have, computers are probably the more efficient way to go,” Casareno said. “We’ll play [Civilization] with a lot of people because everyone seems to have that, switching off with people who are playing Halo or Borderlands.”
Lindeman added that the group hopes to bring more games and consoles into the mix.
“If more people want to join and have more systems, that’s always good, because we can have a bunch of stuff going at once,” she said.
Beyond offering a space for casual gaming, WesWIG aims to cultivate a thoughtful atmosphere that encourages discussion.
“In the future, we’re hoping to bring in more of an activism aspect to it as well, and to start a discussion about what’s going on in terms of feminism in gaming, with depictions of women video games, with women as developers of video games….Specifically, Gamergate recently has been very much on my mind,” Casareno said.
Gamergate is an ill-defined media scandal that has erupted in the past few months. Sparked when an ex-boyfriend of a female game designer smeared her in a blog post, it has snowballed into a media-frenzy critique of gender in video games, with everyone from gamers to journalists to pundits and even politicians weighing in on the controversy.
Casareno spoke about the video game industry’s tendency to ignore female gamers as a demographic.
“E3 came out with the statistic that something like close to 50 percent of gamers are women,” Casareno said. “They are just completely marginalized and not talked about at all. And so this huge population of people who are gamers were just not being talked about. Essentially, games are being designed not for them, for half of the population playing video games.”
Beyond the endemic problems with the industry, Lindeman noted a widely perceived lack of positive or realistic depictions of women in games themselves.
“I think the place I’d like to see video games go is to be representative of more people, to be less heteronormative, less white-normative, less cis-normative,” Lindeman said. “All of that: actually representing the world because there’s only a very small population that fits that 18- to 30-year-old man/boy demographic.”
Casareno agreed that the industry could work towards being more representative.
“I think having more options is a good step,” she said. “I think there’s nothing wrong with being a white man who plays [games where he] shoots everyone up and saves the girl. Some people like that, I might identify with that every now and then. But sometimes I’d like to be the opposite. Why can’t I be a black woman doing other things?”
Lindeman did note several examples of games that buck the trend of typical white male protagonists.
“It can be subtle,” she said. “It can be like Portal, [where] clearly Chell [the protagonist] is a woman. Borderlands is very inclusive. You play through and half of the characters identify as some form of queer. And so it’s little things. It’s not necessarily that the whole story has to be about how they are queer. That’s just another aspect of their character.”
She also spoke of a cultural necessity for video games, as an increasingly popular medium among women in particular, to provide role models for young gamers.
“It’s so important that that representation exists, not just within the game,” Lindeman said. “There are young girls who think, ‘Maybe I would be interested in computer design, graphic design, video game design, computer science.’ But they’re constantly berated with, ‘That’s not for girls,’ or they grow up seeing women who are threatened physically and think, ‘Well I just don’t want to go into this field because there’s this fear that comes with it.’ Which is clearly this terrible thing that girls have to grow up with. If we can create a better world where people aren’t harassed based on their sex, because they like to design video games, that would be good.”
However, female gamers often face heavy discrimination in social aspects of gaming, particularly in the scope of online multiplayer games that support inter-player communication with chat or messaging services. Gamers can often identify which players are women based on their gaming aliases, known on Xbox as Gamertags.
Both founders spoke of their experiences with sexual harassment in online games.
“In my high school years [and on] college breaks, I play a lot of Halo,” Casareno said. “And people send a lot of random messages, because that’s cool, apparently. I guess based on my Gamertag people can tell I’m a girl. And they’re like, ‘Send pictures of your breasts,’ and, ‘Tell me your number,’ and, ‘Where do you live?’ and, ‘I’ll rape you.’ And it’s like, ‘Thanks, why did you send that to me?’”
“My Gamertag includes the word ‘Lady’, so everyone knows that I identify as a woman and assumes that I do based on my Gamertag,” Lindeman said. “That was very much a conscious choice. It shouldn’t matter. But also I want to be able to show that, yes, there are women out here, many of whom probably hide behind a non-gender specific Gamertag because we’re worried about people saying, ‘Show me your tits. Tits or GTFO.’ I’ve gotten that many, many times. A big one was my first or second time playing Halo online. Someone messaged me saying, ‘You suck, get back to the kitchen.’ And I was like, ‘Well, this is great. If I didn’t like this game so much I would never play again.’”
The extent of the insults they had received online was enough that both founders described being torn between apathy and concern for this flagrant behavior.
“From the way we’re telling you the stories, it’s kind of like we’re used to it, or in a way like it kind of makes it okay,” Casareno said. “Because maybe as a girl I would be scared off by that and turn off the Xbox, maybe even never turn on the Xbox again. But how we’re handling it is we are laughing about it because we’re just so used to it now.”
However, Lindeman pointed out the dangers of complacency on the issue and spoke about how this harassment often reaches far beyond verbal cajoling.
“I feel like for us because we’re used to it, it becomes, ‘Oh, I had to deal with this again today, ha-ha,’” she said. “But then you see people like Felicia Day are scared to comment about it because of the backlash…. Because she’s a very public figure, even after she sent out a message [saying], ‘This is why I haven’t talked about it and this is why I’m outraged,’ she still received death threats, people threatening to come and rape her. Why do people think that this is okay? At what point did that become a thing?”
Lindeman spoke on the need to address these issues, but noted several barriers that the industry and society at large face in that goal.
“I think my big question that I’d like to ask to the group and to Wesleyan in general is how you would combat something like Gamergate that is so widespread and so inherent in the industry? The makers of [Call of Duty, a popular shooter franchise] are coming out saying, ‘If you’re going to be rude while playing our game, just don’t.’ But at the same time because there is this huge culture that’s involved around it… How do you combat that? I think that’s a big thing; how do we make it visible here on campus, visible in the world, how do we start a discussion while a lot of people refuse to have that discussion?”
Franchises such as Call of Duty have come under fire in media during recent years for what critics say are excessive depictions of graphic violence. Indeed, it has become a common argument in some media circles to accuse video games of desensitizing players to violence, or even condoning it by depiction.
“If we assume that that is true, it removes a lot of individual responsibility,” Casareno said. “It tells people that these are video games with bad content, so obviously video games make people do bad things. But there are also responsible people who will play Borderlands, shoot people, stomp on people, and still go on to do good things….We have to see, ‘can we make video games more respectful?’”
WesWIG hopes to address these issues. Although the group is actively pursuing this discussion, Casareno stressed that students need not be women or political activists to join.
“We want people who identify as all genders, anyone who considers themselves a feminist gamer, and anyone who likes video games,” she said.