Girl gamers have risen, brands need to listen

The most well-known gaming commercials are a stark reminder of how male-dominated this industry has become. Rewind to the 90s and Nintendo’s first Super Mario Bros ads clearly showed an inclusive gaming experience, designed for all genders and all ages. A promising start. 

Skip forward a few years and we begin to see a plethora of gaming ads featuring and targeting men and men alone (think PlayStation 3 and Kevin Butler, 2009-2011). Females appearing in gaming ads were either non-existent or the butt of a sexist joke.

As we reach the present day, Head of Gaming & Entertainment Fabien Gaeten and Junior Strategic Planner Romane Foschia, explore why we are still struggling to find representation for female gamers.

Describe the average gamer. You may think of them as a teenage boy playing Fortnite, or a lonely man sitting in a gaming chair passionately playing the likes of League of Legends, Call of Duty or Minecraft. This is a stereotype created and maintained through advertising over the past few decades. This is evident in meme culture around brands like Mountain Dew or Doritos, all cemented in mass pop culture.

However, our society and cultural makeup is constantly changing, and naturally raises the question of inclusion and female representation in gaming content and gaming culture overall. 

The stats speak for themselves. According to our Digital 2022 report, over 80% of female internet users aged 16-44 play video games.

Toxic gaming culture is thriving
The last few years have seen too many cases of harassment and abuse primarily targeting female gamers. We can cite a lot of harassment cases, such as streamer Negaoryx who saw her live reaction to The Last Of Us being hijacked and used against her. Negaoryx mourned the surprising death of an animal, and as a result, received death threats. Almost two years later, she still receives misogynistic comments on the content she produces. 

We can also cite the World Of Warcraft player and streamer Hafu who, in 2008 during the Blizzcon regionals, testified to having participated in this competition next to a team called “Gonna Rape Hafu at Regionals”, at that time she was only 17 years old. Whether it’s memes, “funny” videos or literal harassment like the case of the player from The Last Of Us, these behaviours remain common in the gaming community, which makes it very difficult for women to feel safe in these environments.

Even professional female players can testify to the abusive behaviours they face. This is the case of Betty Chai, a competitive Dota player, who has received comments such as “go back to the kitchen”. CynicalSakura, a pro Call Of Duty player frequently shares via Instagram some of the toxic comments she receives from other players just because she’s a woman.

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This misogyny, stereotyping and abuse that makes being a female gamer difficult is summarised in the original definition of the name: E-Girls. The term E-Girl began as a derogatory slur against females who seemed to be ‘taking up space’ in male dominated gaming communities. Urban Dictionary entries from 2017 suggest E-Girls are “promiscuous women who invade male spaces (the internet and its games) by being sexy”. 

Although nowadays, E-Girl is often used to describe a social media fashion aesthetic in pop culture, the term is still used with negative connotations within the video game community to describe a girl who wants to gain attention from male players. The name comes up most often in the League Of Legends community and suggests a female playing with her boyfriend, occupying an easy and supporting role that requires little expertise. This reinforces the idea that female gamers have no real place in the community and can’t handle the high-performance mindset.

Recently, dating app Plink came under fire for leveraging the degrading stereotype of the E-Girl to promote its dating services to male gamers. The image of the woman portrayed in the ad is fragile, shy, and looking for help and attention from male players. It’s hard to believe that ads like these are still being signed off in 2022.

The gaming industry needs reforming
Faced with these problematic realities on the ground, big players in the industry are trying to act.

Twitch, after multiple complaints from numerous streamers, has implemented a new anti-harassment policy punishing Twitch users when they commit harassment on and offline. Developers like Riot and Bethesda are also summoned to act on issues of violence and representation within the games. Developers are being called out for their actions and asked for change. The Women In Games Association mobilised video game heroes to highlight the ultra-stereotypical representations of women by game designers. Thanks to a multitude of “mods” – or modules, the #Genderswap campaign tried to highlight the sensual dances, suggestive poses, constant simpering and exaggerated sexualization that are all part of the problem in gaming.

Subcultures unite
Even if the majority of women are yet to be empowered in this broad sphere of gaming, female gamers are re-appropriating this culture in their own way to free themselves from its exclusively male vision. This was particularly true during lockdowns when female players took the opportunity to develop their communities and their own content based on the games they enjoy.

In addition to the development of female-owned gaming culture, integrating fully into gaming has allowed these communities to go mainstream by repurposing classic social media grammars to express their identities, as evidenced by the #WhatIdWear challenge on TikTok, which took on a whole new meaning when the gaming community adapted the challenge and showed what they’d wear as characters from popular games. This gained millions of engagements and challenged the preconceived ideas of female players. It was a chance for female players to show themselves the way they wanted.

@haley__robinson Who wants to play🕹 pt2 #fyp #foryoupage #whatidwear #whatidwearchallenge #videogames #animalcrossing #grandtheftauto #subwaysurfers #roblox #madden ♬ Dirty Harry – Gorillaz

Brands’ roles and opportunities
In China, Louis Vuitton collaborated with League Of Legends by creating branded features within the game, including the Summoner’s Cup trophy case, and styling two new characters: Qiyana and Senna. Female Gen Z in China represent a large share of the luxury brand market in China, and they are often inclined to invest in derivative products resulting from such collaborations. This was a clever move from Louis Vuitton because by leaning on audience insight and seamlessly integrating their brand into the game, they cemented their brand relevance amongst the target audience.

Product launches on games like Animal Crossing aren’t breaking news. But they work. Some standout examples include MAC Cosmetics, Lidl Christmas Jumper and Glossier. However, a fantastic example of a brand appealing to a diverse audience in the gaming space is Gillette Venus’ “My Skin. My Way” campaign. During lockdown, they knew ads featuring women posing on the beach probably weren’t going to land with a global audience who couldn’t travel. So they took to Animal Crossing in order to virtually connect with their consumers “outdoors”, using 19 different downloadable skin features for avatars including stretch marks, tattoos and freckles.

Fashion, health and beauty aside, brands don’t always have to be ultra-feminine to be gender inclusive in gaming. Logitech’s POP range, for example, featured equipment in a host of gender-neutral and feminine colours. 

Let’s also think about those brands that have paved the way for addressing social issues, such as Patagonia for the environment or Airbnb for migrant crisis awareness. It’s possible to change the perceptions of a situation through marketing for the greater good. Despite a very present underdog mythology, the gaming community could benefit from brands that address them not only to sell products but to open up the access of certain communities to their practice and create safe spaces for all groups that want to play.

As brands and advertisers flock to the gaming industry to stay relevant amongst new and existing audiences, we must ask ourselves: what value can this community really offer if it’s not an inclusive place to be? The gaming community itself, however pioneering it wants to be, needs to create free and safe spaces for female players and stamp out the misogyny that is so rife. 

In summary, brands and advertisers have a big role to play in female representation in the world of gaming.

But where to start? Start by listening to your female gamer communities, through social listening, focus groups or community management. By understanding how the female gamer wants to (and needs to be) represented, brands can gradually begin to undo the male-dominated stereotypes that brands and advertisers created in the first place. It’s our job to turn things around and celebrate E-Girls, gamer girls, female gamers, or whatever label society wants to place on this incredible community.