Violet Berlin, a freelance games writer, saw sexism in the gaming industry firsthand as the presenter of Bad Influence, a gaming-themed magazine show that ran on CITV between 1992 and 1996. “People used to tell me I was a freak for liking video games,” she says.
“It did not compute – I must have been weird, I was a lesbian, some said I was doing it for attention. Yet it was clear that lots of girls were interested in games because they were all watching the program,” says Berlin. Bad Influence’s audience of 5 million reached equal numbers of boys and girls, but the industry, she says, wasn’t listening.
It forged on with its plans to talk exclusively to a male audience. A 1997 Gameboy Pocket ad is a case in point, featuring a scantily clad woman tied to a bedframe, her partner apparently distracted by the then new device. Created by Leo Burnett to run in Loaded, FHM and Viz, it was later banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). There were countless similar examples.
While there were outliers over the years – including insatiable pellet-popper Pac-Man, designed in 1980 by Toru Iwatani to attract more women into arcades – women gamers were considered a minority by developers and publishers until the last decade, when the ESA first reported female players making up more than 45% of gamers.
Berlin explains: “The gaming industry saw itself as only aimed at boys. There was negligible representation of women and girls in games back in the days of the Super Nintendo. When Lara Croft appeared on the PlayStation, it was a jaw-dropping moment for the world: suddenly we had a powerful female protagonist.”
The Tomb Raider heroine was an icon of the 90s, but she too was unmistakably marketed to a male demographic, whether on cover art or the cover of Loaded. “Lara Croft was a natural entry point into gaming for women, but she was a character subject to such a massive amount of sexism,” laments Sarah Chalk, who says the marketing around it was “unreal”.
Chalk, who is also known as Ovtav1us Kitten, is a British retro-gaming YouTuber who reviews old video games from the heyday of Atari and the PS1. She remembers how promotional campaigns for Croft’s adventures were “all about the way she looked” and notes that marketing for titles in the 90s was riddled with sexism.
"When it came to women, it was very much about segregating them from men. It was never the women playing games with men.”
Still, both Chalk and Berlin note that attitudes began changing in the 00s as Nintendo titles Mario, Pokémon and Kirby, as well as pioneering games like The Sims, helped create a viable non-gendered demographic of gamers.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the latter franchise has sold over 200m copies worldwide and Samantha Ebelthite, who is UK and Ireland country manager at Sims publisher EA, says it “doesn’t have a typical player”. She credits inclusive-minded marketing, such as featuring same-sex couples on cover art, with broadening its player base. “There is something in this game for everyone. You can play in a safe way, explore in a way that you feel comfortable. I think that’s true in the game, and it’s true of our marketing as well.”
Lyndsay Pearson, the EA executive producer and general manager on The Sims, says it didn’t come out intending to resonate with women the way that it did. “But clearly, the way that we approached that message – that you can do anything and try anything – meant it connected with a much bigger audience than was ever anticipated back in the beginning. And since then all those players kind of made it their own.”
A thriving community of long-term players has grown around the game’s iterations – one now embraced by EA. “The Sims has continued to feed off of that all these years,” says Pearson. Recently, it encouraged its fan community to share stories about the most influential women in their lives on International Women’s Day. “It was really exciting to emphasise that, from the beginning, The Sims has been a world where men and women are paid the same and have the same opportunities.”
The more recent rise in female gamers has been widely attributable to the rise of mobile gaming, and Kais Ali Benali – chief executive of Biborg, a digital creative agency that has worked with Ubisoft, Capcom, Sony and League of Legends studio Riot Games – says mobile gaming has changed perceptions across the industry. “Everyone games. 60% of girls aged 10 to 15 in the UK are gaming on their smartphones. It just shows that it’s much more versatile right now.”
EA has been able to exploit the fertile mobile gaming space with two mobile apps, The Sims Free Play and The Sims Mobile. “I feel like the barrier to mobile is so low,” Pearson explains. “There are so many options on mobile to play different games that you can fall into gaming just by trying different things. Now they’re playing huge amounts of time on their phones just because it’s so easy.”
There’s more to gaming than the games. The wider ecosystem –esports, streamers, YouTubers – have boomed too. Twitch, one of the biggest streaming platforms, hosts lauded female streamers including Pokimane (3.4 million followers), Amouranth (1.5 million), Loserfruit (1.1 million) and KittyPlaysGames (1 million). They all work with brands and stand out from the homogeny of a largely white, male market.
Pokimane has partnered with non-gaming brands like Nissin Noodles, while YouTube streamer SSSWolf (3.1m) has previously teamed up with Samsung. Benali points to activations within League of Legends by luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton Moët Henessy as examples of successful collaboration. In November 2019, the retailer designed a unique trophy case for the winners of the prestigious esports tournament the Summoner’s Cup.
“Think of it as embracing a new culture,” says Benali. “There’s no internet recipe. It needs to be very bespoke and treated correctly. It’s not seen as a short term, potential partnership.”
Ben Shaw, head of strategy at BBH London, says streaming is massive. “And, as we get more and more women gaming, there’s a natural progression for more of them to go pro,” he says. Shaw, who has worked on the Playstation account, believes new tech advances will help attract more gamers. Next, he predicts that cloud gaming services such as Google’s Stadia could change the game even further. “It’s going to open up the ability for many more people to play on their phones – and play better games on their phones – which will help grow the category as well.”
Games are now everywhere, and for everyone. For Berlin, the expansion of the industry and the artform itself that has provoked games marketing to become more inclusive. “As games have become pervasive in our lives, they’ve naturally broadened out in their appeal,” she says. “Stereotypes are boring. And now, companies are getting rid of the stereotypical gamer and broadening out their reach. They understand that everyone’s a gamer now.”