How gaming communities are affecting demographics and development

Authored by Kate Russell.
9 min read
gaming remote with global map overlay
Technology journalist and avid gamer Kate Russell investigates the changing nature of gaming and how it’s impacting on its players and on the gender gap in games development…

I’ve been a gamer for more than thirty years. My first love? Elite on the BBC Micro in 1984. By the mid-nineties, I’d managed to land myself a dream job in games journalism. The money was rubbish, but I got endless free games and could sit around all day playing them without feeling guilty. It’s my job! OK?

Back then I was obviously aware of the lack of fellow female gamers. But I didn’t think much of it. It was kind of accepted that computers were a ‘boy thing’. Girls didn’t play video games, and girls didn’t code them either. So the industry evolved with a massive gender gap in all technology environments, including game development. But as my career matured and the industry started to take notice of the lack of diversity in tech professions I got asked the same question a lot: why don’t more girls take up tech?

Why don’t more girls take up tech?

It’s a curious question to ask a woman who has had a life-long love affair with computers. How the hell should I know? But being a serious journalist type, I made it my business to try and come up with a reasonable answer I could give people when they asked.

I’ve written prolifically on the topic of gender diversity in technology for about a decade, so I won’t bang on about unconscious bias and the like here. But I would like to share my thoughts about gaming communities, and you might be surprised to learn some of the ways they are changing.

Back in 1984, Elite was an amazing feat of computer programming that managed to fit a game-world containing eight galaxies and around 2,000 star systems on the BBC Micro’s 22kb of memory. But as expansive as the game world was, you had to travel alone, with only computer-generated characters for company. In those days gaming was a solitary pursuit. It was you versus the environment, or in the coin drop games of the arcades chasing the ever-illusive spot at the top of the high score table.

When the world started to get online throughout the latter part of the nineties, gaming became more pervasive and also more competitive. Players were pitted against each other, locked in mortal combat with a variety of different weapons or thrashing it out on a sports field or race track. It was player versus player and then as technology allowed more people to share the same virtual space online we progressed to team versus team.

By the turn of the millennium, the term e-sports had made it into common parlance. Professional gaming leagues became global events and there was serious money to be made, by both players and the sponsors. Today the global games industry is worth close to £82 billion.

Gaming had become serious business… but had also earned itself a terrible reputation.

Anyone used to be fair game

If your only experience of gaming is what you hear on the news I’m afraid you will be under the impression that gaming communities are a toxic hotbed of hate and prejudice. The media paints a picture where ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation or identity can make you a target of vicious attacks that transcend the gaming experience.

Over the past couple of decades, that’s been true a lot of the time.

It’s also fair to say that women, sexual and ethnic minorities have not been fairly represented in games. With characters like Lara Croft from the famous Tomb Raider series built with gravity-defying anatomies, female characters are often portrayed as victims, or arm candy, which further compounds the impression that we are second-class citizens in the world of gaming.

But there is a side to gaming that the media doesn’t talk about. Unfortunately, the headline ‘Group of mixed gender and minority gamers had a really good night playing online together’ doesn’t get many clicks.

In my thirty years’ of gaming, I have experienced comments and attacks aimed at my gender. But I also know guys who get called all sorts of names because of their weight, the way they talk, or the part of the world they live in. The sad fact is that when it comes to competitive gaming, ‘trash-talking’ is a strategy.

But that’s not unique to virtual worlds. Think of those crazy wrestling matches where cartoonish characters go head-to-head in a battle of words before a single punch is thrown.

In a competitive environment, people will pick on whatever they perceive as your weakness to throw you off your game. If you react to a slur about gender or ethnicity – often the easiest and most obvious insult – your opponents will put it in a mental box marked ‘has an effect’ and carry on using it as a weapon against you, often escalating the more you bite. Luckily all online games give you the option to mute and block players whose language you don’t like, so there is no need to let it spoil your fun.

Gaming communities are evolving for the better

But as the gaming industry matures, so are gaming communities.

In 2014 one of the creators of Elite released a 21st-century imagination of the game. Elite: Dangerous (external link) is the universe we saw in our heads back in the 80s. Set in a 400 billion star-system model of the Milky Way it is rendered in high definition graphics with immersive soundscapes and you can play online with friends in a massively multiplayer environment. Because of the game’s history, it’s seen a lot of ‘returner gamers’ coming back to their PCs. A poll (external link) on the community forum indicates that most of the players are aged between 30 and 50, with only a small fraction being under 20. These older players are mostly people who, as teenagers became obsessive gamers, but then grew up, got jobs, had families and took on mortgages. It’s not possible to play video games for hours every night when you have kids to feed and put to bed.

But thirty years on, the kids have left home; we have a little more financial security, a little more time on our hands. I’m one of those early adopters who have returned to gaming – and with three decades of life experience behind us, we are a lot more tolerant and respectful of our gaming peers.

The community I am involved with regularly play and chat together online. Most of us are in our thirties to sixties, although we have some younger players too. We are women and men of all shapes, sizes, skin colour and orientation, from cities and towns across the planet and have four openly transgender gamers in our group. We also have a lot of players with disabilities and are all great supporters of Special Effect (external link), a charity that helps physically disabled gamers keep playing.

Contrary to the popular impression of gaming communities, everyone is accepted, loved and respected for who they are. On the odd occasion, someone enters the group with views that are biased or prejudiced, the community self-polices, making it quite clear to the newcomer that this is an inclusive group where abusive behaviour is not welcomed.

Co-operative rather than competitive play

As well as the maturing nature of gaming communities, I believe this shift towards more empathic gaming has come through a move towards co-operative play rather than competitive play.

Hugely popular games like Minecraft, Portal 2, Everquest and World of Warcraft, reward co-operation over aggression. In today’s gaming world people playing co-operative games outnumber traditional competitive gamers three to one. (external link)

Thirty years into my life as a gamer, and as a technology reporter for the BBC, I get to spend a lot of time thinking about where games might be headed in the future. There are some exciting things on the horizon.

At this year’s E3 in LA – the world’s biggest video gaming expo – some of the most hotly anticipated titles on the floor were open-world co-operative games. Games like Sea of Thieves (external link), where six friends are needed to man a pirate ship and take to the high seas as a group.

Virtual reality is also now becoming commercially viable, with several just about affordable headsets available. They’ll get cheaper and less bulky as the market rapidly expands – with expected sales of VR headsets forecast to hit 12 million this year alone.

VR and body image

The immersive nature of VR is a double-edged sword though, as I discovered when I visited Stanford University with BBC Click in June. A research team in the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (external link) are looking at the negative effects on a person’s self-image when forced to wear hyper-sexualised bodies in the immersive world of VR. And while the media focus is on female representation, we should also remember that men are subject to the same body-image pressures. Male avatars are usually portrayed with ripped abs, bulging biceps and strong jawlines, a shape not easily attainable even if you spend half your life in the gym.

The team at Stanford believes VR has such a potential to influence us that it could be used to make people consider what it’s like to walk in the body of another. They’ve developed a VR Mirror (external link) as a means of heightening empathy and are campaigning to have game developers include short ‘public service announcement’ breaks in immersive and violent VR games that put players in a position of being abused and attacked because of prejudice. They see it as a way to break the pattern of violence and abuse and remind us that our actions and words can have a profound effect on others.

How communities are changing their development

It’s interesting research, but I’m not sure such extreme measures are necessary. In my experience gaming communities are already worlds apart from the stereotypes of the nineties and early two-thousands. Apart from anything else the demographic has totally changed. In America (external link), women now make up 47% of the gaming population. In the UK (external link) it’s 52%, AND over forty-five-years olds are playing more games than kids and teens. So, today’s western gamers are mostly women and the over forties. Cultural stereotypes are being smashed.

What’s happening in gaming communities is starting to trickle down to development studios too. There is still a big gender gap, but according to a 2015 study by the International Game Developers Association (external link), the number of female game developers has doubled in the last seven years – from 11% in 2009 to about 21% now. It’s a slow start, but that same survey reported that 79% of respondents consider diversity in the industry to be ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ important.

So the will is there, and with more girls playing games and discovering the kind of passion that has driven me all these years, I have high hopes that the gender gap will continue closing until we have a development landscape that echoes the landscape of the player base.

Kate Russell is a keynote speaker at this year’s Venturefest (external link)taking place on 16 November in York. Find out more about women leaders in tech.

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Kate Russell

Kate Russell has been writing about technology and the Internet since 1995 and regularly appears on the BBC technology programme Click. In 2017, she was listed as Computer Weekly’s 30th Most Influential Woman in UK Tech.