Sexism in the Gaming Industry: Are Things Beginning to Change?

The tech industry has been the focus of critical attention for a number of years as a result of revelations that it is the site of widespread gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual misbehavior of various sorts. SWE Magazine has reviewed a number of the most significant controversies in its annual State of Women in Engineering issue. A component of the tech sector that has received less attention here, but also has a history of controversies over sexual harassment and gender discrimination, is the gaming industry.

Over the past decade, news media reports have characterized gaming as a male-dominated industry in which women are in the minority and regularly experience harassment and mistreatment. The most recent case to receive public attention concerns Activision Blizzard. In 2021, the state of California filed suit against the company, the maker of World of Warcraft and other highly successful games, accusing it of repeated cases of sexual harassment and discrimination against its female employees. An investigation found a “frat boy” environment at the company in which men joked about rape, male superiors harassed female employees, and drunken male employees engaged in “cube crawls” harassing female workers.

Critics cite evidence of misbehavior dating back to 2013, including the hosting of women by a senior manager in a hotel room named the “Cosby suite” and other Cosby-related “jokes” by employees. The company’s CEO is alleged to have known about the problems for years, to have done nothing about it, and to have participated himself in the sexual harassment and discrimination. Thirteen-hundred employees of the company have petitioned, calling for the CEO’s resignation (Reymann-Schneider 2021; Kassorla 2021).

This is not an isolated case that came out of nowhere. Controversies over sexism in the industry have a long history, including accusations that female gamers are marginalized and harassed and other incidents in which employers have been accused of mistreating female employees. The problem exploded onto the public stage in 2014 as a result of the so-called Gamergate incident, in which videogame developer Zoë Quinn became the subject of a disparaging blog, eventually leading to death threats, doxing, and hate speech directed at her and other women by male members of the gaming community. One woman had to leave home when her personal information was made public, and she received death threats.

Although some continue to claim that the attacks on Quinn and others were about ethics in the industry, all of the people attacked were women, in an industry in which women are a small minority of employees (Kassorla 2021; MacDonald 2020). Observers claim that Gamergate cemented an aggressive masculine culture in the industry; it also spurred the work of industry critic Anita Sarkeesian (also a target of Gamergate), who earlier had established Feminist Frequency, a platform that disseminates educational materials and provides outlets for those involved in the industry to give voice to complaints about gender discrimination and harassment (Zenerations 2021).

In the aftermath of Gamergate, a number of incidents kept sexism in gaming in the spotlight. In 2019, an investigation by the video game website Kotaku led to a gender discrimination lawsuit against game company Riot Games. This resulted in a payment of $10 million to the company’s female employees, whose CEO was also investigated for sexual harassment, although he was eventually acquitted. In 2020, French developer Ubisoft faced accusations of harassment and discrimination, especially in its Toronto and Montreal offices. A number of senior employees wound up resigning and the company’s CEO publicly pledged to reform the company’s culture (Garcia 2021; MacDonald 2020).

Have we reached a tipping point?

Game players (gamers) have also been accused of sexual misbehavior. An article in The New York Times in 2020 drew attention to a rash of accusations by women against male streamers in the online gaming world. First in 2019, then again in 2020, women made public allegations of harassment, gender-based discrimination, and assault on various online platforms. The 2020 outburst began in response to a tweet by a female gamer accusing a “top player” of the online game Destiny of being a “scum lord.” Others posted similar accounts in response, and the accused gamer eventually apologized. More streamers began opening up about their experiences, and Jessica Richey compiled these stories into a Twitter thread. Many of the 2020 accusations focused on the streaming platform Twitch, which acknowledged the accusations and said it was looking into the matter. Some streamers have called for a boycott of Twitch (Lorenz and Browning 2020).

Many have asked why sexist behavior is so widespread in the gaming industry. Researchers have noted that gaming has long been stereotyped as a male activity. At least since an economic downturn in the industry in the 1980s, game companies have identified men as their primary customers and targeted them in designing popular games. Researcher Kenzie Gordon, quoted in The New York Times, says that men have “created the identity of the gamer as this exclusive property” (Lorenz and Browning 2020). Although there is evidence that women, too, are involved in gaming and that the stereotype of the male “geek” gamer is not particularly accurate, female game players are often dismissed by male gamers as not serious and less skilled. Even e-sport participants are affected by the industry’s male orientation, as only one of the 500 top-earning professionals is a woman, and critics accuse female tournaments of offering much lower prize money than male events (Paaßen, Morgenroth, and Stratemeyer 2017; Garcia 2021).

Male domination of the industry, and its focus on its male customers, has led to the production of video games with few female characters and the hypersexualization of the few there are, although there is some evidence that this has begun to change (Lynch et al. 2016). It also has been linked to the development of a male workplace culture that is conducive to sexual abuse. A recent article in The Guardian quoted Emily Greer, CEO of Double Loop Games, to that effect:

“Many of the workplace risk factors cited by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are commonplace in the games industry: overwhelming male workforce; lots of young workers; workplaces where some ‘superstar’ employees are perceived to be particularly valuable; workplaces with significant power disparities; and workplaces which endorse alcohol consumption” (MacDonald 2020).

The reaction to the most recent accusations of sexism in the industry has led some to be optimistic, to speculate that a tipping point may have been reached, and that real change is possible. They are encouraged to see that, instead of the usual backlash, recent incidents have elicited sympathetic responses and have led to resignations and pledges by company CEOs to reform the culture. In some cases, companies have brought in expensive consultants and hired diversity officers as part of their efforts to reform. Others are less certain, arguing that change is not likely to occur in a top-down manner. They feel it needs to come from those affected, and that it must involve radical change, not just reform (MacDonald 2020). Perhaps these skeptics would be encouraged by a recent interview with the female game director of German game design company Wooga, who points to the successful diversification of its workforce and who emphasizes what she characterizes as growing calls within the industry for change (Reymann-Schneider 2021).

Garcia, J. (2021). The Video Game Industry Faces Another Reckoning over Sexism. El Pais, Aug. 27.

Kassorla, M. (2021). Sexism Within the Video Game Industry. The Cornell Daily Sun, Aug. 30. 

Lorenz, T. and Browning, K. (2020). Dozens of Women in Gaming Speak out About Sexism and Harassment. The New York Times, June 23. 

Lynch, T. et al. (2016). Sexy, Strong and Secondary: A Content Analysis of Female Characters in Video Games Across 31 Years. Journal of Communication 66(4): 564–584.

MacDonald, K. (2020). Is the Video Games Industry Finally Reckoning with Sexism? The Guardian, July 22.

Paaßen, B., Morgenroth, T., and Stratemeyer, M. (2017). What Is a True Gamer? The Male Gamer Stereotype and the Marginalization of Women in Video Game Culture. Sex Roles 76: 421–435.

Reymann-Schneider, K. (2021). Sexism and the Video Games Industry. DW, Nov. 19. 

Zenerations (2021). Sexism in Gaming Communities. Zenerations, July 21.