Christopher Paul is a Professor in the Communication and Media Department at Seattle University. He has written The Toxic Meritocracy of Video Games: Why Gaming Culture is the Worst (Minnesota, 2018), Real Games: What’s Legitimate and What’s Not in Contemporary Video Games (MIT, 2019) with Mia Consalvo, and Free-to-Play: Mobile Video Games, Bias, and Norms (MIT, 2020). Contact Christopher at firstname.lastname@example.org
The most direct review I can offer of Gaming Sexism (2020)by Amanda Cote is that it is an excellent book that anyone interested in video games should definitely read. And, for those writing about games and players in almost any form, casual, mobile, board, or other, this is a book that will likely give you plenty of material that you should be citing. I have written directly in the fields of casual and mobile games and about toxicity and game design, and while reading I constantly found myself thinking that I wish I had the chance to read this much earlier, as it would have made my work better. Cote provides perspective and angles on games and the culture around them that pushed me, helping me see things in a different way and complicating what I’ve been thinking about. Fortunately, the book is out now and I can cite it. If you’re the kind of person who reads a book review on First Person Scholar, this is something you should be adding to your reading list right now!
The book addresses the structures and systems around games and how they shape experiences for players. Cote conducted a series of interviews with players to generate insights about their play and interactions that are woven throughout most of the book, but the data from those interviews are beautifully packaged alongside a deep understanding of video games and game studies. Cote is exceptionally well-read, fluidly referencing core work in game studies by the likes of Shira Chess, Mia Consalvo, Kishonna Gray, Sal Humphreys, Jen Jenson, and Suzanne de Castell, Aphra Kerr, Carly Kocurek, Lisa Nakamura, Anastasia Salter, Adrienne Shaw, T.L. Taylor and plenty of others. She builds chapters around the analytical frames offered by concepts like Antonio Gramsci’s take on hegemony, Stuart Hall’s work on race and media, and Stanley Fish’s construction of interpretive communities. Throughout her description of her interviews and references to other work, Cote is an excellent writer and there are several points where I was left wishing I’d written a line or thought of the idea she broke down in a clear and cogent manner. Cote also manages to avoid the ‘last chapter problem’ that many excellent critiques suffer from, as she provides readers with an excellent conclusion that offers clear suggestions of how to address the problems she has laid out in the body of the work. With a broad overview of the book and what it does in hand, I will use some of Cote’s words in an effort to synthesize some of my key takeaways from her project and how she frames the book.
One of the first things Cote does is clearly lay out who the book addresses, writing that her work is about “the experiences of women who see themselves as standard, everyday gamers, who chose to enter gaming spaces before they were normalized as ‘for everyone,’ and who often still fight to find space in masculinized areas of gaming” (11). She situates this within a contemporary gaming environment that is “simultaneously opening up and becoming more exclusionary,” arguing that the paradox presented by what is happening in and around games is explicable as an “expected result of a change in the status quo” as “some members of this narrow audience [core gamers/men who typically play PC and console games] have come to fear the loss of their privileged position” (2-3). Put differently, she argues that her project is important now because “until the masculine orientation of gaming was questioned, it did not need to be firmly protected through overtly exclusionary measures like sexist harassment” (20). Fundamentally, Cote works to detail sexism within specific games and in the community around them, from players to the industry and the other structures that make, review, and comment on games, illustrating the costs of exclusion and on the extra work women who play games have to do, especially as gaming has become an increasingly online and multiplayer activity.
Nearing the end of how she sets up the scene of the contemporary games industry, Cote contends that “casual, social, and mobile games serve as a counterhegemonic force, bringing into question the taken-for-granted nature of the existing order and its legitimacy. Counterhegemonic forces can promote real shifts in power and in determination of who has access to different areas of culture” (24). Counterhegemonic forces resist dominant power structures, pulling in different directions and opening up spaces to create something new. The debut of casual, social, and mobile games teases part of how Cote seeks to resolve the tensions in and around games. She argues that we are entering a moment where shifting our focus away from what is seen as core and toward other elements of games can help redefine what gets counted as a legitimate activity worthy of play and study and what will eventually be taken for granted as new players grow up in a radically different atmosphere for games and play.
Cote then builds into her interviews, which offers her historical context for sexism in games and fundamentally making the point that women have been involved in and often marginalized from creating, playing, and analyzing video games in notable ways. Her participants make the point that this moment is different and Cote uses those responses as an opportunity to detail how things have changed over time while pointing to how things could be restructured for the better. Her interviewees make the note that women have always had to navigate hostility online and as core games, those flagship titles that sell consoles and are at the center of online discussion, have become increasingly based on networked, online play with other people, so that players “cannot access all that games have to offer without encountering other players” (80). Additionally, Cote notes the following:
This puts female gamers in a position where they almost always have to learn to navigate…harassment and sexism…unless they choose only to play alone, they are extremely likely to face a situation in which another player perceives them as an interloper and reacts accordingly (80).
Comments from male players denigrate their skill or subject women to frequent, flirty advances and Cote’s interviewees detail just “how exhausting it was to wade through negativity in order to reach decent players” (159). Her respondents largely chose to play with people they already knew, limiting their ability to play games on the same terms as men.
The stakes of this constant harassment and exclusion from a level playing field are about both limiting how players engage with games and also providing a platform for misogyny within the game community, industry, and online gaming. As Cote writes, “The masculinization of core, and the way it plays out in players’ interactions with each other and with gaming culture, has allowed video games to serve as a bastion for misogyny largely untouched by the gains of feminism. In many elements of gaming, the inequality of men and women is protected and preserved” (109-110). Through both her interviews and her knowledge of events in and around video games, like how her family socialized her into video games and the girl gamer stereotype, Cote makes a prescient argument about the structural role of sexism in contemporary video games. Further, she makes a larger case that current trends in games are likely to exacerbate, rather than address these structural issues. Economic forces and status quo bias are powerful hegemonic forces that have powerful inertia that can quickly chase women out of games or drive them to explore other interests. They also function as a self-reinforcing cycle when people who do not fit in leave, rendering the remaining things need to change if we seek to remake video games as a space where all players are equally welcome. Thankfully Cote also provides some clear ideas of how this dilemma could be resolved.
First, Cote looks to history, anchoring her argument in the observations of her interviewees who contend that there is something different about the recent history of video games, that structural sexism has not always been a problem. Many of her interviewees speak eloquently about how their participation in video games used to be more positive and inclusive and that they have been playing games for years. Cote synthesizes this position, arguing that “a stronger recognition of how women already are central to gaming, and have been for a long time, can show that women are not just new, casual players drawn in by the casualized era. In doing so, it can address some of the sexism and inequality present in gaming” (145). Acknowledging this history and focusing on how women have been part of gaming for decades opens up an understanding that women are both players of games and have long been a market for games. Pushing women to the side of the target audience of games may seem natural and inevitable, but that is because of a lack of focus on the history of video games. Furthermore, these dynamics are part of a trend toward misogyny and harassment that is getting worse and needs to be interrupted in order to create inclusive spaces within video games.
Building on this idea of disrupting problematic structures in video games, Cote and her interviewees look beyond the context of video games to find similar sites that do not have the same level of problem with harassment and misogyny. Cote details how many of her participants have moved away from video games and the harassment they find there and toward in-person games, like Dungeons and Dragons, board games, and pinball. The copresence of others and the face-to-face dynamics of these games leave women able to prescreen their groups more readily and the interviewees reported far fewer incidences of exclusionary behavior. Cote writes that one respondent found “the pinball community was also more supportive than the online gaming community” while another “found similar experiences in LARP games, as well as an array of non-D&D TTRPGs (table-top role-playing games) and other board games. In-person gaming generally provided more inclusive spaces than traditional video games” (198). Participation in these other kinds of games demonstrates how it is possible to build game worlds and communities that are more accepting and inclusive. As part of this potential solution, Cote details the changes Dungeons and Dragons has made in order to appeal to a broader audience, from making a black woman the default image of the human race to allowing for nonbinary genders. However, changing the culture in and around games requires deliberate actions on the parts of designers and players. Successfully recrafting the spaces in which games are played will require careful attention to how the spaces are not equitable and how those inequities can be addressed. Fortunately, Cote has done an excellent job of detailing what is going on and pointing toward specific approaches that can be taken in order to address what has resulted in a core video game culture predicated on sexism and misogyny. Cote argues that diversified representations of characters within games are important and largely a no-lose proposition for game designers, but she also goes deeper, pushing at the ways that video games need to develop more accepting communities for more kinds of players.
One of the cleverest points in Cote’s work is in the title, as it can be read two ways. The first way I read it was to conceive of it as a descriptive noun. In that formation, gaming sexism is a thing, the backdrop of immersive misogyny that I readily see in contemporary core games. The second way to read the title is as a verb; an action, something we do. In this configuration, gaming sexism is something that is done and, thus, can be stopped. Further, this approach is an implicit reference to how systems and structures can be gamed by exploiting the gaps or other design flaws in the system. Just like theorycrafters and min-max players seeking every advantage in an encounter within a video game, those of us who seek more inclusive play spaces can ‘game sexism,’ recognizing and then actively working against the hegemonic forces in games in an effort to make something different than what we experience now. Gaming Sexism by Amanda Cote gives the background of how we got here and points to ways we can make something better.
In sum, my primary point is still: this book is excellent. You should read it.
Cote, Amanda. Gaming Sexism: Gender and Identity in the Era of Casual Video Games. New York, NYU Press, 2020.