Game-changers in online gaming

Enlightened digital entrepreneurs, designers and gamers should champion the social inclusion movement in online gaming.
Rennie Naidoo
By Rennie Naidoo, Professor in Information Systems (IS) at the Wits School of Business Sciences.
Johannesburg, 10 Nov 2023
Rennie Naidoo, professor at the Wits School of Business Sciences, Department of Information Systems, University of the Witwatersrand.
Rennie Naidoo, professor at the Wits School of Business Sciences, Department of Information Systems, University of the Witwatersrand.

Digital spaces, much like physical ones, are far from utopias when it comes to social inclusion. Social structures in digital spaces imposed by dominant or privileged groups also tend to marginalise other groups from participating fully in modern social, cultural, political and economic life.

For example, for more than two decades, researchers reported that video game designs were highly masculine. Females used to be included in only few of the characters in popular video games. Similarly, bestselling games used to include far more male characters than female characters.

In fact, players used to have far more choice in playing non-human than female characters. Irrespective of genre, game lead characters were disproportionately biased towards white males.

In contrast, female characters were more likely to be limited to playing the role of a prop, bystander or as a victim of aggression. Female characters generally wore sexually revealing clothing compared to male characters – that is female characters were more likely to be shown partially or fully nude than male characters, and female characters, especially females of colour, would serve as ‘sexual eye-candy’. Even game reviews used to mention male characters more times than female characters.

Online games have become a space for misogynistic comments and sexual harassment targeting female gamers.

In recent times, the gaming industry has made substantial progress in addressing these concerns. For instance, in the massive multiplayer online games, customised avatar characters created by users now include females and previously marginalised groups. However, broader social inclusion remains a challenge.

Women and other marginalised groups continue to be trivialised in online gaming

This trivialisation of women is evident in professional or competitive video gaming. A recent study found that, in comparison to the highest-earning male gamer's total career earnings, the best-paid female gamer's earnings were paltry.

The social exclusion of women is not limited to game designs and professional gaming but includes structural inequalities, such as the underrepresentation of women in the employment and ownership of the gaming industry.

Recently, the International Game Developers Association reported that women make up only a minority of the global game developer community. According to the Game Developers Conference, there are only 18% of women game developers in advanced economies like the US.

A recent study in South Africa found that the situation was slightly worse, with only 14% women game developers represented in the industry. The study also found a similar trend for the demographics of ownership, where white males control a majority (91%) of the game development studios.

From a gender perspective, it is also problematic that women are reported to control only 3% of the industry. Moreover, gamers who do not fit in with a heteronormative lifestyle face severe hostility. Online games have become a space for misogynistic comments and sexual harassment targeting female gamers.

Harnessing social inclusion to unlock potential and drive innovation in online gaming

The digital divide also exacerbates the inclusion of women and engenders male exclusiveness in online games. Internet use in South Africa continues to be relatively low due to limited connectivity and prohibitive cost of services.

One study found that 48% of men use the internet in South Africa compared to only 28% of women. Furthermore, South Africa’s costs are among the most expensive out of all leading African economies.

Although broadband access in the country has grown rapidly, penetration remains very low when one considers the national population. Not surprisingly, when World of Warcraft (WOW), the biggest massively multiplayer online video game, peaked at over 11.5 million subscribed players worldwide, only about 7 000 subscribers were from South Africa.

Consider for a moment that, according to the World Bank, Blizzard Entertainment, the publisher of the WOW game, earned an income on this game alone that exceeded the gross domestic product of more than 30 countries.

Meanwhile, many local gamers must connect to servers hosted in Europe and the US, and experience high latencies between 500 and 1 000 milliseconds, as leading online games require at least 20 000 players for it to be economically feasible for global gaming companies to host a local server in a country.

Despite these issues, the overall gaming market in South Africa has been growing in double digits. The market is expected to increase, and the more affluent consumers are expected to play more games online.

South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world. A Gini coefficient at 0.62 indicates that while many people are affluent, many more, especially people from previously marginalised groups, continue to be excluded from wealth, and live below the poverty line.

Nevertheless, there is a rapidly growing female gamer segment, albeit predominantly from the privileged ethnic groups, joining the local online gaming market.

Industry statistics suggest this is a global phenomenon – for example, 45% of game players in the US are now women, according to the Entertainment Software Association, although male gamers still dominate massively multiplayer online role-playing games.

Levelling the playing field in the online gaming industry

Many non-playing women view games as a waste of time that could be better spent on more important ‘real-world’ priorities. However, an alternative perspective is that the struggle for gender equity in online gaming is a useful domain for promoting the overall empowerment and social inclusion of women and other marginalised groups.

Some scholars argue that the struggle to be included in online gaming communities reveals greater concerns about gamer culture than game design and the digital divide factors alluded to above.

Because female gamers and minority groups are embedded in a culture in which competing or spending leisure time with males is generally regarded with prejudice, they face the challenge of persuading male gamers, who may or may not have internalised that cultural prejudice, of their right to social inclusion.

If male gamers begin to acknowledge that female gamers are deserving of social inclusion in the online gaming community, there is a better chance that they could acknowledge the possibility of their social inclusion in other male-dominated high-tech communities.

The gaming industry should start by improving developer representations in the workplace and improve game designs so that they represent a broader audience. The industry should mobilise more male gamers to act in solidarity with gamers from marginalised groups to achieve more unity in gaming. We should address the struggles facing marginalised race, queer, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender players in online gaming communities.

In steering its future development, the state and private sector should also be promoting diversity and equality in the gaming industry and the promotion of games that encourage greater social cohesion.

* Based on a paper with graduate students, Kalley Coleman and Cordelia Guyo.