'They say I belong in the kitchen': UAE female gamers speak out against gender bias

Can we create a safer, more inclusive gaming environment for women?

By Sugra Khanwala

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Ayalla El Barawy
Ayalla El Barawy

Published: Fri 5 Apr 2024, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Sat 6 Apr 2024, 12:51 AM

In recent years, the gaming industry has undergone a massive transformation, evolving from a mere recreational activity into a thriving profession. Once perceived as a male-dominated domain, gaming is now attracting a diverse range of players, including a significant increase in female participation. However, despite all the progress, gender bias and discrimination persist within the industry, hindering the full realisation of women's potential as gamers and professionals.

Shifting demographics: Women in gaming

The global gaming industry has witnessed exponential growth, emerging as a titan in the entertainment and media sector. According to a PwC report, total video game revenue is projected to soar from $262 billion in 2023 to an estimated $312 billion by 2027. This surge in popularity and profitability underscores the significant cultural and economic impact of gaming worldwide.

Traditionally, gaming has been stereotyped as a male-dominated pursuit. However, the demographics are rapidly changing, with women increasingly embracing gaming as a form of entertainment and a career path. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, 39 per cent of gamers are female, surpassing the UAE's 29 per cent and the GCC's average of 30 per cent. Similarly, in the United States, women accounted for nearly 41 per cent of all gamers in 2020. In Asia, where gaming revenue dominates, women constitute 40-45 per cent of the gaming population, highlighting their significant presence in the industry.

Challenges faced by female gamers

Despite the growing number of female gamers, gender bias and discrimination persist as significant challenges within the gaming community. Women encounter derogatory remarks, verbal abuse, and harassment, both online and offline. Dalya Herbawi, also known as Lyapop, a UAE-based Jordanian-Palestinian gamer, recounts her experiences of discrimination, where she faced sexist comments and trivialisation of her gaming abilities.

"Online, I've faced discrimination first-hand. Some people visit my stream just to tell me that the kitchen is where I belong, simply because I made a mistake or had a bad game day. They forget that everyone, men included, messes up in their gameplay sometimes."

Similarly, Zaya Kod, a Russian expat living in Dubai, known as BunnyGirlZenpai in the gaming and cosplay world, has encountered bias from male counterparts. "As a female gamer, I've encountered discrimination and bias in various forms within the gaming community,” she adds.

Due to the bias she has faced, Zaya prefers not to turn on her audio while interacting during games. "I feel nervous about using a microphone during competitive games, especially when I'm not performing well. I worry about being judged or made fun of by other players, particularly men, who might see my performance as a reflection of all female gamers.”

Zaya Kod
Zaya Kod

While the Russian gamer prefers concealing her identity, Ayalla El Barawy, also known as KillerBunny, believes that confronting such bias head-on is a better way of dealing with it. The Egyptian expat identifies sexist attitudes within the industry and the lack of representation in game development as the biggest barriers for female gamers to overcome in the industry. She acknowledges that it's "tough to break through these stereotypes" but is actively working towards it.

"I've felt excluded because of my gender. I usually either confront it head-on or find a more inclusive group to game with," Ayalla mentions, adding that she feels unwelcome in certain gaming spaces due to her gender.

Husna Murad, a Pakistani expat who played Call Of Duty multiplayer and Battlefield, on the other hand, stopped going online or playing multiplayer with people she didn’t know. “Mostly they (men) would either just leave the game if they heard a female voice in the group to join another team. Or be like ‘oh man, we have a girl in our team, we’re going to lose’, or just straight up use curse words,” Husna adds, while recounting her tormenting experiences.

But with the changing times and more female gamers holding the reins with those joysticks in their hands, what do men in the gaming industry think about how the industry can be more inclusive for women?

“Currently, we’re seeing more tournaments, events, and mentions for female gamers, and we’re seeing a lot of gaming entities ensuring they are included both online and offline. This has obviously been improving over the years, and hopefully, it will continue to,” says Bibi Zumot, a Jordanian expat who works in the gaming and media field and also happens to be an active gamer and creator.

Bibi is also a “strong advocate of having females in the gaming industry and always willing to support them on their journey,” encouraging many of his female friends to play, stream, and attend gaming events.

Bibi Zumot
Bibi Zumot

Understanding causes of online harassment

One of the root causes of online harassment is often the lack of consequences for poor behaviour. Sometimes, gamers who harass others online can remain anonymous by choosing not to reveal their real identity. In fact, gaming platforms often do little to address complaints or curb offensive behaviour.

In this competitive gaming environment, women who speak up and assert themselves online often face a peculiar type of gender-based hostility. These attacks are not solely rooted in disagreements over opinions or perspectives; they are fuelled by a desire to silence and intimidate women who challenge traditional norms.

However, it is important to note that it is not just men who are guilty of mistreating women; women can also be held accountable. In a Ted Talk from 2017, Lilian Chen, who grew up playing Super Smash Brothers Melee, shared her experience. “As a woman, I was sexist and misogynistic against my own gender,” she mentioned.

“I personally have been toxic towards gamers who have been toxic to me, but I’ve learned there is no point in engaging in the same bad behaviour. I find it better to ignore the nonsense to keep myself at peace.”

Creating a safer environment online

What happens to those who experience cyberbullying from games? The fallout can be severe. Such individuals may experience depression, isolation, and anger due to the toxicity. Women play games either for personal fulfillment or as part of their professional endeavours.

Unfortunately, many find themselves withdrawing from interactions to avoid potential harassment while gaming, which leads to feelings of isolation. Hence, it's important to address this issue because online harassment has become disturbingly normalised within the gaming community.

Dalya Herbawi
Dalya Herbawi

“The gaming industry can step up against toxic behaviour and harassment in gaming communities. They can do this by setting up better reporting and moderation systems and by encouraging a culture of respect and understanding among players. The industry can help and lend a voice to more women streamers and gamers to show that we exist and are important members of this community,” said Zaya.

Greater representation of women employed in the gaming industry is necessary to build a safe environment for female players. Harassment turns women away from gaming and the gaming industry, creating a vicious cycle of under-representation, which in turn allows misogyny to go unchecked.

“Game developers and companies can better cater to female gamers by including diverse and well-developed female characters, crafting inclusive storylines, engaging with female gamers for feedback, increasing female representation in development teams, and marketing games in ways that appeal to female audiences,” she adds.

Dalya Herbawi has a similar take. “E-sport organisations can start organising more female tournaments that have a female team for every male team. In addition to hosting those tournaments, they can livestream these tournaments so people can see that girls can actually game!”

The power of speaking up

In the Ted Talk video, Lilian Chen says, “My experience showed me that my silence only further enabled sexism within gaming.” Being vocal about your gaming experience can help other gamers become more self-aware of harmful behaviour. It also allows them to share their own experiences in the gaming community, whereas, staying quiet can enable more sexism.

While there has been a notable increase in female participation within the online gaming community, there remains a troubling trend of harmful behaviours like online harassment, doxing, and discrimination, which negatively affect all gamers and undermine the safety of the gaming environment.

As the gamers mention, we all possess the power to make a change and combat misogyny within online gaming. Many women worldwide have faced harassment on the Internet, and by speaking out against such behaviour in games or otherwise, we can collectively work towards fostering a safer, more supportive online community.



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