Downward Trend: Women are Disappearing from the Gamer Ranks

6 Apr

Today I finally got a chance to look over the ESA demographics report for 2015, and noticed that–quite to my surprise–the percentage of women gamers has actually gone down for the first time in many, many years. In 2014, the ESA report showed that 48% of gamers were women. In 2015 that number dropped to 44%. A 4% drop doesn’t seem to be all that significant in the grand scheme of things, but it made me wonder why.

I can think of several possibilities, some of which are the “natural” result of the industry production cycle and some of which are a good deal more negative.

First, in 2013 we saw the release of Tomb Raider, BioShock Infinite, and Gone Home, games whose writing and main characters were likely more appealing to women than the core fantasy of male domination in most games. This like attracted more women to play, increasing their numbers. However, we didn’t really see more significantly female-oriented games in 2014 and 2015 (Rise of the Tomb Raider had a limited release in November 2015, hardly enough to impact the player demographics); rather, games like Destiny and GTA5 and Fifa and Call of Duty dominated the market. The impact of more female-friendly games might be seen in the 2016 demographics, but I would guess that the upswing will come again in 2017 as Tacoma and other more indie games once again reach the market.

However, I don’t really think that accounts for most of the drop. What I do think accounts for the drop is the fallout from GamerGate, which caused a lot of women to leave games journalism and the industry, but also caused a “rally” among men to “protect” what they see as “their space.” Even though this came from a minority of players, it created an atmosphere of hostility and harassment, driving many women away from games. More importantly, though, that atmosphere kept other women from joining, and, if the demographics are any indication, quite a few of them.

The average age of a gamer in 2014 was about 31. In 2015, the ESA breaks down that average (now 35) a bit more. The modal age of a male gamer is 35–not a huge jump–but the modal age of a female gamer is 43. In the past five years, the average age has been dropping as more and more people in their teens and 20s start to play games–but not this year.

What that tells me is that younger women–those most likely to be affected by the hostility surrounding entry into games–are being scared away from gaming, while those of us who have hung on for a while are more likely to stick around. Women in their 30s and 40s have weathered the worst the industry had to offer in the 1990s and aren’t about to let GamerGaters drive them off–but women in their teens and 20s who might just be getting into games are actually quite likely to be kept away by a hostile community.

So that’s my take on the drop–that GamerGate actually succeeded in making gamespaces so inhospitable that they’ve quite literally made games more male-dominated than they have been since 2011 (42%, with 47% in 2012 and 45% in 2013), with a drop double that of the previous year (the 2011-2012 increase also likely reflects the release of several prominent titles with women as significant characters, such as Portal 2, Mass Effect 2, and Fable III). Will we see the numbers swing back in 2016? With the tapering off of GamerGate and the natural fluctuation of the market, I would expect so.

I certainly hope so.