"I'm an elected municipal councillor, I have a lot of work, so I play video games at night. I've always loved diving into a virtual universe and exploring it for months before changing worlds. I can spend ten hours in a row on a game without a problem. There are times when I reason with myself and I cut back a lot. But I can't stop! Harmony is one of the thirty-six million French video game enthusiasts, 51% of whom are French. She likes strategy games, like 59% of her "sisters", or action and adventure games, which appeal to 52% of female gamers. At 35 years old, knowing that the average age of the players is 38, she is just as representative of this virtual world as any teenager in the midst of a crisis of pimples and existence.
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Tell me what you're playing...
Today, it has become difficult to paint a portrait of a typical player. In fifty years, video games have become more popular and are no longer reserved only for geeks: 70% of French people play them occasionally. In other words, almost everyone. The Paris Games Week trade show – France's largest gathering of video games, which was held from 1 to 5 November – brought together a number of them. Because gaming is now the cultural industry that generates the most money in the world: 5.3 billion euros in 2020, well ahead of music and cinema combined – even if we remove mobile games from this calculation. Beyond this ever-growing success, the big change is the feminization of this universe.
"Fifteen years ago, there were hardly any female gamers in the official figures, barely 20%," recalls psychologist Michael Stora*, founder of the Observatory of Digital Worlds. When I asked women if they played, they usually told me that it was a waste of time, a man's luxury. As a child, we construct ourselves by identification, and therefore girls face the maternal figure. They saw their mothers coming home from work to continue working with household chores. Idleness was tinged with guilt. The discourse has changed."
Publishers have also managed to attract a female audience through portable consoles such as the Game Boy or DS, but also mobile phones. "We offer games to pass the time, when you're stuck on public transport or waiting rooms, such as Candy Crush, Pac-Man or card games," notes Catherine Lejealle, a researcher in digital adoption (2). These are games of skill, free, colourful, simple and fast that you play when you have no other imperatives." But these are only a part of the video game galaxy: when we talk about gaming, we are mostly talking about the games found on computers and consoles. Those that take you on a journey, discover a universe, become another and require you to take up challenges. And in this category, too, things are gradually evolving.
Demolish or build
"For a long time, the content remained very testosteroned. These games featured armed conflicts, big machine guns, somewhat phallic universes," says psychologist Michael Stora. "The reason? In the collective unconscious, any emergence of warlike impulses in women is forbidden, he continues. It's hypocritical, any game is a staging of aggressive impulses, how many girls have ripped off a doll's leg before putting it back on their hair? In video games, you can do a lot of wrong things and it feels good."
The offer has been greatly expanded. In addition to fighting, car, or adventure games, publishers have developed construction games. "To capture women," confirms sociologist Catherine Lejealle, "we came up with breeding and management games, such as The Sims, in which you create your own universe. Of course, some love shoot 'em ups, in which the character has to destroy as many enemies as possible. But often, women prefer to build rather than demolish. They go towards games of strategy, reflection, imagination or adventure with a form of aestheticism, and in which you learn things. Men prefer the notion of vertigo or when pride comes into play, especially with quests."
From passion to addiction?
"I like the strategic side of video games," says Marianne, 35. I learn things that I use on a daily basis in my job as a project manager: such as managing a guild (a group of players who will work together towards a common goal), organizing the resources brought by each one, distributing them fairly, making sure that there is no dissension in the groups... »
Marie, a 33-year-old computer engineer, started playing the console when she was 6 years old. "As a child, I was never confronted with gender issues in my practice. It happened later, at the age of 18, when I joined an e-sports association in Rennes and I was the only girl. I don't play violent games, unlike my best friend who loves it. I like RPGs, for role playing games, but also die and retry like The Binding of Isaac. These are games without indications: you learn by trying and making mistakes... that is, by dying! It's interesting, because you have to understand how each item works, their synergy and the levels are randomly generated. No two games are alike, and that's exciting. A colleague of mine has accumulated over five thousand hours of gaming on his PC over the years. He's single... »
Since she has a 2-year-old, Marie has been playing much less. She allows herself parts during her nap or in the evening. "If I had fewer constraints, I could continue to play a whole weekend without worry, but I have to lead by example." His companion is also a gambler. She feels that she indulges in gambling as she reads a book or watches a series. "It may seem like a surprising passion for the number of hours I put into it, but I've always been able to juggle my obligations, and it's a real source of escape for me. I've never gotten into financial trouble for games, I've never missed a class or a day of work because of a short night's sleep. »
Stop in time
This intense but reasoned practice is quite symptomatic of the players. Few people neglect their lives in favor of screens. Harmony concedes that she can find it very difficult to stop playing on her PC, which can sometimes be complicated for her partner who thinks it's a waste of time. "There were times in my life when I had a real addiction. In high school, I had anxieties when I wasn't on the Guild Wars role-playing game, I dreamed about it at night. It happened to me recently with Zelda. But it doesn't have an impact on my day-to-day life." Gambling does not prevent him from having a fulfilling professional and social life.
Psychologist Michael Stora says that of the young patients he treats for addiction, only 1 or 2 percent are girls. "The vast majority of boys can be explained by a terrible and clear reason: girls are brought up to submit to certain rules, in particular to be good, obedient, not to go beyond the box... and therefore have to adapt better to the school world." Valentine, 25, has already come close to a real addiction, but has always been able to stop in time. "The lockdown was difficult, I was at my parents' house, I played a lot and we had staggered schedules. Some games can quickly irritate, embitter or angry, such as League of Legends, which is played in teams of five people and whose goal is to destroy an opponent's base. After that, I started going out less, or even less people. I had to pull myself together."
All the players we met confirmed that their passion is a big part of their lives and that it is easier to share it with a player. Like Marianne, who met her husband in a role-playing game. Many female gamers like to connect with others, working as a team towards the same goal. "It was the sharing that first appealed to me," notes Valentine. It's through games, or in player conventions, that I've met almost all my friends, the ones I see in life. Games create networks, generate connections. "It can be very cooperative, we need to help each other to pass levels, to lead a quest. In this context, the separation is more between the old and the new than between men and women," says Catherine Lejealle.
Seraphine, one of the warriors of League of Legends. 2023 Riot Games Inc. All rights reserved. League of Legends and Riot Games Inc
A Sexist Prism
However, cases of sexism are very common. "Whatever the game, men are more competitive and aggressive, they do mansplaining (a condescending explanation made by a man to a woman about what she should or shouldn't do, editor's note)," Marianne says. There are as many of us as they are, but more discreet, because we are not considered. Men are easy to insult and constantly target women. Some gaming communities are more sexist than others: right now, I'm taking a break from League of Legends because the atmosphere is too bad." According to her, the world of video games is a small society that reflects the gendered dynamics of the big one. "We always expect women to be in support roles, we have more positive preconceptions if the man is the one who has to perform the most actions. I had a very good level on the medieval fantasy game World of Warcraft, I was very well ranked, and several times a week, I met boys with a tenth of my level who came to explain to me how to do it. There are also a lot of insults, and sometimes even harassment."
Regardless of the game, the men are more competitive and aggressive, they do mansplaining. Men are easy to insult and constantly target women
If these sexist behaviors persist, the game world itself evolves. The 2024 edition of the Fifa game (renamed EA Sport FC) brings football players together on the same pitch. We also see more and more central female characters, less sexualized than a busty Lara Croft. A game like The Last of Us, adapted into a TV series, features a strong young heroine, who turns out to be a lesbian in the second installment. The idea that a game isn't going to work because it features powerful women is starting to get outdated. Morgane Falaize, president of Women in Games France, an association that has been promoting gender diversity in video game companies in France since 2017, explains: "A few years ago, the only ones who allowed themselves to make new proposals were independent studios, with less money on the table, fewer investors, less pressure. Today, we have game licenses that have cost a lot of money and that feature women as the main characters, not at all sexualized or considered from a heterosexual point of view. After all, these games don't represent a contemporary society, but post-apocalyptic worlds in which all the codes have exploded and where we can imagine that women hold the guns."
The Women in Games France association has, from its beginnings, measured the presence of women in the gaming world. In 2018, she noted that only 15% of French video game development studios were women. In 2021, it was 22%, but only 11% in management positions. These figures are equivalent to those of the tech or film worlds. These inequalities also exist in the field of e-sports, video game competitions alone or in teams. At the professional level, only 7% of players are women. "They don't get paid as well as men, and companies don't sponsor women's training facilities as much. However, there is no justification for these differences, since there is no issue of physical capacity," explains Morgane Falaize.
Worse, beyond their technical skills, women also have to juggle harassment when they gamble online. You'd think that a sector as young as video games would be more inclusive, but it's not. Female players or streamers are not visible enough. It has even happened to a participant, in a mixed competition, to have to prove that she was not cheating, as men could not believe that she had such a good level. "When you're a woman in gaming, you have to prove yourself all the time," says Marie, a member of an esports association that has only 5% women. I am considered the wife of, or the sister of. Only the elders know not to come and bother me." All the players deplore the lack of representation of women in competitions. Each is working to change the game.
Cosplay of a video game heroine in a Cyberpunk atmosphere. Shutterstock / lady_in_red13
Author of What if screens were taking care of us? Psychoanalysis of video games and other digital pleasures, Érès Edition, 200 p., €8.49.