In the 26 years since Sony released the original PlayStation, the number of console-playing females who now own a Sony home console has more than doubled, jumping from 18 per cent in 1995 to 41 per cent today in 2021.
Sony is very, very excited by this. Announcing it as a “favourable demographic” and evidence of a “growing female interest in PlayStation gaming“, the statistic took front and centre at the company’s recent financial presentation, complete with a custom-made image of a number of Sony first-party ladies hanging out, having fun, and playing video games.
In news unlikely to surprise you, I was one of that 18 per cent in 1995. Admittedly, I didn’t shout it from the rafters – I was already a bit of an outlier courtesy of an outrageously unfashionable musical taste and some truly unflattering specs – so I kept my membership of the 18 per cent club hidden underneath my TV cabinet in a bid to keep my secret shame precisely that: secret.
It’s interesting that Sony clearly demarcates “PlayStation gaming”, too, as I suspect we all know these days that when it comes to gaming, women have outplayed men for years. Even way back in 2014, reports circulated that 52 per cent of the UK’s gamers were female, and with the advent of casual and mobile gaming, that number’s likely only increased. So why is Sony making a big deal of it?
I guess it comes down to stereotypes, doesn’t it? Just as you’ll likely think of an old, grey, white guy when you’re asked to imagine what a university professor looks like, the word gamer comes with its own fixed and often unyielding assumptions, too, and I suppose few of us would conjure thoughts of a woman in her sixties when asked to describe what an “average gamer” looks like today. Even the term “girl gamer” is problematic… especially if you happen to be one.
Beyond the usual abuse (even a cursory glimpse at Julia Hardy’s Misogyny Monday is a sobering read for anyone curious about how women are typically treated online) we all endure on a weekly basis, it sometimes feels as though there’s a huge disconnect between what some marketeers think female gamers like – and are like – and what we really are like. And those of us who don’t necessarily conform to any of those stereotypes can end up feeling even more isolated than we already are.
But it’s not just female gamers, is it? In a frantic bid to categorise (read: commercialise) people who play video games, there’s been a disaggregation of the market to an almost micro-level. The term “gamer” – admittedly a tad problematic, given all its negative connotations – is seemingly no longer enough to describe us. We’ve been separated and sub-divided into casual gamers and hardcore gamers and console gamers and handheld gamers and another eleventy gazillion permutations in-between these that draw invisible distinctions between us. Somewhere along the line, we’ve taken up arms to vehemently defend these differences, too; the companies selling us games have been so successful in pigeonholing us, we’re bloody doing it to ourselves now.
There’s real, palpable tribalism between us now, be it the studios we support, the games we play, and the hardware we use to play them. Comment sections and social media threads pulse with the indignant vitriol of so-called console fanboys – another unhelpful term, eh? – but – and I do ask this sincerely – why, for Christ’s sake? Does it matter, really, if you play FIFA on a PS5 or an Xbox Series X? Before the days of crossplay then yeah, maybe; we had to carefully choose what platforms we play multiplayer games on in order to ensure we could connect with our mates online. Not anymore, though.
Newsflash: we’re all gamers. The tribalism and sub-categories only exist because someone, somewhere, was trying to sell us something, and marketing that shit is easier if you have a clear and defined target audience. Even without unpicking the thorny, complex issues around gender identity and its non-binary sliding scale, I refuse to accept that just because I’m female, I should be partial to a pink mouse over a black one, just as I won’t accept that I’m supposed to enjoy Match-3 puzzlers over sci-fi shooters. I refuse to accept that any of us, regardless of gender identity or age, should be made to feel less visible – less important – because of the types of games we like to play.
So, yes, it’s exciting that Sony’s uncovered that the number of female-identifying people who have a PlayStation console has doubled in twenty-five years. Yes, I hope this, in turn, diversifies not only the types of games on offer but also the stories they tell and the characters that tell them. But let us not forget that video games are in the unique position of allowing us to adopt any virtual avatar we want, to experiment with who we want to be both on- and offline. Don’t let manufactured tribalism and the industry’s desperate need to pigeonhole you stop you from being whoever you want to be… regardless of the contents of your pants.
Vikki Blake is one of NME’s weekly gaming columnists. You can read her other columns here