Book review

Gaming sexism: Gender and identity in the era of casual video games, by Amanda C. Cote.

Amanda Lynn Lawson Cullen

University of California, Irvine, California, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Cultural discourse; Games culture; Gaming; Gender; Sexism

Cullen, Amanda Lynn Lawson. 2022. Gaming Sexism: Gender and Identity in the Era of Casual Video Games, by Amanda C Cote [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 38.

Amanda C. Cote, Gaming xexism: Gender and identity in the era of casual video games. New York: New York University Press, 2020, paperback, $30 (265p), ISBN 978-1479802203.

[1] In Gaming Sexism: Gender and Identity in the Era of Casual Video Games, Amanda Cote explores a paradox. In recent years, video game audiences have become more diverse than ever while at the same time video game culture and fandom have become more exclusionary. Cote proposes that this paradox has arisen due to the responses of some groups in games culture whose identities have been defined by their fannish love for games, individuals whom Cote refers to as traditional core gamers. These gamers now feel threatened by the increasing number of nontraditional casual players and a perceived diminishment of their power and privilege that the growth of the gaming audience represents. In particular, Cote notes, these responses have primarily taken the form of sexism and misogyny against women, who are frequently positioned as the largest demographic in the growing casual games audience. The goal of Gaming Sexism is to analyze the impact of this sexism on women players and fans, as well as to identify ways in which women find and make spaces for inclusive gaming and participation despite resistance to their presence. Cote argues that sexism and misogyny have become inherent mechanics in video game culture. Because the assumed dominant gender identity in games is masculine, women are positioned as a threat to the structure of gaming. Therefore, women players and fans are punished for attempting to intrude where they are not perceived as belonging.

[2] What Gaming Sexism offers are lessons learned from women who have chosen to negotiate the conflicts of a masculine exclusionary space like gaming fandom. To gather these insights, Cote conducted discourse analysis of game industry practices and documents—primarily magazines aimed at video game developers and fans—and performed interviews with thirty-seven self-identified women gamers. In a chapter on the aftermath of GamerGate, Cote conducts follow-up interviews with eleven of her original participants. This combination of methods allows Cote to contextualize the popular discourses about women and casual players in games against the perspectives of those most affected by these discourses.

[3] The cover of Gaming Sexism features a depiction of the iconic propaganda poster from World War II, Rosie the Riveter, wearing a Nintendo Power Glove. The Power Glove was a short-lived console peripheral that represented Nintendo's first foray into motion-controlled gameplay mechanics over twenty years before the launch of the Wii. As Cote describes in the introduction of her book, Nintendo and the Wii console were influential in ushering in what Cote refers to as the "casualized era" (1) of video games. This is a period of approximately three years between 2005 and 2008 when video game companies began to seek out broader audiences and the idea of video games as a masculine technology was more overtly questioned. The image of Rosie wielding the Power Glove, which was created during a time when video games were advertised as a masculine hobby, therefore suggests a history of women in video games and acts as a visual contradiction to the idea of women as simply casual players. The concept of casual as both a temporal and an identity category—and its intersections with gender—runs throughout the book as a major structural element of the chapters and analysis.

[4] The first chapter of Gaming Sexism explains the binary between core and casual players and how both positions are popularly defined and constructed in games. Core, derived from "hardcore," carries connotations of centrality, importance, and the prioritization of masculine interests. Cote demonstrates how this connection between hardcore and masculinity can also be seen in other media, such as punk music and pornography. Casual, on the other hand, suggests marginality, frivolity, and a cheapening of experience due to femininity and its presumed unimportance. What Cote illustrates, however, is how this binary is not and has never been so clear cut. Casual players often take up some aspects of core play and ignore others in what Cote described as a process of denaturalizing the binary. For example, if one aspect of the core identity is dictated by time—hundreds of hours playing one game as emblematic of fannish affect and expertise—how do you describe players who have hundreds of hours invested in a casual game like Candy Crush? Many players are playing so-called casual games in very core-like ways; for Cote this is how casual players and casual games can act as a counterhegemonic force, by tactically adapting and ignoring normative practices. This chapter is the distillation of an argument Cote makes throughout the book—that however you slice it, a population of video game players and fans is never monolithic or neatly categorized, but many of the divisions made between players and fans are nonetheless meaningful due to the impact that they have on audience participation.

[5] The second and third chapters continue this consideration of audience differences by detailing the different overt and covert ways that women encounter sexism in video games and in game cultures. While these sexist challenges are often "divided according to the traditional media studies lines of text/content, audience, and industry" (57), Cote argues that concerns of sexism and hypersexualization for women in game are intertwined across these lines, and they cannot be neatly separated. Cote outlines how presenting hypersexualized women characters in video games, creating games based on stereotypes about girls and women, encountering sexism and harassment from other players, and having all those things supported by the games industry aid in maintaining the appearance of gaming—particularly core gaming—as a masculine space. As a result, many women adopt avoidance behaviors that will help them avoid conflict with gaming's masculine hegemony. These behaviors include not playing multiplayer games with strangers, ignoring sexist comments or game content, or quitting games altogether. Consequently, these avoidance behaviors reinforce the narrative that women who play core games are rare and that the lack of presence of women in gaming audiences and fandom is due to a small number of women being interested in games.

[6] Nevertheless, women have always been present in the history of video games and enjoy playing so-called core games as well as casual games. In fact, Cote describes women players and fans as uniquely situated to weaken the binary between core and casual because of the frequent identity negotiations between player, woman, and woman player that women already manage. In chapter four, Cote analyzes participant interviews to highlight ways that women navigate the masculine spaces of games through fluid and contextual combinations of masculine and feminine, core and casual characteristics in their gameplay practices. Of necessity, women are often called to inhabit game characters that do not represent them or play in groups that are not designed to include them, but many women find pleasure in these activities despite the challenges. For Cote, their adaptive practices can be used as an example for hegemonic players to learn about the different forms of identity exploration, pleasure, and affinity building that can be found in games.

[7] The fifth chapter shifts to a focus on the strategies women engage in to choose content and support positive experiences in gaming and fandom. The strategies women used for selecting games rely on a combination of personal skill, knowledge of developer and genre conventions, previews of content, and social networks. Their strategies for managing the play experience within those games and avoiding harassment include—in addition to those introduced in chapter three—hiding their gender or adopting an aggressive masculine gameplay performance. It is worth noting that there is plenty of research and debate in game studies around the benefits and drawbacks of women's-only gaming groups and competitive tournaments (Chess 2017; AnyKey 2017). While these tactics at an individual and group level are often enough to create a sense of safety during gameplay, on the meta level they are not enough to undermine the hegemony of trash talk, harassment, and sexism in games. Just as a lack of engagement with race in fandom more broadly encourages a default whiteness (Pande 2018), so too does a lack of confrontation with the problems of gender bolster a masculinity as a default in games. But as Cote observes, women who do confront the default masculinity in games often find themselves without support from the gaming community and the industry who should be sharing the burden of resolving this problem.

[8] Confronting the status quo and making a complaint visible carries its own problems (Ahmed 2021). That has been proven time and time again in fandom in a number of contexts. In the sixth chapter, Cote returns to some of her interview participants to inquire as to how the events of GamerGate may have impacted their gaming habits. Cote positions GamerGate as a backdrop which highlights the prevalence of sexist and gatekeeping practices in games discussed in other chapters. She finds that dramatic events like GamerGate are less troublesome for women in games than everyday "garden-variety" experiences of sexism they encounter.

[9] Video game fandom is of course not the only area that has dealt with—and continues to deal with—deep wells of sexism and misogyny in its population. Comics and film have both recently experienced high-profile challenges to the inclusion of women creators and stories about women (note 1). The strategies women gamers use to find inclusive spaces detailed in Gaming Sexism have parallels within broader fannish practices of forming fan communities and modifying canonical content to be more representative. Fan and audience scholars outside the magic circle of game studies may find it useful to consider further parallels between the practices of women in games and in other fandom contexts. I am thinking particularly of broader attempts to hide gender or gendered impressions that clash with the dominant expectations of a fandom group. Cote's work offers another way for scholars to approach questions around gatekeeping, participation, tokenism, and self-reflexivity in fan culture (note 2).

[10] One of the strengths of Gaming Sexism is also Cote's consideration of the ways that many women are unbothered by sexism or actively buy into exclusionary rhetoric in games culture and fandom. Cote advocates for the agency of women to choose to participate in masculine spaces and seek to be traditional core gamers without condemning their choices. Furthermore, she stresses the need to include these perspectives in discussions around changing and challenging the masculine hegemony of games rather than exclude them in favor of a neater narrative of women's oppression in games. Amanda Philip's recent publication Gamer Trouble takes a similar position recognizing the complex variations of identity and politics for women in gaming. These two projects mark an important and necessary turn in interdisciplinary and feminist analyses of video game culture and fandom. This scholarship complicates a trend in game studies to exclusively focus on women who claim harm or actively campaign against harm. Gaming Sexism provides an important model for scholarship that includes perspectives which may contradict the researcher's own way of thinking in feminist research.

[11] Gaming Sexism complements other recently published work that has addressed the gender binary in video games and its control over the field, particularly Shira Chess's Ready Player Two. Gaming Sexism extends this work to not only consider how that binary is constructed and policed in games but also detail the ways in which women complicate and resist the binary. Overall, Gaming Sexism is a useful introduction for any scholar seeking to understand the basis of ongoing issues of sexism, misogyny, and gendered stereotypes in video games. For game studies scholars, Gaming Sexism offers deeper complexities of the current knowledge on women in games and suggests further avenues for research around players, the industry, and the impact of the crisis of authority on the participation of women in the casualized era and beyond.


1. In particular I am thinking of ComicsGate and the separate but related harassment campaigns against actresses Leslie Jones and Kellie Marie Tran. For more details on these events, their intersections with games culture, and their consequences in fandom and fan studies, please see Miller 2020 and Pande 2020.

2. Michelle Cho's review of Straight Korean Female Fans and Their Gay Fantasies was useful to me both as a template for how to construct a book review for Transformative Works and Cultures and as an invitation for reexamining linkages between trends in games and the commodification of minority perspectives for fannish consumption in other media content.


Ahmed, Sara. 2021. Complaint! Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

AnyKey. 2017. "Gender and Esports Tournaments Best Practices."

Chess, Shira. 2017. Ready Player Two: Women Gamers and Designed Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cho, Michelle. 2020. Straight Korean Female Fans and Their Gay Fantasies, by Jungmin Kwon [book review]. In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32.

Miller, Lucy. 2020. "Wolfenstein II and MAGA as Fandom." In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32.

Pande, Rukmini. 2018. Squee from the Margins: Fandom and Race. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Pande, Rukmini. 2020. "How (Not) to Talk about Race: A Critique of Methodological Practices in Fan Studies." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

Phillips, Amanda. 2020. Gamer Trouble: Feminist Confrontations in Digital Culture. New York: New York University Press.