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As video game development became an extremely profitable industry controlled by large corporations, its core consumer base remained overwhelmingly male — especially at the most lucrative tier in gaming, referred to as AAA in the industry. Although statistics seem to show that the gaming audience has become more diverse over time, that is largely due to the inclusion of casual games, such as ones played on smartphones. The core video game audience that typifies the gamer identity — the demographic that doles out $60 each for the high-profile, aggressively marketed games in the AAA tier — does not reflect the same diversity.
The games that these consumers want are violent, epic, and sexualized. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the top video games sold in 2013 were Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar Games) in which the player drives around a city killing people; Call of Duty: Ghosts (Activision), a military shooter; and Madden NFL 25 (EA Sports), a football game. According to the same source, video games played on consoles generated more than $6 billion revenues last year. When including other platforms such as iOS, that figure swells to more than $15 billion.
The huge amounts of money to be made selling video games to a narrow demographic has resulted in an industry that is risk-averse — a situation that favors the consistent regeneration of the same types of games with the same themes in slightly different armor each time. Prominent games publications, in turn, then write primarily about these games in order to generate enough ad revenue from the corporations who make them. That creates a cycle that stifles the medium's creative potential. Unsurprisingly, consumers from this dominant demographic are also often the people who end up entering the industry. In short, the video game industry has effectively built a fortress around itself that rarely opens its gates to people other than young, often white men.
Gradually, though, the landscape of video games began to diversify. In recent years, independent game developers have started chipping away at the fortress, using tools that allowed them to make games without the usual multimillion-dollar budget, often crowdfunding their financial support. Games like Fez, Super Meat Boy, andBraid excited critics and players with their refreshing puzzles and perspectives that ask the player to make his or her way through cute, Super Mario-like worlds that grow increasingly challenging to navigate. In 2012, Indie Game: The Movie bolstered the popularity of these games by documenting the stories of their development, and following the white males who made them.
Indie Game: The Movie is now a Netflix staple. It purports to provide an image of the games that are being made outside of the mainstream. But the young white males that star in the film also pretty accurately represent what the AAA tier looks like.
Beyond the indie gamers is the community of self-publishers of which Anthropy is part. These individuals make games almost entirely by themselves, and their work is fiercely personal and uncompromised. The same year that Anthropy released Dys4ia, a number of other queer developer underdogs also released several personal games.
Among them were Mattie Brice's Mainichi, which conveys her day-to-day experiences of depression and anxiety; Porpentine's Twine fiction Howling Dogs, which deals with themes of escapism through a protagonist invested in virtual reality; and Merritt Kopas' Lim, which works as a metaphor for the pressures of normativity by positioning the player as a block that is attacked unless it changes to the same color as other blocks nearby.
However, the world of self-publishing is not an easy one to succeed in, especially if you want your games to be free to play, like those just described. In order to make a living, Anthropy has often had to sell her games to websites and sponsors who then gain rights to them. She sold Dys4ia to Newgrounds, but the deal only generated about $3,000.
Recently, Anthropy and a few other self-publishing game designers and writers have begun making their rent via a platform called Patreon. The website allows supporters of an artist to give him or her a certain amount of money per month or per creation, almost like a monthly Kickstarter.
But being successful also requires a certain amount of visibility, which, in turn, exposes these daring creators to an onslaught of hatred and harassment.
In 2012, Canadian feminist pop-culture academic Anita Sarkeesian, who runs the blog Feminist Frequency, launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund an online video series called "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games." In it, Sarkeesian planned to highlight harmful female stereotypes and unfair representations of women in video games.
The backlash was immediate. Shortly after Sarkeesian initiated the campaign, she was hit with an avalanche of online harassment. As The New York Times reported, she received rape and death threats, and was even sent drawings of her being raped by video game characters. She was also made the subject of a game that consisted entirely of punching her in the face and watching the bruises swell. Her online accounts were hacked, and her Wikipedia entry was smeared with porn and offensive language.