Battlefield V hasn’t been released yet, but the trailer for the hotly anticipated World War II first-person shooter game stirred up anger recently among a minority of fans, who vented online using the hashtag #NotMyBattlefield.

What caused the backlash? The game’s reveal trailer featured a woman fighting on the frontline, which some fans complained sacrificed authenticity for political correctness (though women did have combat roles in World War II).

Image: DICE/EA

Despite the furore, the game’s publisher Electronic Arts (EA) and developer DICE stood by their decision to include female characters.

“Today gaming is gender-diverse, like it hasn’t been before,” EA’s chief creative officer, Patrick Soderlund said, adding that fans who are unhappy about this have “two choices: either accept it, or don’t buy the game”.

Responding to disgruntled Battlefield fans, Oskar Gabrielson, DICE’s vice president and general manager, tweeted: “First, let me be clear about one thing. Player choice and female playable characters are here to stay.”

No longer a man’s world

This is just the latest challenge to the perception that video games, particularly those in the first-person shooter (FPS) genre like Call of Duty, Halo and Battlefield, are only for boys and men.

In fact, far from being a rarity in a male-dominated realm, female players make up nearly half of the gaming audience.

According to the Entertainment Software Association’s (ESA) 2018 survey, 45% of US gamers are women. And contrary to what many might think, ESA’s research shows that adult women represent a much larger share (31%) of the US game-playing audience than teenage boys (17%).

Image: Entertainment Software Association

Last year, research from Barclays predicted that women will account for almost a third of the projected £3.5 billion ($4.6 billion) annual spend in the UK on video games.

Diversity problem

However, despite their numbers, women gamers remain underrepresented, not just in terms of the female characters they can play but behind the scenes in game development – a trend that is also pervasive in the broader tech industry.

A handful of companies and organizations have created forums and networks to tackle the problem, including Facebook and Global Gaming Women.

In February, Facebook launched its Women in Gaming Initiative, which aims to boost diversity and encourage more women into leadership positions in the field.

In a video to promote the initiative, Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says: “Gaming doesn’t fully reflect the audiences it serves in the stories it tells. Women make up only 23% of the gaming workforce and women of colour are even less represented.”

Online harassment lingers

Women are increasingly becoming part of online gaming communities where gamers watch each other play in real time, sometimes attracting large audiences.

Sexual harassment is commonplace in these online communities, and while women can shrug off much of the name-calling and abuse hurled at them, they find sexual harassment harder to ignore, according to research from the Ohio State University.

A survey of 293 women who played video games online found that even after the game was over, the women said they continued to think about the sexist comments, rape jokes and threats.

“Most women players understand trash talking and having their playing skill insulted, even if they don’t like it,” said Jesse Fox, lead author of the study and professor of communication at the Ohio State University.

“But what disturbs them is being targeted simply for being a woman. They don’t easily forget those comments and continue to think about them when they’re done playing.”

Now, a team of “elite female gamers”, who called themselves the Bully Hunters, are offering to help victims of sexual harassment in the multiplayer video game CS:GO by beating offenders “through the sheer force of their unmatched skill”.

But although women have become increasingly visible – and successful – in video gaming, levelling the playing field in such a masculine domain is likely to require more than just impressive playing skills.