icon icon icon icon icon icon icon

Meet three women challenging gender stereotypes in gaming

Poornima Seetharaman, who has worked with some of the biggest names in India’s gaming industry, is intentional about carving space for the next generation of girls and women in gaming. Photo illustration : Poornima Seetharaman

Poornima Seetharaman, who has worked with some of the biggest names in India’s gaming industry, is intentional about carving space for the next generation of girls and women in gaming. Photo illustration : Poornima Seetharaman

"Women are seen as household tools or materials," says Monica Mensah Yawa, a 22-year-old competitive video game player in Ghana. "So, when we have an interest in tech, it's hard for people to accept that."

Monica is a member of the esports club Play Province, and she represents the team in local and international competitions in both women-only and mixed tournaments. She has been gaming competitively for the last decade and aspires to create online content and grow an audience she can inspire.

But she says many barriers are in the way, as is the case for many women and girls who want equal access to online spaces.

According to recent United Nations data, young males in low-income countries are twice as likely to have online access as girls.

This unequal access prevents girls from socializing, learning, and accessing opportunities — and applies widely, from using mobile devices to research their rights to participating in virtual gaming communities.

“[People] say: ‘This is not your space. Go back to the kitchen. Do what women do,’” Monica laments.

“Patriarchy doesn’t evaporate when you turn 18”

Adolescents in Rangpul, Bangladesh attend a Tipping Point group activity. Photo: CARE

For the past ten years, this has been the type of societal and gender norm CARE’s Tipping Point initiative has been trying to change, because the consequences often aren’t just lack of access to games — they can be much more dire.

Child marriage, which results in one in every five girls globally marrying before the age of eighteen, is expected to rise, according to the UN. Due to increased poverty and inequality resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, an additional 10 million girls are at risk of becoming child brides in the next decade.

To tackle child marriage and its associated risks — including dropping out, early pregnancy, social isolation, and domestic violence — Tipping Point takes an unconventional approach by using gaming to educate girls about their rights.

“We’re not just trying to get girls to [avoid marriage until the age of] 18, because patriarchy doesn’t evaporate when you turn 18 and you decide to get married,” says Anne Sprinkel, Project Director, Tipping Point.

“What we’re actually trying to do is get [girls] to have greater voice, choice, agency, and rights. If you expand all of that, you’re going to prevent child marriage.”

During lockdowns in Nepal, as Tipping Point’s programs were conducted over the phone and online rather than in person, many parents prevented their daughters from participating because they believed granting girls access to devices would lead to either misuse or harassment. These concerns typically don’t apply to boys, Spinkel explains. During this transition, CARE negotiated with parents for girls to access phones and computers to participate in Tipping Point, which incorporates gaming as a core element.

“Girls are not allowed to access play [the same way boys can], in real life or on a phone or on a computer,” Sprinkel says. “The gaming component [of this initiative] not only expands their access to play and technology but pushes back against the norms that are driving child marriage in the first place.”

Having the courage to take up space

Imane Amzil, right, an esports specialist based in Morroco, is pictured hosting the Arab Esports League in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Imane Amzil

These norms are part of what led Imane “eNami” Amzil to believe that her childhood interest in gaming would never become her career.

“I went from playing video games on my own to working in esports,” says the pro-esports athlete based in Fès-Meknès, Morocco.

As a teenager, Imane took a greater interest in gaming, playing League of Legends for years before moving on to Valorant, which she currently plays. As a university student, she founded the tournament company Leagues of Morocco, organizing gaming tournaments on university campuses and across the country.

Now, as an esports specialist, Imane has progressed to on-air hosting and team and player management in the Middle East and North Africa esports scene. While she’s worked with brands including Calyx, ESL Gaming, and the Saudi Esports Federation, Imane says one of the biggest challenges women face is being doubted and undermined.

“For women [gamers], it’s hard… I have proven myself through the years, but I still have to prove myself more,” Imane says.

“I think it’s because men aren’t ready to have women in ‘their’ spaces.”

For the last decade, Tipping Point has been working to help men and boys understand that there’s no such thing as “their spaces.” — and that they should be allies while girls and women learn about their rights and take up space.

The initiative educates young women and girls about their rights and sexual health, boosts their confidence, connects them with local resources and support, and engages their families and communities in learning and behavior change.

Despite the pushback she gets, Imane continues promoting women in gaming through her role as an ambassador for Women In Games, a nonprofit working to create a gaming culture and community free of gender discrimination.

She also shares what keeps her going: being surrounded by other women gamers, especially during all-women tournaments such as VALORANT Game Changers EMEA, involving players from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

“It’s a very wholesome [environment] overall. Whether it’s the players or the people working at the tournament, they make it so worth it.”

Leading by example

"We build up women," Poornima says, "get them ready and then put them into the world, because that's where they are going to work." Photo: Poornima Seetharama

When Poornima Seetharama’s friend told her about a job opening for a game programmer, she was intrigued. Poornima had been playing games since her family got a desktop computer and spent years as a college student playing Age of Empires II and Warcraft with friends. Now, she had a chance to pivot her career into gaming. When exploring game design and delving into resources like the Dungeons and Dragons manual, she was inspired by her vision of the world she could create as a programmer.

“I got interested to know if I could make my own [game], what would I do? What story I would write, how would I make it? I could create a beautiful world the way I want with my narrative, my story,” Poornima says.

This sparked her entry into the world of game design. In the coming years, she worked with the biggest names in India’s gaming industry, including Indiagames (Disney India), Jumpstart (NetDragon), and GSN Games.

Poornima, who co-founded Pinaka Interactive, a game design studio, and NammaLore Entertainment, a game development studio, is a passionate advocate for inclusivity in gaming, which she says leads to the design of better games for everyone.

“We need representation — and not just of women — all genders, all socio-economic backgrounds, all belief systems. That is how we will learn to respect each other and grow beyond what we already know.”

As a Women in Games Ambassador and the founder of Women in Games India (WIGIN), Poornima says creating space for women in gaming is essential but notes the potential harms of creating silos. Her goal with the community is to boost women’s confidence so they can integrate into the larger ecosystem and participate in mixed tournaments, which tend to be male-dominated.

“I always think of it like a foster community,” Poornima explains. “We build up women, get them ready and then put them into the world, because that’s where they are going to work.”

Inspiring the next generation

Monica Mensah Yawa, a six-time women's FIFA champion in Ghana, is pictured being interviewed during Ghana's UPG tournament, where she was the only female competing. Photo: Monica Mensah Yawa

Despite the inaccessibility of gaming to many girls and women worldwide, those who work in this male-dominated industry are connecting with and inspiring other female gamers, encouraging the next generation to keep breaking barriers.

As a member of Queens Africa, a campaign in Ghana to promote girls in gaming, Monica encourages other girls to become gamers — providing mentorship and advocating for their voices to be heard. She also supports greater accessibility in gaming, saying that affordability and lack of access to tech prevent more girls from gaming.

While Monica mentors young women, she’s equally as inspired by them.

“It’s a dream come true to have other female gamers in this space,” she says. “You know you will always have someone understand you [and] help you without criticizing you. Women inspire me.”

Back to Top