The confusing, nasty muck of the Gamergate scandal, in which anonymous attackers have harassed and sent death threats to women linked to the video-game industry, has morphed into a bitter culture war over the world's $100 billion gaming empire.
But the fight has also highlighted the minefield facing an industry still learning how best to attract -- and protect -- a new generation of American gamer. The danger, analysts said: The fight could scare away the growing market of women the gaming industry wants.
The stereotype of a "gamer" -- mostly young, mostly nerdy and most definitely male -- has never been further from the truth. In the United States, twice as many adult women play video games as do boys, according to the Entertainment Software Association, the industry's top trade group. Male gamers between ages 10 and 25 represent a sliver of the market, only 15 percent, according to Newzoo, a games research firm.
Yet America's 190 million gamers, 48 percent of whom are women, still play in a harsh frontier. About 70 percent of female gamers said they played as male characters online in hopes of sidestepping sexual harassment, according to a study cited by "Hate Crimes in Cyberspace" author and law professor Danielle Keats Citron.
"It's just like playing outside when you're a teenager. It's still a jungle out there," said Peter Warman, the chief executive of Newzoo. Of the women who played as men, he said, "they wanted to be treated equal on the virtual battlefield."
Casual games on cellphones and social media have helped broaden gaming's appeal, with the number of female gamers over the age of 50 increasing 32 percent between 2012 and 2013, the Entertainment Software Association said.
But the average female gamer has played for 13 years, and many are increasingly dedicated. The number of girls and women playing those consoles more than five days a week has grown tenfold since 2011, to 13 million this year, Newzoo said.
"This is the underlying issue: The definition of a gamer is becoming much broader, and it's happening in front of our eyes," said P.J. McNealy, a games analyst and founder of Digital World Research. "It's opened up opportunities for everyone to have contact with gaming, even though they're not the stereotypical 17-year-old, acne-faced gamer playing 'Call of Duty.'"
Women have helped make gaming one of the country's fastest-growing entertainment moneymakers. Americans now spend more on video games than at the movie theater. The best-selling game so far, "Grand Theft Auto V," sold faster than any entertainment good in history, notching $1 billion in sales -- more than all but a handful of blockbuster films -- in just three days.
Gamergate began with a personal diatribe against a female game developer accused of a sleeping with a gaming journalist, expanded into a crusade for independence in gaming coverage and devolved into a campaign of targeted misogyny against women from some of the vilest corners of the Web.
Much of the harassment has been aimed at media critic Anita Sarkeesian, best known for her video series "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games," in which she critiqued the flood of popular games where female characters serve only as background decoration, damsels in distress or, at worst, "exist to be assaulted, to give the players something to do.” She canceled a talk this week at Utah State University after someone threatened to commit “the deadliest school shooting in American history" if she made the appearance there.
Gaming unions and trade groups have recently spoken out against harassment, but one of the tech world's biggest names has already been roped into the fight. Gamergate supporters upset with Gamasutra, a gaming site that criticized the "angry young men" of modern gaming culture, convinced Intel to pull its ads from the site. But this momth the $155 billion tech giant released a statement apologizing that "our action inadvertently created a perception that we are somehow taking sides in an increasingly bitter debate."
Male players still dominate some of gaming's biggest franchises, including "League of Legends," "Grand Theft Auto" and "World of Warcraft," but women comprise a growing share of those markets. And analysts said the distinction between casual games with larger female audiences and "hardcore" franchises, like shooters and massive online role-playing games, has become less important for game companies, who have found ways to profit off both.
“The girl who plays 'Minecraft,' expressed in hours per day or dollars per month, they're just as 'hardcore' as the next guy over who plays 'Counter-Strike,'" said Joost van Dreunen, the chief executive of SuperData Research, a games-market intelligence firm.
As games have expanded from consoles and computers to cellphones and social media, developers and publishers have found whole new niches for attracting a paying audience. "Kim Kardashian: Hollywood," a "red-carpet adventure" with a predominantly female audience, has made $51 million since launching in June and has become one of the highest-grossing apps on iPhone and Android phones.
But the games more women are playing are still mostly built by men. Only 21 percent of game developers are women, International Game Developers Association research shows, an extension of a bitter gender divide, in which nine in 10 employees in U.S. technology work are men.
The women who do land work in gaming often find it hard to stay. About 56 percent of women who start in the tech field leave by midcareer, twice the rate of men, largely over a culture of sexism in the workplace, Harvard Business School research found. The game developers' association's executive director, Kate Edwards, said some female developers have told her they're thinking of not just leaving the industry but discouraging their daughters from following in their work.
Still, the changing role for women in gaming has touched not just the players but the characters themselves. In last year's reboot of "Tomb Raider," the wildly popular '90s action-explorer, player character Lara Croft transformed from a buxom adventuress in short shorts to a crafty, fearsome survivor in better-suited outerwear.
But even outside of the discouraging motifs surrounding women that Sarkeesian mentioned, there are still blips of frustration over who is included in play. When the team behind the historical-adventure franchise "Assassins Creed: Unity" said that its robust character creator wouldn't let players make a female character because of the extra development work involved, some gamers responded with outrage.
Analysts say Gamergate will likely prove a small distraction to the fast-growing place of women in gaming -- not only because developers are realizing the potential of selling to a broader audience, but because more girls and women are finding it easier to embrace the freedom of digital play.
"You play a game and ... you get this little, private space where you get to be the master of your own universe, the star of your own movie, whatever that means to you," said van Dreunen, of SuperData. "That appeals equally to both boys and girls. They all just want to play."