Girl gamers deserve more respect
With this year’s E3 only just behind us and my wallet in its death throes following the string of pre-orders I’ve just had to make, I have come to a harrowing realization: I have been gaming longer than most of our incoming freshmen have been alive.
The very first gaming device I ever owned was a Nintendo Game Boy Pocket. Released just two months after my seventh birthday, the clear variant that I had was, to me, as fascinating to look at as it was to actually play. I had begun playing Duck Hunt on the NES long before that (as it was not terribly complicated for your garden-variety kindergartener) and progressed to Super Mario Bros. from there like every other red- blooded American gamer of my generation – I was no stranger to virtual reality. The idea that I could now take this self-contained world wherever I went instead of stealing time at my neighbor or babysitter’s house was mind-blowing.
It wasn’t until a year later, with the purchase of my family’s very first home console — the original Sony PlayStation — that I truly understood the breadth and depth of what gaming had to offer. If my parents had let me (they didn’t), I would have spent all day playing Tomb Raider or Crash Bandicoot. When our memory card fried itself (that’s our story and we’re sticking to it), my brother and I spent whole summers trying to marathon-run through Final Fantasy VII. It was an entirely different creature than my Game Boy Pocket (or any of the iterations I was gifted thereafter). It was more tangible, more immersive. I was addicted. I knew I’d never grow out of it.
With this comes an even more harrowing realization, fresh on the heels of three days’ worth of pervasive sexism in media coverage for E3 and the live screen-side chats in which Aisha Tyler’s gaming street cred was all but categorically called a lie simply because she wore heels on stage: I am turning 25 at the end of June, and I have been gaming — and loving it, mind you — for longer than most of our incoming freshmen have been alive … but I would be willing to bet that if one of those freshmen happens to identify as male or sounds male while talking on a microphone to players during live gameplay, they’re able to talk about that publicly without ridicule, whereas I can’t turn my microphone on during a round of Search and Destroy without getting a rape threat, a demand for a sandwich or description of a lewd act.
I complain to my male gaming friends, and I get told I shouldn’t play if I can’t handle trash-talk. (An aside: threats aren’t trash-talk. If you threaten people with any of that, you’re a jerk. Don’t be a jerk.) Event organizers on the competitive circuit and LAN party organizers “avoid” the harassment by banning women from their events (I’m looking at you, Powers Gaming) instead of addressing the issue and making it known that this behavior won’t be tolerated … you know, like a good human being would do.
This is the norm. That is terrifying.
For me, a long-time gamer, former competitive gamer and even video game retail worker for many years – someone you would think could manage to navigate
online gaming without coming away with too many bruises – logging into my PlayStation Network account can be a walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (and Really Uncreative Insults).
The thing that might shock you most is that this didn’t start there. Oh, no, on the contrary – my experience with gaming obviously far predates the advent of online multiplayer, and even in the early stages of my socialization as a self-identified “gamer” I was never taken seriously. I was experiencing sexism in the gaming world before I even had any idea what sexism was. In the days of my adolescence where I was trying to talk to people – boys – with my interest in games like Dino Crisis or Tekken I was repeatedly told to “play games for girls,” or accused of just watching my brother play and not knowing how to play for myself. These were middle school kids in the early days of the Internet, folks, where dial-up reigned supreme, people were actually using Parental Controls, most of my peers were trapped in the purgatory of AOL: Kids Only and unless you were sitting in the living room together gaming was a solitary experience – there was no such thing as Xbox Live. These were things boys my age were saying to my face on the school bus, in the cafeteria, on the playground and elsewhere. And they were brazen about it. Perhaps not on the same level – to the best of my recollection, I can’t remember anyone ever telling me they were going to murder me for my intense skill at Mario Kart (or lack thereof, depending on what they were mad about or accusing me of at the time) back then. But they were very forthcoming about what they thought of girls who identified as someone who played video games.
Xbox Live, rather predictably, changed that.
I was admittedly not a member of the Xbox consumer base until the Xbox 360 came out, and Xbox Live was already an institution. I can’t tell you if things were any better or worse at the service’s inception. But I can tell you that affording sexist, misogynistic gamers the opportunity to be mostly faceless has made it exponentially worse than I experienced when I was younger. From the first night that I logged in and started actively participating in online gaming I have spent many an afternoon sifting through voice messages from frustrated, angry, disturbed players telling me everything from what to shove where, to how I should end my own life. Many just contained a long string of misogynistic slurs. I vividly remember one person sending me a message telling me he was going to slit my throat and leave me in a retention pond. He sounded very sincere. I reported him. Nothing was done. If I wanted peace while playing online, I was forced to present as male and keep my microphone off.
Let me break that one down for you again: In order to safely avoid harassment while engaging in a hobby I have enjoyed since I was all of five years old, I have to trick people into thinking I’m not female.
When I was a competitor, I would show up to competitions to very un-subtle shock when they matched my Live or PSN handle to my name. The shift in treatment would be immediate. A group of people with whom I had played for nearly two years without incident (or the revelation of my
gender) suddenly turned on me like a pack of wild dogs. My first kill in the competition – what was supposed to be a fairly friendly event – was met with a slew of slurs and suddenly very gendered threats of violence. “[expletive deleted] you, you better run! I’m coming for you!” suddenly became a rape threat. I kept competing because I loved gaming and I loved the rush of competing, but the community was not exactly welcoming.
As a competitor, I found three types of people:
1. The perpetuator – the people who agree that there is sexism and outright targeting of women in gaming but argue that it’s our fault for “flaunting” (read: not denying) our womanhood. They like to talk about how women are predisposed to be terrible players for any reason from “poor reflexes” to “women just aren’t aggressive enough.” This is probably half of the people I met on the competitive circuit and still meet in gaming clubs, forums, conventions and other meccas of gaming culture.
2. The denier – the people who will flat- out shut you down and deny that there is any mistreatment of women in gaming. They always say they don’t treat women any differently, but they always do. When I’m not running into perpetuators, the people I’m talking to are usually this.
3. The righteously indignant – the ones who recognize the issues facing women in the gaming industry and think it’s wrong, and tell people that it’s not acceptable. It is not en vogue to like or defend women in gaming culture. These are few and far between, and I tend not to trust anyone who labels themselves this way that I don’t witness actually doing what they say they do.
I endured that for about five years of fighting and first-person shooter events, and then decided I had enough. I quit gaming entirely for a while. I quit something I loved because it wasn’t worth the abuse. I was sad for a long time – these misogynistic jerks took something away from me that meant so much and had been such a huge part of my life, naturally I was devastated – but then I rather abruptly stopped being sad and got really, really angry. It became less that they had done it and more that they had dared to do it. That I had let them. It seemed silly that I should have to leave something I was enthusiastic about behind because of someone else’s behavior, so I made the decision to refuse to hide out and let my love of something fizzle because people can’t be respectful.
I went through the motions of having my Live and PSN handles destroyed, created new ones. I’m told my handle is pretty neutral (it’s something you won’t get unless you already know the reference), but it wasn’t chosen deliberately to be neutral – it was chosen because I wanted it to be my handle. I refuse to get pushed around by sexist jerks online. I keep my microphone on. I name and shame gamers I meet who do ridiculous things like threaten to rape or kill me when I outperform them; I report and block them afterwards. I stopped playing shooters online when it became evident that I would have to report and block 90% of players I came into contact with (but kept the remaining 10% as friends, who are glad to play other games with me). I don’t run around shouting about how I’m a girl in every lobby (because you wouldn’t catch a
guy doing that – which seems odd, as much attention as they seem to want, but that’s another article entirely). If people ask, I say “yes, I am.” The line of inquiry ends there, because I don’t allow it to go any further. I don’t compete anymore, but I haven’t left the community completely – I go with my friends who are competitors (some of which are women!) and any time I do meet a female competitor, I spend a lot of time keeping her buoyed in the sea of ridiculousness that she’s usually drowning in. I’m much happier for all of this, and I’ve learned a lot from my experience, but this isn’t the answer to the problem at hand.
The community needs to change. More than half of the people playing video games regularly are women, now – and those are just the ones who feel comfortable saying that they do. The competitive circuit has female-identifying participants sitting at about 40% these days. It’s not like we’re not here, not part of the conversation or the culture. There is really no good reason for anyone to otherize us. You shouldn’t be slinging gendered insults at anyone in the middle of the game or threatening them with rape; you shouldn’t act as if a girl’s dedication to Halo (a franchise, by the way, now helmed by a woman!) is all for show and attracting men. When I lay into you during a Deathmatch round online, your first assumptions should not be that my boyfriend is playing or that you can flood my inbox with lewd messages.
I play for me – women play for themselves. We deserve respect the same as anyone else, and we deserve better than to have to hide to keep from being harassed. The community as a whole needs to deal with the fact that we’re here, we’re staying, and no amount of justification makes any of this behavior okay. We need people to stand up and say “dude, that is decidedly not on, if you keep doing that we’re going to vote to ban you.” We need gaming men to do that, not just other women. You all follow each other’s leads whether you like it or not, and nothing is going to change until you explicitly define this as unacceptable.
I want to be explicit about two things.
The first is that not everyone can do what I have, and that’s fine – I’m sad for every girl who’s ever had to give up gaming because of their harassment, but there is no part of me that blames them at all. There comes a moment where you have to make a choice – sometimes a very hard one – about what will make you feel safe and if leaving a community you otherwise love will do that, and that is what is right for you, that’s the decision you should make. No one should shame you for staying or going.
The second is that, for all the poor experience I’ve had as a woman participating in gaming culture, I still love the community. I love the energy, the connection that gaming gives me to other people (even if some of those people are enormous clattering buttocks). After that brief absence from gaming, I don’t think I will ever give it up again. But until the community changes, until people call sexism in gaming culture out for what it is and label it explicitly as unacceptable, I’m always going to dread opening my inbox. Right now, I feel like we’re a long way off from being there. … and there is something really wrong with that.