What It’s Like For a Girl Gamer

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Aug. 13 2012 3:58 AM

What It’s Like For a Girl Gamer

The gaming world can be cruel to women. Let’s mute the trolls.

Meléndez with an Assassin's Creed 3 cosplayer taking a breather at the AC3 booth during San Diego Comic-Con 2012.
Meléndez with an Assassin's Creed 3 cosplayer taking a breather at the AC3 booth during San Diego Comic-Con 2012.

Photo by Elisa Meléndez.

Hi. My name is Elisa, and I am a gamer and a geek. I’m at the computer writing this in a Star Trek T-shirt, in celebration of the recent Mars Curiosity rover landing. I’ve been a gamer for as long as I can remember, having had a Nintendo Power magazine thrust into my hands as soon as I could sound out the words on the page in order to be my older brother’s co-pilot. Since then, I have developed a fierce love of games, some of which I defend with the ferocity of a mother protecting her cubs. I have a tattoo of a Trivial Pursuit pie on my right hip. My haircut resembles one of my favorite characters, Lilith, from Borderlands. You can’t tell me Revolution X wasn’t amazing. You just can’t.

This may sound like I’m trying to validate my geek cred. I shouldn’t have to prove anything, you’re right, but there are those determined to limit my rise in the gaming world. Though 47 percent of all gamers are women and though many of us are equal in our skills and drive to the men, we are often not welcome. The gamers who still aren’t ready for us resort to online harassment to belittle, silence, and drive us away from their precious boys’ club.

Online harassment is a phenomenon as old as online gaming itself, and it is not necessarily limited to victimizing women—although they are arguably its most visible and numerous targets. A recent New York Times article has given a mainstream voice to the problem and detailed the attack on feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who, after conducting a successful Kickstarter campaign aimed at raising money to examine misogynist tropes in gaming, was in for it. The Kickstarter campaign garnered Sarkeesian plenty of attention, both from the gaming media and those who turned to online harassment in order to silence and denounce her. Her Wikipedia page was vandalized, her website hacked, and a Flash game was created where a player could beat a likeness of her black and blue. Mind you, Sarkeesian’s proposed project hasn’t even gotten off the ground—this is just the response to her planning and getting a decent sum of money to do so.

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What happened to Sarkeesian is not unique. There are websites, like Jenny Haniver’s NotIntheKitchenAnymore.com or FatUglyorSlutty.com, where (mostly) women share the abusive messages they’ve quite loudly received over the years on both console and PC. Messages posted to the site include such gems as “BITCH I HOPE U GET BREAST CANCER N DIE YOU SLUT,” “you fat fuckin tomboy go kill yourself,” or “go in the kitchen stop playing video games it’s for men not for pussys.” I’ve had plenty of my own to share.

In fall 2011, I had the honor of being in the Xbox Gamer Spotlight, a weekly feature where a different gamer’s profile is put up for view in the Xbox Live dashboard or on the Xbox Live website. My profile and avatar (which I fashioned to resemble me as closely as possible) was on display for anyone and everyone with an Xbox Live account to see—and that’s a lot of people (more than 12 million Gold subscribers as of last fall). In the resulting week, I received over 1,000 messages in my inbox. Because I am getting my Ph.D. in sociology, I like to record everything for study, so I decided to catalog the messages. The majority were congratulatory. The next most frequent type of message I eventually categorized as “Come-Ons or Denigration,” including slurs, rape fantasies, and two pictures of male genitalia. Adult male genitalia, for anyone who might be tempted to dismiss such harassment as the work of a group of immature 12-year-old boys.

This is something I’ve heard plenty: Oh, these are just misguided kids. But according to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is more than 30 years old, and 68 percent of gamers are over the age of 18.  So to chalk all of this ugliness up to immature boys who just need to “grow up” does nothing but turn a blind eye to the very real problem—a problem that leads some young women to avoid voice communications, hide their gender in their profiles, or give up on online gaming altogether.

The misogyny is not limited to the consumers of games—these attitudes often affect women who work within the industry, either making the games or promoting them to the public. Perhaps this is why things aren’t getting better. I have heard tales of women responsible for a game’s design being groped or treated like a paid spokesmodel on the show floor, passed over in favor of “the guy in charge,” or “someone who knows what they’re talking about.”

A few weeks ago, I was working at the Capitol Hill Block Party in Seattle, helping the gaming company Ubisoft to showcase Rocksmith, a game in which the player plugs in a real guitar and learns real skills. As a gamer musician, I took to it like a fish to water. And everyone at the block party seemed to as well: There was sunshine and licks, bass and treble. Person after person enjoyed the game, asked questions. Then, there was this:

Guy: Who makes this?

Me: Ubisoft! Fine makers of such other awesome things as Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six—

Guy: —But, of course, you don’t play those.

Me: <blank stare>

I should have been prepared for that. Hell, I should have expected it. Braced myself. Steeled myself against the next moment that my authenticity as a member of this subculture would be called into question. I am the frontwoman and percussionist in a rock band, and have been asked enough times which one of my bandmates I’m “with,” that I should be used to it by now. An assumed groupie at the rock club, an assumed poseur at the gaming expo.

That guy at the block party? He didn’t send me awful pictures, call me names, or threaten to rape me. However, just the casual dismissal is enough to still sting, and it’s symptomatic of the general worldview within the gaming universe.

This story of harassment is, inside the industry, considered old hat—no one wants to hear your tale of woe.  When I talk about this kind of thing at industry or academic panels, there are people eager to wave off 90 percent of what I just wrote because they are, allegedly, already busy looking for the solution. Then there are the others who dismiss me because I’m not addressing feminist concerns in the “real world.” But this is my real world, and I would argue that for most of us, gamers or just Facebook users, these online social interactions are very real, with very serious consequences.

So what needs to happen? The industry is beginning to use technology to mute, silence, and ban offending players, making online gaming a safer space for everyone. Game developer Bungie recently introduced “auto-muting” in Halo, which means that once enough players individually mute an offender, he/she is automatically muted by the game. At this year’s Penny Arcade Expo consumer and developer shows in late August, a number of panels will be convened to flesh out those very solutions. Fat, Ugly or Slutty co-founder and panelist Grace (who usually goes by her handle, _gtz_) is inspired by developers’ anti-harassment tools and hopes that the players themselves will catch up:  “We can find ways to harness the power and passion of the community to police itself; let the community decide and declare what is acceptable using technical tools.”   

Showcasing Rocksmith at the Capitol Hill Block Party in Seattle.
Showcasing Rocksmith at the Capitol Hill Block Party in Seattle.

Photo by Krystal Herring.

Women can also organize. Thankfully, some of us are finding solidarity in co-ed and all-female gaming groups, or clans. The Frag Dolls are one such group, an all-female collection of gamers sponsored by Ubisoft, who play games professionally and competitively as well as represent Ubisoft and its games at various industry and consumer events. As part of the Frag Doll Cadettes Academy, young female gamers who are looking to expand their gaming horizons and get a foot into the industry door are mentored by their big sister Frag Dolls and sent to the same events. Women who have gone through the ranks as either Frag Dolls or cadettes often find themselves in industry positions soon after. I am proud to count myself as one of them.

Within the industry, the hiring of more women and minorities is an oft-cited solution. “Often, when I play through new games, or check out previews, it feels like the industry is making games for itself—for the demographic of the average developer, a white straight dude in his 30s,” Alli Thresher, game designer and writer, recently told me. “With more diversity in the industry, this can only continue to change and improve.” It’s not that women necessarily want current game types to go away entirely, of course. Or that we want all female protagonists. It’s about wanting healthy evolution for the industry we love. Thresher witnessed firsthand the potential created by the increased visibility of women like her: “A few months ago I sat in on a high school career day. The last group of kids to ask questions was made up entirely of young women.  My hope is that those girls aren't discouraged or deterred from entering this field.”

Oh, and one more solution that everyone can implement: something a professor of mine once called a “politics of fun.” Women and minority and LGBT gamers should turn on their microphones, dress up their avatars however they see fit, and make the online gaming space their own. Most importantly, have fun. HAVE FUN. And be loud about it. Hopefully, the sound of our fun can begin to drown out the sound of the trolls.

Elisa Meléndez is a gamer, Frag Doll cadette, and Ph.D. student of sociology at Florida International University in Miami, where she also fronts a rock band, Crimson.  

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