If you’re a regular reader of my column, you’ll have noticed that interspersed amongst the dating tips, I take the occasional moment to deal with issues that arrise in the geek community… after all, if you’re going to be knee-deep in nerd, it’s good to take a look around and assess how things stand. Unfortunately, geek culture has a woman problem.
For all the progress that we like to believe we’ve made, geekdom still has a schizoid relationship with women. On the one hand, most geeks would agree that a greater female involvement in the geek community is inherently a good thing… but on the other, geeks seem to be damned determine to make a community – whose population is practically defined by being bullied and ostracized – as unwelcoming to women as possible. Women are welcome in the geek community – but only in a specific role. Be attractive – but not too attractive, it makes the geekboys suspicious. Be prepared to justify your geekiness, because if you don’t reach a specific level of knowledge or experience, you are clearly not a real geek. Acknowledge that you are of a lesser standing than guys and that considerations for you as a member of the audience is secondary to men; geek hobbies are, after all “guy things”. Don’t presume to point out that that the portrayal of women in comics and games might be a little sexist, nor should you dare presume to discuss the subject authoritatively or seek to change the status quo.
And most of all… don’t commit the ultimate sin of gaming online while a woman.
Whenever the topic of harassment comes up in gaming culture, it’s almost immediately dismissed as “not a problem”. After all – so goes the legend – the online gaming world is a meritocracy; your level of respect from your fellow players is directly correlated to your skill level. Yes, there’s a lot of smack-talking and people running their mouths, but when you’re choosing to stand in the middle of the monkey cage, you have no right to complain when shit gets hurled at you.
Doesn’t matter who you are, man or woman, everybody gets treated the same. If women can’t hack it the way dudes can, well maybe they shouldn’t be taking part, right bro? Right. Brofist.
Yeah. Not so much.
“Your Face Reminds Me of A Wrench. When I Think About It, My Nuts Tighten Up.”
The idea that gaming is a world where everyone is judged solely on their skill and a plucky newcomer can force others to respect her through paying her dues and winning the grudging respect of the veterans is appealing… but it’s also a way of romanticizing shitty behavior and placing the blame squarely on women. After all, when harassment is portrayed as upholding some sterling principle of merit and fairness, it’s easier to justify… not to mention making it easier to dismiss the complaints of women as sour grapes from people who just couldn’t hang with the big boys.
Ignoring whether online games should have a trial-by-fire period enforced by cretins, the cold and hard truth is that women are harassed in online games because of their gender – and that their skill level is, ultimately, irrelevant.
It’s been easy to claim that online harassment isn’t a problem and women are just too sensitive to handle the rough and rowdy culture of Xbox Live and that men have it just as bad – if not worse – than women do when it comes to shit talking and harassment. After all, all anyone has to go one are anecdotes and, as I am often fond of saying, the plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data”.
Except now we actually do have the data.
Ohio University researchers Jeffery Kuzenkoff and Lindsey Rose conducted a study to see the reactions of gamers to different voices during online games. Kuzenkoff and Rose created three Xbox Live accounts using similar, gender neutral gamer tags1. Each account was represented only by the gamertag and a pre-recorded voice – one male, one female, with the third tag remaining mute as a control. The researchers recorded sets of innocuous phrases – “Hi everybody”, ‘I think I just saw a couple of them heading this way’,”Good game”, “I like this map” and such – playing the clips via a soundboard app at appropriate moments.
In order to control for skill level, the researchers used Halo 3′s matchmaking system to pair each account with similarly skilled players. Kuzenkoff, who is an experienced gamer with a love for first-person shooters, played matches requiring higher levels of skill while Rose – who had less experience – played against lower-ranked gamers, helping to ensure a diverse pool of responses. The pair played over 245 matches in Team Slayer - 82 as the “female” account, 81 as the “male” and 82 as the mute control account against a total of 1660 individual opponents. The in-game chat was recorded and scored for responses and cross-referenced with the skill level and performance of the account.
(If you’re interested and read reasearch-ese, you can see the full methodology in the published report)
Not surprisingly, the female account garnered three times more negative responses – many of them gendered insults – than the male or mute accounts, including “Shut up, whore” (in response to “Hi everybody”), “She’s a nigger lover”, “Fuck you, you stupid slut”, “Hold on, who the fuck are you? Shut the fuck up, oh my God I don’t want hear your bullshit” and “So whatever that voice was, are you a hooker or are you a dude?” In fact, in one session, every phrase spoken by the female account – again, innocuous, inoffensive phrases like “nice one!” – was responded to with insults.
The female account also received far more private messages and friend requests after each match.
While the study is quick to point out that this is just the results of just one game and that other titles and genres may produce different results, it does validate what many gamers have said all along: female gamers get harassed and abused because they are women.
Hiding In Plain Sight
These findings come as no surprise to many women who spend significant amounts of time online. The blog Fat, Ugly or Slutty is an enormous archive of degrading, creepy and insulting messages sent to women via Xbox Live, the PSN network, Steam and even IOS games, and it’s a treasure trove of examples of what women can look forward to for the sin of daring to venture into the world of online gaming while female. Small wonder why women are less inclined to openly take part in gamer culture when this is what waits for them. In an informal poll of my female readers, a surprising number – nearly 70% – obscure or outright lie about their gender when playing online games in order to avoid near constant heckling, badgering, being called a bitch, a cunt and the occasional fat lesbian whore thrown in for the sake of variety. They would use masculine or androgynous handles, male avatars and character models and – above all else – avoid any form of voice chat; after all, a female voice seems to be all that it takes to invite harassing behavior.
While first-person shooters seem a natural fit for this sort of behavior – after all, it’s a competitive environment that promotes and rewards aggressive behavior – the genre of game doesn’t seem to matter. Friends of mine have been harassed in World of Warcraft, City of Heroes… even Minecraft.
For many women it’s a no-win situation. Many gamers would agree that more visible women in gaming would encourage more women to take up the hobby… and yet just revealing that she is a woman is all it takes for the accusations of “flaunting” being a girl or being an attention-whore to come rolling in… along with the dick pics and rape jokes.
Dismiss, Derail, Deny
Unfortunately, the most common response to this behavior is to delegitimize the woman’s experience. “It’s the Internet,” people will say, as though this some how makes it less offensive or hurtful. They’re blamed for “not being able to take a joke” and that they should “suck it up and deal”… because, naturally, the best thing to do when facing unacceptable or offensive behavior is to pretend that you’re OK with it. Women get told that they’re being too sensitive, that they’re overreacting, that it’s not a big deal and that frankly, their feelings on the matter aren’t legitimate because… well, mostly because the women aren’t people so much as targets who only exist to be the butt of their “jokes”.
Many people in the gaming scene accept that harassment in games not only inevitable – “It’s the Internet” after all – but that is an intrinsic part of the culture… and they prefer it that way.
“The beauty of the fighting game community, and you should know this – it’s based around not being welcome. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the key essence of it. When you walk into an arcade for the first time, nobody likes you.” - Aris Bakhtanians
Small wonder that 39% of women quit gaming altogether to avoid harassing behavior.
Women are taught over and over again by example that they are secondary considerations at best in gaming culture. It doesn’t help that in Western games, female characters tend to be the spell-caster or support classes, rarely the tank or assault class and almost nonexistant in FPS multiplayer ((There are exceptions, such as No One Lives Forever or Perfect Dark.)) and that female character designs focus the majority of their attention on sexualization. Women who play “casual” games – ignoring the fact that so-called casual games like Angry Birds or Bejeweled Blitz sell in the tens of millions of units – aren’t gamers at all, and the ones who play Call of Duty or Battlefield 3 are clearly inferior players just by virtue of their gender.
It would be easier to accept that this was aberrant behavior – a vocal, if obnoxious minority – if this sort of behavior wasn’t a reflection of an attitude towards women that I see all too often in geekdom. It’s a reinforcement of the idea that women aren’t full participants in geek culture; at best they are hangers on, at worst, they’re pretenders who are only in it for the attention.
So What Do We Do?
When I’ve brought up these issues before, I’ve taken flack for not having solutions at the ready. The thing is, it’s hard to hold out solutions when you’re still trying to get people to acknowledge that there’s a damn problem in the first place. Sexism is still a problem in geek culture, no matter how much we try to pretend that it doesn’t exist and that to be a geek is to be a member of a pure and enlightened meritocracy.
The most commonly offered answer to the problem is for women to only play with friends or guilds, to avoid open chat channels (or using voice chat at all) in order to avoid provoking the other players. Distressingly (and please forgive the comparison) this is painfully akin to telling women to avoid getting raped rather than telling men not to rape. It puts the onus on the women to be responsible for the bad behavior of others rather than calling on men to take responsibility for their own actions.
It would be nice if there were a way to regulate player actions over voice chat and to punish bad behavior… but I can’t see a reasonable way of making that work (that couldn’t be gamed and misused) and frankly, as long as we’re wishing, I’d like to win the Powerball this Saturday.
No, the real answer is that we need to take steps to change gaming culture. It’s not easy, but it is fairly simple: we have to start working to create a culture where this sort of behavior isn’t tolerated. We can’t just throw our hands up and say that The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory is inevitable and there’s nothing to be done about it. It starts very simply with Wheaton’s Rule: “Don’t Be A Dick”, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s not enough just to not be an asshole, you need to not support asshole behavior in others with your silence. When nobody objects bad behavior in others, their silence is tacit consent; after all, if nobody is saying anything, it’s not unreasonable to assume that everybody is ok with it. To not speak up, to not shout down and shut down the assholes is to support them.
It is especially important for other guys to not be silent on this matter. It’s an unfair fact of the culture that male voices in these debates often have a disproportionate impact – so we should use it to make things better. My articles on Nerds and Male Privilege got attention because it was a guy saying these things - even when there were women saying the same things and better. If more men add their voice to the struggle then perhaps we can help boost the signal and finally start making geek culture a place where women feel welcome, included and safe.
- Xbox Live requires that each gamertag be unique [↩]