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Girls, games, and a culture of hostility

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I’ve been living in video game heaven for the past few weeks. What with the house hunt and the workload at my job doubly, it’s nice to come home and just plug in. I’ve always found gaming very relaxing, even when my eyeballs are bulging and my fingers cramping. I’ve been playing video games since I was about twelve, but it’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve come to think about the reasons why I’m one of the few girl gamers out there.

Oh, sure, people will tell you that more girls are playing video games these days — and they are. But there is a culture of misogyny that seems to linger about the gaming world, and it is imbedded in the magazines, the events, the graphics, the stories… everything about the gaming world seems to reinforce a message about gaming belonging to the men and the boys.

The major gaming magazines feature female reviewers, but their specialites tend to be puzzle games, survival horror and simulations — typically “female friendly” games. I have yet to see a full-time female reviewer who’s an expert in first person shooters and stealth action. No, the girls are kept in the corner with the kiddie platformers while the men get out and play the “real” games. As a gamer, this is an attitude that has always chased me. I’ve tried to avoid the “girly” roles in role-playing games and always joined in the shooty melee with the boys. From the start, hardcore girl gamers tend to adopt a defiant sort of attitude, when they should be embraced (after all, how many guys claim they want a girlfriend who games?).

Further, many of the marketing strategies and magazines are directly exclusively toward guys. I stopped reading Electronic Gaming Monthly a few years ago after I got sick of seeing yet another article on a “girl gamer” with a few squares of cotton stretched over her fake boobs. Those interviews usually focused on whether or not she played naked rather than what was currently spinning in her system. What I find particularly sad about this is not that it tends to alienate their few female readers, but that a large chunk of their target audience is younger boys… so these melon-chested interviewees (surrounded with drawings of the same, ripped from the games themselves… see Dead or Alive) come to represent women for these kids. Sexist attitudes are reinforced. Girl gamers are shunted aside by a new generation as fluffy sex kitties who prance about playing The Sims and giggling behind a hand.

I only recently started playing Halo 2; I tried it when it was first released and preferred the first one. However, all my friends (guys, naturally) were into it, and my husband, so I eventually decided to give it a go. For those of you who don’t know, Halo 2 online is supported by the Xbox live voice chat — so you can not only shoot and stab others, but talk shit over their corpses as well. Fun!

When I started, I asked the husband how many girls he’d ever heard. I expected him to give it a moment’s thought, y’know, to count. Not so; the answer was immediate:

“None. Not one.”

Huh, thought I. No girls ever? I soon found out why. My third or fourth game in, I was greeted with, “Oh, look, there’s a whore playing with us. Shut the hell up, whore, get back to your place” (memory may betray the exact wording, but it was close). What girl wants to face shit like that? None that I know. It’s sad that the internet’s anonymity fosters this sort of acting out, and while it affects everyone (the constant screams of “faggot” aren’t great, either), it really works to create a hostile environment for girls.

But there’s another pitfall. I also play Final Fantasy XI, a massively multiplayer online RPG. Casually sexist comments abound there, and reports about serious harassment often come to naught. I should know — I went through it. About six months into my yearlong run there, I developed a fan, a teenage boy (one assumes) who followed me around whenever I logged in, professing his love for me and in general disrupting my relaxing hobby. There is a built-in device for “blacklisting” irritating players, which is supposed to effectively remove them from your gaming experience. That’s nice; when someone sends you random messages asking if you’re nice and wet, you can basically erase them.

Unless they’re really determined, and this kid was. He made new characters (people often have multiples to hold equipment, so that in and of itself was no big deal) when I blacklisted the old ones. He would send me party invites – a feature not blocked by the blacklist. When that failed, he recruited other players to send me messages… and it took three separate reports to get anything done about it. I know a lot of girls who have either quit the game out of frustration over that sort of thing, or taken to playing male characters, just to avoid the harassment.

But girls shouldn’t have to pretend to be something other than what they are. The gaming community should make a conscious effort to self-censor this sort of behavior; the “officials” in these games should take action when reports are filed, and actively seek out the truth. Read logs. I give blanket permission to check into my stuff if I’m being harassed, personally. Give girls who file reports (hey, guys too) that option and investigate. Write to the popular magazines and ask them to make their content a little more female friendly.

I’m not asking for a revolution here. I know most of the above is a pipe dream. Hell, guys can’t even get along with themselves in online games; can’t really expect them to bend over backwards for the girls. But consider this — the next time you guys wish for a girlfriend/wife who understands your need to spend hours communing with a controller, ask yourself these questions:

Did you help to create an environment that makes gaming unfriendly to girls… and are you willing to do something about it?

(Originally posted at Sudden Nothing).

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About Alisha Karabinus

  • Thanks for the vivid reminders of why I don’t want to spend any money on acquiring the ability to play Halo 2 online. You’ve all saved me a bundle.

    a man with no inclination to call women “whores” or listen to anybody else doing it either

  • yanyie

    hey i really love the games but any way u and me could have something incomments u know wat im saying and by the way my msn is up there if u want to talk to me anyway thats all im going to say for ow so see yea and if u want to give me some hot guys msn plz reply bi

  • My husband plays Halo 2 online till late in the night and there are couple of things I have observed-

    a)Bad language is used more often in these macho games- Halo and Doom 3 whereas other online games like golf, car racing etc seem to have more civil people around.

    b)the women playing Halo have to prove themselves to be as aggressive and mean mouthed as the male players to be accepted.

    c)If you are a part of a clan in Halo 2, or make the right friends, then its definately a more enjoyable game but again one has to wade through the murky waters to find the right shoal to swim with.

    d)I don’t like my husband playing this game or Doom around my toddler as he too tends to use words he doesnt use otherwise.

    e)All said and done Halo and doom are highly immersive games and I have stayed away from them because I might get addicted to them

  • Scoota Rey

    Yo, SFC, what the hell do you mean “he’s a kid, maybe he’ll change?” I had an educated comment and you detract from it with something like that. I’ve been on this site as a commenter for two years almost (first as Dwaine AKA Scooter AKA DJ), and when I had a nice, well-planned comment which I actually thought was important, people took me seriously. Now, I reveal that I’m young and now you won’t take me seriously anymore.

    I believe that I am somewhat of a philosopher. I think about social issues (like this one) with extreme and vigorous intensity and come up with conclusions that I feel are unalterable.

    Anyway, back to what the Legendary Monkey was saying. I’m not trying to justify anyone’s actions here. What happens to women that are sexist is wrong. I would’ve told someone sexist like that to fuck off. In a cultually entrenched way, many men are still sexist to some degree, but that doesn’t give anyone the right. I do agree with you.

  • There’s no separation in Halo 2, so far as I know, so another server isn’t an option. Even if it were… why switch when you’re going to encounter the same thing?

    The name-calling IS everywhere, and isn’t limited to a particular gender or bias; however, there’s an added layer when it comes to the way women are treated. Not only do we get the “equality” of general name-calling (it’s shit talk, common in any gaming environment), but we’re assumed to be crappy players and apparently whores.

    And there’s just no reason for it.

    SFC… the kid in question (and it was FFXI, not EQ… different crack altogether) was so universally hated on the server that he eventually quit. I wasn’t the only one filing reports. And yet the management, as it were, didn’t remove him.


  • with regards the harrassment you tend to get in FPSes (name-calling etc.) just ignore it or go to another server. There’re bucketfuls of idiots out there who’ll pick on anyone they feel like. Of course, you can just give as good as you get, but usually that spurs them on, unless you somehow gain the support of other players on the server.
    I have no experience of MMORPGs, but from what i’ve heard you will struggle to get them to listen. Even harassment in general, let alone whether there’s an issue of gender there too


    Well, Scoota’s a kid still, maybe he’ll change.
    What makes a game a “males only” club? Outside of claiing and password protected games, open gaming is open to all.
    The online gaming community is populated by a lot of muthy kids, I usually leave my game comments off if I play online.

    On the other hand, the real measure in FPS is kicking ass, so if you frag someone you should have presets with things like, “Your death, sponsored by estrogen.” Get good at the game, and make it your own mission to frag the mouthiest guy, at any cost.

    The Everquest story is about the sorriest thing I have ever heard, and he pays for this privilege, right?

  • I had the chance to go to the Electronic Entertainment Expo a few years ago (2003), and I talked to a couple of female developers. It was interesting to hear their perspective, and how they were working to try to get girls involved in traditionally male-oriented games.

    And it’s working. There are clubs, web forums, all-girl development teams (though most unsuccessful). I know a lot more female gamers than I used to; the problem is, most of them hide, like I mentioned above. I think that lends itself to the status quo. Girls should stand up, be obvious, fight for their right to play. Because we do play — and not just puzzles and RPGs, but everything.

    Still, I think it would be awesome for the mags to take a stand, put in a strong female reviewer. I think that would help a lot. But they don’t, because they’re as entrenched as everyone else.

    Here, I think you illustrate the biggest problem of all:

    I could give more examples, but my point is, you can talk about discrimination because of sex, but when you, as a woman, go into a place where guys can speak their mind without any real backlash, expect things like that.

    Why? Why should we expect that? Guys like you claim you are, guys who try to overcome any “natural” sexism (I don’t know how you mean it, but I mean in a culturally entrenched way), do you speak up when you see it happen? Most don’t. When that happened to me, I was with my friends, so I was covered. But what about the girls who go in alone? No one speaks up for them… and many of them end up giving up gaming over crap like that.

    I don’t think we should expect it. I think… we should expect other people to say, “Hey, dumbass, shut your mouth.”

    I wish I could expect that, at least.

  • Scoota Rey

    Well, like you said, most girls aren’t playing video games- because their not interested for them. Like you said, mostly (99.9999999%)guys play shoot ’em ups and “guy” games, so of course you’re gonna hear some shit that most guys wouldn’t say in reality. You’re basically hearing what guys really think.

    See, nearly all men, if not every male, is sexist to some degree. Even I have sexist opinions once in a while. Music degrades women. In history, women didn’t even get the right to vote until the the 20th century. Nowadays, men still get paid more than women in many good careers, even in America. I don’t wanna get any feminists upset, but its natural for men to think that their better than women to some extent. (But some people, like me, try to rid themselves of these thoughts.)

    I’m sure when you were kids, you’ve been subjected to an all-boys club or some kid says: “You can’t play, you’re a girl.”, or some shit like that.

    I could give more examples, but my point is, you can talk about discrimination because of sex, but when you, as a woman, go into a place where guys can speak their mind without any real backlash, expect things like that.